The Rally Point: Command & Conquer Generals would be the best game in the series if it didn’t have boring racist stereotypes

By admin Mar29,2024

You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve been bumping Command & Conquer Generals down the list because “but it’s abandonware and a pain in the hole to run” makes for a more frustrating read than “and it’s available here”.

Ever the afterthought, Generals has shimmered between abandonware and temporarily available in some obscure place with no fanfare (I think? I honestly lost track) for years, but it’s now available in a bundle on Steam as part of whatever needlessly awkward thing EA are doing this month. There’s suddenly an opportunity to get into why its design and atmosphere make it probably my favourite of the whole collection, and why I wish I could say that without adding that it indulges in a lot of boring early-00s racism.

I like it for the same reason some fans hated it: it reinvented the series. Command & Conquer and Red Alert were two-faction affairs, not quite symmetrical but not playing all that differently. Generals was firmly of the post-Starcraft era, with three mismatched factions, a new economic model, and an RPG-ish tech tree unlocking system. Instead of babysitting harvesters, players start out by looting crates from fixed supply depots, and fight over the steady income of captured oil wells when those run out. Each faction can also generate passive income, each with its own dynamic – the USA get money airdropped from the UN, but it can be shot down, China build defenceless units that can produce money anywhere, and the GLA get a constant trickle of cash from small buildings that they’d need for researching upgrades anyway.

America is vaguely realistic, in that it relies on expensive training and technology. Their infantry are specialised, they’re the only faction with lasers and drones, and backed by an overpowering air force that does devastating precision strikes like no other, but suffers particularly hard from a good infrastructure hit.

China is the big armour and artillery side, with an EMP superweapon for calming before the storm and lots of cheap infantry support that combines to make them hard to crack if allowed to amass, but vulnerable to being outmaneouvred. Finally, there’s the GLA, who have no air force, and must be resourceful to survive, but can lean into their speed and stealth, and the decentralised, “easy to beat but hard to finish off” flexibility that their tunnel network (functionally a teleport), adaptable workers, and absence of energy requirements offer.

Some of their vehicles get a free weapon upgrade by driving over salvage left behind by destroyed vehicles. They also get the supremely cool hero unit Jarmen Kell (even if he’s just a tweaked C&C commando), who can snipe the crew of vehicles so your dudes can steal them (hijacker units don’t even need him for that). They are, of course, my favourite, because they reward elaborate guerrilla tricks and using your enemy’s own gear against them. Even though that means they’re demanding to play well. Even as a child I wasn’t great at that kind of fast-paced RTS, preferring matches about the biggest explosions or the most devious ploys rather than whatever wins fastest.

An attack on a desert base in Command & Conquer Generals

A huge explosion in Command & Conquer Generals

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Electronic Arts

Generals is great for exactly that because every unit has something to offer, especially with the Zero Hour expansion. This added three playable generals for each side, who take the tone even more over the top, hollering their one note at every turn. There’s the guy who can make almost anything explode, the airstrikes guy, the nukes guy. The toxin-obsessed Dr. Thrax in particular is so unhinged that even his own faction sometimes surreptitiously aid the enemy against him. A lot of these generals lean fully into one concept at the expense of another, which unfortunately makes the counter play obvious. Fighting the stealth guy? Bring detectors everywhere. The airstrikes guy? Bulk build AA and scatter your forces. It’s an approach that considers, but isn’t devoted to, balance over flavour. This is especially true of the GLA, whose playstyle is extremely micro-heavy to begin with, and relying entirely on carefully timed detonations or poison is less strategically sound than it is spectacular.

“Spectacular” really is the word too, even today. Where the older games were 2D, Generals used a shiny new (discounting Renegade, which nobody mentions or remembers) 3D engine that fell just on the right side of 2003 to age beautifully. Though it swapped the b-movie FMV bits for in-engine scripted scenes with charmingly silly swooshy transitions and zooms, it still sounds and looks excellent, with rockets streaking off to their target, quad cannons blazing, guitars grinding, riflemen picking away at a stinger site. Battles feel superb, every shot sounds dangerous,and the delightful tendency of dead vehicles to roll on for a few seconds before exploding gives them a physicality beyond merely being 3D and thus More Graphics. The controls are inflexible, but not so archaic that you won’t get into their groove.

This was the ragdoll physics era too, adding a degree of slapstick black comedy to its over the top explosions. I still remember doubling over when a friend launched a comically excessive miniature nuclear bomb at an angry mob (an actual unit, made of discrete figures that multiply over time), who instead of vanishing suddenly soared into the air in a cartoonish human wave. It sounds vile. So does Itchy and Scratchy when you write it down.

A town with a guardpost in Command & Conquer Generals
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Electronic Arts

But even in 2003, its less physical comedy was already uncomfortably racist. It’s the most immediate and awkward problem when playing it today (now that “they won’t just release it for free so you can bloody play it, the miserable bastards” is no longer a factor). Generals shifted genres slightly, away from the technomagical crystals and time travel into a relatively grounded near-future war taken, in the most ridiculous, crass way, from the headlines. Two of those factions are barely beyond Cold War weapons, which is insulting in the case of China, whose economy is built almost entirely on stealing money through hacking. Their infantry comes in twos and get a “horde bonus” for attacking in human waves. It’s evoking gross and patronising forms of sinophobia even before the story starts.

But they are, at least, semi-allied with the Good Guy USA, willing to triangulate against the outright villains, the Global Liberation Army. The GLA rely on scavenging and slave labourers (who complain about having no shoes, until the expansion added them as an upgrade), representing their lack of resources, but also painting them as an innately impoverished and evil culture. They’re all Arabs, you see, and thus look and talk exactly how you pictured when you thought “American media about the Middle East in the early 2000s”. Some of their attacks spray anthrax, while others are suicide bombers. Their schtick is fighting the oppressors and invaders, which in Generals means invading half the planet, blowing up entire cities, and generally being as uniquely and openly evil as possible. Which, you know, is a bit rich.

C&C was always high camp, and Generals is knowingly ridiculous. Doubly so in the expansion, where even the USA sounds a bit unhinged, one guy’s focus on air superiority becomes near fetishistic, and it’s even more clear that the devs were taking the piss out of them, too. But excusing it with “it mocks every side!” ignores the power dynamics that render the mockery more harmful to one side. And in any case, one faction being arrogant and gung-ho vs another being dangerous monsters who must be exterminated hardly balances out.

That the black comedy sometimes works, that it’s intentionally absurd, does not mean that these depictions exist in a vacuum. I wish that they did, because then I’d be writing exclusively about how damn well it plays 20 years on. We’re far less deprived of better representation today, so it’s easier than ever to simply play something else. But of course, I’d prefer a modern equivalent with a less tacky attitude. It’s not hard to imagine a game with the same basic design in terms of asymmetry, economics, and even the “barely even science fiction anymore” setting.

Units with laser guns attacking a snowy base in Command & Conquer Generals
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Electronic Arts

C&C’s original Tiberium series even has a relatively nuanced terrorist faction the Brotherhood Of Nod, a cult led by a convincingly intense and shifty opportunist who exploits global injustices and the language of resistance and liberation to empower himself. Guerrilla factions are particularly hard to pull off as strategic equals in a base-building RTS but even in this sometimes-frustrating form they’re terrific fun, and could be again with the right treatment, and similarly entertaining production values. And a same-faction co-op mode, while I’m dreaming.

Command & Conquer specifically was largely put to death by EA’s greed and inept handling, and I wouldn’t really want them to revisit those ideas even if it was likely. But I hope someone does. Until then, Generals will remain a textbook problematic fave. What a fave, and oh god, what a problem.

By admin

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