It's only been eight months since the release of Command & Conquer: Generals, the latest installment in this extremely popular real-time strategy series. Though Generals was the first C&C that did not bear the name of Westwood Studios (the series' original developer), it was still every bit as action-packed and fast-paced as the series has ever been. It represented a great combination of the over-the-top pyrotechnics the series is known for, along with some of the gameplay elements perfected by Blizzard's competing RTS franchises. However, the game clearly left some room for additional content, so, while it's no surprise that Generals went on to get its own expansion pack--as pretty much every Command & Conquer game gets at least one--the newly released Zero Hour was put together surprisingly quickly. You wouldn't know it just from playing this fully featured expansion pack, since it makes plenty of meaningful and interesting changes to the original game. Additionally, it packs in a lot of great tweaks and improvements to those aspects of Generals that could have used more polish. The result is a great expansion that's a must for anyone who enjoyed Generals. It fundamentally improves the core game, it and should ensure that C&C Generals continues to be popular well into the next year.
Zero Hour does what any good real-time strategy expansion pack should do: it adds appreciable amounts of content and depth to the original product. It introduces various new units, technologies, and "generals powers" to each of the three factions from Generals--the high-tech USA military, the powerful forces of China, and the terrorist conglomerate called the GLA. It also introduces a completely new single-player mode: the generals challenge. Zero Hour also features follow-up campaigns for each of the factions, consisting of five good-sized missions apiece. The core game, too, has undergone a number of little tweaks and enhancements that make it play a bit better overall. These tweaks and enhancements address issues that players may have encountered in the original, either through its interface or its multiplayer. However, perhaps the most interesting addition to Zero Hour is the inclusion of nine new subfactions.
These subfactions are referred to by their respective commanders, lending Zero Hour a refreshing bit of personality that was curiously absent from Generals. These commanders include the likes of General Malcolm "Ace" Granger, a specialist with the USA's air force; General "Anvil" Shin Fai, a Chinese infantry leader; and Prince Hassad, a GLA master of camouflage. Just as it could be said that C&C Generals was influenced by some of Blizzard Entertainment's real-time strategy games, so too can it be said that Zero Hour is influenced by the real-time strategy games of Ensemble Studios, like last year's Age of Mythology or Age of Empires II. That's because Zero Hour's subfactions, while not completely different from the core factions they're based on, do play quite differently from one another, do have a few unique units and technologies, and do give the game considerably more variety than what the three core factions offer alone. So, as with the different civilizations in Age of Empires II, the new subfactions in Zero Hour differ enough from one other to offer a distinctive playing experience. Furthermore, since these subfactions are inspired by popular playing styles, chances are, at least a couple of these are going to naturally appeal to you.
Essentially, Zero Hour contains a total of 12 different playable factions, up from just three. In skirmish and multiplayer modes, you may choose to play as either the "vanilla" factions from C&C Generals (though with their new units and upgrades), or you may choose to play as one of the specialist general's armies. Since the specialized armies have disadvantages that offset their relative strengths, you intuitively have a sense of what your opponent is going to throw at you in a multiplayer match. This is particularly true if, say, he chooses General Ta Hun Kwai, the Chinese tank commander, rather than just picking the standard Chinese army. Fortunately, in the skirmish and multiplayer modes, if the opponent chooses a random faction, you won't know which of the 12 different armies you're up against until you do some early-game recon.
These character-driven subfactions are also the focus of the new generals challenge mode. Actually, it's structured a lot like Mortal Kombat or other fighting games. You choose your character--one of the nine specialist generals featured in Zero Hour--and then you proceed to fight against each of the other generals on his or her own turf. These can be some pretty tough battles, especially since the default level of difficulty in Zero Hour, thankfully, provides a much more significant challenge than the cakewalk that was Generals' default difficulty. Since you take on these rival generals in environments that specifically benefit their unique abilities, you have a tough time overcoming their defenses. In so doing, you either learn or practice some key strategies that can help make you more competitive online. One very nice touch in the generals challenge is that each general has his or her own voice, and you'll hear these characters gabbing at you during the course of a match. While they do repeat their lines occasionally, they have lots of contextual dialogue. For example, they might chastise you for doing an inadequate job of countering their armies, or they may curse when you knock out one of their key facilities. Not only is this dialogue pretty amusing, but it can provide some helpful hints. The generals' propensities toward giving you fair warnings before attacks tend to be their undoing.
The generals challenge is its own unique single-player campaign. Zero Hour's other campaigns are shorter and more conventional but continue the very loose storylines established in the original. Actually, Zero Hour's campaign missions are more elaborately produced than those of Generals. Like all other Command & Conquer real-time strategy games, other than Generals, Zero Hour sports some full-motion video cutscenes; they feature embedded journalists reporting from each faction's perspective, like some fake CNN newscast. These little videos play during the fairly lengthy loading times between campaign missions. While the videos aren't spectacular, they're nicely done and, for better or worse, confirm that Command & Conquer: Generals Zero Hour is cashing in on current events. See how many instances of the expression "weapons of mass destruction" you can count during the cutscenes! The campaign missions' in-engine cutscenes are quite impressive as well, thanks to the game's outstanding 3D graphics. Unfortunately, as nice as these are, it would have been nicer if they could have been skipped--you need to sit through them again whenever you restart a mission.
The campaign missions, in a manner similar to the generals challenge ones, feature contextual dialogue that informs you about some of the new units and abilities available to each side. Specifically, each of the main factions gains three new units, a new type of building, a number of new upgrades, and a couple of new generals powers in Zero Hour. Many of the new units are quite interesting, though they mostly fill supporting roles. The USA's microwave tank can fry enemy infantry garrisoned in buildings, and its beam weapon can also disable structures--including defensive emplacements. China gains the impressive Helix helicopter, a flying fortress that can drop massive bombs. Like the Chinese emperor tank, it is so huge that you can build a Gatling gun, a propaganda tower, or an infantry bunker on it. The GLA gets an incredibly fast-moving combat cycle, which is basically a motocross bike that can be mounted by any GLA infantry unit. It then gains that unit's powers. The new units generally look great and are fun to play with.
The new buildings include the fire base for the USA, a powerful defensive structure; the Internet center for China, from which hackers can quickly gain resources to fund the Chinese war effort; and fake structures to mislead its foes for the GLA. The GLA may optionally upgrade these façades into the real thing if need be. The new generals powers also play to the themes of each respective side. Generals players will recall that generals powers are the special abilities gained by each side as it destroys enemy units and structures. Collectively, these new technologies expand the options available to each side, though they do not necessarily disrupt existing strategies honed by experienced players. After all, Generals is still about very quickly building up a base, marshalling a powerful force, and demolishing the opponent. The heavy-hitting units and superweapons of the original Generals will still be doing most of the damage in Zero Hour.
Those who remember Command & Conquer Red Alert 2 and its expansion pack will notice that most of the cool ideas from these games that didn't make it into Generals, have now made it in Zero Hour (though unfortunately there is still no real naval combat to speak of). Again, in addition to the core changes made to each faction, the specialist generals' subfactions have their own unique characteristics. General "Pinpoint" Townes, for example, specializes in laser weaponry. He cannot build the USA's tomahawk missile, crusader tank, or paladin tank, but he has unique access to a powerful laser defense turret and a similarly equipped laser tank. He can also build avengers, new antiair units that also increase the rate of fire of other nearby units using a laser targeting system, at a cheaper-than-normal rate. As you might expect, playing as some of the individual specialist characters can start to feel limiting after a while. Yet there are so many cleverly designed and interesting units and so many viable and devious strategies available in Zero Hour, overall, that the game has no shortage of lasting appeal.
The gameplay in Zero Hour has technically improved, though some of these enhancements were introduced in the v1.06 patch released for Generals this past summer. Unit balance has been fine-tuned, ensuring that the core factions and all their units are as competitive as possible. There's an option to use the right mouse button for issuing orders, unlike Generals, which required you to use the left mouse button both for selecting units and for issuing orders. Some players found this frustrating. The interface has changed cosmetically, in some ways, as well. Hot buttons are available for your superweapons and generals powers, letting you better use these important abilities in a pinch. There's also a toggle that causes your units to counterattack any foes, regardless of whether you order them to or not.
Zero Hour's gameplay is still very fast paced, especially if you set it faster than the default (and opt to start with more resources than the default) in a skirmish or multiplayer match. Juggling unit production, sending out and repelling attack waves, and establishing a base defense can be a real handful. A consequence of the Blizzard-style interface in Generals is that your unit-building is not a permanent part of the interface. You must consciously and constantly select your barracks, factories, and airstrips so that they can build more forces as you fight. The lack of formations and some pathfinding issues with larger units still make the combat feel more chaotic than controlled. As such, those who felt overwhelmed by Generals' arcadelike pacing aren't going to find a fundamental change in that regard here--not that pacing presents a problem. Still, the interface enhancements may be just the ticket for players who are "on the fence" about their like or dislike of Generals.
Generals looked and sounded superb when it was released, and the same can be said of Zero Hour. The game engine has been optimized, leading to more consistent frame rates and a better look for all of the impressive explosions and special effects that made Generals look so fantastic. New graphics elements, such as some very impressive full-scale ships and other vehicles, add plenty of eye-candy to some of the maps, as if the great-looking, fluidly animated units themselves weren't enough. Vehicles that have been damaged look noticeably in bad shape, which speaks to the game's remarkable visual detail. The game's music remains fantastic, with its hard-hitting bass riffs and Middle Eastern and Oriental motifs, and helps intensify the action a few more notches. Eight months can be a long time in the world of PC gaming, but the graphics and sound of this game just haven't aged a bit and remain some of the most impressive that this style of gaming has ever seen.
One might easily think that Zero Hour is what Command & Conquer: Generals should have been in the first place, since this great expansion pack seemingly arrives on the heels of the original. It makes Generals a deeper, better game overall--and one with more challenge, more variety, and more personality both in its single-player and multiplayer modes. It even sports a manual that offers helpful tips on how to play competitively online and how to use the game's powerful (and enhanced) world builder utility. Fans of Generals must get it, because, once they do, they will never look back. Even those who gave Generals a try, but maybe didn't warm up to it because of the nuts and bolts of the execution, should consider Zero Hour. Clearly, this is the result of a careful analysis of what sorts of things could have made Generals an even better game.