First released in 1995, Command & Conquer literally defined the entire RTS (real time strategy) genre. Along with the equally successful Dune II, Command & Conquer became an icon of the genre.
The story takes us years into the future where the world is entrenched in combat. On one side you have the Global Defense Initiative, an organization dedicated to maintaining peace and resolving global conflict. On the other, you have a group of rebel terrorists known as the Brotherhood of Nod. A key source of this conflict is the mineral Tiberium, which has been recently discovered and is incredibly powerful. It has many applications, and each side is determined to use it for their own purposes.
But, the plot really isn’t the point of Command & Conquer. It’s certainly not what made it the foundation of an entire genre. Where this game really shines is in its tactical-based battles.
One of the benefits of creating your own genre is that you get to decide what its rules and boundaries are. As in more modern RTS games, in Command & Conquer you need to have peons build structures that allow you to upgrade your troops, but they’re much less complicated than the options we have now. Build a power plant to give you the ability to create barracks, and in turn those barracks can produce soldiers. These soldiers serve to replenish your “explore and destroy”-inspired army as they crawl across the map.
And when I say crawl, I mean crawl. The animation effects are amazing, especially for a game that was released in 1995. The small pixelated characters have an impressive range of motion. When they’re injured they literally crawl across the landscape trying to get in those last few shots.
An important part of the aesthetic that sets the tone for the game is its use of FMV, or full motion video. This was a kind of 2D animation style that used real filmed actors instead of drawn or rendered sprites. It added a fluidity of motion that wasn’t otherwise available at the time as well as a nice post-apocalyptic edge.
Music may not commonly be considered an essential part of the video game playing experience, but any moviegoer can tell you that the wrong music played at the wrong time can take you right out of the setting. A lot of games, especially those in the RTS genre, play something benign in the background. Soothing elevator music, quiet rock, whatever suits the general theme of their strategy genre.
Command & Conquer’s soundtrack both impresses and adds to the ambience of the game. It’s a techno punk wonderland that puts you in the mood to take out an enemy while also reminding you that you haven’t watched Top Gun in a while. While many games were playing MIDI files at the time, Command & Conquer switched to streaming music. This allowed for a higher quality of music as well as the addition of vocals.
Each mission is different, and as you play, the scenarios increase in complexity and difficulty. There is a story your missions follow, and the goal is simple: to have your side win. If you play as a member of the Brotherhood of Nod, the game ends when you hack into a Global Defense Initiative canon and vaporize a major landmark — the Eiffel Tower, White House, Houses of Parliament or Brandenburg Gate. It’s a symbolic act that weakens the Global Defense Initiative, both practically and from an image perspective. If you play as the Global Defense Initiative and win, you eradicate the Brotherhood of Nod’s headquarters and decimate their troops.
Playing on both sides of this war is equally fun. Starting out as a member of the Global Defense Initiative is a good way to learn the game, the world, and the various ways to play the game. There is no tutorial or walk-through, so expect a lot of fumbling around as you figure out how to do things like building and upgrading your land structures. After you’ve beaten the game as the Global Defense Initiative, go back and play as the Brotherhood of Nod. You get an entirely different perspective, in terms of both gameplay and politics. This game was created to reflect the current world views of 1995, and the Gulf War was a heavy influencer.
Not only is Command & Conquer a genre-creating classic, it withstands the test of time. Other Command & Conquer games have come out since, and while most rate well, this is the diamond in the jewel collection. EA has since acquired Westwood, the company responsible for creating Command & Conquer, and the entire collection is available in their Origin store.