Discussing Real-time Strategy games without going back to the genre’s roots just feels too much like starting a fiction novel without reading the prologue. So we’re going to take a look back at one of the games that helped start it all: Command & Conquer. Sometimes referred to informally as Tiberian Dawn to bring it in line with its sequals, Command & Conquer was developed by Westwood Studios and released by Virgin Interactive in 1995. While Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (also by Westwood) was the company’s first RTS title and also the first true RTS in the genre, Command & Conquer was the title that would go on to help define the genre and set the standard for Westwood’s style of RTS products.
Command & Conquer refined the building and management process of Dune II into the Westwood style of RTS. A single Construction Yard assembled all the player’s buildings for a set cost in the game’s resource, in this case Tiberium. Tiberium was harvested by a heavily armored Harvester unit and deposited at the Tiberium Refinery. Most structures in the base had to be supplied by power plants. Infantry and vehicles were produced from the barracks and war factory respectively (Nod’s buildings had different names and styles but were mechanically the same). Higher level buildings unlocked more advanced units culminating in each faction’s superweapon.
The game’s two factions, GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod, obeyed similar structural rules in their tech trees but were thematically very different. GDI was the slow, expensive faction with a strong emphasis on conventional firepower and most of the its units outclassed their counterparts in Nod’s arsenal. This included the thematic Mammoth Tank, which was the strongest unit in the game and one of only three units capable of targeting both air and ground units. Nod on the other hand emphasized speed, adaptability, and long range. It possessed nearly twice as many siege units as GDI and was the only faction with cost-effective hard counters against infantry. Nod also possessed far more powerful defensive structures.
Command & Conquer’s story is set in the near future (early 2000s) from the game’s publishing perspective and depicts an international conflict between the U.N. backed Global Defense Initiative (abbreviated GDI) and the cult style terrorist group Brotherhood of Nod (often simply called Nod or The Brotherhood). The game features two campaigns where players take on the role of a promising commander in either GDI or the Brotherhood. GDI’s campaign takes place in Europe and is characterized by missions with strong defensive emphasis and occasionally limited tactical options. The Brotherhood of Nod’s campaign is set in Africa and features a much higher degree of “commando” missions where the player either does not have a base or must acquire one through subterfuge.
A central element to Command & Conquer’s story and gameplay is Tiberium, an alien substance that gathers minerals from the soil into a highly concentrated, easily harvested form allowing GDI and Nod to quickly amass raw materials for their war machines. However Tiberium is also highly toxic and its rapid absorption quickly depletes the soil causing severe environmental damage. The control of Tiberium and protection of civilian communities affected by its spread is a major sub-theme in several GDI missions, sometimes to the point of overshadowing the wider conflict with Nod. The Brotherhood of Nod on the other hand venerates Tiberium as the door to the future and actively seeks to spread it and manipulate its various properties.
Westwood’s style of RTS, which the mechanics of GDI and Nod very heavily demonstrated, were in contrast to other rising RTS games of the time in that they emphasized tactical and strategic flexibility over army composition. The factions were markedly different and in some ways unbalanced. GDI was most vulnerable in the early game where Nod’s speed and adaptability could overwhelm GDI’s limited options. In the late game the balanced switched to favor GDI’s super heavy Mammoth Tank, all purpose long range weapons, and monopoly on aircraft (save for a single Nod helicopter unit in multiplayer). Neither side was completely outclassed in any phase of the game, but changing parameters over the course of the game forced players to adopt new tactics to defeat their opponents.
The story of Command & Conquer is extensively developed with live action cutscenes between missions interspersed with CGI videos detailing the backstory of Tiberium and the two factions. Simple CGI clips also preceded and concluded each mission though they were purely for thematic effect. The story also helps set the stage for many of the missions for each side as minor plot points come and go, such as a power struggle in the Brotherhood of Nod and GDI’s political battle with the U.N. to secure funding for its operations. The live action scenes are simple and sometimes misleading in relation to following missions, but are a rare and refreshing element sadly missing in modern RTS games and are perhaps one of the most immersive parts of the game’s whole experience.
Multiplayer is the only form of skirmish that Command & Conquer possesses, although matches can be played against humans or the AI. The entire faction arsenal is unlocked (with Nod gaining two units not seen in single player) and players compete against each other or the AI on a battle map selected from the game’s map library. The AI was fairly reliable for its time and could provide a decent challenge, although it lacked the ability to effectively utilize Nod’s speed and unpredictability to its fullest. Mutliplayer games for the most part ran smoothly and were forgiving with slower internet speeds as it was largely compatible with the dial-up service of the time.
Command & Conquer is obviously heavily dated by modern standards with its non-linear factions, simplistic AI, and obviously simple graphics. It is available as freeware and with collection packs from Electronic Arts on Origin, although its compatibility with newer operating systems and hardware is variable. Nevertheless its impact on the RTS genre cannot be overstated. Command & Conquer would go on to become one of the most iconic and successful series of the RTS genre with three sequel titles and three spin-off titles (not including their respective expansions) continuing and refining its legacy. The game’s nostalgia may wane a bit for older players after exposure to modern gaming and new gamers will likely see no reason to invest much time in it. However Command & Conquer is a simple and at this point a rather unique experience that any casual gamer could enjoy and at the very least deserves to be remembered as one of the founding pillars of RTS gaming of its time and for the foreseeable future.