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Command & Conquer: Generals: Zero Hour


Overview

Command & Conquer: Generals: Zero Hour (ZH) is the first expansion pack for Command & Conquer: Generals (C&C:G). The timing of ZH is particularly interesting, insofar as it was released barely more than seven months after the original game. That's incredibly fast as the development of expansion packs goes, and it's well-timed to re-heat interest in C&C:G. Though such a speedy release might initially suggest that the expansion is light on content/value, this surely isn't the case at all as I'll explain below.

Analysis

Visuals

The original C&C:G set a new standard for graphics in real-time strategy (RTS) games, a standard to which ZH makes incremental improvements. The first noticeable difference is that everything runs more smoothly. No matter how beefy a system you have, the action in C&C:G will sometimes pause briefly, seemingly to load new data. Whatever the reason, ZH pauses less than the original game. Though ZH typically has more stuff on the screen at one time, the frame rates are improved. Now that's what I call optimization!

It also seems as if the developers have gone beyond the ground-breaking special effects wizardry of C&C:G. The microwave tank in particular features an amazing distortion effect that has to be seen to be believed. It really looks like the atmospheric warping caused by heat! A Hollywood level of quality was clearly the goal for the original game, and ZH meets or exceeds that goal in every respect. As a result, ZH has the best graphics of all RTS games made to date, hands down.

My one complaint with the visuals is that there seems to be some kind of compatibility issue with enabling full scene anti-aliasing (FSAA) on my ATI Radeon 9700 Pro. To be more specific, any "snapshots" in mission briefings are not visible with FSAA enabled. Everything else seems to work just fine, so it's probably some minor game or driver issue. It's a pity too because the smoothness of the improved engine actually allows me to use 4x FSAA and 8x anisotropic filtering when running at 1024 x 768 x 32 bpp without any noticeable slowdown. Perhaps this can be fixed in a patch? Let's hope so.

Audio

The audio is more of the same, which is good given the quality of the original game. Bill Brown's music is superb as usual. The voice acting is all good, though many of the accents remain so clearly over the top as to be silly. The sound effects are just as good as the original game. In short, there isn't much to say beyond noting that the audio is great.

Interface

Ok, it's obvious that I need to scream my next comment to the rooftops, so those with sensitive ears should consider themselves warned:

PLAYERS SHOULD DAMNED WELL BE ABLE TO SKIP EVERY, AND I MEAN EVERY, BLOODY CUT SCENE!!!

Why developers are so incredibly obtuse on this point is simply beyond me, but ZH flaunts this most egregiously. Some of the opening mission briefings followed by in-game cut scenes are more than a full minute long! Should you forget to save when the mission starts, you'll have to listen to the same thing again, and that's not pleasant at all. Get a clue, developers, and give us a key for skipping all this crap!

Beyond that, the interface is basically what it was before. Oh, they've added the ability to use right mouse click methods instead of the default approach, but that doesn't feel any more comfortable than the way the default interface works. The basic problem is that C&C:G has its own way of doing things, which just happens to be different than virtually every other RTS game ever made. About two thirds of the way through the expansion the interface finally clicked for me, and I realized why it's so painful: it's designed for complete newbies.

This is not an interface designed for pros to achieve fine control while leveraging both keyboard and mouse; it's an interface designed for newbies to use the mouse exclusively. Once you figure that out it helps ease the pain. You start to realize that the game expects you to drag-select and left click for just about everything. I much prefer the interface of Starcraft or other RTS games, but it seems that we're never going to get anything that good in this series. Oh well, it's playable; it's just not elegant.

I should also note one minor irritation: whenever the game is reminding the player of a mission objective, by printing out text on the left of the screen just above the minimap, it's impossible to get tooltips for the various things that may be researched or built. This isn't such a problem when playing the USA or China, because their icons are relatively well differentiated, but I have one heck of a time with the GLA. Which one is the black market, the supply stash, or the arms merchant? They'll all dull, drab buildings, and I can't keep them straight. Since the game provides such reminders pretty frequently this can be a real impediment to progress. Perhaps I'll get over it in time, but it's worth mentioning.

Game Mechanics

The basic game mechanics are largely unchanged in the single player game. The multi-player aspect has had some nasty restrictions lifted (e.g., being forced to play at 800 x 600 resolution), and the new challenge mode is a neat idea. That new game mechanic breaks the existing three sides into factions under the command of particular generals, who each have their own way of doing things. This adds a lot of longevity to the game, as the AI is solid enough to provide a challenge when playing these modes. Better still, they really seem to help one learn how to deal with the various approaches and that can't help but be useful during on-line matches.

Story

The story's use of the three sides is pretty much a reverse of the previous game. Whereas C&C:G let the player enjoy China, the GLA, and finally the USA, the expansion puts you in charge of the USA at the outset, then the GLA, and finally China. Despite this reversal, however, the story is still pretty much the same: the GLA are being a complete pain in the ass, and it falls to the USA and China to solve the problem.

Not surprisingly, the problem is not really solved by the end of the game, but who be upset about this? I'm sure the developers want to keep making money from the C&C:G intellectual property, and I'd like to see more games in the series. The story isn't Shakespeare by a long shot, but it's more than good enough to get the job done. The only odd turn, really, is that the USA gets its collective butt kicked rather badly by the GLA, about which one can't help but wonder if that's wishful thinking on someone's part? Sadly, politically correct times like these raise such doubts.

Content

This is where the expansion really shines. To put it differently, this isn't your typical expansion. The developers did far more than add a handful of new units, do a little tweaking, and shovel out a few interesting maps; indeed, they crafted a full fifteen-mission campaign that's longer than some other full games! When you consider that the new challenge mode gives the player a host of different generals to fight, well, that just gives the game even longer legs.

ZH adds a bunch of great new units, many of which were badly needed. The USA really needed the microwave tanks to be able to breach defenses on the ground without being so completely reliant on really expensive air power. China needed ECM tanks to survive missile-happy assaults; their battle master tanks are nice, mind you, but they pop pretty quickly without some support. And the GLA surely needed the stealth boost from the GPS scramble and sneak attack general's powers. Those forlorn GLA workers can even rejoice at finally having some shoes!

Beyond the addition of new stuff, it bears mentioning that the developers have clearly done a fair amount of tweaking and bug-fixing. I remain somewhat disappointed with the AI, which still prefers to die stupidly rather than fire back sometimes, but it seems like it too has been improved to a degree. Whereas many of the missions in C&C:G were pretty easy, quite a few of the missions in ZH are very difficult.

The fourth mission when playing as the USA, for example, requires the player to divide his forces. The mission begins without the typical cache of supplies, which forces the player to take and hold the oil fields to the west. Unfortunately, this requires a fair amount of micro-management, insofar as many of the oil derricks are rigged with explosives! Worse, about the time the player gets the field cleaned of booby traps and starts capturing them, the GLA starts coming down on both areas like the wrath of God.

This in itself wouldn't have been so bad, except that the way the GLA attacks the main base is with a bunch of suicide bombers and explosive trucks. Unfortunately, the AI seems ill-equipped to respond to such attacks, which means they succeed far more often than they should. If the player could concentrate on one battle at a time, things might turn out differently. As it is, the mission is ridiculously difficult, or at least that's how I found it. The fourth and fifth missions for the GLA and China were cakewalks by comparison.

Also in the plus column, the game doesn't seem to crash as often or use as much memory, both of which are very welcome. The one obvious remaining bug that drives me nuts is that the game restores the proper desktop resolution less than half the time upon exiting. I don't know why it fails like that, but when it does I'm left running Windows XP at 1024 x 768 rather than my usual 1600 x 1200. That's pretty annoying. It's not a fatal flaw, of course, but it is annoying.

Multi-Player

The multi-player aspect is also improved. The easing of restrictions, better options for game creation, and new maps are all helpful. I never played C&C:G on-line as much as I would have liked, but I'm thinking that ZH might change that. The expansion gives me good reason to want to keep playing, which gives me nothing bad to say about its multi-player component. I have noticed that the lag seems a bit worse at times, but I'm betting that's a simple glitch that will get fixed in a future patch. The developers have a pretty good track record when it comes to patching the original game, so it's reasonable to assume they'll patch the expansion at least once.

Conclusion

Overall, I'd have to say that ZH is a must-buy expansion for those who really enjoyed the original game. I redeemed a coupon and got my copy for $19.99 at Best Buy, and the single-player campaign alone delivered almost twenty solid hours of play. Given that I've just started messing around with all the challenge options, and have only scratched the surface of the new multi-player tactics, that's one heck of a deal.

If you're really bored with C&C:G, ZH provides precisely the shot in the arm it needs to be fun again. If you've never played an RTS game in your life, the original C&C:G is pretty cheap these days and would provide you a great opportunity to get started with the genre. Go pick up a copy of C&C:G and know that the ZH expansion waits in the wings when you're ready for it! Frankly, the only people who won't enjoy ZH are those who cannot stand RTS games at all, which makes me pretty confident in recommending it to everyone else.

Reviewed by Phileosophos
http://www.geocities.com/phileosophos

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