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1:00 PM on 02.10.2013

Growing Up With Command & Conquer: A Retrospective

Okay, I will admit it: I have a control problem. I like telling others what to do, especially those I feel are below me. How am I supposed to go on through life though? These people are bought by me to be used by me for my needs. I may seem cruel but realistically my life is much more important than theirs. Hell, none of them seem to even have names. They exist to serve me and I am not going to treat them like they have any other purpose. Of course none of these people are real, I am actually not a very controlling person and the Command & Conquer games unlock this little jerk inside of me who likes to watch tiny soldiers die.

When I was about eight years old the first Command & Conquer game released on PC. My first real time strategy experience was Westwood Studio’s Dune so I was easily able to slip into the C&C mechanics. I played OG C&C for a few years, never truly being able to master the game but I did get enough of an understanding to enjoy it. I eventually upgraded to The Covert Operations expansion pack which was incredibly difficult and I immediately dismissed it. My young brain loved seeing the dozens of troopers on screen all bending to my will, and as the fat kid in school I loved being the one to tell others what to do. Call it emotional revenge.

When I was about ten or so I started to play Command & Conquer Red Alert which was not so much a sequel of the series in a vertical sense, more of an extensive expansion pack. I was not quite versed in the 1950’s so my entire knowledge of that time period came from playing Red Alert. Being a young child attempting to explain that Einstein invented time travel and stopped World War 2 always attracted chuckles from my family. I did not care that they laughed though, history had lighting towers and warp tanks and bomb dogs! History was f***** amazing!

The Command & Conquer series soon became my favorite games ever, and even though Star Craft came out and I played that for hours a day I would still consider C&C to be superior. That level of superiority came to a climax with the release of Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun. The jump in graphical fidelity, the new units and the amazing futuristic time period were an absolute joy to behold. Tiberian Sun was the first game in the series that introduced me to the joys and terrors of online multiplayer. I marveled at how quickly I could be matched up with players from around the world, and I lamented how easily they defeated me with their cunning and tactics. I hated how everyone in the world seemed to be better than me.

What I did not realize with RTS games up to that point was that the “S” in RTS stood for strategy. I assumed massive blitzkriegs of units could defeat any enemy, regardless of intelligence. I learned an important lesson from that hubris and soon started to read message boards and forums about C&C strategy. I learned how different units complemented each other and how a small handful of carefully selected troops could have a strength greater than the sum of their parts. I learned about making squads and how to properly build my base to maximize defense. I was soon becoming a rather intelligent general, and my bloodlust for tiny groups of pixels increased with each victorious battle.

All strategy went out the window though when Command & Conquer: Renegade came out. Renegade was an FPS and had nothing to do with tactics and unit placement. In Renegade I was able to actually be one of my troops from the ground level. I saw first-hand what life was like for the troops under my command. I saw dozens of my men die simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I kept telling myself that my missions would be more successful if the game would simply let me play commander again.

Then it hit me: regardless of how many battles I was winning I was a horrible leader. Over the years I had sent thousands of men to their deaths, and for what reason? Sure I won battles faster but I never considered the cost of those victories. Even though none of my men had names, seeing them die on the battlefield was too much for my little brain to handle. These men needed a better general, and I was determined to give them that… after being a badass and killing tons of Nod bastards with about thirty different guns (did I mention Renegade was awesome?).

I was at Best Buy on the release day for Command & Conquer Red Alert 2 and I was shaking with anticipation the whole way back home. Once I had the game installed I was treated to quite possibly the greatest opening FMV in videogame history. The major talent behind Red Alert 2 really did a great job selling the rather campy story of war, nukes and mind control and I was hooked from the very first minute. The game had so much character put into the graphics and storytelling and it would be a waste to be the commander I used to be. I treated each soldier with respect and cunning and I did my best to keep everyone alive so they could go home and see their digital families.

Red Alert 2 treated me for caring about my soldiers and they would level up as I used them. At the end of every stage I had teams of badass maxed-out commandos and they decimated all who opposed them. I could have simply sent in troops by the dozen and watch them die as I inched my way to victory, and while that would have worked it was more satisfying to see my tactics rewarded by the game. I took the lessons I had learned and brought them into the multiplayer arena where I was met with fierce opposition and highly enjoyable times. Red Alert 2 was my new crack, and sadly to say it was the last time I really enjoyed the series to its fullest.

I am not one of those gamers who hates things that are new, quite the contrary in fact. I love to see series evolve and change over the years and I adore when old IPs are given new gameplay elements. A great example of this idea is the Kirby series. If you look at any Kirby game there is always a new elements (golf, collecting, patchwork etc) that is the main design focus of the title. Nintendo uses its Kirby franchise to innovate and never is afraid of offending the Kirby purists. I was hoping that EA would be able to do this with the Command & Conquer series when they released Generals, but unfortunately this was not the case. Generals was a fun game but lost all the soul of the original games.

The first issue I had with Generals was that it simply did not feel like a C&C game. The story was modern and politically relevant, but the trademark camp of the series was nowhere to be found. Instead of sending packs of dogs into a base of Tesla troopers I was using tanks to blow up terrorist bases and tunnels and save cities from suicide bombers. The 9-11 attacks only happened two years prior to the release of Generals and that may have had an effect on my enjoyment, but the themes were just too realistic to enjoy. I was no longer fighting psychics and mutants, instead the enemy was brown people from the Middle-East. I simply could not love the game, I only marginally liked it.

I held out hope for the next C&C game though because we were returning to the Tiberian universe. I eagerly anticipated each and every screenshot and trailer that showed me how amazing that universe could look in 3-D. Even if the game was a glorified Generals mod I would probably have loved it. When Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars hit in 2007 I was faced with a sad realization: my favorite series had changed and it was no longer the series I had once loved. The trademark camp was replaced with gritty (futuristic) realism and the game was simplified to accommodate the console release. Yes it was fun and yes the multiplayer was good, but it was not the same anymore.

Red Alert 3 came out and it was one of the first times I waited to buy a Command & Conquer game new. It had a console release so I decided to wait until a used XBOX 360 copy came into my possession. Once I had a chance to play I was absolutely relieved: the camp was back! Ruskies, hot chicks with guns, fu***** BEAR CANNONS- Red Alert 3 had everything! The game even had a great feature where a majority of buildings and units could be built on the water. I was never a fan of building aquatic units in the previous games, but having a tank that could be land and sea-worthy was a breath of fresh sea-air. My inner child adored every second of this game, especially when I played it again on PC.

After beating Red Alert 3 I had only one game to go: Tiberian Twilight. This was the last major Command & Conquer game that I would ever play, and my melancholy feelings towards saying goodbye to one of my favorite franchises prevented me from buying a copy until well into a year after it released. I wish I could praise the title, I wish I could say it was the best game in the franchise… hell I wish I could say it was a solid iteration of a classic series. Sadly though Tiberian Twilight was a shell of what Command & Conquer used to be. Between the emphasis on multiplayer and the removal of base building I had lost all interest.

The dream it seemed had ended.

I choose not to be sad about the end of this great franchise. Sure there is the Generals sequel coming out sometime this decade but I have little interest in it. I choose to remember just how great these games were and how they changed the way I looked at strategy in general (pun). Even though these are just video games I had to respect the men under my command. They were there to help me win, and as long as I respected them with proper strategy the games rewarded me with fantastic and intense experiences.

Command & Conquer as a series shaped who I am as a gamer today. The games grew up with me and I am forever thankful to EA, Westwood and all those involved. Sure the series may be gone, but we will always have the classics. That, and a respect for each and every soldier that helped me win. Oh, and my desire to see little pixels die en masse? Lets just say I reserve those feelings for Hotline Miami now.


12:45 PM on 02.10.2013

The Downfall of Modern Horror, and Why That is a Good Thing.

I am a horror junkie, always have been and always will be. The pure adrenaline rush of anticipation and dread eventually culminating in a barrage of frights is enough to get me to buy tickets to even the worst horror movies (Stepfather anyone?). Recently my wife and I viewed the movie Mama which had a solid first two acts but ended so poorly that we were in hysterics while leaving the theater. We were both laughing so hard in the parking lot we actually ended up painfully hyperventilating the whole way home. Now, I have never directed a horror movie but I am pretty sure this was not the intended reaction that Andres Muschietti was hoping his audience would have. I really wanted to love Mama but I could not shake the feeling that something with it was very, very wrong.

What was wrong had nothing to do with the quality of the film, but everything to do with how the horror was presented to us. The antagonist of Mama- a spirit of a woman seeking her dead child- is supposed to scare us because she can go anywhere she wants and will kill for no reason. The problem with how she is represented is that in the final act of the movie she is onscreen for way too long, letting the viewer see just how poorly she was animated. When you can see what scares you for a long period of time it will eventually stop scaring you, or even become comical. Watching Mama’s hair crawl over the ground as she floated below it was supposed to horrify, but instead came across as incredibly funny.

Mama also had… face issues. I will not say what kind because I do not want to seem insensitive… just watch it. You will understand.

Modern horror gaming is a dying art, and the reason for this death is the complete lack of subtlety. Instead of creaks in the dark and enemies we barely ever see we are presented with huge explosive set pieces, weapon customization and a dependency on co-op (more on that later). Once classic series like Resident Evil, Dead Space and even Silent Hill have all fallen short of our horror expectations, and their receptions are getting colder and colder with audiences. Resident Evil is a shell of what it used to be, Dead Space is adding micro-transactions to its weapon inventory and Silent Hill is a joke. You know what though?
I could not be happier.

My wife and I discussed beer the other night and she made a very good point: mass-produced beer is a good thing. Without the poorly produced, overly advertised and soulless macro beer companies putting out horrible swill we would not be able to appreciate craft beer like we do today. The same idea applies to video games. If it were not for F.E.A.R. 2 having a robot walker segment and a rape scene (not kidding) I would probably not like Amnesia’s subtly as much as I do. If Silent Hill was not a festering shell of a series I used to love I probably would not find myself loving Slender and pushing all of my friends to play it. The downfall of big-name horror has made it easier for indie horror to be recognized and helps us realize how much better true horror really is.

In my Amnesia review (dear god my writing was terrible back then) I mentioned how the lack of weaponry made the game so much more tense. Having your only means of defense be a broom closet or carefully stacked chairs gave the game not only a sense of fear, but true dread. You had no way to fight back, all you could do was hide and pray you were not found. I recently played the demo for Dead Space 3 and I was able to construct a weapon that was half flamethrower and half machine gun. Yea… subtly is no longer something Dead Space can claim to produce. Dread has been replaced with heavy ordnance and collectibles. And a second player.

I mentioned earlier that co-op is becoming a big feature in horror games, and honestly when researching this article I did not even realize how much the modern horror genre uses co-op as a selling point. F.E.A.R., Resident Evil, Dead Space, Lost Planet, hell even Silent Hill all now have co-op, either as the focus of the game or a separate mode. Fans of Resident Evil did their best to embrace the cooperative experience in the 5th iteration of the series, but if the reviews of RE6 are anything to believe (Metacritic average score: 67/100) the series has suffered greatly because of it. Dead Space 3 and F.E.A.R. 3 are all about the co-op, and the recently released Silent Hill: Book of Memories is a top-down co-op shooter. Sure it is great to extend the life of the game with additional multiplayer modes, but the horror of these titles go right out the window when you play with another person.

This is what makes indie horror games so great though: they are single-player focused and are meant to be experienced alone, in a dark room and with headphones set to “high”. The absolute dread experienced in Lone Survivor or Slender is meant for a singular person and with this single player focus the horror truly shines. Horror is at its most effective when it comes from within, something that simply is too difficult to recreate with more than one player. What is scary to you might not be scary to someone else.

Modern horror may be dead in the water, but I do not feel the industry or the genre has suffered because of it. Sure we may never have a Silent Hill game as good as the second one (but honestly how can one re-create perfection?) and Resident Evil will never have the “dogs jumping through the window” moments again, but do we honestly need those things? If we are to move gaming forward as an art medium we can not rely on sequels to do the job. All sequels promise is more of the same with a few added twists. The loss of horror in mainstream games is not a loss at all. Indie developers who are tired of the sub-par scares brought on by once scary series can not fill the gap with true horror experiences. The indie horror scene is not only the best place to find a good scare, but to find innovation as well.

So, in the end, thank you indie developers. Thank you for making games like Amnesia, The Path,Slender and Lone Survivor. Thank you for making truly unique and innovative experiences that tickle our need to be scared. Please continue filling the gap left behind by the bigger companies. Their missteps are your opportunities, and our favorite form of art is better because of it.

Oh, and companies like Capcom, EA and Activision? Keep making your watered-down interpretation of horror. Keep giving us unnecessary multiplayer and six-hour campaigns. Continue on your quest to make your “scary” games as mass-market appealing as possible. You are the gateway drug to amazing experiences, and you are in no way bad because of it.

Author: Ryan Burke
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