The strategy, the explosions, the FMV sequences, the ripping guitars, and the Kane-fueled cheese—they’re all back. The original 1995 game Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn and its 1996 prequel Red Alert have returned in today’s launch of the C&C: Remastered Collection on Windows 8/10 (Amazon, Steam, Origin). In good news, the package is right for the price: $20 gets you both original games, all of their expansion packs (one for C&C:TD, two for Red Alert), and each game’s console-exclusive content. The complete package has been aesthetically touched up for the sake of working on modern PCs.
I’ve spent the past week tinkering with Command & Conquer: Remastered Collection to break down exactly what to expect and how you should temper your real-time strategy expectations. Despite a few quality-of-life tweaks, the package is otherwise faithful to the originals—almost to a fault—while its compatibility with modern PCs is mostly good enough.
From 400p to 2160p, but not without issues
The package’s biggest selling point is a new coat of high-res paint. Every single asset and map element has been redrawn, and like other recent classic-game remaster projects, this one includes a handy “graphic-swap” button. By default, tap the space bar at any time during single-player modes to switch from the original 400p assets to a new, 2160p-optimized suite of units, buildings, and terrain. Here, enjoy an after-and-before gallery of both zoomed-in units and full battleground scenes.
Should you wish to admire the higher-res, 2D art in this new package, especially if you run at resolutions lower than 3140×2160, the combined development forces at Petroglyph Games (made up mostly of Westwood veterans) and Lemon Sky Studios have added a mouse-wheel zooming option. This also lets you tighten the view to match the game’s original, cramped perspective, as opposed to the much wider default view (apparently the same as the “C&C Gold” version from 1997).
Returning to the source material with a jump in resolution seems like the obvious move for an RTS remaster, especially for those seeking better unit visibility during manic eight-player skirmishes. But as polished as this new package looks, the visual overhaul comes with three issues, which range from nitpicks to legitimate concerns.
The first is an apparent reduction in color-specific visibility. Both flavors of the C&C:TD campaign (GDI, NOD) open with your enemies having largely similar unit colors to your own, and worse, their health bars aren’t different colors for each faction. Instead, they’re all colored based on how healthy each unit is (green for healthy, red for wounded), and the health bars’ coloration is very loud and obvious compared to the “gritty” color of the campaign’s desert, forest, and snow backdrops.
As it turns out, the original games’ blurrier, lower-res units pop better in terms of their specific coloration; it’s easier to tell which squad each mush of old-school pixels belongs to even when zoomed out, since it averages out to match the squad’s color, whereas you’ll need to zoom in to get a clear view of the newer, finer-painted units’ allegiances. Your opinion may vary on this, but if you see things the same way I do, you don’t get much recourse at launch. C&C:RC doesn’t include toggles to change those health bars’ colors to match the squads, which would severely help. Additionally, online multiplayer doesn’t support the series’ old-school, low-res graphics. You can only play online in high-res mode.
Sidebar gripes and a matter of taste
My second issue is with the newly designed sidebar. Just like in the original games, it sits flush on the right side of the screen, but this new interface splits all building options into tabs: buildings, troops, vehicles, and super weapons. Back in the day, all of those were split into two columns, so you could point your mouse over the menu and go back and forth between triggering new buildings and queueing new soldiers or vehicles.
Now, players face a new trade-off: you don’t have to click the “scroll down” buttons to expose more units, which is good, but you do have to tap a button to switch between each tab, which is bad. At today’s modern higher resolutions, the original interface could very well have been extended to show more units at once, which would have arguably been the best of both worlds. But Petroglyph and Lemon Sky have removed the old sidebar as an option altogether, as if destroyed by a GDI ion cannon. The only consolation at launch is a series of brand-new keyboard shortcuts to switch between these tabs. The community’s response to this announced change was mostly positive, so you may also appreciate it—especially since it resembles the interface of later C&C games—but I don’t personally think this is an improvement.
And my final nitpick about the new graphics is one of taste: the original games’ units never lent themselves to remarkable articulation or expansion. The before-and-after results from 2017’s StarCraft Remastered are more enticing because their original designs were already full of sci-fi and fantasy flourishes, including bold unit designs, ridiculous sizes, and colorful landscapes. The C&C series sticks mostly to boilerplate jets, tanks, bikes, and Humvees, all drawn against “realistic” backgrounds. Remaining faithful to this aesthetic was certainly the best call, but it didn’t leave C&C‘s remastering team much room to blow non-fans away with this update; Red Alert 2 remains a prettier 2D option, even with its 768p-maximum resolution and serious issues running in Windows 10.
In spite of these nitpicks, I prefer playing with C&C:RC‘s tasteful new graphics over the original pixel art—especially when everyone in an online skirmish picks bolder primary colors for their units, which helps quite a bit. And the C&C:RC package is careful to update its new units’ animation frames in appropriate fashion. They all include more frames of animation, but not significantly more, and interpolation is wisely applied to make sure the small soldiers and vehicles animate in a way that looks like badass GI Joe characters waging war, not silly little puppets.
Ladders, private matches, and cross-platform hoops
Returning to the “faithful, even to a fault” sales pitch: if either Petroglyph or Lemon Sky applied a significant unit-balancing update to this RTS classic, it’s not saying, and my testing thus far hasn’t revealed any reason to assume that debates over GDI versus Nod or Allies versus Soviets will be settled any time soon. To clarify, the collection puts C&C:TD and Red Alert into separate EXE silos, so you can’t pit factions from the first game against those of its prequel.
You’ll likely want to focus your online battling on the Red Alert side of the equation, since that game was built with superior unit balancing than its predecessor and includes more built-in Westwood-designed skirmish maps that range from 1v1 to eight-player free-for-all skirmishes. Both games include the similar-yet-asymmetric balance of two opposing factions, and each includes its own Elo-rated 1v1 ladder for matchmaking against strangers. (We could not test this sufficiently during the pre-launch period.)
Setting up skirmishes with friends, meanwhile, was a hit-or-miss proposition ahead of launch. Inviting friends through either Steam or Origin worked most of the time, though roughly one-third of the friend-only matches I tried loading resulted in some glitch, ranging from a mouse cursor disappearing to a match never starting to even a wild crash of visuals on both ends. For the majority of my private matches that loaded, they worked just fine—although in each of these cases, C&C:RC drops the ball on two crucial quality-of-life features: keeping lobbies together after a match ends and letting players cleanly surrender. Your only option is to rage-quit, which C&C:RC responds to by filling empty seats with AI players—which is admittedly welcome for matches containing up to eight players.
If you own the collection on Origin and want to play against Steam friends, or vice versa, you can’t send them direct session invites. Your only option is to host a publicly visible game, then tell your cross-platform friend to refresh the public “join” list as quickly as possible to take up any of your session’s open slots. C&C:RC does not support closed, password-protected lobbies at this time, which is a bummer. I’m happy a workaround is available at launch, at least, for cross-platform friends willing to jump through hoops, but it feels a little silly for 2020.
To round out the usual online questions: no, LAN support is not available at launch; Petroglyph says this is a casualty of quarantine issues changing the development team’s priorities, and the company has pledged to straighten this issue out at some point (but haven’t offered an estimate just yet). Yes, the single-player content works offline, so long as your client completes an every-30-days online check via either Steam or Origin. No, the game doesn’t include any DRM beyond what’s built in to both storefronts.
Custom-made content and mods work on both platforms, at least, and each ships with a nifty built-in map editor. Sharing such mod content is easier to do via Steam Workshop, since Origin doesn’t have an equivalent, so users of EA’s storefront will hilariously have to browse through the game’s Steam interface to access and download that content.
Nicely updated audio, acceptable FMVs
Original music and sound producer Frank Klepacki’s name has been broadcast frequently in the run-up to this launch, and for good reason: he went to the trouble of recovering the games’ original audio assets, which were downsampled because there wasn’t enough CD-ROM space. If you’d like to play these new versions with the original 22kHz monaural music and sound effects, you can still toggle those, but the higher fidelity applied to all sounds across the board is appreciated.
In terrific news, Klepacki appears to have paid particular attention to how the games sounded back in the day and has aimed to retain the original games’ intense, in-your-face tuning of frequencies, both for music and for the glut of newly recorded sound effects. Everything here sounds punchy and old-school, as opposed to a pleasant, sounds-swimming-together mix you might expect from modern game productions. (If you disagree, every single audio element’s volume can be individually tweaked.) As a fun bonus, a handful of classic songs has been newly recorded by Klepacki and an accompanying live band, complete with original samples and ’90s-style arrangements, and they absolutely shred. You can go into an in-game “jukebox” and pick exactly which songs you want to hear, which is a blast for picky music lovers.
C&C:RC also comes packed with every FMV sequence attached to both original games, along with video sequences that had previously been exclusive to the series’ console ports. Sadly, EA and Petroglyph were unable to recover any higher-res video beyond what shipped on the original games’ discs, although I appreciate that each video has been touched up with AI reconstruction techniques. Some of the segments look like garbage with this filter applied, but many look dramatically smoothed out. What’s more, beating every mission unlocks a ton of behind-the-scenes footage and green-screen video tests, which range from boring to remarkable. If you can’t get enough of Westwood’s original cinematics Director Joe Kucan as Kane, this part of the package will likely be worth the asking price alone.
The mainstream-friendly thrust of the C&C games’ campaigns remains intact, particularly with missions that emphasize don’t-think-just-rush sequences. Each campaign opens with players simply pointing and clicking a massive cast of units toward a few “kill all the things” goals, while later missions slowly reveal the series’ RTS heart of resource management and multi-pronged assaults. The series’ classic FMV sequences fit nicely with this approach, especially once iconic characters like Kane and Tanya show up to serve your 100-percent USRDA of cheese.
Let’s be honest: We like this side of EA
On the quality-of-life front, C&C:RC includes a slew of new control tweaks, including mouse button assignments and the option to queue vehicle and troop production. (Most of these, unlike the updated production sidebar, are wholly optional.) Private online skirmishes include their own QoL toggles, including customizable team assignments (yes, you can host a 1v7 match if you want), gameplay speed, an option to spawn discoverable, boost-filled crates, and choosing whether or not fog of war returns to zones once troops leave them. And now, C&C:TD includes the same number indicators on units that Red Alert added to indicate which keyboard-shortcut group they belong to (which you can set by holding Control and tapping a number).
But the devs’ teases about under-the-hood bug fixes aren’t necessarily clear, and they leave some dated issues intact, particularly unit pathfinding. Should you order your units to walk from a barracks to a bridge, you had better carefully guide their steps, or those dummies are going to walk through hazardous, Tiberium-soaked fields and emerge with a ton of health missing.
If you’re a fan of the core dated gameplay within C&C:TD or Red Alert, the QoL content spread across C&C:RC is for you: the vocal, 25-years-later contingent of Westwood’s RTS roots, who arguably favor the military stylings and ’90s-rock bombast of the series’ first two games over the insane balance and actions-per-minute madness of StarCraft or WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne. (Speaking of, credit where it’s due: EA has absolutely, unquestionably improved these two games with this new collection. Blizzard can’t say the same about W3, whose botched “Reforged” version is still missing major features that its community has been begging for.)
On the other hand, if you’re unsure whether you still have the stomach for the series’ roots, I wouldn’t blame you for dipping your toes into a freeware version of Red Alert, currently available as either a full install of the original game or a multiplayer-only fork, before shelling out for this one. But this is one of those occasions where EA has done the right thing and offered the community a full open source path to the games’ original code, should that compel you to pay for the package due to principle, as opposed to your RTS preferences. Really, so much of this package bucks Ars’ assumptions about EA as a modern game publisher: a return to a beloved franchise, built in part by its original staff, that has prioritized fan feedback and its hardest-core fans at whatever cost. That makes the collection’s launch-week issues a little easier to swallow.
To misquote Kane: today, the sun rises on something old, not new. But, hey, it’s a welcome sight.
Listing image by EA / Petroglyph