When you're about to revive an old classic, it probably helps if one of your big rivals does it just before you. What's more, when your respected rival drops the ball so spectacularly that it blows up in their face, you're given a fairly solid blueprint in terms of how not to release your own remake or remaster. And so it went with the curious case of Warcraft III: Reforged, the much-anticipated return of a genre titan that stumbled right out the gate due to a series of errors of judgement by the normally safe hands at Blizzard Entertainment. Command & Conquer Remastered Collection, however, does not stumble at all, not even for a second.
I'll keep this light on history, but it can't be ignored that Command & Conquer is one of if not the definitive real-time strategy series. Built on the back of the innovations first seen in Dune II, back in 1995 Westwood Studios crafted the first C&C (it would also be known as Tiberian Dawn), and it was nothing short of revolutionary. It was born around the time that PC gaming was leaving behind the tight and restrictive confines of floppy disk storage for the relative spacious luxury of CD-ROMs. Developers used the extra space for improved audio, to add fresh-looking CGI graphics, and, for a time at least, full-motion video cutscenes. At the forefront of this blending of media was Westwood Studios.
However, just because something was innovative in the 1990s doesn't make it good in 2020, and not everyone who picks up this RTS double-bill will have played the originals and will care all too much about its legacy - although I imagine the vast majority of people who do will have a relationship with one or both games, as was the case for me.
C&CRC, as I will affectionately refer to it from now on, boasts a wealth of content. Both games have twin campaigns and there are also three expansions thrown in for good measure (including some console content that's on PC for the first time). We're talking about hours and hours of pointing and clicking, so on that front, considering the game's budget pricing, you're getting extremely good value for money. Not all the missions are brilliant, but generally speaking, both games retain a distinctive challenge even to this day.
A big part of that distinctive challenge comes from the precision required of you during combat. In some RTS games you can just send a mob over and they'll automatically smash into any enemies they encounter en route, but C&CRC retains the originals' fussiness and you still have to orchestrate your forces with unerring specificity or they'll idle themselves to death in the face of enemy fire. It's a quirk, sure, but the challenge in both games is built around this hands-on approach, and I suspect that had they implemented more advanced AI for your troops, the campaign missions would have become unbalanced.
A distant memory tells me that I got stuck in the Red Alert campaign and never finished it, and I can very well believe that as there are some punishing missions in there. Thankfully, you can save your progress mid-level and return to that point upon death (or when you do something irretrievably stupid, like the one time I accidentally sold my main base and had to go back because I couldn't make another), and some frustrations are mitigated that way, but there are also moments where you have to keep a certain unit alive, and the one-hit-kill attack dogs in Red Alert had me complaining loudly every time they pounced on Tanya. It doesn't help that the fog of war is relatively tight around your units, so progression through certain levels can feel very much like trial and error at times.
There are other minor flaws in there, cracks that have revealed themselves over the years, such as the occasionally rotten pathfinding and a control scheme that felt archaic, at least at first. Luckily, there are plenty of customisation options and you can, for example, switch which mouse button with which you direct your units. There's no escaping the fact that both Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert are more than two decades old, but Petroglyph, a team made up former Westwood Studios devs, has made just the right amount of optional tweaks to keep it both true to the original and accessible to newcomers or older generals coming out of retirement for one last hurrah.
In terms of the visuals, it's hard to fault. Lemon Sky, a studio with a track record in this department, has rebuilt the art assets from scratch. The results are impressive, with the new-look visuals suitably retro but at the same time pleasingly-detailed. The new style is so authentic-feeling that sometimes it's like you're looking at the graphics of old, but then simply tapping Space reveals the original visuals in all their pixelated glory and you're reminded of what a good job has been done. Being able to zoom is another welcome modernisation. We've come along way since 1995, and that extends to the UI design, which is cleaner between battles and more accessible in-game via a redesigned sidebar that offers even more modern touches.
The in-game animations look great, with retro-styled explosions, and everything looks just how you remember it. On the other hand, the age of the CGI cutscenes and FMV sequences is harder to hide. Some restoration has been done on the cutscenes, but none of their b-movie charm has been lost in the upscaling process. I'm mostly just glad that they didn't do anything silly like refilm the scenes with new actors. In many respects, C&C's legacy is defined by its approach to storytelling, and the bad accents, the questionable costumes, and the way video and CGI are blended with gameplay to create a unique spectacle only enhances its appeal.
Another major positive in this collection is the soundtrack, which has also been given the remaster treatment. Frank Klepacki's soundtrack really does stand the test of time and it wasn't long before I was once again tapping my toe to crunching guitar riffs and marching into war. There's even a jukebox feature that lets you take greater control over your auditory experience.
And that's not everything. There's a level editor for those who want to build their own creations, and naturally, there's a skirmish mode where you can battle against the AI and more easily access the width and breadth of the game's units (in my case, that meant lots of lovely tesla coils). On top of the extensive solo campaigns, there's also matchmaking, although we haven't had a chance to try that just yet. There's even full mod support, and after watching Blizzard try and take some sort of control over the creative output of players on Warcraft III, Petroglyph and EA decided to just release the source code for both games and let modders do whatever they want with it.
C&CRC looks great, sounds great, and fans can even dig into the history of the series with behind-the-scenes footage and bonus features that unlock as you move through the game's various missions. Whether you're playing through the war between the fictitious GDI and Kane's Brotherhood of Nod in Tiberian Dawn, or exploring time travel with Albert Einstein in Red Alert's alternative history, it's clear that making Command & Conquer Remastered Collection has been a labour of love for all involved. The game underneath all these new trimmings might be showing its age in certain unavoidable areas, but overall the experience still holds up and it comes with pretty much everything that a C&C fan could possibly want considering the price. Take note, Blizzard: this is how you remaster a strategy classic.