Generals wafts through the Command and Conquer stable like a breath of fresh air after a muck out. For the veteran player, it has obvious affinities with its predecessors in terms of ease of unit control, retaining the sense of humour a la Yuri’s Revenge that kept those mouses clicking whilst not taking itself too seriously. All of the myriad of fans out there knew the potential of the franchise, but it is only now that the genre has finally come to fruition as a true über-game to knock the proverbial spots off all the competition.
The first immediate change obvious to all seasoned gamers is that the interface has been moved from the side of the screen to the bottom, consulting which effortlessly becomes second nature. The next is that to produce units, you must click on the building itself instead of an icon, a simple, yet elegant solution to the finite space available. A further innovation is that units may only be placed in the queue provided that you have sufficient resources to pay for them, and the quantity represents a compromise between the strictures of Tiberian Sun and the open-handedness of Red Alert Two. Under these circumstances a spare war factory becomes an attractive prospect once it is affordable.
Another new feature is that the loss of the Command Centre is not as disastrous as that of the erstwhile construction yard, as all structures are built by dozers (or peasant labourers in the case of the GLA) and so it can be replaced. A whole different feel to the game emerges as commanders can build whereever they see fit on the map and are not straitjacketed by the compulsion to do so in the confines of their bases.
A perennial (and entirely justified) complaint about the last few offerings in the series has been that the game centred not on military strategy, but on resource collection and management. Once the ore had been mined only an engineer capturing a building or a spy in the case of the Allies could drain cash from the enemy. Generals has risen to the challenge by a major refinement, which radically changes the nature of the game, that of resource creation, thereby reducing dependency on supply stashes (the ore substitute). In a nutshell any player with an ounce of common sense will ensure that he has sufficient hackers, supply drop zones or black markets at his disposal to liberate him from the overriding necessity of expending all his time and energy cornering every source of finite material sustenance. Even when supply stashes have been exhausted the game continues. Of the three sides, the USA is the slowest to start a serious cash flow due to the expense both of Chinooks and units in general, but the supply drop zones give the most generous assistance later on.
Another frequent lament was the cheapness of the engineer rush and how it could ruin a game from the very outset. Although cheap tactics have not been eliminated altogether (I intend to allow the readers to discover these for themselves) there are no actual engineers. The cheapest infantry unit on each side can be upgraded to capture buildings and it takes a good twenty seconds for them to do so, enabling the victim to foil the attempt. Moreover, even if capture is successful it does not necessarily mean the end of the game, as enemies cannot simply erect say Gattling cannons or barracks and systematically take over the base since in order to build, you must physically send in your valuable construction dozer/worker, which will have to run the gauntlet of defences.
Superweapons can in theory be acquired in any quantity, though in practise it is seldom feasible or affordable to have ten scudstorms or particle cannons. The countdown time for each is five minutes.
Generals also demands far more aggression of its players than previous outings. Not only are defence capabilities fairly limited, but cowering behind them will not win you any promotion points and one of the easiest ways to gain superiority over your opponent is to climb the ranks to become a five star general by blasting as many enemy units as possible to oblivion. The old adage about attack being the best form of defence never rang truer, so get that testosterone flowing through your veins!
Garrisoning, one of the fun features of Red Alert Two and Yuri, has been incorporated and invested with a new dimension: now everything from restaurants to Alpine chalets can be stuffed not only with standard infantry, but also rocket-wielding troopers with an impressive range of fire against vehicles and aircraft.
Oil derricks are more vital than ever before, with a large capture bonus and stream of 200 credits every second or so. Hospitals are also up for grabs.
The camera allows the close quarters enthusiast to zoom in and out to his heart’s content and its angle permits the clearest possible view of the action.
The permanent fog of war feature whilst it may take a little getting used to is definitely essential to maintaining a proper balance between the three sides.
In spite of not being able to select resolution preference during the Beta test, the level of detail and realism is superb, with trees swaying in the wind, black smoke emitted by exhausts, the sand rippling on the dunes, tanks churning up the soil, aircraft cruising down the runway during takeoff, soaring away and alighting to taxi back into their hangars. Nightime maps show the windows of civilian dwellings illuminated by electricity as ammunition zips past like liquid flame. You can almost smell the wood on the half-timbered houses and the spectacular battle scenes, often reminiscent of the chaos depicted in Black Hawk Down, make the film’s effects look like B movie grade. Even the sadly underrated Emperor cannot match the standard attained here. Basically this is what we have all been waiting for. We can finally cast an admiring eye over every little nut, bolt and dent of our beloved units.
The music for each of the sides is quite distinctive, with the score for the USA most closely resembling the fare we have been immersed in previously. Whilst remaining true to the style of the genre, the music escapes from the trap of being overly bland and monotonous with China and the GLA refreshingly distinct.
The developers surpassed themselves in their grasp of sociological subtleties (I suspect unintentionally) concerning the true relationship between Communist ideology and nationalism with the former deriving its strength from the latter. As in political reality, Communism sustains itself through deliberate cultivation of national (in this particular instance imperialist) sentiments and ambitions. The Chinese army in Generals is spurred to new pinnacles of achievement through brainwashing and patriotism, speaker towers emitting powerful propaganda to restore health and instill renewed martial vigour. China combines high tech and sheer deviousness with hackers and its hero unit (ready and willing to siphon off resources from either the Internet or unguarded enemy supply stashes, disable vehicles or capture buildings), lacking, however, in the spying prowess of its American rivals.
Although Overlords are routinely overtaken by passing snails, nothing can match Chinese tanks in terms of brute force and ability to withstand punishment on the battlefield. If, like myself, you are an afficionado of heavy armoured ground machinery, China is the answer to all your prayers. Air capacity should not be overlooked altogether, though, as MIGs are not only extremely fast, but also deadly in large numbers, unleashing a fire storm.
Structures: Command centre (controls operations and special weapons as well as producing construction dozers); nuclear reactor (may be overcharged, causing damage and eventual explosion, to yield 50% greater power output), supply depot (resource collection), war factory (vehicle production), barracks (infantry training), propaganda centre (required in order to build Overlord tanks and purchase upgrades), speaker towers (heal units and structures within a certain radius), air field (MIGs).
Defensive structure: Gattling cannon (strong against infantry and aircraft, but suffers from a limited range); bunker (holds up to five Red Guards or Tank Hunters).
Superweapon: Nuclear missile.
Upgrades: Mines (can be laid around all structures, a highly effective protection against enemy capture of buildings); black napalm (25% damage bonus to all flame weapons); chain gun (25% greater rate of fire on all Gattlings); MIG armour (25% increase in aircraft health); nationalism and subliminal messaging (enhances speaker tower effectiveness).
Promotion upgrades: Mine bombardment (deploys cluster mines from the air anywhere on the map; particularly useful to drop on a group of stationary vehicles, across strategically important access roads or around enemy supply depots if GLA or China); artillery barrage (a rain of shells from off-map forces, more numerous the higher the rank); cash hack (one, two or three thousand can be creamed off enemy finances as rank ascends); emergency repair (effective on all vehicles in the target area for 30, 45 and 60 seconds respectively); EM pulse (temporarily knocks out targeted vehicles and buildings, including GLA stinger sites, devastating when employed sensibly against a clutch of vehicles prior to sending in your own ground forces or in disabling anti-air defences before sending in a MIG strike).
Nuclear cannon: relatively slow in deploying and undeploying and cursed with weak armour, but, as it is only too happy to brag, it is „the mother of all weapons”, capable of firing over long distances and uphill, leaving behind a swathe of radioactively contaminated ground that would plunge any civil defence expert or Greenpeace activist into despair.
The basic Chinese unit is the Red Guard and, in spite of official family planning policy, demographic pressure appears not to have let up, so that the Chinese general is charged with the task of disposing of surplus males, receiving two soldiers for the price of one. This can prove to be an advantage in the early stages, however, as one may be sent to garrison or scout whilst the other may be dispatched to capture a building. Red Guards demonstrate the flawless workings of the education system, inculcated with ideals of solidarity („We stand together!”) and heroic sacrifice for the greater good („China will remember me!” they cry defiantly on dying).
The Tank Hunter, as his designation suggests, is armed with the kind of weapon to dampen the spirits of even a Humvee driver and is put to best use in bunkers or civilian buildings from where he can blow apart vehicles or aircraft at his leisure. He is also equipped to place and detonate explosive charges.
The Hacker, the bespectacled and somewhat puny nerd of the Chinese intelligentsia, can put professional secretaries to shame with the whizz of his fingers over the laptop keyboard as he breaks into corporate bank accounts all over the globe to fund the Chinese war effort. „No system is safe” is not an idle boast, as he is equally at ease writing the kind of viruses that make Klez and Kournikova look like the labour of amateurs to cripple enemy structures. The chief drawback of the hacker is that he has no means of self-defence other than to pack his hardware back into his briefcase and hightail it out of trouble, and like the rest of us ordinary mortals, he is not too partial to high concentration doses of anthrax or radiation. For these reasons, and because their illicit cash-skimming operations are restricted to small amounts for maximum secrecy, it makes sense to hire plenty of hackers, guard them well and spread them out over the base rather than leaving them huddled together where one fuel bomb would suffice to dispatch them to meet their ancestors.
One of the hallmarks of Communism in practise has always been to pay lip service to female emancipation and China is no exception, being the only side to send a woman operative into the field in the delectable shape of the Black Orchid, no submissive pushover, but the ultimate computer genius, able to steal cash in far greater quantities than her hacker compatriots, as well as capture buildings and knocking out vehicles. Her combination of stealth, grace and speed make her an invaluable asset, though like her namesake in the botanical world, this exquisite exotic bloom is a tender flower indeed and her commanding general must display intelligence in issuing her orders.
The stalwart of the Chinese tank division is the Battlemaster, small but sturdy and packing a substantial punch. Infantry represent a major headache to it, the best means of dealing with them being to grind them into the pavement, the mud or the dunes depending on the terrain. Similarly, the Battlemaster is vulnerable to air attack and should be accompanied by Gattlings.
The Dragon Tank, like your average Chinese mother-in-law, spouts flames that toast the sternest opposition. Its primary attack clears buildings, torching all the infantry foolish enough to delude themselves that they are safe indoors whilst its secondary wall of fire could teach the slash and burn farmers of the rainforest a lesson or two in wanton destruction. Its versatility extends to igniting vehicles, reducing them to rivulets of molten metal, which renders it invaluable as part of the Chinese push for victory.
The Gattling Tank is the big brother of its counterpart in Yuri’s revenge, though it thankfully does not sound quite so much like an angry swarm of bees on a summer afternoon once its weapon warms up. It is particularly lethal against infantry and air units.
The evil laugh of the Inferno Cannon warms the cockles of any Chinese heart as it belches its barrage of fire against the foe, reducing them to smouldering ash. The Inferno has the longest range of the standard Chinese tanks and as such is ideally suited to pulverising enemy defences. However, be warned, the Inferno is only really at its best in numbers against stationary targets and needs to be guarded against retaliatory forays.
The Troop Crawler transports soldiers relatively swiftly and comes complete with eight Red Guards. Apart from its obvious utility in conveying conscripts to urban centres, it can also prove its worth by sneaking round the edge of maps to offload its passengers at the rear of enemy bases at moments where vigilance falters allowing them to wreak havoc by firing on or capturing structures.
Beyond all shadow of a doubt my personal favourite, the Overlord Tank dwarves all other land units, its pomposity matching its ponderousness. „I am big” it declares completely superfluously, as even the most short-sighted hacker would be at considerable pains to overlook its bulk. As if being a tank addict’s nocturnal sheet-drenching delight were not enough, the Overlord can be rendered even more intimidating by the addition of three upgrades, the bunker (allowing five Tank Hunters or Red Guards to sit atop it and take pot shots at anything stupid – or suicidal - enough to stray across its path), the gattling cannon and the propaganda tower (which heals not only the Overlord, but any other tanks or units in its immediate vicinity).
Last but not least the MIGs defend Chinese airspace, firing at sky and ground targets alike. Their weapon recharge rate is fast enough to make them an asset in defence, as they can hit incoming tanks with ferocious accuracy.
If China rules the land, America rules the air. Aviation buffs and armchair pilots are spoiled for choice, confronted with a veritable embarrasment of riches.
Of all the sides, the USA is the most self-righteous, policing the planet and ruthlessly imposing its sanitised notions of morality, „doing what’s right” by exterminating the „enemies of the free world”. The flavour of a Holy War fought by the righteous against the unenlightened is intensified by the choice of names for the tanks, Crusader and Paladin and their associations with the gallant knights of yore. Enemies are scythed down with clinical precision by the expensive high-tech equipment of the self-appointed guardians of democracy. On the other hand, the USA does provide its men with ambulances, the Rangers dream of extraction points when the going gets rough and the UN ultimately gives its seal of approval to the operations by providing the hard cash bail outs at the supply drop zones.
They may carry the heftiest price tag of all resource collecting units at 1200 credits a whack, but there is more to the Chinook than meets the eye. They echo the undercurrent of humaneness, wishing the units they drop off in the hot spots a safe return home, and it is this subsidiary function of lightning-fast transport that elevates US strategic possibilities to a higher plane literally and metaphorically. When filled with infantry, the Chinooks perform combat drops that leave you shouting „Ridley Scott eat your heart out!” at your monitor, although they are equally happy lowering fully manned Humvees and Crusader tanks gently to the ground.
Accounts of the Cold War may have been consigned to the dusty tomes of history, but in Generals the CIA never had it so busy. One of the prime advantages enjoyed by the USA is its ability to pry into the activities and positions of hostiles, creative reconnaissance paying dividends in terms of calculated response and forward planning.
Structures: Command centre (controls deployment of spy drones and satellites revealing substantial portions of the map briefly); cold fusion reactor (may be upgraded by output-doubling control rods); supply centre; barracks; war factory; air field; strategy centre (required for the purchase of Tomahawks and upgrades, as well as endowed with the ability to coordinate the efforts of all units in pursuit of a single objective, bombardment, which improves firepower, search and destroy, which extends detection range for tracking down enemy forces and hold the line, which boosts armour for defence purposes); detention camp (spy capability, revealing all enemy units on the map over a short period); supply drop zone (the UN comes to the rescue every two minutes with a generous injection of capital, but the drop zone does not come cheap either in terms of outlay or power consumption).
Defensive structure: Patriot missiles (good against aircraft and land units with the added bonus that they can link up if placed near each other, combining firepower in a manner similar to that of the prism towers in Red Alert 2 and Yuri’s Revenge).
Superweapon: Particle cannon (a beam of concentrated light that rips through structures and units. To the delight of Beta testers, the developers modified the cannon so that it moves in a Z-shape, leaving the mark of the masked horseman burned into the soil behind it).
Upgrades: Laser missiles (25% more damage to Raptor and Stealth Fighter missiles); rocket pods (for Comanches); TOW missiles for Humvees.
Promotion Upgrades: Paradrop (of five, ten or twenty rangers as rank increases); A10 strike (one, two or three A10 Thunderbolts); emergency repair; fuel air bomb (a veritable sunburst of searing heat sedately released in a cloud of destruction); stealth fighters (available for one point from the outset).
Rangers are the staple of US armed forces, skilled at both capturing and clearing buildings, the latter with the aid of flash bang grenades, which are hurled at a distance. The drawback of Rangers being entrusted with ridding high rises and the like of enemy infestations is that they are less robust than their counterparts in the other sides (both vehicles).
Missile defenders are the US version of tank hunters with the added advantage of a laser-guided attack to enable more rapid firing of missiles.
Path finders are eagle-eyed snipers spotting hidden enemies and remaining completely invisible whilst motionless due to their camoflage.
Colonel Burton, hero unit of the land of apple pie and undisputed winner of the annual Arnold Schwarzenegger lookalike competition, proves that he is not brawn to the exclusion of any semblance of grey matter with his skills in blowing up anything that moves, or even does not move depending on what mood he happens to be in. He can plant C4 unseen on anything from tanks to garrisoned minarets and employ either a timed fuse or an on command detonation of all charges. If you enjoy pyrotechnics and the Schadenfreude of reducing an Overlord to a burnt out hulk, you urgently need to make this commando’s acquaintance.
The USA’s vehicles may all be upgraded by the addition of either battle or spy drones. The former perform a dual function as an additional machine gun floating above the host tank and as repair drone when the attack has been successfully staved off, whilst the latter circle passively, extending the tank’s field of vision.
The ambulance can pick up a maximum of three casualties and patch them up for return to battle and knows no rivals in the cleaning up stakes, purging bases of the after-effects of radiation and toxins.
The Crusader tank is at the bottom of the US technical pile, less resilient to onslaught than the Battlemaster or the GLA Scorpion, followed by the Humvee, a less pricey yet remarkably formidable asset to the army, especially when loaded with five missile defenders or rangers and upgraded with TOWs. Judicious use of the Humvee in the early stages of a game can substantially hasten victory, although its driver exudes such gung-ho optimism from every pore that it sometimes comes as a blessed relief when he is sent to the Great Jeep Factory in the Sky.
The Tomahawk launches salvoes of Cruise missiles from long range and as such is invaluable when it comes to eradicating enemy defences, although it is even more lightly armoured than the Inferno, rendering it extremely vulnerable. Like their Chinese equivalents, Tomahawks are at their deadliest in packs.
The Paladin, the only American tank worth its rivets, has to be earned in the same way as the nuke cannon and the scud launcher. Alongside its firepower, its speciality lies in the use of lasers for optimum targeting.
Apart from aesthetic qualities of a breed that renders the term „cool” woefully inadequate, Comanche helicopters, particularly when fitted with rockets, spit death from the heavens. Gattlings and Quad cannons quickly send them spiralling downwards in an uncontrollable descent, so that they hunt best in swarms and are well adapted for lightning raids into undefended bases.
Raptors are the all-rounders of the US airfleet, the bane of Chinooks, Comanches and inbound MIGs as well as ground targets.
The Aurora supersonic bomber by contrast is the true pride of the airforce, penetrating enemy territory with such mind-boggling speed that it is immune to enemy fire, although, once it has dropped its payload, it slows down by half and loses its imperviousness to attack.
The Stealth fighter’s radar cloaking makes it a slippery customer for the enemy to fire at and is therefore one of the best weapons in eliminating defences.
The GLA (Global Liberation Army) may be the bargain basement revolutionaries of the world, the coalition of the downtrodden and the oppressed too poor to muster an airforce, but they more than make up for the curse of low-tech with single-minded dedication, selflessness, bravery with a tinge of showmanship („Our courage will be seen by all”) and the sheer ingenuity of being dependent on their wits, scavenging the wreckage of vehicles to harvest cash and upgrade their weapons. The rag tag and bobtail army is supported by peasant workers who may be illiterate and barefooted (constantly pestering their general for a pair of shoes), but the sweat of their brows creates magnificent palaces and respect-inducing defences alike. The GLA’s strength lies in stealth and speed, with tunnel networks allowing for the virtually instantaneous deployment of forces at strategic points on the map as well as in making large quantities of money when correctly used. The dispossessed and disgruntled freedom fighters may suffer from a paranoid siege mentality („Get them before they get us!” being one of their battle cries), but this is surely the byproduct of economic underdevelopment. The fact that capitalism has kept labour costs artificially low works to their advantage, as five GLA workers can be hired to schlepp supplies or swing their pick axes on the buliding site for the price of a single construction dozer. However, life is also cheap in the harsh reality of the developing world and workers are easily made martyrs beneath wheels and caterpillar tracks. Perhaps because they hail from villages that have not known the benefits of proper sanitation or electricity, the GLA does not require power plants, enabling its fanatics to proceed immediately to the more serious business of hoarding cash.
The GLA fighters have a shabby dignity about them with their contempt for their own mortality and their proud martial spirit, a sense of pathos engendered by the announcement of a unit’s demise: „A warrior has fallen”.
„My horse was faster” their drivers declare disdainfully about the battered tanks that are little more than scrap metal and the GLA army is not designed for a war of attrition, a head to head against vast numbers of Overlords or Paladins so much as for hit and run harrassment, frantic skirmishes and hasty retreats: they are masters of guerilla warfare and the very expendability of their units is compensated for by their inexpensiveness.
Anyone who harbours even the slightest sympathy for the underdog will find this side appealing and, once resource maximising talents have developed, satisfying and effective.
Structures: Command Centre (deployment of anthrax bomb); supply depot; barracks; arms dealer; palace (may be garrisoned by GLA rebels, RPG troopers and Jarmen Kell thereby thwarting enemy capture attempts); black market (a veritable oasis of prosperity amidst a parched supply landscape, as well as a source of upgrades); tunnel networks (armed with a small defensive gun and designed to hold up to ten units, which may be sent into the fray instantly at any connecting exit).
Defensive Structure: Stinger site (excellent against air attacks and vehicles, weak against infantry); demo traps (barrels of high explosive, they can be fitted with proximity fuses or detonated on command; although they can be detected on approach, enemies frequently overlook them to their considerable cost).
Upgrades: Camoflage (rebels are hidden from enemy view when not moving or shooting); radar van range extension; armour piercing bullets; rocket buggy damage (extra 25%); junk repair; arm the mob (handing out AK47’s free to the crowds); anthrax beta (to make the war waged even dirtier than before); toxin shells; Scorpion rockets.
Promotion upgrades: Anthrax bomb (infect the enemy base poisoning all troops); rebel ambush (4, 8 or 16 rebels materialise in the designated zone and are invisible until they get up to their mischief); emergency repair; cash bonus (a percentage of the value of every unit killed).
Omar Sharif never looked as convincing as the rebel in his desert gear, Peter O’Toole stand aside as well.
The terrorist, swathed in dynamite, is a suicide bomber fuelled on high octane vengeance.
The RPG trooper merrily shoots down aircraft and climbs aboard vehicles whose drivers Jarmen Kell has shot, taking them over for the cause of freedom.
Hidden whilst standing still the hijacker can steal any enemy vehicle, turning it against its original owners.
Fresh from a bad day on the Gaza Strip, the angry mob does not require much encouragement to lob Molotov cocktails at everything in sight or mow down the opposition with AK47s.
Jarmen Kell is the strong, silent type you would not like to buy second hand carpets from in a bazaar. His principle strength is stopping vehicles in their tracks by putting a bullet through the brain of their unfortunate drivers, leaving the seat free for hijackers or troopers to jump in, although he is also a dab hand at clearing the scene of infantry, concealing himself inside structures to cleanse the earth of infidels and exploiters who are not even aware of where the volley is coming from.
The Scorpion tank already looks like it is on its last legs almost as soon as it has been cobbled together, but appearances can be deceptive as it can give the Battlemaster a run for its money, especially en masse and packing rockets, which give it a real sting in the tail.
The radar van acts as the eyes of the GLA and can be strategically positioned for effect.
The toxin tractor squirts a jet of bright green effluent at buildings to vacate them of occupants when not spraying the ground liberally with substances banned under both weapons conventions and fertiliser regulations.
The Quad Cannon is the anti-air and infantry mincing counterpart of the Gattling tank. In common with the Scorpion, Marauder tank and Technical it can upgrade its weapon from spare parts salvaged from the twisted wreckage of broken units scattered over the battleground.
With its machine gunner poised in the back, the Technical is nifty even when transporting troops and meets its anti-infantry specs admirably.
The Marauder is the heavy duty tank of the GLA that can survive a real pounding, the expert refuse recycler motivated only by personal profit.
Cunning is the most appropriate epithet for the bomb truck as it can be disguised as any vehicle on the map, from a seemingly innocent civilian commuter to a haughty Overlord. High explosive or anthrax can be put on board as extras depending on the nature of the target. Enemies will not fire on it as it draws near and it uncloaks a split second before detonation, revealing its true nature to a triumphant cheer. A constant stream of bomb trucks can completely wear down and demoralise an enemy.
The rocket buggy, fastest of all GLA units, could not be overtaken by even the purest of Arabian thoroughbreds, although it is not as reliable as that noblest of steeds. „They will be humiliated!” it assures us as it manically negotiates the most inaccessible of pathways. Hard to hit whilst kept moving, the rocket buggy takes a few seconds to recharge after firing.
The Scud Launcher with its insinuating chuckle shares the strengths and weaknesses of the Nuke cannon as a dispenser of retribution.
As for tactics, although, dear readers, I have offered you a good few hints in the course of this review, I feel that it is best for you to explore the strategic possibilities of the game yourselves. After all, surely one of the privileges of the Beta tester is the right to cream all Newbies when they first venture into the school of hard knocks online.
Watch out, the Blade is back!