The spirit of Command & Conquer is alive in 8-Bit Armies

The guys who drive my oil trucks back and forth from the oil wells to the refineries in 8-Bit Armies really deserve a raise. It doesn't matter if there's a load of Rambo types charging their trucks with bazookas or a squadron of infantry, they'll bust through the line and cause our enemies to explode in blocky gore. It's a warzone out there, but they'll even ram tanks and armored truck and try to muscle them out of the way. I should probably put some of those guys in charge of my own ground combat troops, who seem prone to blowing away the enemies' own trucks while a tank is raining hell on them. Priorities, people, priorities!

So yeah, some things need work. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the hours of simple real-time strategy fun 8-Bit Armies has given me so far, especially after spending days formulating more dour tactics in games like Ashes of the Singularity or Offworld Trading Company. While it certainly lacks some depth, 8-Bit Armies goes back to the basics. In fact, it goes all the way back, as it's made by Petroglyph, a studio housing some of the same minds from Westwood Studios, who arguably started it all with the original Command & Conquer back in 1995. It comes about as close as one can get to the original experience without incurring the wrath of EA lawyers, right down a new fantastic soundtrack by Command & Conquer's composer, Frank Klepacki.

Michael Bay meets Minecraft?

I fought against my enthusiasm at first. "Real-time strategy games are supposed to have upgradeable buildings and population caps," my brain screamed. "Won't someone think of the micromanagement?!"

But 8-Bit Armies doesn't have any of that. This is a game about speed, speed, speed, about slapping down a few key buildings and spamming unit creation keys to create an unstoppable horde and directing it wisely. It doesn't give a damn about building queues—if you want to create soldiers faster, just build a few new barracks. There are some hard counters in that, say, rocket infantry does well against tanks, but on the whole those counters aren't going to matter that much unless that soldier has plenty of friends to back him up. It's the kind of thing that could have been crap in someone else's hands, but with Petroglyph, there's a hint of that same genius that so fascinated me 21 years ago.

A hint, I say, as it lacks much of Command & Conquer's personality. There's a 25-mission campaign along with a 10-mission co-op campaign, but you'll find nothing in it like a future version of Earth that's been infected with crystalline tiberium. Instead, consider the heart-clenching stakes of this Minecrafty world. You'll have to stay alive for 15 minutes or destroy all the enemies' motor pools! You need to destroy the enemy's headquarters and all of their buildings! Gripping stuff like that. It doesn't help that I only hear the sound of my mouse clicking when I select my own units, instead of voice emotes like Command & Conquer's cries of "Affirmative" and "Moving Out."

Can't get much simpler than that.

These are blanks that'll supposedly be filled in at some point in the future, which seems likely considering how busy Petroglyph's been with updates in the few days since its release. 8-Bit Armies isn't listed as Early Access, but it might as well be. If the current game eventually grows dull, it's mainly because there's only one faction, a generic (though balanced) band of 12 units that looks as though it was based off a G.I. Joe starter set. (There's a nuclear weapon, though, so that's cool.) Whether in multiplayer or in the campaign, whether with one opponent or six, I always found myself fighting myself. I do that enough while writing drafts; I've little desire to do it in a game.

That's why I'm so excited about the teasers for new content Petroglyph is tossing out. On the main menu, there is, of all things, a bearded wizard with a glowy staff saying "Coming Soon?" I click on him, and I see a version of one of 8-Bit Armies' voxelated maps with catapults instead of tanks, bow-wielding archers instead of blocky Sergeant Slaughters, and hulking green ogres tromping around a castle while the current faction tries to bombard them with helicopters and tanks. It makes me uncomfortably giddy.

Oh, yes, Mr. Wizard, please come soon. The concept's absurdity explains the reason for the lack of a story-focused campaign, and flinging spells instead of rockets should assuage concerns of depth or personality. Toss in some more nutty stuff like that, and 8-Bit Armies becomes a game I'll want to play a lot more than I already have. 

To quote one of the game's only voice files, "Welcome back," Command & Conquer. We've missed you.

Modern technology doesn't mean jack when you have skeletons on your payroll.