Command & Conquer: hands-on with EA's rebuilt RTS

Command & Conquer might just be the free-to-play game that humanises EA. The venerable strategy series is currently being rebuilt from the old pieces of a previously announced sequel to Command & Conquer: Generals. Its former life as a normal, boxed game has given developers Victory Games a platform to produce an unconventional F2P game. For EA at least.

Tim Morten, senior development director told me: "We have been really fortunate to be able to just start with the game. We spent the first years of development not thinking about business model or monetisation, literally just focussed on the core mechanics of the game, and we got those to the point where we felt it was fun."

"You'll be given a certain number of Generals for free, but the others won't necessarily need to be bought."

Right now it's in pre-alpha, but still feels like classic C&C. It's a resource gathering, force-building strategy game of the type you'd expect from the series. It's wobbly, and so my hands-on at a recent EA event was punctuated with crashes and log-outs, but it did show me a glimpse of Victory Games' care and attention. The current build has three generals, all from the Generals era (EA hope to add more themes from the entire C&C lore). The tech-focussed EU faction, the guerrilla warfare inspired Global Liberation Army, and the large scale Asian Pacific Alliance are in there right now, but it plans to launch with a dozen. You'll be given a certain number of Generals for free, but the others won't necessarily need to be bought.

"We're trying to enable players to both grind or buy," Tim explains. "The first big example would be Generals. Then there's customisation, so vanity items. Then there's convenience, things like XP boosts that last a certain amount of time."

"Free players will get access to all the maps. As Morten points out, splitting the community isn't the way forward."

So there will be routes to acquiring things that won't involve your wallet creaking. And what was that about XP? It's needed for the persistent profile. It's the biggest, necessary addition to keeping the game competitive. The Generals themselves level, so as you play the General's level will increase. But you as a meta-player will have your own level. As Morten explains, that meta-level is needed for the fiddly matchmaking: "As a player who hasn't paid a dime but maybe has played a hundred matches, you may have some very capable Generals with player powers that have been fully levelled. It wouldn't be fair to be matched against someone who's very new to the game, whether they're a paying player or a free player."

Which seems to be right way to go. Free players will also get access to all the maps. As Morten points out, when you're trying to build a community, splitting it isn't the way forward: "Our current thinking is that we want players to have the ability to play with anybody else, and as soon as you start segmenting 'Oh I've got this map, but you don't' it makes it very difficult to play with friends. We feel like maps are something that should be available without price, essentially."

With that in mind, I mention the possibility of user-created content. If maps are free, then is there a chance for the game to come with a map editor. Surprisingly it's something Victory games are considering. Morten says they'll do it if they can make it work: "It's not as much about free-to-play as it is about the engine. I'm really excited about the possibility of potentially providing the ability for players to trade maps, and to have an interface for that instead of it just being ad-hoc through sites."

"Our server back-end is run entirely in the cloud, so users having their own box - that's not possible."

The good will eventually runs out at server-hosting. I didn't expect it to be any other way, but Morten confirms that there will be only EA hosted servers that users can customise: "Our server back-end is run entirely in the cloud, so in terms of being able to set-up tournaments using our servers, absolutely, but users having their own box - that's not possible, because it's got to be part of our cloud cluster. We're still going to provide player the hooks to provide their own tournaments, so hopefully they'll still get the features they want, but with a good quality of experience."

Which is a lovely reason at least. As for the game, well it's C&C but with a destructible engine and currently shoddy pathfinding. It's the very definition of alpha, but in that currently clumsy skin it still has captured the C&C feeling. After wrangling resources and sorting out a build order, I then sent some tanks off to meet the encroaching AI. The tanks that I spent all my time building ran right through some walls and buildings, which was at least a decent demonstration of the engine's destructible aspects, and then the game crashed. And yet I'm excited. They're on the right track.