Take the role of a great general and lead your forces to war in a world on the brink of Armageddon. Command & Conquer: Generals was developed by EA Pacific, an Electronic Arts studio that began as a division of the series' original developers Westwood , but Generals is set in its own 3D game world. Players choose to lead the armies of one of three factions: the high-tech United States forces, the swarming war machine of the Chinese, or the resourceful Global Liberation Army. As players gain experience, they become more powerful and choose new skills and abilities. The single-player campaign features over two dozen missions and multiplayer options support both competitive and cooperative online skirmishes.
Westwood Studios might be dead, but their legacy is alive and well with Command & Conquer: Generals, the latest title in the long-running series. Although Generals wasn't created by Westwood (EA Pacific developed this one), you'd never notice. Like Westwood's real-time strategy games, there's a lot of flash here, some of the same old interface problems, and more than enough "yee-haw!" enthusiasm to make up for any shortcomings. Well, almost. Generals is weighed down by its own unique problems that are new to the series.
Unlike the previous games, Generals eschews Red Alert's silly time-traveling storylines and Command & Conquer's overblown chronicle of the battle between Nod and the GDI. There are no cinematics with pre-rendered cities being destroyed by blimps or live action sequences of Kari Wuhrer in a low-cut tank top leaning over a tabletop. Instead, you get the game engine used to create some fairly clunky cutscenes for each of the three sides' campaigns, which consists of a handful of loosely related missions. There are some clever scripted moments in some of these, but they're mainly excuses to gradually fold in each side's unique units and capabilities. If you're looking for a story, you're in the wrong place.
Generals is built on a solid game design that revolves around three unique sides, each with a distinctive look and feel: the United States, China, and Arab terrorists with the sanitized moniker of "Global Liberation Army." The United States has powerful and expensive units, including well-armed infantry and vehicles that can heal themselves. Their superior intelligence capabilities and flexible air force allow them to strike quickly anywhere on the map. China, on the other hand, excels at amassing hordes of cheap units and improving their capabilities with bonuses. They have computer hackers who can steal money or quickly subvert enemy buildings and units. Eventually, China can bring to bear monster tanks and fearsome napalm weaponry.
The GLA is the most interesting side, partly for Electronic Arts' blunt disregard for how this might be inappropriate subject matter. There are elements of the GLA that clearly reflect recent events. You have Arab terrorists with car bombs and truck bombs (the nightclub bombing in Bali and the embassy attack in Kenya), Arab suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their bodies (the Palestinian attacks in Israel), Arabs researching anthrax and biotoxin delivery systems (Iraqi attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction), Arabs avoiding destruction by using tunnels and hiding in caves (al-Qaeda troops in Afghanistan), and angry ululating mobs of Arabs wielding AK-47s (the events in Mogadishu recounted in Blackhawk Down). Even if you can write it off as being "just a game," it's hard to believe all this is from the same company who felt the need to change the artwork on their Red Alert 2 boxes in the aftermath of 9/11.
But the GLA is mainly interesting for the gameplay mechanics. They require a certain amount of stealth and patience. They can salvage destroyed enemies for money and upgrades. Unlike the U.S., they have no airpower and no easy way to keep an eye on the map, but their tunnels and camouflage afford them the opportunity to mount devastating surprise attacks. Rather than employing expensive resource-gathering trucks (China) or helicopters (the U.S.), they have swarms of workers who double as construction units.
The jury's still out as to whether these three sides are balanced, but you can almost guarantee one of the early patches will tone down China's early rush potential. Right now, there's no effective way to counter how quickly they can mobilize a considerable army capable to taking out infantry or vehicles. It helps that many of the maps feature lots of buildings in which infantry can attack from the safety of cover. And, unlike some of Westwood's previous games, defensive structures aren't prohibitively expensive.
Generals takes its name from the fact that each player represents a general with a branching tech tree of special bonuses or abilities that can be purchased as he gains experience. Each side has its own tree and these can add significant twists to the gameplay. For instance, you can use your points early to give your units an experience bonus or you can save them up to put them into a powerful airstrike ability later on. It's not exactly unique, as there's a similar dynamic in Age of Mythology's god powers and Warcraft III's and Battlecry II's heroes, but it gives each side a bit of variety each time you play. It also allows each side's unit selection to be fairly streamlined without robbing the game of flexibility and unpredictability.
The interface is true to many of Westwood's earlier real-time strategy games in that it's enough to make you want to throw your mouse through the window of EA's offices. Except for "this is the way they've always done it," there's no good reason for: the lack of hotkeys, the lack of support for right-clicking, the lack of feedback for group selections, the limited queuing ability for unit commands, the lack of auto-formations, the lack of a patrol command, the lack of automation options for aircraft, and the lack of multiplayer speed options. The tactical AI is as much of a problem as it ever was. Generals is a game in which half the challenge is micromanaging your units during combat, keeping your little men out of their own biotoxin, paying attention to whether your Comanches are firing rockets, waiting for your MiGs to reload their bombs, and making sure you don't have a bunch of tanks sitting around idly while men are being attacked right in front of them.
The attitude behind this sort of interface and AI is that the player's attention is just another resource, arguably more valuable than the money you use to buy your units. On one hand, this makes for an aggravating game, because you're liable to lose for not being able to juggle the interface quickly. On the other hand, this ensures that you're around to watch when things start blowing up.
Because, let's face it, that's what the real draw is here. If you want a smooth, balanced real-time strategy game, you're probably not going to be looking to one of Westwood's titles. You're here because you like the goofy sound-bytes and the overblown cartoony battles. And Generals knows it. Hence this demanding 3D engine, which wrings an unholy amount of detail from its polygons. Like the previous games in the series, there's a lot of personality in the graphics, from the artwork for the tanks to the animation for the little infantry to the destructible buildings on the maps. There are smoke trails and particle effects. When a car blows up, its four tires go flying. Trees sway. Soldiers stagger. Smoke billows. It's a glut of eye-candy.
Since the story isn't the focus this time around, the heart of Generals is the skirmish mode against the AI and the multiplayer. The AI provides a passable challenge in terms of gathering resources and throwing an army at you, but it does a poor job of strategic thinking and it doesn't make very good use of many of Generals' tactical nuances like tunnels, camouflage, and capturing structures.
Even more of a problem is the state of the multiplayer support. The performance problems with the graphics engine are compounded by lag, which increases exponentially as you add players. We experienced a five-player game that ran at a rate of five seconds for every second of in-game time, and this was on a LAN (LAN players should also be warned that Generals continues Westwood's tradition of requiring each player, even for a LAN game, to buy a separate copy of the game with its own CD authentication key). The lobby for setting up online games is a poorly organized shuffle of names, games, and chat squeezed into a little window. For some reason, you have to reduce your graphics resolution to 800x600 for player matching, even through the resolution has no effect on the viewing radius. The "direct connect" option, which should be a convenient way to work around some online problems, doesn't work if one of the players is behind a firewall or router. For a game with an emphasis on multiplayer support, Generals doesn't seem up to par yet.
But where Generals is perhaps most true to its Westwood roots is the way its unflappable infectious enthusiasm manages to roll over many of its problems like a tank over a little six-pixel tall soldier. Combine Generals' solid and clever design with the tradition of Westwood's ability to appeal to the boy in us all who put firecrackers in his model airplanes and you get a game that comes awfully close to shrugging off its considerable technical and interface problems.
If this were just pretty pictures of things blowing up, it would be a lot less compelling. But because the design allows for meaningful decisions that substantially impact gameplay beyond simple factors like "how many tanks will I build?," the pretty - albeit choppy - pictures are brought to life. This is a matter of gameplay trumping an overambitious graphics engine. You make choices that manifest themselves onscreen, whether its your bright blue anthrax attacks, the Chinese horde indicators beneath your swarm of propoganda-boosted men, the visibly upgraded weapons scavenged for your GLA tanks, or the repair drones circling over your American hardware. Generals is all about laying out a variety of meaningful paths and leaving you to make a decision as to what kind of show you want this time.
After all, when the A-10s streak by and unleash a barrage of rockets that sends those cheap Chinese tanks flying, when your Scud Storm takes out his Particle Accelerator four seconds before he was able to fire it, when your Black Lotus spy captures his only power plant, or when an army of the GLA's angry mobs overwhelm a half dozen Overlord tanks, you're not really concerned with the fact that there are far better real-time strategy games out there. For the time being, this pretty handful of a fireworks show is just fine.
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