The name Command & Conquer is up there with Doom as synonymous with the 90s explosion of PC gaming. It’s a rich nugget of nostalgia for veteran gamers, a resource-packed crystal sprouting from the dead earth under a Tiberian Sun. From the soundbites ('Cha-CHING') to the surprisingly-nuanced stories of global conspiracy and resource wars, and even those unforgettably crummy cut-scenes (occasionally starring the great Tim Curry and, errr, Randy Couture), Command & Conquer is a crucial piece of gaming history — gone but never forgotten.
There is, however, one chapter of Command & Conquer’s history that’s more easily overlooked. Command & Conquer Renegade was a 2005 game that boldly, though somewhat awkwardly, married real-time strategy concepts with first-person shooter mechanics. It was a strange old game but not without merits, particularly in the multiplayer — an experimental concoction of resource-gathering, unit-building and base-storming, all from the intimacy of a firstperson view.
For a small community of devoted modders, Renegade lives on as the subject of enormous curiosity and experimentation. Since the game’s release, the modding team at W3D Hub has been testing the possibilities of its robust W3D Engine, using it to recreate beloved C&C titles like Red Alert, Tiberian Sun, and (in-progress) Red Alert 2 in first-person form. The attention to detail is incredible, with all the units, iconic soundtracks, and even Tanya’s famous catchphrases making it into these painstakingly-crafted standalone mods.
One member of this community, Ben Leech (currently a QA Technician at Creative Assembly), has been active since the early days of Renegade modding and, as we pass the game’s 15th birthday, he’s still as committed as ever. As with many, his fondness for Renegade stems from a love of the main C&C series. “The franchise has been dormant for a few years now, but in its glory days it really captured my imagination,” says Leech. “Good and evil were never pitched clearly and I loved how, unlike Starcraft, I didn’t have to think about my build order, but just say ‘I’ll go with this tactic now’ and have some fun with it.”
That freewheeling approach carries over into the Renegade mods, Red Alert: A Path Beyond and Tiberian Sun Reborn. You control infantry by default (though can unlock countless specialised units, as well as heroes like Tanya and Volkov when you gather enough resources), and can jump into all the game’s vehicles controlling any character.
“That means Tanya can drive a Chrono Tank, teleport into the enemy base, blow stuff up using her C4, and teleport back out again,” Leech explains. “You also face dilemmas about whether to use a medium tank with a mechanic, for example, or artillery because it’s better against buildings, stuff like that”. So those RTS-like decisions about combining units are still there, except instead of omnipotently controlling things from above with a little arrow, you’re down there on the ground, traversing the very maps you used to observe from high above.
Between 2003 and 2006, the Renegade modding community was large enough that the Tiberian Sun Reborn and Red Alert: A Path Beyond mods had separate teams, and what Leech calls “a heated rivalry.” The two teams had different philosophies: the Red Alert lot were initially committed to what they amusingly dubbed “RAlistic RAlism”, aiming to emulate the original game as an FPS as zealously as possible, while the Tiberian Sun team was more experimental with its units and mechanics, simply repurposing many of Renegade’s original maps and then using them to venture beyond the boundaries of Command & Conquer canon. The teams banded together in 2006 when the community started diminishing, but like many good bands split up again within a year due to 'creative disagreements'. Five years later, when most of the Tiberian Sun team left to work on Renegade X in 2011 (more on which later), they handed the reins of the Tiberian Sun project to Leech and the Path Beyond crew, who reeled in the more eccentric elements while holding onto the more progressive mechanics.
So where Path Beyond allows for unlimited heroes (yep, multiple Tanya clones vs. multiple Volkov clones), for example, in TS Reborn each team can only have one - Ghost Stalker for GDI and Cyborg Commando for NOD. As anyone who’s played Tiberian Sun will remember, the game is more audacious than Red Alert with its units, which include NOD’s arachnid-legged Cyborg Reapers, Mutant Hijackers and Mobile Stealth Generators, each with unique skills and weaponry equivalent to their RTS counterparts. Harvest enough of that sweet, sweet Tiberium, and you can even buy the formidable Mammoth MK2 - an AT-AT-style walker with dual railguns, SAM launcher and minigun. Instead of harvesting ore in TS Reborn, as you do in Red Alert, you harvest the very different green and blue Tiberium, which is toxic to ordinary infantry but heals cyborgs and NOD toxin soldiers — a nice twist that’s in-keeping with the original game. It’s all instantly identifiable to C&C fans, because everything is recreated with loving accuracy.
I decided to enter the fray, downloading the dedicated launcher for Renegade mods, W3D Hub Launcher, which Leech humbly describes as “Battle.net-style, but obviously not nearly as good-looking.” Here you can download the mods (you don’t need the original Renegade), get automatic updates, and look for matches in the server browser. At this point, the low number of players means that game nights are more or less confined to Fridays, though the infrastructure is there to accommodate a much larger player base. “It’s a very clan-friendly game,” says Leech. “We have player stat tracking, achievements, medals, the works… We just need the people.”
In the multiplayer, both teams’ bases contains four key buildings (barracks, power plant, refinery, war factory) inside each of which is an MCT terminal that you need to destroy. The bases are surrounded by defensive structures, and have an automated harvester vehicle for raking in resources (destroy it, and you cut off the enemy supply line). Doing a straightforward rush as an infantryman at the enemy base is more or less impossible, as I savagely learned when an enemy Tesla Coil zapped me to ash.
Stealth is an option, so in TS Reborn you can use a thief to sneak into enemy resource structures without being spotted by radar, then steal their money and wire it back to your team. Alternatively, you could use artillery, tanks and other heavy vehicles to blast through the enemy defences and go for an assault, or even attempt a subterranean ambush using the underground APC, carrying up to five of your teammates deep into enemy territory.
The combinations are plentiful, and you’re free to fool around with any of the other units to see which strategies stick. Want to see how a grenadier in a lightning-blasting tesla tank functions as a support unit? Go for it. A NOD chameleon spy in a stealth tank? Sounds like a perfect match. Like the original C&Cs, these mods turn battles into multi-pronged playgrounds of strategic experimentation of the sort that you don’t see in today’s mono-focused multiplayer shooters. You can go off on a covert mission while battle rages on around you, or you can buy a harvester truck, head out into the fields, and rake in resources: sort of like Stardew Valley, except enveloped by armageddon and without a cow in sight.
Not that there was much harvesting going on when I jumped into a game of A Path Beyond. Understandable really, I thought to myself, while buying an Abrams tank, making my avatar a shotgun-toting Sergeant, and then rolling into battle to one of Frank Klepacki’s original synthy tracks.
The authentic soundtracks imbue these mods with a sense of nostalgia and momentum, eschewing realism in favour of RAlism: you feel much more like you’re in a C&C simulation than a battle simulation, and that's the goal. A teammate and I barraged a Soviet flame tower on the western side of the enemy base, creating a gap for our infantry to rush through. Buildings can be destroyed by artillery from the outside, but it’s more effective to use ground troops to take out a given building’s MCT terminal, which is where Tanya — a trio of them, to be exact — came into play. Our Tanya replicants rushed in with their Colt.45s and C4, cackling and bombing the shit out of enemy MCTs in each of the buildings (Tanya’s trademark soundbites as she plants C4 are broadcast globally on the server, making everyone aware that she’s up to her usual mischief). As they did this I picked off enemy engineers blindly rushing in to disarm the explosives. These weren’t exactly insta-kills, as the high HP counts (on account of the large maps) meant that there was a lot of frantic running, gunning and bouncing around the confined interior spaces before the enemy capitulated.
Nonetheless, this strategy led to glorious victory. Mission Accomplished.
Some of the maps are uncompromisingly huge, but largely faithful to the originals. Keep Off the Grass, for example, is a Red Alert classic that’s been incisively recreated, tweaked only by adding an underground tunnel network to accommodate stealthier players. Other classic recreations include Coastal Influence and the Soviet Mission 2, Guard Duty. Map elevation didn’t really exist in the olden days of Red Alert, so W3D Hub took some artistic liberties with making the terrain more knobbly and hilly. It’s a practical kind of purism, taking into account the fact that a map for a 1996 RTS will not translate directly to a 2002 FPS being modded to fit with 2017 gaming standards.
Something that’s always fascinated me about gaming communities, particularly on PC, is their frequent obsession with ostensibly outdated things, and their ability to get seemingly-endless mileage out of them. I ask why Leech and his fellow modders at W3D Hub have kept working with the W3D Engine all this time, when they surely could have moved onto more recent software. Leech tells me that part of the fun in keeping at an old engine is in the new discoveries and surprises it throws up as you learn it. “W3D has a really powerful scripting system, and we’ve been able to upgrade the way the engine handles graphics and the way it interacts with different objects within it. We’ve added the ability to have submarines, for example, off the back of the scripting engine”.
Such eureka moments and breakthroughs went on for years. In 2009, the team uncovered a way to load custom shaders, working on the mapping and distortion maps to improve the graphics. They’ve also since added sprinting, auto-healing when you stay out of the firing line for long enough, and are currently working on an accuracy mechanic whereby your aim drops if you shoot on the move.
These things are easy to take for granted today, but retrofitting them into an engine designed for games before any of these conveniences existed is a challenge, and one that W3D Hub relish. Then there is that little matter of time. “The possibility of moving onto a new engine has been a big discussion point internally, but a lot of it comes down to the fact that we’re not getting any younger. A lot of us have full-time jobs and families, so we just don’t have time to learn a whole new pipeline, a whole new engine, and essentially create a whole new game”.
That job was taken on by Totem Arts, a group of modders who broke away from Tiberian Sun Reborn in 2011 to work on Renegade-X, a ground-up remake of C&C Renegade in Unreal Engine 3. The same broad rules apply, and some of the classic Renegade touches such as rather massive bullet-absorbent health bars are accounted for, but it’s all overlaid with the gloss of an engine that, particularly for contemporary gamers, makes it a more palatable option. W3D Hub seems to accept that and has been co-operating with the ‘X’ team to work towards the common goal of keeping the C&C RTS/FPS crossover formula alive. “We’ve been handing over some assets to them, and are in talks to make a dedicated Tiberian Sun mode for it,” says Leech.
Amidst all of this fan activity the most unlikely ally for the project emerged as Electronic Arts, the IP owner and publisher of the original games, who supported it at every opportunity. When W3D Hub asked EA to make the robust Battle for Middle Earth development SDK compatible with Renegade, the publisher did it. When they asked for EA’s permission to make the mods standalone, it was granted. “Back when Aaron 'Apoc' Kaufman was C&C community manager at EA, we got interviewed on the official C&C site and they’d even invite a lot of community heads out to LA for summits,” Leech recalls.
Which is at the very least a refreshing alternative to the dominant narrative that EA ran the series into the ground. While the publisher unquestionably made a mess of the aborted C&C: Generals 2 — which went from being a return to the series’ roots, to a free-to-play game, to cancelled — there were also plenty of EA people who loved the franchise, and were determined to nurture and support the community’s love for it. The eventual breakdown in communications only came with the breakdown of the series as a whole. “There were a lot of good people working for them that did genuinely have time for the little guys," says Leech. "But without a C&C game around, there isn’t a team to contact anymore.”
He acknowledges that W3D Hub are working with an arcane toolbox, and that if the Renegade’s unique RTS/FPS fusion formula is to have a future, it probably lies with more modern engines. Not that work is ceasing for W3D Hub. For them, a few dozen people playing on those Friday nights is all the incentive they need to keep going. Red Alert 2 is next up for the Renegade makeover, and anyone who’s played the eccentric strategy game will know to expect a bizarre firstperson experience.
“What I loved about Red Alert 2 was that it took the units and went crazy in terms of what was possible - tanks that can disguise themselves as trees, a tank that changes its gun based on what infantry is inside, helicopters that deploy into artillery… We’re bringing all that over to Renegade,” says Leech. “It’ll enable all the power fantasies of Red Alert 2 players.”
The RA2 project was started in the early days of Renegade modding, but the lack of expertise with the W3D engine at the time meant that the project stalled and restarted several times. “I started the RA2 project as a 15-year-old guy who had no idea how to make games or mods,” says Leech. “It’s gotten to the point where I feel that I owe this game to our community, so I’m going to keep making it until it comes right.”
The community for such projects may be dwindling yet work continues as ceaselessly as C&C's harvester trucks, rolling back and forth as war rages around them — even when their home base lies largely in ruins. “We feel it’s our duty to keep it alive now that it’s in kind of a dormant state,” says Leech. The once-proud Command & Conquer name is fading but these crack teams remain committed to keeping it alive, recalling and reimagining its glory days with a first-person twist that brings it all to life in a new way. Times are hard, of course they are. But some old soldiers just won't quit.