By Graham Smith on February 28th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the mere existence of Renegade-X. It’s a fan-made re-make and successor to Command & Conquer: Renegade, the short-lived first-person spin-off from Westwood’s real-time strategy series. It was released first as an Unreal Tournament 3 mod in 2009, and on Wednesday it was re-born as a free, standalone, open beta, made with the blessing of Electronic Arts. I’ve spent a few hours fighting for the GDI and Nod, and it’s crazy how much game is here. It’s a delightful thing that it was all made by a group of volunteers, as an expression of love for a nearly forgotten game from twelve years ago.
Right. Moment over. Now let’s talk about why I haven’t had any fun with it in those hours I’ve spent playing.
The original Renegade was a clunky, ugly thing, hamstrung by 2002’s slow internet connections and Westwood’s inexperience at making first-person shooters. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a compelling experience at its core. It had large scale combat with infantry and vehicles, which almost no one else was doing at the time. If you were a fan of the Command & Conquer series – and I was and am – it was also exciting to interact with its distinct units and buildings in a first-person world.
Time has dulled my interest in the C&C universe, but I’ve still enough leftover love to still get a kick out of fighting as the GDI and Nod. In Renegade-X, both sides begin with a base of equivalent buildings, each familiarly modelled after the RTS originals: a Hand of Nod, a refinery, a power station and so on. The C&C game mode is ultimately about destroying all your enemy’s buildings while protecting your own.
This, theoretically, is what makes Renegade-X a shooter/strategy hybrid. There is no commander to place buildings or drop vehicles – despite what idiots like me sleepily write in news posts – but strategy lies in how your team approaches defeating those enemy buildings, and how that hinders the functionality of your opponent’s base.
For example, there’s an in-game credits economy underpinning player actions in the game. So when you spawn, you always start as a generic soldier, and then use computer terminals around your base to spend credits and outfit yourself with a different class, weapons and items, and to spawn vehicles like Orcas and so on. You can earn those credits by killing enemies, and destroying enemy equipment or repairing your own, but the larger bulk of it comes from the machinery at your team’s base. Every couple of minutes, a Harvester will dimly trundle out to the nearest Tiberium field, gobble up as many of the poisonous green crystals as it can, and then poop them into your refinery. The credits gained are then shared equally among your players.
Therefore, if you want to take out the enemy team, a good place to start is by attacking and destroying their Harvester or refinery. Credits can ultimately be used to unlock especially powerful bombardment weapons, like air strikes, ion cannons and nuclear bombs; the sorts of tools which can turn the tide of a battle or end a fight early. Both team’s economy, then, is a meta-layer fight happening alongside the shootery-gunnery. In a lot of the matches I played, my team lost because our enemy maintained control over mid-map Tiberium silos which provided them with extra boosts and put them ahead of us in the economic arms race.
I like all these ideas. I like layering an economy on top of a first-person shooter and using that to motivate interesting strategic decisions from organised teams. I like that bases are automatically defended by various turrets, so that taking down an enemy power station is another high-value target, as it disables those buildings. I like that one of those turrets is the laser-spewing Nod Obelisk, a name which is spoken aloud repeatedly in the game until it starts to sound like “Nobelisk.”
But of the 12 or so matches I played, I’m not sure I ever felt meaningfully connected with those strategic decisions. Partly, I think the problem is that the classes don’t provide specific enough roles for players to perform. As a sniper, I spent time upon battlements and in the middle of the map, aiming and striking enemy troops. It would take four or five shots to kill someone, which was unsatisfying, and that single kill made little difference to the overall battle in a 25 vs. 25 player fight. It’s the same if you’re a soldier armed with a machinegun or a shotgun. What should I be doing? What am I for?
Of the basic classes, there’s only one which feels purposeful. You need to continually repair the buildings in your base to stop them being destroyed. Who does that? The engineer and his healing-hose. You need to keep your Harvester on the battlefield, or your tanks and missile platforms active outside the enemy base? So make sure an engineer is travelling with each of them. You need to capture that middle-of-the-map Tiberium silo? Only an engineer can do that, by firing that same, feel-nothing beam at a computer terminal. Engineers aren’t much good in combat against infantry, but even against vehicles or enemy buildings their explosives can make them deadly.
Most of my matches of Renegade-X would go the same way. The round would start and I’d grab an engineer class. There’d be nothing in my base to repair, so I’d start the long walk to the enemy side of the map. I’d coo at how nice it looked for something fan-made, and eventually arrive at the gates of the enemy base. I’d sneak inside without anyone seeing me, but once within its walls I’d soon be spotted.
I’d dash inside a building to place a quick C4 on its Main Control Terminal, the computer which, when attacked, proportionally damages the building it’s within. I’d maybe do some damage – taking the building from 100% to 68% – and then I’d be shot and killed. This would take around three minutes, and would be as unsatisfying as marginally depleting a percentage sounds. I’d try to repeat the process during the next few lives, to see if I could actually destroy something, but I’d keep getting killed on the journey.
To try a different tact, I’d buy a vehicle, maybe a Mammoth tank. I’d blow up an enemy vehicle – hooray! – but then be immediately blown up myself. This wouldn’t feel very useful either. By this point, most of the buildings in my base would be on fire, so I’d switch to the engineer class again and run around healing things. This does feel useful, and is how I would score most of my points and climb near the top of the scoreboards.
But healing a building, as an action unto itself, does not feel good. It feels like wafting an endless torrent of magical nothing into a static object until a number stops increasing, or until you grow restless and wander off.
Eventually all my buildings would explode and my team would lose, at which point the game would most likely crash me back to desktop. It crashed me back to desktop after, I’d say, about 75% of the matches I played. It’s still in open beta, so I can forgive that. During the matches themselves, everything worked fine.
I think the issue with re-making, even with changes, a game from 2002, is that multiplayer shooter design has moved on a lot in those intervening years. We have a better sense now of how to shape player experience by providing them with distinct, defined classes, and balancing those classes so they interlock in interesting ways. We know more about how to make your moment-to-moment interactions with that world feel impactful and rewarding, by making movement fun or by quickly getting you into the action or by making really loud shotguns. We have plenty of examples of multiplayer games with systems which coalesce to create regular moments of drama and action and heroism.
Put it another way: Renegade-X might have control of the past, but I don’t think it commands the future. It’s Nod a good game. Even if it doesn’t quite deserve to be Kaned… ORCAstrated.
I’ll stop. Even if Yuri-eally would be better off playing Tribes: Ascend. Alright, that’s a Red Alert reference, that’s cheating.
Of course, you can always try Renegade-X for yourself for free and explain what I’m missing.