Command and Color

I've been playing Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars lately. It's fairly entertaining thus far, though it definitely trades heavily on nostalgia. The game plays essentially like every Command & Conquer game you've ever played, complete with FMV cut scenes briefing you for each mission. It certainly looks very nice and it's a fun Real-Time Strategy game, but it is definitely EA's way of saying "Command & Conquer is a series rooted in the mid-90s, and in the mid-90s it shall remain!" I'd say the biggest complaint I have is about the game's subtitle; the first Command & Conquer game was Tiberian Dawn, the second Tiberian Sun. This one, to maintain consistency, ought to have another heliocentric title (Tiberian Sunset? Tiberian Twilight?). And if we're going to be technical, all three Command & Conquer games have been Tiberium Wars, a nomenclature adopted internally within the game itself, so Tiberium Wars is a somewhat silly subtitle all around.

What I find most interesting about C&C3, and the Command & Conquer series in general, is that it has an enormous, overblown sci-fi plot that is essentially the after-effect of a gameplay kludge. To understand this, you have to go back through the history of Westwood, the company that created the series.

In the mid-90s Westwood was a small programming company that had enjoyed modest success doing contract work for larger publishers and developing its own original games, such as Eye of the Beholder. It had recently been acquired by Virgin Interactive, which gave it access to franchises that had previously been beyond its financial reach. For whatever reason, they settled upon Dune, Frank Herbert's science fiction epic, as the ideal subject for a video game. The game they created was an interesting mix of adventure and strategy; you played Paul Atreides and had to travel around Arrakis, maintaining the Atreides estate by dealing with problems that arose while managing harvesting and preparations for war. A fun game, fairly faithful to the book, but one that didn't leave an especially lasting mark on the world of video games.

Westwood decided to make a sequel, but this time they went off the rails and made a game that was, shall we say, unconstrained by the limitations of canon. Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty sees the Padishah Emperor Frederick IV fallen on hard times. Deeply in debt, he decides the only way to satisfy his creditors is to sell off House Corrino's most valuable asset: the planet Arrakis, known as Dune. The Emperor sets forth a challenge to the three great Landsraad houses: Whoever produces the most spice will be given ownership of Dune. There are no set territories and no rules of engagement.

So Dune's interesting plot elements are used as the basis for a flat-out war game. The game plays simply enough. There are a series of missions. With very few exceptions, the goal in each mission is to utterly destroy your opponent. As a rule, you will start each mission with a construction yard and an allowance of credits. Using that you can build a spice refinery. Every spice refinery comes with a harvester, which you can use to collect spice which gets transformed into credits at the refinery. Credits, in turn, are used to construct new buildings, like vehicle factories and barracks, and units, like troopers and tanks, which you can use to defend your base and crush your opponent. The system fits very well with the essential elements of the Dune universe, and if if fails at capturing the grand discussions of strategy, desert power, and so on and so forth, this can be excused as being due to the limitations of the technology.

The game was revolutionary, creating the Real-Time Strategy genre as we now conceive it. It has been argued that other, earlier games like Ancient Art of War, Stronkers, and Herzog Zwei are essentially Real-Time Strategy games, but Dune II is the game that established the genre conventions that are still in use today. If you play Dune II now, you will say to yourself, "Hey, this is a Real-Time Strategy game!" If you play Stronkers now, you will say to yourself, "Hey, this is sort of like a Real-Time Strategy game!"

Westwood wanted to capitalize on Dune II, and since they already had a lot of the legacy programming to build off of they could create new Dune-like games at relatively low cost. Rather than make another Dune game, they decided to create a new series unfettered by licenses, their own unique intellectual property. They created Command & Conquer.

Command & Conquer is another war game in the mold of Dune. It's set on Earth in the mid-90s, when the game was released. The plot concerns a covert war between an international peacekeeping organization called the Global Defense Initiative, or GDI, and an international terrorist organization called the Brotherhood of Nod. The game itself is Dune II. Granted, there are a lot of upgrades to the interface that make the game much more playable than Dune II, plus the graphics are better and the game featured (awkward) full motion video briefings before each mission, but the game is Dune II.

This raised an interesting game design problem. Dune's resource system made sense. Spice was the most valuable resource in the Dune universe, and the only resource anyone was interested in on Arrakis. It made sense that spice would be a universal currency used to finance a war. Similarly, it made sense that spice would just be lying around on battlefields waiting to be quickly harvested on the spot using dedicated harvesting machines. It was right there in the books. But Command & Conquer takes place in the real world, right now. Real military operations are funded with tax dollars, or dollars from smuggling contraband, or whatever, and none of that can be implemented in a game without making it too boring (manna-from-heaven in the form of periodic disbursements from a central organization) or too intricate (smuggling drugs or whatever).

What was needed was a universal resource that could just be found lying around on battlefields. You can come up with some real-world ones, but a lot of those are geographically-specific. Make it oil, for instance, and you're limited to battles in the Middle East, the Black Sea, and Alaska. So Westwood created a new resource: Tiberium. Tiberium is a mysterious green crystal, possibly from space, that is highly toxic, spreads rapidly once it enters an area, and is incredibly rich in minerals and, I don't know, energy or something. The GDI and Brotherhood of Nod both want it, they fight over it, and they gather it using big treaded vehicles called harvesters that take them back for processing at tiberium refineries. They barely even needed to change the graphics from Dune II!

Which brings me to C&C3. I didn't really play the second C&C game, but apparently the developers took the tiberium ball and ran with it. The game takes place in 2047. Now Tiberium has infested 80% of the Earth's land surface, rendering 30% of it entirely uninhabitable. War still rages between the Brotherhood of Nod, which operates primarily in the 50% of the Earth that's infested-but-habitable, and the GDI, which controls the 20% that's untouched by tiberium. Nod, which started as a generic anarcho-terrorist organization, has become an apocalyptic cult that worships tiberium and seeks to wipe out all life on Earth through the spread of tiberium. Also, apparently aliens are going to come eventually to harvest the Earth's tiberium and kill everyone.

I find it amusing that the stop-gap that Westwood used to allow them to keep Dune's mechanics in a contemporary war game has led them to turn C&C into a whole science fiction universe built around their kludge. It's like if somebody catches you in a small lie, and then you build an elaborate, implausible story to explain that, no no, this lie really is the truth, honest! We really were planning to build a whole universe around the conveniently spice-like resource we created, really!

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on April 17, 2007 12:33 PM.

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