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Review by: Adam Swiderski
Published: September 17, 1999
The computer game industry gets more like the film industry every day. You’ve got your major studios (EA, Interplay and so on), your small, independent producers of media, and your starving fans looking for the next piece of entertainment that will blow them away. If this is true, then Command & Conquer 2: Tiberian Sun (C&C2) is the Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace of gaming. Think about it. Both were sequels to predecessors that were smash-hit, genre-defining successes. Both were years in the making. Both were big-budget productions being generated by well-respected creative talent. Heck, both even featured well-known thespians acting out their roles over computer-generated backdrops and with objects and people that would be added by special effects crews at a later date.
But the one factor that most linked these two productions is the overwhelming amount of expectation that preceded their arrival. For Star Wars we had fans who had based sixteen years of their lives around the release of the film, some lining up months in advance for tickets to the earliest showings. The anticipation for C&C2 may not have been quite that strong, but there have been hordes of strategy gamers salivating over this one since the final scene of the teaser trailer that appeared at the end of the original Command & Conquer. That was four years ago, almost an eon in the incredibly fast-moving world of PC gaming, where trends rise and fall within the space of a few months. But as the game approached release, the pre-orders piled up and hordes of rabid RTS junkies (myself included) clamored for any and all information about it. When it was announced that C&C2 had gone gold, the tidal wave of anticipation reached its zenith. It came crashing down with full force on a cloudy day in September when this sequel to a title that many believed helped jump-start the real-time strategy revolution finally reached store shelves.
And, much like that which followed the appearance of Episode I, the reaction to C&C2′s release has not been one of unanimous excitement, but a mixed reception by consumers who all had their own ideas of what it should be. With C&C being considered one of the uber-classics of the strategy genre, and with Westwood taking four years to get things right, many people were under the impression that C&C2 would shake the very foundations of the category as its predecessor had. What they got instead was a title that, far from being revolutionary, could hardly even be called evolutionary — in all but a visual sense — over its most recent relative, Red Alert. For many people, this is a disappointment, and somewhat rightfully so. It seems that, in an effort to retain the feel of the Command & Conquer series, Westwood has seen fit to ignore many of the advancements that have developed in the RTS arena over the past few years. This has left many players feeling disenchanted at an inability to manipulate friendly unit AI, comprehensively queue production, or issue orders while the action is paused. The omission of features to which quite a few gamers have become accustomed has led to a somewhat negative buzz around C&C2.
What the detractors seem to be missing, however, is the fact that not every game ever released has got to be industry changing. No, C&C2 will not bowl anyone over with originality. And yes, it is something of a throwback. But it is also a lot of fun (albeit in a traditional sense), which is what should really matter. The new units and vehicles may not be as exquisitely balanced as the denizens of StarCraft, but they are varied and interesting. What’s more, Westwood has replaced the pseudo-real world setting of the first two Command & Conquer titles with a farther-future, science fiction milieu, leaving themselves free to be much more creative with regards to design this time around. While the interface may leave something to be desired in terms of complexity, it definitely lends itself to greater accessibility, especially for anyone who has spent a lot of time with C&C2′s ancestors. Overall, it’s a tight, competent effort, all held together by a narrative that, if it is not entirely original, still offers more thematic motivation than the grand majority of titles on the market today.
Ah yes, the story, which brings to mind the well publicized cutscenes. Yes, that is Michael Biehn of The Terminator, Aliens and The Rock playing GDI commander McNeil. And yes, that is James Earl Jones as General Solomon. And yes, C&C2 does have some of the most elaborate, well-produced FMV cutscenes ever created for a computer game. Biehn and Jones acquit themselves nicely, despite the fact that the script on the GDI side of things is a little weak. But the real surprise comes with the NOD campaign, during which we’re treated to a much tighter plot, as well as an overall excellent performance from Frank Zagarino as NOD Commander Slavik and Monika Schnarre as propaganda officer Oxanna Kristos. (Perhaps it was Schnarre and Zagarino’s collaboration in film classic Waxwork II: Lost in Time that led to such chemistry.) It doesn’t hurt that the NOD dialogue sounds much less cheesy than that in the GDI scenes, but I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that our lesser-known villains overshadowed their big-name counterparts on the side of good. Looming over it all, as always, is the smooth-pated Joe Kucan, who reassumes the mantle of NOD leadership as the maniacal Kane. I have no idea how Kucan’s efforts would translate on the big screen, but his performance here fits like a round peg in an equally round hole.
Unlike StarCraft, C&C2 offers two separate story arcs for the GDI and NOD campaigns. The overall setup is this: It is the 21st century. While the war depicted in C&C is long over, it has left the Earth scarred by the scourge of Tiberium, that ever-growing extraterrestrial mineral that fueled the war efforts of both the noble, G.I. Joe-esque GDI and the terrorist forces of the Brotherhood of NOD. Most of humanity has migrated toward the North and South Poles, where Tiberium appears less likely to flourish, while small pockets have remained scattered about the globe. The GDI maintains a careful watch on events from their orbital space station, the Philadelphia, maintaining an unsteady peace while attempting to eradicate the remnants of NOD. That’s exactly where things stand at the onset of the GDI campaign, at which point the sudden and unexpected appearance of the presumed-dead Kane causes GDI leader Solomon no small amount of irritation. He dispatches the player, represented in-game by Biehn’s Commander McNeil, to track down Kane and eliminate him. The NOD story, on the other hand, starts out with the usually fanatical Brotherhood divided and battling itself. It seems that certain traitorous elements within NOD have framed Slavik for treason, and it is only through the subterfuge of his closest aids that he escapes. The player, as Slavik, then sets out to reunite the NOD forces under his command and reestablish the Brotherhood as a force to be reckoned with. Making an appearance in both campaigns are the Forgotten, a race of warriors (think of the Fremen from Dune) mutated by prolonged exposure to Tiberium, who ally with whatever side the player has taken.
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