Microsoft's "Flight Simulator" always boasted the tagline: "As real as it gets". While I never doubted it's vast scenery, or true-to-life physics, I was always suspicious of its instruction manual: this hulking monstrosity rivalled the encyclopaedia Britannica for thickness, and a medical textbook for its intricate, yet wholly meaningless diagrams. Perhaps then, it was phobia this of thick instruction booklets that so attracted me to the likes of Command and Conquer. The series of games all have a "Jump in and play" factor; with pretty much anyone being able to start the slaughter with no more training than: "Click there, and then there" from a fellow armchair general. Is this personal hatred for thick instruction manuals an irrational fear, or is it representative of today's gamers and their lack of patience?
In my view, the key to getting "involved" with a game, and having the desire to play it again and again, stem for a simple and easy to control interface. The first ever game, "Pong" perhaps summed up the short manual with it's now immortalised instruction of: "Avoid missing ball for high score". Westwood, with their real time strategy Command and Conquer series seem to have honed this down to a fine art. Having evolved from the "Old Skool" strategy games (Like "Command HQ" and "Conflict: Middle Eastern Political Simulator" pictured) of the late eighties and early nineties, C&C seems to have preserved their easy to control nature, while other titles, most notably the click-fest of Shogun: Total War, have descended into a murky world of mouse driven menus and complex key commands. What Command and Conquer has always maintained to match this complex 3D world and intricate control system, is an easy to recognise 2-dimensional environment: That is, until now...
Electronic Arts Pacific have taken up the slack reigns of development from chariot masters Westwood at a truly critical time in the franchise. Despite the phenomenal sales and reception of Red Alert 2, there was nothing ground breaking about the sequel. It was evolutionary, not revolutionary. So while me, and the fellow band of gamers who lack decent hardware rejoiced at another opportunity to play C&C without the strain of polygons, someone at EA Pacific / Westwood HQ had already made the decision that the next instalment of our favourite World War scenario would be played out in glorious 3D. When we recall the mediocrity of Emperor: Battle for Dune, it should perhaps be reflected that this decision must have taken some balls to come to.
Command HQ: Pixelated Goodness
But will this new expansion away from the comforting arms of voxels impact the "Jump in and play" nature of the previous titles? Or will it preserve this and so maintain the huge appeal of Command and Conquer? From the amount of media that had been released, we can make few assumptions: However, in recent screenshots we have seen one thing that sparked déja vu: The command bar. A symbol of Command and Conquer as much as Kane's baldy head or the Orca, the simple and perhaps mundane command bar stands as a symbol of the relative easy control throughout the series. Rather than complex sets of commands, the command bar ensures total control of what you're building: At a glance you check the status of orders, and evaluate how best to proceed. It has been central to the games, and remains relatively unchanged in almost 5 years: A remarkable feat in the fast changing world of gaming. Change was once thought to be inevitable, yet the command bar has matured into the minds of so many fans that perhaps removing it would be counter-productive. It represents so much that is good about Command and Conquer that surely, it must stay.
No matter the new storyline, new graphic representation of the title or the fact you get to kill wanna-be Arabian terrorists; the thing that separates Generals from the previous games in the CNC series is that it will be in the full glory of 3 Dimensions. And before you smart arses tell me how "Einstein says no" and begin to babble about the 4th dimension of time, this is a game: And it will be in 3D only. What! Command and Conquer in 3D! It should be illegal! Another hallmark of CNC is the fact that they have, until now, been relegated to flat 2D and pseudo-3D Isometric viewpoints. As is common to 2 dimensions, there were only 2 plains of movement: Up and Down, or Left and Right. As a result, even a monkey could move the camera to command his forces. As we voyage into the abyss of 3D, we have 3 plains to contend with. And all you have played Earth 2150 should be cringing. This was a classic example of how not to approach a 3D RTS: With half of the battle being against the "intelligent" camera, most disconcerting when your opponent rushes you. It will be one of EA Pacific's major challenges to ensure this same fiasco doesn't engulf Generals. Am I confident in their abilities? I am not a liberty to say.
Conflict: Middle Eastern Political Simulator - A little bit of a mouthful, no?
In reality, wars are not commanded on a 3D interactive birds eye view, but instead on maps and tables, more similar to the older styles of war gaming, now reaching the apogee of cult gaming through "Hardcore War gamers". While most of these are nothing more than balding men wishing they'd joined the Army in the false belief of getting through to the Rangers, the fact that after so many years, people still play them is perhaps testament to the 2D design of the title.
Whatever it's critical reception is, Generals is looking like a hit with the fans already. It has been nominated in two categories for the "Best of E3" awards at two major gaming sites, and has become the core of several new sites on the net, if it is successful, it must buckle down and preserve the control ease of the past games, while still standing the turbulent world of 3D games.