After creating what was essentially one of the greatest RTS games of all time, Westwood’s days were coming to an end. The shadow of EA was finally creeping in the studio, and it wouldn’t be long before they delivered the fatal blow. Before that end, Westwood got one last shot at Command & Conquer, but not as a strategy game. The 2000s saw the rise of the modern shooter, and while the RTS genre would still see some notable releases, this was arguably the beginning of their decline. The idea of making a first-person shooter in the C&C universe was one that Westwood had all the way back in ‘97—as shown in this tech demo—so I don’t think they started their next project trying to snag a piece of that pew-pew pie. Rather, I think the circumstances just aligned in a way that it just made sense for their next project to be a non-RTS. After a couple of delays, Westwood took everyone back to that familiar setting, but from a completely different perspective. This time it was boots on the ground and weapons in hand. In February 2002, we got Command & Conquer: Renegade.
Fortunately for me, this is a relatively modern game. All you’re going to need in order to play is a few compatibility patches and some scripts, all of which you can find on CNCNZ as always. Don’t forget to install the multiplayer patches as well.
With that out of the way... Welcome Back, Commando.
Renegade stands in an interesting spot. As the only non-RTS game in the franchise, the gameplay can’t be compared to those of previous titles and must be held to different standards. At the same time, as a part of an established franchise, there are certain things that old fans will be expecting, and I think that’s a good place as any to start. For the setting, Renegade takes us back to the Tiberian timeline, during the final days of the First Tiberian War. We play as Nick “Havoc” Parker, GDI commando extraordinary. He’s a wild card that doesn’t play by the rules, walks softly and carries several big guns. You know the type, you’ve seen Braddock and if you haven’t, fix that. And quite frankly, I think Havoc and his character would’ve been a much better fit for the Red Alert universe. C&C never took itself too seriously, but the Tiberian side of the family always put effort into delivering a story with stakes and characters. Havoc is a walking, talking, shooting action movie cliché, always with a joke or one-liner ready. It just doesn’t feel quite right, there’s a tone of irreverence that just wasn’t present in previous games.
Now that’s a seriously petty complaint, I’ll be the first to admit. So let’s talk about something a little more objective. The first thing I noticed when booting up Renegade was the presentation. Renegade is the first game in the franchise in full 3D, using Westwood’s own W3D engine—an engine that would later serve as a base to SAGE, the engine used for Generals and Tiberian Wars. And when I say entirely, I mean it. Renegade doesn’t use the series traditional FMV for cutscenes, instead, it renders everything in that gloriously blocky 3D from the early 2000s. And it doesn’t look too hot, especially when you consider that in the same year, we got titles like Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault and Battlefield 1942, shooters that looked much better than Renegade. The lack of FMV is something I seriously disagree with, they are an inseparable part of the franchise’s identity, and their absence makes me think either that the game didn’t get an adequate budget, or the higher-ups demanded it so. Possibly both.
Now, we’re barely five minutes into this and all I’m doing is complaining, so let’s talk about something positive for a change. Since this is a first/third-person shooter, we control a single soldier on a battlefield and if there’s something this game nail is the scale. Seeing an Obelisk of Light up close and realizing that thing is actually the size of your mum a four-store tower really emphasizes its destructive power. Or getting to go in and out of classic structures from the series like the Hand of Nod or the Refinery and getting an idea of how they are on the inside it’s really cool. RTS games rarely can afford to make everything up to the scale of their lore (Supreme Commander comes to mind now) so getting this sort of fan service is really nice.
Getting the scale right wouldn’t mean a thing if the game didn’t have the looks to complement it, so it’s a good thing Renegade looks and sounds the part. Yes, I did say that the graphics are not great, but that doesn’t stop the game from having that distinct C&C feel. As for the sound, ya boy Frank Klepacki still rests on the composer’s seat and at this point, what is there to say? This is the classic C&C sound we’d expect from a mainline title: powerful guitar riffs, commanding synth leads, and strong drums. New tracks such as “Command and Conquer” and “Got a Present For Ya” bring in the intensity and became instant classics, and there are even remixes of old favorites like “Act On Instinct” and even one unused song from Tiberian Sun made it in. Do yourself a favor and play this one with headphones for maximum headbanging action. Visually speaking, the game gives a look to units that didn’t really have one in the strategy titles, allowing us to see them in as much detail as they could reasonably cram inside the disk. It’s really cool to get a closer look at units like the Nod troopers (complete with their classic death sound from Tib Sun) or finding the mighty Mammoth Tank in all of its dual-barrel glory and using it to rain swift death upon the enemies of GDI. And speaking of raining death…
I’m just gonna rip the band-aid right now: Renegade doesn’t play that well, and I believe Westwood’s inexperience with shooters is to blame. Movement is slow and somewhat clunky, Havoc moves at the breakneck speed of a tank and jumps like one as well, being unable to clear a simple fence. He also carries enough firepower to rival the entirety of the Brotherhood and then some. And you’re gonna need that, Renegade continues the proud series tradition of not fucking around. Enemy damage is high and comes from multiple sources: flame troopers, chem troopers, snipers, attack helicopters, tanks, the fucking rocket troopers, if you can name it chances are, it’s probably trying to kill you. Even the basic grunts need to be killed fast, least they chew trough your health with their hitscan weapons. This variety of foes forces you to get familiar with your arsenal to learn how to best dispose of them. Here’s Nior’s free pro tip: never stop moving and always headshot. Bullets to the head can stun-lock 90% of the humanoid enemies, and for the non-humans, purge it in flames. If anything mechanic gets in your way, apply any amount of rockets necessary to make the symptoms disappear. In the absence of rockets, treat with railgun.
But perhaps the most important tip of them all: save often! I’m not kidding, this game has no checkpoint system and cheap deaths await you around every corner, especially towards the end game. Enemies parachuting or just straight up spawning behind you, rocket troopers with reaction speeds that make the Flash look like my character in Disco Elysium, the goddamn snipers that will one-shot you, the list goes on and on. Renegade cares not for your puny soul, it wants it and it will reap it by force if it must. It gets so chaotic that towards the end, the game gives you certain weapons that put enemies on a longer stun animation no matter where you hit them and good luck not using them.
I did mention vehicles just now, and good news, you get to drive them! Now for the bad news: they are clunky as hell, so points for consistency I suppose. There’s a weird quirk of the engine (or, so I assume) that locks the camera to whatever direction the vehicle is facing, so you can’t face one way and shoot 90 degrees to the side. It’s so weird and uncomfortable, I tried looking in the options menu to see if there was an option to disable it. There isn’t. Tanks are also terrible at aiming up. No, I’m not expecting to hit a jet with a shell (this isn’t Battlefield) but in missions where the enemy has the Obi-Wan advantage, it’s way more efficient to get out of the damn thing and shoot them yourself. And speaking of missions…
Credit where it’s due, Renegade’s campaign is not awful. Havoc’s mission will take him all over the world as a C&C story should, and although 99% of the objectives boil down to “go here and blow this thing up”, every mission at least tries to change things up. In one scenario you’re riding on tanks and buggies to cover long distances while clearing checkpoints along the way, and in another, you’re Solid Snaking around a manor trying to rescue some VIPs. At least until you realize that this game was not designed for sneaky play, give up, pull out a chain gun and be done with it. Actually, this reminds me I haven’t yet explained the plot of this game, and now is as good of a time as any. In the final days of the First Tiberian War, Nod abducted three galaxy brain Tiberium scientists with the goal of doing some evil stuff, and it’s your job to find and rescue them. On your way, you’ll meet resistance fighters, fight alongside GDI troops, blow a lot of shit, and fight your ex-girlfriend that just happened to deflect to the enemy side and now she wants to kill you with an attack helicopter. So naturally, you do what any sane person would: shoot her down into a volcano. Have I mentioned that this story would be better suited for Red Alert? All jokes aside, the plot itself isn’t that important, it’s the moment to moment beats that carry the campaign. And that makes sense, this is a shooter after all.
Once again it’s the little things that annoy the shit out of me. Let’s start with the map: it’s awful. That thing is too zoomed out and I swear Havoc’s little icon has the transparency set at 50%. There’s a zoom button but it didn’t work for me. Then there’s the radar on the left corner, and that is useful to show you enemies, allies, and objectives. It is also really tiny and I wonder if it’s because I’m running it at a resolution much higher than what was available at the time. But if it was the size of a stealth tank it wouldn’t matter much, cause objectives aren’t given an altitude marker, and coupled with the confusing design of some maps, it makes for a navigational nightmare—that mission on a ship comes to mind now—so try not to rely on it as I did. And don’t you get me started on the escort missions. Not because of the NPCs (although their patching is kinda funky at times) since they are surprisingly resilient, but the missions involving them tend to be filled with the highest tier of enemies the game can conjure, bringing with them all the bullshit I already mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago. Thanks, Westwood.
I’m aware this write-up sounds extremely negative, and I would be lying if I said that playing this game wasn’t a somewhat frustrating experience. However, in true Westwood fashion, something magical happens when you remove the AI and replace them with one or a dozen players.
My multiplayer experience was a total 180 from what I got with the campaign. Renegade’s multiplayer—appropriately called Command & Conquer—works as a mix of RTS and shooter that reminds me a little of the Battlefield series, but better. Each team has a base not dissimilar from the ones you’d build in previous games, and they earn credits from kills and from their Refinery to buy vehicles, advanced classes or specific heroes to help destroy the enemy. From engineers that can repair buildings, tanks, and infantry (don’t ask me how) to Chinook Transport Choppers, every unit and vehicle has a role to play in your path to victory. But it is up to you and your team to coordinate and make sure that happens. Every player earns cash individually, and no single person will have enough to supply everything for their team, making actual teamwork the key to victory. So you could buy Havoc and wreck the enemy with his heavy sniper rifle, but are you sure a Mammoth Tank wouldn’t be better for the occasion? Or maybe switching to an engie and repairing the Refinery that is in critical condition? Maintaining your team’s buildings is vital because they work like in the RTS titles. Lose a Power Plant and your defenses go down. Lose a Refinery and the price of everything gets higher. For something so simple it has a surprisingly high amount of depth in how a team can approach the win condition, and it’s no wonder people are still playing it to this day.
I know I talked an enormous amount of shit about this game, but let me make this crystal clear: I like Renegade. The gameplay might be simple and a tad unpolished, but it has a charm all of its own that frankly, you won’t find anywhere else. And hey, unlike StarCraft, the series actually got to explore its universe from a different perspective, so points to Westwood. An actual sequel with more development time and a bigger budget could’ve become a real hit. But sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. Renegade wasn’t the success that EA expected, selling less than Red Alert 2 and with generally unfavorable reviews. Almost a year later, the hammer came down and EA closed the studio. Westwood was gone and with it, one of the pillars of the RTS genre. Fortunately, the spirit of the studio lived in Petroglyph Games, their next studio. But that’s a story for another time.
Renegade might have been a failure in their eyes, but EA still saw value in the C&C franchise, and almost a year later, we got the next mainline RTS title in the franchise. But what awaited us was a very different experience from what we came to expect from the series. War was coming, and this time, the setting was all too familiar.