Command & Conquer hands-on: a free to play cash-in or the return of a classic?

The new Command & Conquer is free to play. And it's from EA. Those two facts together should evoke a tank rush of unease, given that EA aren't above shoving microtransactions into every cranny they can find. So when I got my hands on it at a recent EA games showcase, I made sure to poke around the interface, looking for stealthy cash-sapping options.

"The transactions aren't as intrinsic to the game as I'd feared"

Nothing. Not a peep. Nothing but buttons that make sweet, sweet war. There are two reasons for this: first, it's still in alpha, and a lot of what's going to be in there hasn't been implemented yet. Second, the transactions just aren't as intrinsic to the game as I'd feared. You can grind or buy new General units, XP boosts, and vanity items, but there's more micromanagement than micropayments.

What is intrinsic is the feeling of C&C. During the short time I got my hands on it, it really did feel like it contained the DNA of all the other C&C games. After a few crashes that showed off just how alpha the game was, I loaded up a co-op game with a fellow journalist. The two of us were crammed into the corner of a map, a few buildings already humming along, generating resources for our military plots.

The game is repurposed from a canned sequel to the original C&C Generals, and it's still set in the Generals universe. We both opted to head up the tech-heavy EU faction from the three available – the guerrilla-ish Global Liberation Army and the large-scale Asian Pacific Alliance being the others.

The transporters were hauling, the command centre throbbed, and all we had to do was figure out what sort of war to fight. I focused on ground troops. Click, click, click, and I had some infantry. Some had guns, some had rockets, but all had a leader with a keen desire to send them into the battle with minimal support and no tactical advantage whatsoever. Luckily I had a developer beside me who suggested I garrison them in a pair of nearby towers instead of sending them into the fog of war. The road to our base would direct a fair few of the foreign invaders through them, and having the nearby buildings and towers stocked with fresh meat would stay their progress. At least they were going to die with a purpose.

"My little v-shaped squadron flashed over the map, and the gathering forces of tanks and infantry vanished in sooty death."

To support those plucky chaps, I had to plonk down an oil-pump and wait for the black gold to flow. With that in the bank, I planted a war factory and manufactured more war than you could shake a stick at in APC form and, a bit later, tanks. I clicked on as many as I could make. These, I reasoned, would be there as a second wave to take out anyone foolish enough to pass my garrisoned towers. My reasoning was undone when my partner was attacked way before we were ready. Whatever my CPM is, it's clearly not high enough.

“You have an airstrike,” said a helpful developer's voice in my ears said. And there, along the bottom buff bar, was a delightful little icon depicting an insta-kill air attack. It seemed too early in the game to use it, but I wanted to be useful.

Screeeeeeeawwwwwww-boosh! My little v-shaped squadron flashed over the map, and the gathering forces of tanks and infantry vanished in sooty death. Beautifully so. The Frostbite engine, the same one that powers Battlefield 3, makes C&C a lovely, animated toy. With that initial blast shocking the cocky AI, I routed my tanks and APCs along to help out. Soon all was quiet at my partner's base, but the periphery was now under attack. I clicked over there and watched my brave little rocketmen firing against the AI's aerial assault.

Luckily I'd oversubscribed on units, and my home base was surrounded by unused tanks, APCs and infantry. I clustered them all in one huge group and sent them off to the edge of the base. They swarmed over the broken wrecks of the defeated enemy.

But the early state of the game ruined my assault. My tanks merrily crunched through dividing walls on the way to the fight, which in itself was interesting to see. The destruction from Battlefield has been kept, so walls and buildings are only guides: you can break them up and reroute the fight if necessary. This time though, it was a harbinger of doom for the play session. The game crashed. It was over.

"My tanks merrily crunched through dividing walls on the way to the fight"

If this had been online, my stats would probably be skewed. In a first for the series, as you're playing you're both levelling up your Generals - hero-style units you tailor to your playstyle - and your own profile. The developers hope it'll give a sense of purpose to the game, and it'll help with matchmaking. When people are capable of boosting XP, the game needs more than just that tally to make meaningful connections, so doubling up on the Generals and your own progress makes sense.

I asked a few of the devs about what will be coming at launch, whenever that is. At least five Generals will be available, although there was no talk of how many will be free. All maps will be though, and while there might not be dedicated servers, they'll be doing everything they can to support modding. Eventually.