Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Some Retrospective Thoughts on Westwood's Command & Conquer

 Ah, Command and Conquer. The father of the RTS. The grandfathers were of course Dune 2, Herzog Zwei and Cannon Fodder. Nevertheless, C&C is one of the driving forces of the genre's popularity through the 90s. It had a mix of thumping soundtracks, great sound effects (who hasn't got the HEEEEY sound of 50 men burned alive playing in their memories) and outrageous weaponry. It had delightfully cheesy cutscenes that grew in camp as much as they did ambition over the years. They're an excellent example of good game feel. It feels good to build stuff, order stuff and watch people die. There's a strong atmosphere that really makes you feel like a heroic leader saving the world. Or perhaps a moustache-twirling supervillain enacting a plan to conquer it. But those happy things aren't what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about how goddamn bad the multiplayer of Command and Conquer was.

I played a ton of C&C 1 and RA1 at LANs. I played even more TibSun and RA2 online when ISDN was offered in our area for the first time. I learned a lot about how Command and Conquer works in practice, and even more about how terrible Westwood were at designing maps. I'd say that C&C is the RTS equivalent of Killer Instinct. Fun at first glance, but as soon as you sit down with a friend and actually open the pandora's box known as "deeper understanding" you realise how terrible things are. Let's open it up once more so we can lay the series to rest in a way EA will never let us.

The Basic Metagame is Incredibly Simple
To understand the meta we must first understand C&C's input scheme. Right click deselects units and cancels construction orders from the production bar. Left-click handles everything else. Want to move? Click anywhere. Want to attack? Click on the unit. Want to select a unit? That's click too. If you want to destroy terrain or remove specific units because they're in the way or what have you, you press ctrl+left click to force fire on that spot. If you want to force a unit to move anywhere, alt+click.  This last input is what starts to control C&C's meta.

Infantry do poor damage to vehicles, but often surprisingly well against buildings. Tanks are also good against buildings and other vehicles, but do poor damage to infantry for some abstract gameplay reason. However, if a tank runs over a soldier, in an interesting turn of events the soldier is run over and dies. Why is this important? Because I just mentioned alt+click. In other words, the way to kill a squad of infantry isn't to make infantry of your own or anti-personnel weapons. It's to make your tanks drive over them.

Well then. How do you beat tanks? The answers may seem to be aircraft and static base defense structures. However, tanks beat those as well for one simple reason: economic value. For the price of an anti-tank defense structure you could've made one and a half medium tanks. For the price of setting up airfields and their aircraft you could have made four or five tanks. Static structures are good, but tanks can move. Tanks don't chew up power.

So you see all these cool late-game tech units. You see teleporting lightning tanks or nuclear suicide trucks or laser towers or tanks that are pretending to be trees or men that can teleport and remove you from the space-time continuum. They all lose to your cost-effective medium tank. All of them. Even the bigger tanks lose because they cost more to you than the damage they deal to the opponent.

Thus, the metagame is simply this:
1. Get money
2. Build tanks
3. Build more war factories to build tanks faster
4. Build refineries then sell them instead of making harvesters. Making harvesters from the war factory means you aren't making tanks.
5. 50 tank platoon footsies!

Every Westwood game wound up like this if you wanted to win. Anything beyond that is horribly overpriced and purely for style.

2. Faction Imbalance
These games have atrocious imbalance for the most part. Often for pretty simple reasons. Here's how they go:
Command and Conquer: GDI gets the medium tanks. NOD gets invisible light tanks that stop being invisible when they shoot. GDI runs over NOD's rocket men with tanks.
Red Alert 1: Allies had Light and Medium tanks. Soviets' basic tank was the Heavy Tank. Do the math.
However, if you were playing on an island map it completely switched. Allies had a wide variety of naval units while the soviets only had sea-to-sea submarines. The Aftermath expansion gave them sea-to-land subs as well, but the Allied ships were more cost effective.
Tiberian Sun: Honestly, this is the most balanced the games ever got. Both tanks are pretty equal in power this time, so you can actually do more shenanigans. NOD had easier economy to protect though thanks to harvesters that dig.
Red Alert 2: Soviet harvesters brought in twice the money of their opponents per load. They had machine guns. Their tanks were slightly better. However an Allied player could make IFVs with engineers inside to repair. I'd say that the balance in Vanilla wasn't too bad for the most part.
Then Yuri's Revenge happened. I could write a whole piece just on how hilariously busted Yuri's army is. I think I'll do so tomorrow.
Emperor: Harkonnens could destroy your spice and force your enemies' harvesters into your land for easy pickings. They also had nuclear missiles. In the Dune universe. Goddamn.

3. Maps
If you ever played online, there were roughly two or three maps in each game played. The problem with most of Westwood's maps is that they simply didn't have enough money on them to fuel the furious pace the game is most enjoyable to play at. The build order in the games is:
and so on, with you selling each refinery so you got a discount harvester without choking up the tank production. Most campaign missions were designed assuming you'd have two or three harvesters at most. Multiplayer play assumed that you'd have anywhere between 5 and 15 depending on how long it went and how much money there was to grab.

Westwood needed more money on their maps, better regen options (Tiberium growth didn't happen in the Red Alert games since it was Ore, not Tiberium) or more alternative sources of income. Red Alert 2 made a step in the right direction with oil derricks, but didn't place enough of them on maps. The series works best when economics are about how fast you gain money rather than who controls the remaining money, and they just didn't click onto this fact.

Their map-making utilities were pretty bad to boot.

So that's the core of Command and Conquer multiplayer. The genre learned from some of the series' mistakes and improved itself. In other ways it tried so hard to not be at all similar that it lost a lot of the simple charm that made the games so fun. Perhaps I will go on a big grump about how bad Red Alert 3 is some time. That'll probably turn more into an analysis of comedy though.

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