From the first time I played the first mission of the original Command and Conquer (aka Tiberian Dawn) I was hooked. Frank Klepacki’s Act On Instinct blasted out at me as my pixelated mini-gunners stormed a beachhead and routed a Nod position. I became addicted to the satisfying boom each tank made when it exploded or the pitiful scream infantry let out as they are gunned down.
This is war sanitised and made acceptable for any teenager; enough science-fiction to reassure the player it’s pretend-carnage, and enough reality to make the game feel immersive and believable. This is a game that hooks young minds and takes them to a strange place where solider fantasy and resource management skills collide, where a glowing green substance grants victory and the villain might just be the world’s first murderer.
Tiberian Dawn was a milestone in strategy gaming and the perfect combination of reality and fantasy; it was a game made for the sort of player who read Tom Clancy and watched Dr Who. When the Command and Conquer series first burst onto our screens, it was quickly apparent that I did not want to be playing anything else.
From the second you load up the game, Command and Conquer: Tiberian Dawn grabs you and takes you into its world. In a short introductory sequence, an unseen character is channel-hopping, switching between over-the-top soap operas, bizarre children shows and news broadcasts. All seems very familiar, but through the snippets of news and documentaries, the player is introduced to the world of the Tiberian saga.
The mysterious plant-like substance known as Tiberium is spreading across the world, leeching minerals from the soil and bringing them to the surface in crystal form. This has made mining for raw materials much easier but also unleashed a new global conflict. New power bases are rising, battling to control as much Tiberium as possible. The militaries of the West have combined to form the Global Defence Initiative (GDI), while the Brotherhood of Nod, a shadowy terrorist organisation led by the enigmatic Kane, is spreading dissent and chaos throughout the Third World.
Tiberian Dawn’s story is the perfect cover for a simple resource management and tactical system, and couldn’t be better suited for the player to quickly and easily get to grips with the gameplay. Each mission is a condensed version of the global conflict; two armies clash over a limited bounty and ultimately whoever possesses the most Tiberium will be victorious. The events come across as plausible in spite of the futuristic premise, mainly because the rest of the game is grounded in reality.
The vehicles are based on familiar designs, slow moving heavily armoured tanks, fast machine gun armed jeeps and buggies, supply plains and jump jets all ripped from press coverage of any modern war. There are a few outlandish exceptions, the stealth tank, the ion cannon, the mammoth tank and the obelisk of light, but the near future setting and the prohibitive cost of these weapons within the game make it all seem very realistic.
Realism is also served in the between battle sequences. Tiberian Dawn was one of the first games, if not the first game, to use video footage in cut scenes. You are briefed by a real human sitting behind a desk in a manner you assume is similar to how actual commanders are briefed before battle. Receiving your mission from a person, rather than a blocky mass of pixels whose dialogue is printed across the bottom of the screen, helps the player to believe they are participating in a real world conflict. When the player engages in battle the control system is simple and effective. A menu on one side provides you with all your building options illuminating the need to click on different buildings to see what they offer. The ability to hoop many units at once (this was also an innovation first offered by Tiberian Dawn) makes directing large forces across the battlefield easy.
The game is huge amounts of fun to play and I always get a small thrill of excitement as soon as the new tank or jeep rolls out of my war factory. Similarly new missions are an opportunity to discover what new units have been unlocked and to see how they can be incorporated into your strategy.
The two warring factions are distinct and require different playing styles. GDI units are powerful, slow and expensive, like most western powers they rely on technological superiority and small effective fighting forces. Nod units are plentiful and fast, relying on hit and run tactics and the diversity in their armies. This makes their moves difficult to predict, like any well-known terrorist organisation/freedom fighters.
On both sides, the missions get very difficult as you progress through the campaign and the player gets a huge sense of satisfaction from victory. The game does not have several difficult settings, it has only one: very hard. The plot is slowly drip-fed to the player and has several intriguing twists and turns.
The game has been criticised for relying too much on tank rushes as an easy means to victory, but I would argue that it is impossible to tank rush without grabbing early control of Tiberium. It is in securing access to this scarce resource that the real skill lies.