In the opening moments of the original Command & Conquer, your CO tells you (in glorious 1990’s FMV, of course) that there is no time to discuss the details, but that you really, really need to land on this beach and take out the forces of Nod.
From there, the mission proper begins. Your landing craft pull up to the shoreline, your first wave of infantry pour onto the beach. Your support gunboats exchange fire with turrets just down the shoreline. And over it all, the pounding soundtrack mixes with the sounds of gunfire and screams.
As you establish your initial beachhead, more and more reinforcements start to arrive by hoverboat to shore up your initial landing. No matter how badly you screw up, there is almost no way to lose this initial mission. Of course, at the time that wasn’t really clear – what was clear is that you had a growing army of feisty minigunners ready to take out the forces of evil.
It’s not exactly fast-paced, but the driving beat and peripheral action drives home the point – this is war, and it’s gonna be good.
Numerous Shades of Grey
Jump forward some twenty years or so, and tt was somewhere around the third or fourth restart of the Crash Site mission that I sat back, looked at the screen in front of me, and really had to ask myself if I was having a good time.
The answer was no.
I had been on the fence about purchasing Gray Goo for a few weeks. I knew the pedigree of the creators, and I was eager for something to draw me back into the world of RTSes. A recommendation from a friend finally pushed me over the edge, with the words “it’s very Command & Conquer” being what I really needed to hear.
And in many ways, he was right.
The pacing was slower, there was just one resource to be gathered, and the scale felt more focused – no multi-front battles involving 900 different units. Really, they were exactly the kinds of things I was looking for in a real-time strategy game.
So why, then, was I having such a hard time enjoying myself?
As I made my way through Crash Site again, staring at the beautifully rendered dull gray landscape with my dull gray buildings and my army of dull gray units, the answer was painfully clear: somebody had plucked the soul right out of this game.
Hit The Ground Running
Command & Conquer was not the first real-time strategy game every published, but by almost any measure it was certainly the first to hit big.
It not hard to see why – the game grabs you from the outset with an exuberance that can’t be denied. Sure, the cut performances in the cut scenes are cheesy whether it’s 1995 or 2015, but they are done without the slightest trace of irony. The graphics are big, inviting, and, most importantly, clear. The Hand of Nod is unmistakable, the flame tank is a lumbering wad of death while the Mammoth Tank is clearly all business. Infantry units look like, well, infantry. It’s easy at a glance to know exactly who is who and what is happening to them, and that brings you down from the god-like vantage point of the general to feeling like you are a true part of the battle.
In Gray Goo, there is a terrible detachment that seems to linger over everything. The first mission begins with what are some unquestionably lovely cinematics, replete with a strange alien race sporting a mishmash of several different accents. But when the mission itself starts, the player is dumped to a quiet (albeit lush) landscape with a single command center.
From that point, it’s a series of single-choice options to proceed forward. Build a refinery. Build a factory. Build some infantry. Walk up the road to the first pre-defined encounter. Build some more infantry. Move on to the next scripted encounter to teach you about cover. Repeat until mission complete.
As a tutorial, it is mildly useful. As a welcome to the game, it is a bit of a drag. As someone who was hoping for the glory days of C&C, it is a very worrying sign.
Of course, the bar for me was set pretty high.
When I think of the last RTS game that I truly loved, I have to jump all the way back to the turn of the century. The original Red Alert was an outgrowth of the original Command & Conquer, and was certainly a strong game in its own right. But it’s sequel, Red Alert 2, took things to a very different place.
Red Alert 2 starts by going big and never looking back. The Soviets have a secret weapon, and they are launching an all-out attack on the Allies. There is no time to think about a coordinated defense – it’s all about survival at this point. The FMV scenes lay out the scenario with actors who not only chew the scenery, but do it with gusto. This is a game that knows exactly how seriously to take itself.
Hearkening back to its predecessor, RA2‘s first mission begins with gunboats and a shoreline. Except this time the gunboats are the enemy, the shoreline is Ellis Island, and your meager forces are doing their best to protect the Statue of Liberty. The player joins the scene with Tanya, your commando unit, which functions as a one-woman whirlwind of destruction. You start by swimming out to the gunboats and blowing them to hell, then rallying the troops by the statue as the next wave of Soviet paratroopers comes flying in. Missiles sail across the sky, police cars speed by through the streets, and Allied jets zoom around providing support where they can.
That’s how you start a mission.
Again, it would be very difficult for a player to lose this mission. And while it’s not a tutorial proper, it does a great job of introducing fundamental game concepts as a byproduct of play, not as a “stop and learn this” experience.
The rest of RA2 is equally an over-the-top experience. From prism tanks to Albert Einstein to military dolphins, the entire experience was one of pure exuberance. And, again, personality in spades. When you’ve got mind-controlled giant squid distracting you from deploying your holographically-disguised tanks, you know you are in a good place.
The Tyranny of Sameness
In contrast, my problem with Gray Goo stems from its systemic lack of exuberance. It comes across in not just the pacing, but in the aesthetics and balance as well. The early missions are all plodding affairs, and do little to hook a new player.
While each of the factions does have a unique look, within the factions themselves there is a dull sort of uniformity. In the aforementioned Crash Site mission, my Beta’s walls are garrisoned with a variety of different units, but looking at it from above one can hardly tell. The human units all share a sleek, polished look with little to distinguish them from each other besides size.
Beyond look, the factions themselves serve mostly as mirrors to each other. Each faction has the same basic hierarchy of units, unlocked in the same order. Everyone has a basic infantry that functions about the same, everyone has an artillery, everyone has a scout unit. Some of the top-tier units begin to differentiate themselves, but they are very limited in number. I’m sure a competitive multiplayer expert could give me a fervent analysis of exactly how the rate of fire and anti-armor capabilities of each makes them vastly different units. But in the here in now – the the playing – I just don’t feel it.
In the end, I was so put off by these all feelings combined that I never even finished the first campaign. Now, someone out there may tell me that “oh, if you had just gotten to the *second* campaign, it would’ve been so much better!” To that I say that if I have to make my way through 1/3rd of a game to get to the good part, then something has definitely gone awry.
Gray Goo isn’t the first RTS to make me feel this way, but I had high hopes that it would be the first in a while to break the trend. With Petroglyph’s lineage, I knew that I wasn’t going to get C&C or Red Alert, but I hoped I would get something that shared that energy; something that would bring that thrill back to what has become an almost deadly dull genre to me.
It seems I’m going to have to keep waiting.