Command & Conquer Generals: Zero Hour
Here's a game for Dubya and Tony. For in this game they will be able to find naughty people who not only possess WMDs but will also use them with all the abandon of a government spin doctor applying the euphemisms. Better yet these nasty folks are a terrorist organisation who want nothing more then to see the end of freedom and civilisation. Okay, they may not be religious fanatics but otherwise they fulfil all the criteria of the enemy number one. So strap on your MOABs and let's get down to the business of ridding the world of evil.
Of course the makers of Command and Conquer: Zero Hour aren't going to limit the killing to the kind delivered in a Texas/Sedgefield fashion. No, the GLA and China make a return alongside the USA in a fifteen mission single player campaign that makes up just a portion of this massive expansion to the most enjoyable RTS of recent years. And seeing as this campaign is considerably better than the somewhat limp affair that came with the original we'll look at it first. You can play the sides in any order, but the story will make much more sense if you start off with the Yanks before progressing to the GLA and China. Each side gets five missions of increasing difficulty. In fact, the difficulty levels have been upped considerably this time round, a response to some players' disappointment at the lack of ability the computer displayed the first time round. Unfortunately while playing through these missions I thought my PC had been taken over by the ghost of Commodore programmers past; so rampant was the cheating. Make no mistakes here, the computer is pumped with steroids - it can take a massive beating and still survive long enough for a technical to wipe out a couple of Paladins on the hard setting. However I saw this in a positive light. It makes the game a much more interactive experience: I haven't shouted at a screen so much and so vehemently since McAllister was lumbering around the field during France 98. There's a good story in here as well involving all sorts of twists and turns and a nice presentation which harks back to the FMVs that brought the older C&C games to such vivid life. On top of this there's a truly gratifying array of toys to play with, from massive naval bombardments and carrier strikes in a USA mission to the GLA capturing all and sundry to further their own intentions. There's a nice pace as well, with the stealthier missions being followed by a 21st version of the opening day of the Somme. None of the missions bored me, and the difficulty level, while insane, let you get just far enough to want to take another crack at the level, even if it was your fifteenth attempt.
The campaign would have been enough to charge the twenty quid price EA is asking for. But in their generosity EALA have also seen fit to provide a totally new game mode, one which should take even longer to complete than the campaign. This is the Generals mode wherein you have to take each of the nine generals on offer and defeat the rest in a versus mode akin to Mortal Kombat, although the developers haven't seen fit to include gory killing moves. A pity. This is where you learn to make best advantage of the various strengths that each of these generals have, and how to exploit their weaknesses as well. For example, General Granger, the US Air Force general, gets no wee tanks or heavy armour but a plethora of airborne death-dealing goodies. The Super-Raptors carry six missiles and do more damage straight out the box, while there's a B2 Stealth bomber with a truly devastating MOAB bomb that will wipe out anything in its targeting circle. However, if you find yourself up against the Chinese General Shin Fai then your in trouble, for all his troops come out as veterans carrying mini-guns which will knock your planes out of the sky quicker than Rio Ferdinand getting his plane ticket confiscated. Dr. Thrax will devastate all these troops though as his toxin capabilities are phenomenal. And the Chinese general Tsing Chi Tao is just plain fun as his MiGs can be upgraded to drop tactical nukes. In all there's a heck of a lot of gameplay in this mode, with each consecutive battle presenting a different challenge from the last. If you manage to defeat every general then there's a secret super-badass general to take on. It's also good practice for the multiplayer where you get to take each general you've defeated and use them online. Or if like me you prefer LAN battles with people you know you can get straight into the action. With the nine new generals plus the three original vanilla armies there's plenty of variety to be had in multiplayer. When combined with a very healthy selection of new maps we once again can see that Zero Hour is a very bountiful expansion pack.
The number of new units and structures is amazing as well. While you won't be able to use every unit within a single army you will have lots of fun experimenting with the individual Generals and their corresponding armies. I particularly like the US microwave tank which disables buildings and fries nearby infantry. The Bunker-Busting Bomb for the Stealth Fighter will annihilate any troops garrisoned in a building while Chem. Suits will give the grunts a longer lifespan when up against the GLA. On the terrorist side the Sneak Attack ability is a 'helluva' lot of fun in multiplayer, unless you're on the receiving end. The fact that almost all GLA units can be upgraded by driving over battlefield scrap is a real bonus, as is the Combat Cycle. These little beauties are even more fun than they sounded when info first started leaking out about the expansion. Sending twenty or so of these fellas into an enemy base with Suicide Bombers strapped to the handles will create so much havoc that even a small group of Angry Mobs will finish off the less-prepared opponent. The Chinese Emperor tank is a behemoth that can take a mental beating while causing destruction through its massive cannons and built in gattling gun. The Carpet Bombing ability is great, although not as sweet as the Nuclear Carpet Bombing ability of one of the General's. All in there's about thirty new units to play with. The new neutral structures, Artillery, Repair and Unit Drop all add fun to multiplayer proceedings, although again their lack of toughness makes them an all too brief factor in a match.
But there's more. For the skirmishers of you out there there are an utterly insane number of battlefield medals to win. I mean, who on earth is going to ever get the 10,000 Domination medal? But it's out there if you are so inclined, or bedridden for the rest of your life. There are also more achievable medals such as the Ultimate and the Battletank Honour. The graphics have been spruced up a bit, with rain and snow effects on some maps, and a smattering of new objects. The Worldbuilder has also been enhanced and tweaked and is certainly a less daunting tool than it's first incarnation, so we should see even more maps appearing on the net. It's not like the community has been slack in the past. For those of you into viewing past matches the replay function has been spruced up with some fast-forward controls.
Now the bad news. This game likes to crash more then the original. On my old motherboard things were fine, right up until a day or so before it got swapped, then the dreaded 'Technical Difficulties' box popped-up whenever I tried to load it. And that problem has migrated to my new set up, strange as it's a new XP install. Searching forums for help revealed that a lot of people are having more problems with ZH than they did with Generals. It seems RAM can be a problem, so if you have cheap RAM in your machine make sure you buy from some where that accepts returns. Problems also seem to be frustratingly prevalent in the online side of things. Maybe the bolting on of the new features over the old game has made it go "tits-up" on many machines. I just hope that the imminent patch addresses these problems for the majority of people, as ZH is a top-notch piece of gaming when it's working right.
On top of these 'Technical Difficulties' there are a few other issues that rankle. Units have an annoying tendency not to fire back, even with the addition of the 'Retaliate' option which is meant to force your units into returning fire. Selection can also cause problems. Too many times my men have refused to acknowledge my orders and sat around discussing the weather while their comrades took a pounding. These problems only happen occasionally but they are extremely annoying when they do manifest themselves. The pathfinding can cause problems as well with units taking routes that make you think they are on expense accounts. During LAN games, battles would sometimes come to a premature end due to mismatches but as this only happens on user-made maps it can't really be blamed on the game. There are also a few balancing issues that need some further tweaking. However, even with these problems in mind Zero Hour is a top quality expansion which, in my opinion, will not be penalised too heavily for these hitches as they should soon be sorted out in a patch.
I barely touched the missions in C&C Generals, preferring instead to spend endless days wasting my flatmates over the LAN. With Zero Hour I've been enjoying some great story driven combat while trying (unsuccessfully so far), to beat all the Generals in the challenge mode. And almost every day still brings at least one fight over the network. So in effect, Zero Hour is actually a better game than the original it is spawned from. Once its teething problems are pulled or filled-in I feel it will be recognised as one of the classics of its time.