Articles & Editorials: The Technological “Cousins” Of C&C

  • Date: 18/08/2017 | Author: Plokite_Wolf
  • Last corrected: 04/09/2017

The Command & Conquer series was not alone in its development cycle. Two other series are technologically related to it: Westwood’s licensed Dune games from 1992 to 2001, upon which the original Command & Conquer was largely based, and EALA’s Battle for Middle-earth series with the Lord of the Rings license, which was an interim series during C&C‘s hiatus between 2003 and 2007.

In this article, you will see all the important release information on them, descriptions and my subjective take on each of these games, in order of release (which also corresponds to their division by license).

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty

Dune II Amiga UK coverDune II DOS USA coverReleased: late 1992 (DOS, USA/UK); 1993 (DOS, Germany); 1993 (Amiga); 1994 (SEGA Genesis); 1995 (Acorn 32-Bit)
Publisher: Virgin Interactive
Developer: Westwood Studios
Last official patch: v1.07
Unofficial patch: n/a
Multiplayer: n/a

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (known as Dune II: Battle for Arrakis outside North America) is widely considered the first real-time strategy game, although elements of this genre existed long before it. Still, it standardized the genre’s formula, which has been used to this day.

The game featured three sides: Houses Atreides, Harkonnen and the almost completely new Ordos, which were merely referred to in the books but not explored further. The Emperor challenged all three houses to conquer Arrakis, with no set boundaries or rules of engagement – and he who controlled the Spice Melange controlled Dune. While they were mostly similar, these factions had several units unique to them. Bases were built on dark “elevated” land upon concrete foundations (so they are not corroded by the sand), while lower sand areas provided Spice fields and transitions to other dark land patches, but also the danger of sandworms randomly devouring units that would cross them. Production structures could be upgraded to provide more varied unit types. The campaign was the only playable mode, with later missions giving the player the opportunity to choose the next area of conquest.

Subjectively on Dune II

I find it hard and outright unfair to judge this game in any way, primarily because it was the one that paved the way for other RTS games. It is deprived of many elements that we take for granted today, and which were a result of evolution from Dune II, such as multiple unit selection, not requiring to click on a Move/Attack command to execute them, etc. While not as easy to play unless one is old enough to have a nostalgic trip, the historic value of Dune II entitles it to the respect it has to this day.

Dune 2000

Dune 2000 PC UK coverDune 2000 PC USA coverReleased: 4 September 1998 (Windows, USA); September 1998 (Windows, Europe); 31 October 1999 (PS1, USA); 1 February 2000 (PS1, UK)
Publisher: Electronic Arts, Virgin Interactive (early releases only)
Developer: Intelligent Games, Westwood Studios
Last official patch: v1.06
Unofficial patch: Gruntmods Edition
Multiplayer: LAN, WOL/XWIS, CnCNet

Westwood outsourced the development for a Dune II remake and hired Intelligent Games to do most of the work. Intelligent Games previously cooperated with Westwood on multiplayer maps for the Counterstrike and Aftermath expansions for C&C Red Alert.

The game ports the Dune universe to an engine that seems more advanced than the one in C&C Red Alert, but strongly inferior to that of C&C Tiberian Sun that came a year later. The storyline and missions are adapted to a more demanding time in the gaming industry, even making use of Westwood’s FMV production made famous by Command & Conquer games, but the basic premise is identical to the one in Dune II.

The three factions remain the same: Houses Atreides, Ordos and Harkonnen. They are largely similar, though certain units differ, more so than in Dune II. Effort has even been put to differentiating a large part of otherwise identical buildings and units.

The PlayStation version had a 3D engine.

Subjectively on Dune 2000

While the gameplay is slow in the early game, due to construction taking its sweet time, it’s surprisingly fun when you get to build armies, allowing for enjoyable skirmishes. However, it takes a while to get used to the techtree and several tech structures, as the game doesn’t quite explain what requires what and isn’t clear with its names like C&C games are. The AI does not tend to attack much apart from a few suicidal infantrymen followed by a single Engineer (which is still an improvement over the lazy AI in early C&C games), but it is able of defending itself well. However, when it’s scripted in the campaign, it can put up quite a fight.

The acting is very good for a Westwood-branded game, and combining that with the overall improved visual style of the game, Dune 2000 does a very good job in the immersion department. And don’t get me started on the moody and atmospheric soundtrack, which captures a certain majestic element of the universe that even people who are not familiar with the books or the films can grasp and enjoy.

Emperor: Battle for Dune

Emperor UK coverEmperor USA coverReleased: 12 June 2001 (Windows, USA); 14 June 2001 (Windows, Europe)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Intelligent Games, Westwood Studios
Last official patch: v1.09
Unofficial patch: n/a
Multiplayer: LAN, WOL/XWIS

Unlike Dune 2000, this is a true sequel to Dune II. It takes place after the Ordos victory in Dune 2000, in an unprecedented move for Westwood-branded games, where the “good guys” usually win, however the basic premise is the same – conquer Arrakis.

Intelligent Games were once again tasked to a Dune game. This time, they got to enter the 3D-heavy era of the 2000s by making the first Westwood-branded RTS in a 3D engine for the PC. This introduced truly elevated terrain and even structure rotation. New environments are included, even those from non-Arrakis planets, while the Living Planet option that is selectable in multiplayer causes more natural events like tornadoes on the map.

The sides are now fully distinct in visual designs, which was the way the RTS genre had taken in the previous three years. However, few units have maintained their Dune II/2000 appearances – instead, a new artistic direction was taken to show the passage of time after the events of Emperor’s predecessors. A new subhouse system was introduced, which allowed each of the three houses to utilize technologies of minor factions from the Dune universe (up to two in multiplayer, selectable before the game starts).

The campaign is played, as before, on a map of Arrakis which is shown between missions. However, a noticable change is that each side gets a turn to attack one of several blinking areas. If the player’s faction is attacked during this time, the player chooses to defend or resign. The FMVs make a return, with new actors and an upgrade to the popular Bink format introduced to Westwood games in C&C Red Alert 2, as opposed to their proprietary, but lower-quality VQA format.

The game had a planned expansion pack called Alliances, which was quickly shelved.

Subjectively on Emperor: Battle for Dune

The strictly unique visual design approach is a welcome change, but the units are incredibly tiny and low-poly, even for that time, and combined with control issues, mouse lag and a comparatively large interface compared to the visible world screen, we get a very discouraging playing environment. Also, early game vehicles show no functional distinctions.

Economy was greatly improved, though. Refineries can be upgraded with up to two additional entrances for harvesters, and each time you build either a Refinery or an additional entrance, you get not only a harvester, but an ever-handy carry-all as well!

The cutscenes are well made and individual units aren’t voiced bad, but a very stupid design flaw causes only three to four voice lines to be played when multiple units are selected: “Yes sir?”, “Let’s go”, “For the Duke” and “FOR THE DUKE!!!1!!”.

The Living Planet option was a good addition, though, but something more varied would have been more welcome. Maps themselves are rather empty and cramped at the same time, and the map editor was only made available after the fans bombarded Westwood to create one, all of whom stressed the poor level design in Emperor. Did anyone else notice that Spice is almost indiscernible from the standard lowland sand texture?

The AI is stupid and lazy unless you set it to Hard and Attacker, by which time it’s what Medium is supposed to be. Easy and Medium, especially with the Competent trait, are the equivalent of the almost completely absent AI from WarCraft II, which builds something just so we can say it does, and doesn’t attack you no matter how many kitchen sinks you throw at it.

The subhouse choice mechanic was a great idea, but lacks in execution. The Fremen and Sardaukar will give you infantry, which you will rarely find a use for. The Ix give a suicide-bombing Infiltrator and the late-game Projector Tank, which duplicates any enemy unit as your own for a period of time. The Tleilaxu have a very cheeky Leech unit that plants parasites to the units it attacks, making them virtually the only viable choice for the subhouses in multiplayer.

All in all, Emperor was a game that had a lot of potential and had many elements that worked well on paper, but in a typical fashion for Westwood-branded games in the early 2000s, the execution was weak.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth

BFME1 German Limited coverBFME1 USA coverReleased: 6 December 2004 (Windows, USA); 9 December 2004 (Windows, Germany); 10 December 2004 (Windows, Poland)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Electronic Arts Los Angeles
Last official patch: v1.03 (65539)
Unofficial patch: v1.06
Multiplayer: LAN, GameSpy/T3A:Online

Made directly after the release of C&C Generals and Zero Hour, Battle for Middle-earth was an attempt to port the Lord of the Rings universe into the RTS genre, and also to cash in on the license, in a way similar to Activision’s Star Trek games in the early 2000s. BFME attempted to follow the storyline of the films, with a little of EALA’s own flavour.

The game had four factions, two good (Gondor and Rohan) and two evil (Isengard and Mordor). A player would start with a fortress, the main structure around which other structures can be built in predefined nodes. Some structures like farms can be built on individual nodes scattered round the map, and there are also some capturable neutral buildings. Certain factions have walls in the immediate vicinity of the fortress, while others get there later on. Each faction has one unit in each category: pikeman/counter-cavalry, archer, cavalry (except Mordor), artillery and siege, each with their own upgrades and abilities. All factions have several unique heroes who level up in a similar way to what we have seen in WarCraft III two years earlier, gaining additional abilities with higher levels.

Subjectively on Battle for Middle-earth

The game is paced rather slowly and has little to offer in variety and depth. The limited building options and low population caps make for rather small skirmishes, but at least the resource influx is reasonable as opposed to its sequel. The art was quite good, though, and the game was well voiced, and inserts from the films in the singleplayer campaign were a nice touch.

The bottom line – if it weren’t for the LotR license, this game wouldn’t have been nearly as popular.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II

BFME2 USA Xbox 360 coverBFME2 Benelux PC coverReleased: 28 February 2006 (Windows, USA); 2 March 2006 (Windows, France); 3 March 2006 (Windows, UK); 12 April 2006 (Windows, Russia); 5 July 2006 (Xbox 360, USA); 13 July 2006 (Xbox 360, France)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Electronic Arts Los Angeles
Last official patch: v1.06 (65542)
Unofficial patch: v1.09
Multiplayer: LAN, GameSpy/T3A:Online

BFME2 continues where BFME1 left off story-wise, even expanding to areas the films did not quite venture, as EA obtained the book license in addition to the film license, but was still restricted only to the main Lord of the Rings books, meaning no content from The Hobbit or Silmarillion could be implemented.

The game now has six factions: Men of the West (Gondor and Rohan in one), Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, Isengard and Mordor. The base idea of the fortress remains the same, but building is more liberal this time. You can essentially build anywhere and walls are only there if you decide to construct them yourself from one of the nodes around the fortress. Resource structures must be built as far off from each other as possible to maximize their efficiency (the forgotten Submarine Titans comes to mind), while some factions can have secondary structures that gain resources from nearby trees, which aren’t that plentiful even in forest maps.

The game introduced War of the Ring, a turn-based game mode where players could choose a scenario and factions, then accomplish their objectives in a district-divided map. The combat could be resolved either automatically or manually by playing a glorified skirmish with the given armies. It can be described as a mix between Risk and the Global Conquest mode in C&C 3: Kane’s Wrath that would come two years later.

There’s also a Create-A-Hero mode, where players could create their own hero both in appearance and abilities, and have him appear as a buildable unit ingame.

This was the first RTS game by EA Los Angeles to have been released on the Xbox 360, marking the start of their console experimentation that would continue with their subsequent Command & Conquer games.

Somewhat faster-paced, despite a slowdown in the resource income. In versions 1.00 to 1.04, the game had a “soft” counter system, meaning any unit could take on any other unit, in spite of what the description says they’re actually good for. A team led by then-GameReplays staff produced the 1.05 patch for EALA, with the crucial change being the introduction of the hard counter system (e.g. pikemen are basically only useful against cavalry, as their in-game description says) that added a lot of challenge to the game, but alienated a portion of the community to this day (mostly lesser-skilled players).

Subjectively on Battle for Middle-earth II

The units aren’t varied this time either, though more heroes exist for each faction. The early game is far too slow for my taste, and the combat is still lackluster despite the supposed improvements in patch 1.05 onwards. The population cap is not raised easily, either.

The art was pretty nice, but was still mainly hiding many design flaws. The campaigns didn’t try much to deliver a substantial storyline, as it’s mostly a collection of barely collected missions that weren’t very well thought through – they resembled more of an armed walk through Middle-earth rather than a story-driven experience.

Storytelling was very weak. Cutscenes were combined from still images (nicely painted, though) and pre-rendered in-engine animations, but all of that was just very shallow filler placed where a story was supposed to be. The narration comes down to the itinerary of the faction you’re playing as, without much character interaction.

BFME2 has a solid foundation, but there is a lot of big holes in gameplay design.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II – The Rise of the Witch-king

Rise of the Witch-King UK cover

Rise of the Witch-King US cover

Released: 28 November 2006 (Windows, USA); 11 December 2006 (Windows, Russia)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: BreakAway Games, Electronic Arts Los Angeles
Last official patch: v2.01 (131073)
Unofficial patch: v2.02 release 7.0.0
Multiplayer: LAN, GameSpy/T3A:Online

This game’s development was outsourced, and a few people from EALA supervised BreakAway Games, while the main EALA team was working on C&C 3: Tiberium Wars. BreakAway Games would two years later release C&C 3: Kane’s Wrath, under a similar contract, but with visibly more influence from EALA. Curiously, unlike the base game, Rise of the Witch-king was never ported to the Xbox 360.

A prequel storyline of sorts, Rise of the Witch-king focuses on the events before Fellowship of the Ring and the influence of the new Angmar faction, the place of origin of the Witch-king. Angmar itself was merely referred to in the books and was never actually explored beyond that, so EALA and BreakAway essentially made up everything related to it apart from the Witch-king himself, similar to what Westwood did with House Ordos in their Dune games. New units were introduced for existing sides, the War of the Ring mode received new scenarios and an unplayable Arnor faction, and the Create-A-Hero mode was updated with some more options.

The gameplay was very bug-ridden, so much so that the game only comes to full potential with the unofficial 2.02 patch. The soft counter system returns, as the BFME2 patch 1.05 was released about a month before RotWK hit the shelves and EALA didn’t bother implementing it to RotWK, even though they released patch 2.01 for the expansion in January 2007. Attempts were made by the community to do this, but they eventually died off, as RotWK players are too used to the soft counter system and don’t tolerate much change.

Subjectively on Rise of the Witch-king

Ironically, an expansion for which the main EALA team did not care much for (well, didn’t have time to care much for, given the developers’ stories of their time at EALA) improves upon storytelling from the original, as even the first mission, where the Witch-king is trying to build an army of trolls, dire wolves and corrupt humans with the help of Morgomir, has more character interaction and depth than almost the entire Good campaign of BFME2.

New units for existing sides and a completely new faction add some of that variety I wanted so badly and things finally got a little more interesting, but the game’s flow is still hindered by slow resource influx and difficult population cap increasing. Still, with 2.02, I think I like RotWK the most among the BFME games for an occasional comp stomp, as it gives me the largest sense of freedom.

By the way, if you think I was plugging the unofficial 2.02 patch outside the subjective section just for the sake of it, try playing the game without it for a while and compare it with the 2.02 changelog. Broken random generator, inaudible voiceovers in some SP missions, imbalances, Lindon Horse Archers who can trample enemies to infinity (they were banned in competitive play)…

 


The release dates and the majority of covers used in this article are courtesy of MobyGames.

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