Even though Blizzard has dominated the genre with StarCraft II, Command & Conquer is still regarded as one of the quintessential real-time strategy games. The latest entry in the series has no subtitle or number: it's a reboot of sorts, and is being released on PC as a free-to-play title.
EA Victory Games, a studio set up specifically to work on the Command & Conquer series, has based its new game - which was originally a sequel to Generals - on DICE's Frostbite 2 engine. That means realistic lighting and physics, and buildings that topple and crumble in the chaos of battle. It looks good, but it does lack some of the colour and charm of previous games.
"At first we were attracted by Frostbite's visuals," says Tim Morton, senior development director. "But as we got into building our RTS we noticed a lot of emergent fringe benefits. One of those is the dynamic, physics-driven destruction. It brings a new level of realism."
So far it's revealed three factions, and each one suits a different play style. The European Union are the all-rounders: balanced and accessible, and with a focus on tanks. The Asian-Pacific Alliance are infantry specialists. The Global Liberation Army use guerilla warfare and espionage to take down enemies rather than brute force.
The mission we played, a simple two army skirmish, felt like classic Command & Conquer. Although it uses modern tech, all the series' trademark gameplay systems are intact: resource gathering, base building, and commanding large armies.
The free-to-play model is worrying, because few developers - even established ones - have managed to get it right. PlanetSide 2 is a recent example of a game that understands F2P, and makes a large amount of content available without spending a penny. Command & Conquer will have to try something similar, otherwise we could feel like we're missing out by not forking out.
Promisingly, units won't be for sale: just XP boosters and generals, who have different strengths and weaknesses. EA Victory says it's making a concerted effort to ensure the game isn't pay-to-win, including a matchmaking system that pairs you up with players who have similar unlocks.
"We've been very deliberate in designing our item strategy to avoid pay to win. If you want to have a temporary XP boost to level up more quickly, that's something you can buy."
We must admit, we'll miss the campaign. Early in its development, back when it was Generals 2, BioWare was said to be working on a story, but that seems to have been dropped in favour of multiplayer. Command & Conquer's campy, overblown stories were a big part of its appeal, so it'll be interesting to see how it fares without it.
"We're starting with multiplayer, and we're treating that as the proving ground for the gameplay balance and the mechanics that we've had to build from the ground up in the Frostbite engine. But ultimately we also want to explore mini campaigns, so we will get back to some of the things that past Command & Conquers offered."
"We've gone back to Generals, which came out almost ten years ago now, and we've implemented some of the same units, but also added new ones. Over time we're going to add more factions, and we're going to revisit the Tiberium and Red Alert universes."
EA Victory has made it clear that it wants to make Command & Conquer suitable for the eSports market, which has become huge business - especially in Korea. It's unlikely it'll dethrone StarCraft, but with fun, balanced combat and a fair free-to-play structure, they could build up a large and loyal fan base.
The game is still in alpha, so it'll be a while before we get a glimpse of the bigger picture, but our brief hands-on showed a lot of promise.
C&C enters closed beta in spring, and wil be released by the end of the year.