The grandfather of the real-time strategy genre is back, improved and modernised while retaining everything that made it great – and in the process, delivering a game that still manages to hold up against the best in the business. In fact, Command and Conquer Remastered is such an exceptional piece of work, I’m almost in awe of the effort. Consisting of the original game and the Red Alert sequel along with all expansions, everything has been expertly remastered to work flawlessly on modern PCs while looking great on today’s displays, but this is a remastering effort that goes beyond the superficial: subtle but well-judged tweaks are made to the user interface and gameplay too and the pay-off is massive.
It’s easy to forget that despite relatively simplistic visuals – judged by modern day standards, at least – Command and Conquer was doing a lot of work for PCs back in 1995. It rendered a lot of animated sprites on top of expansive, destructible environments. Meanwhile, the full-motion video sequences for inter-mission campaign briefings were also state-of-the-art for the day. However, this was a game held back by the technology of the era. In-game artwork was of a low resolution, animation was limited, and it was often difficult to identify individual units – especially the similar-looking infantry. The remaster’s solution here is straightforward enough: artwork is redrawn at a much higher resolution, extra frames of animation are added and general movement is improved. There’s a careful, but effective approach to the remastering here and it’s deployed on every aspect of unit and environmental art.
It’s not just about the graphics either as the audio is also revamped – the low sample rates of the original audio are drastically improved, so gunshots, explosions, and unit responses sound clear and not as ‘crunchy’ as they did back in the day. On top of this, the game’s soundtrack is freshened up with new versions of the songs by series composer Frank Kelpacki joined by his band the Tiberian Sons. The remade songs are a delight, hitting the same beats and sounds of the original while also bringing new notes to the table.
Similar to the Halo Anniversary remasters, players can switch between old and new art with a single press of a mappable button and even the attention to detail here is impressive. It’s not an immediate, jarring cut, but rather a linear blend between the old and new art styles, giving the impression of defocusing or refocusing the image. It’s here where you can appreciate how the developers have stayed true to the original style of the artwork – nothing looks radically different, just better, a great fit for today’s displays. This level of resolution definitely helps in gameplay, where telling apart different pieces of terrain or different infantry units is much easier to do at a glance, with the silhouettes and detail in the sprites making the game much more readable.
Command and Conquer’s almost legendary full-motion video sequences have also been remastered with some interesting improvements: AI upscaling is used to boost detail, colour depth is massively improved, while the scanline effect of the original is gone. In general, I think it looks pretty great, but the AI upscaling’s effectiveness depends on the content. Character close-ups tend to benefit most from the process as there is much more information for the AI scaler to work with. The offline rendered CGI videos showing combat or machines and troops moving from afar tend to fare worse, with only marginal improvements. Perhaps the developers could implement an optional scanline filter for these offline rendered cinematics to make them look like low-tech filmed footage in the field instead of blown up low resolution upscales?
On top of remastering the artwork, the extra resolution and screen-space real estate are actively used to make the game more playable. Instead of having multiple zoom modes due to the low resolution of the original game, the satellite map now has enough resolution to show the entire playing field in lavish detail without zooming. In the old game, the low resolution of the screen also made it necessary to actively click to scroll up and down the user interface to produce units and buildings from various production places: like the barracks, air pads, and factories. It was cumbersome to try to multi-task while producing units, but in the remaster, each production type has its own tab that is hotkeyed, where you can easily produce multiple units or structures simultaneously.
This is where the remaster’s gameplay improvements come into focus. Command and Conquer was one of the first RTS games to hit the market, so it has some historical baggage – such as the inability to queue up unit production. Each time you want to build a unit, you have to click on it on the UI. If you try to build a second unit while the first one is building, the game tells you to wait – introducing needless friction. The remaster allows you to queue units from multiple production types at the same time, and just this small tweak feels amazing by comparison. There are also key improvement in unit selection too: simple changes that somehow manage to make a mid-90s RTS feel just as intuitive to play as a modern equivalent.
Behind all of these user interface improvements are a variety of options for customisation. Hot keys are available for pretty much everything you could ask for, and all of them can be changed to your preference. Alongside this, there are tweaks to support various resolutions, plus the game easily scales to 120 frames per second or higher (21:9 ultrawide support does seem to be bugged right now) and as you might imagine, this does not unduly burden a modern CPU. Even if the developer doesn’t return to the code, user mods are directly supported right now and the remastering team has even released the source code for the remaster – a remarkably generous and forward-looking move by the remastering team and Electronic Arts.
Overall, Command and Conquer Remastered is one of the best modernisation efforts I have ever seen. It is faithful to the original where it matters in terms of the core gameplay and audio-visual design, but it enhances the definition and usability to bring the game bang up to date. The team has achieved something here which stands up on its own merits in the here and now, without relying upon nostalgia to paper over the cracks you might expect from playing a 25-year-old game. Command and Conquer Remastered plays, looks, and sounds great – and I highly recommend buying it.