Westwood's Command & Conquer, released back in 1995, is one of the most famous, most influential real-time strategy games ever made. It achieved unprecedented popularity due to its superb gameplay, intense action, and strategic depth--and also its great setting. You'd control the military forces of either of two futuristic military factions--the Global Defense Initiative (GDI), a technologically superior version of the United Nations; or a terrorist group called the Brotherhood of Nod--in an effort to wrest control of the world's supply of a precious mineral called tiberium. Many aspects of C&C were original and memorable, down to the individual military units you'd control. Perhaps the greatest of these was GDI's commando, a one-man army capable of single-handedly taking out legions of Nod infantry and entire Nod bases. Now, that GDI commando is given an entire game to call his own in Command & Conquer Renegade, a solid first-person shooter spin-off of Westwood's classic. The game does have some noticeable problems, though C&C fans may find themselves having too much fun to care. Renegade makes great use of the source material, yet it's suitable both for C&C fans and for those who enjoy team-based multiplayer competition in general.
Throughout the single-player mode of Renegade, you'll play as Captain Nick "Havoc" Parker, a special forces operative for the GDI who's cocky and insubordinate and prefers working alone--but he's got more than enough skills to back up his bad attitude. Havoc loses the laid-back Southern drawl of the original C&C commando in favor of a rough-and-tough personality laced with a chauvinistic streak, similar to Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid games. Like Snake, Havoc may not be the perfect role model, but he manages to be likable--that's partly because he spouts a number of great one-liners during the course of Renegade, many of which are based on the commando's lines from C&C.
Havoc will need to complete about a dozen sequential missions, all of which are quite big and pit you against droves of Nod troops. Most of the missions center on a rescue operation--you're trying to find a group of scientists who've been captured by Nod. You won't rescue them right away, but at least you'll get to gun down a whole bunch of bad guys while trying to do so. The best thing about the missions in Renegade is that they can give the sense that you're part of a larger battle already taking place. You'll see familiar C&C vehicles--transport helicopters, various tanks, humvees, and more--all taking part in the action. Sometimes you'll be joined by other GDI troops in pitched battles against superior numbers of Nod forces. These moments will make you feel as though you're right there in the middle of an intense C&C skirmish. The fact that the game recycles many of C&C's sound effects helps maintain the effect.
Renegade has a number of such moments, but the brunt of the action actually tends to fall flat for several reasons. It's sometimes hard to tell when you're taking damage from enemy fire--this is also a problem in the multiplayer mode, where you'll sometimes suddenly drop dead, without any indication that it was a sniper who picked you off. Though you'll fight a number of different types of enemy troopers throughout the single-player game--from Nod's lowliest fodder up to its elite, the black guard--they all exhibit the same sort of scripted, robotic behavior that makes them uninteresting to fight, though not necessarily easy. Nod troops will sometimes do a good job of weaving left and right to avoid your fire. But in general, they'll all stupidly charge straight at you while shooting or just keep firing at you from sniping positions. They'll get confused by obstacles such as tables and doorways, and out in the open, they'll stand perfectly still off in the distance while you snipe at them. If two are standing side by side and one gets shot in the head, the other usually won't even twitch. Defeated enemies will randomly drop armor, health, and ammo power-ups as their bodies mysteriously disappear in shimmering, blue light. While the game sometimes gives you the sense that you're actually involved in a real battle, all these things undermine that effect.
There's a ton of weapons available in Renegade, but most of them are similar in function, a number of them seem underpowered, and some of them will serve little purpose in the single-player game. Almost all of the weapons are very direct--just point and shoot. The weapon models look good, but many of the sound effects lack punch, and the weapons themselves often seem ineffective unless you hit your enemies right in the head. When you do shoot a Nod grunt, you'll see him reel in pain, opening him up to further attacks. The enemies in Renegade animate smoothly, since their movements were motion-captured to look realistic. The violence in Renegade isn't particularly graphic, though--defeated soldiers mostly just crumple to the ground. There's no blood in the game, unless you count what looks like a faint red puff of smoke that you'll see emanate from wherever you shoot your opponent.
Not all the action takes place on foot. You can commandeer a number of GDI and Nod ground vehicles over the course of Renegade's single-player mode, and they figure even more prominently in the multiplayer mode. All the vehicles look good, which is fortunate since you can only control them from a third-person view--but they seem hollow and lack any real sense of mass and girth. The vehicles are very simple to drive, but C&C fans will still love seeing, and directly controlling, their old favorites such as the GDI mammoth tank and the Nod flame tank in a 3D environment. Most of the vehicles can absorb a great deal of damage, they all have swiveling weapons and unlimited ammo, and even if they're blown up with you inside, you'll always emerge unscathed.
Renegade's single-player mode offers three different difficulty settings, the toughest of which should be challenging for shooter veterans, while the other two should be suitable for less experienced players. Whatever difficulty you play at, you don't need to set aside more than 10 hours to complete the single-player game. Renegade's multiplayer mode, which is the superior part of the game, should last you a lot longer. It's a team-based GDI-vs.-Nod showdown that challenges players to be the first to destroy their rivals' bases. The bases in Renegade look like they're straight out of the original C&C game, which is just one detail that helps the multiplayer mode succeed in playing like a C&C skirmish.
As in the original C&C, in Renegade's multiplayer mode, the GDI and Nod sides are quite different from each other but seem equally capable. Each side has a few basic character classes that are always available, but as you accrue credits over the course of a match, you can upgrade to more powerful specialized character classes and also purchase vehicles. GDI relies on sheer force, thanks to its powerful but expensive tanks. Meanwhile, Nod is more subversive and has cloaking infantry units as well as its flame tanks and stealth tanks. Both sides also have their own cheap but effective artillery piece, as well as engineers who can repair buildings and vehicles and heal infantry. It's effective to operate vehicles as an engineer, since you can hop out and conduct field repairs if your vehicle takes damage--but watch out, because enemy players can steal unoccupied vehicles and proceed to wreak havoc. Some of the most satisfying moments in multiplayer Renegade involve jumping in the driver's seat of an unaware enemy engineer's vehicle and making your first order of business to run him over with it--what better way to teach him a finders-keepers lesson?
Conveniently, there's an offline practice mode available, where you can freely run around a map and figure out how everything works. You'll see computer-controlled bots running around in the practice mode, causing you to wonder whether it's viable to play multiplayer Renegade against the computer--but you'll quickly realize that these bots are thoroughly incompetent. Fortunately, it's easy to jump right into a multiplayer match using Westwood's built-in player-matching service. You'll definitely need a broadband connection for smooth gameplay over the Internet, and even then, it's not a guaranteed way to avoid lag. The recently released multiplayer demo caused many players to complain about severe latency issues--online games would be sluggish and unresponsive even on dedicated servers that appear to be fast in the game's server browser. Our own experiences were considerably more favorable. Using a DSL or T-1 connection, we encountered very little lag during many extensive sessions over the course of several weeks (even in large matches containing more than 60 players), at least on Westwood's own servers. In any case, Westwood plans to offer free downloadable content upgrades for multiplayer Renegade (including flying vehicles you can control), and one can only hope that these will include optimizations to the game's netcode.
When lag isn't an issue, multiplayer Renegade can be great fast-paced fun. There's hardly any waiting--you respawn right back at your base as soon as you die, and if there's a friendly vehicle around, you can catch a ride with the driver straight back to the front line. You'll notice that dying isn't easy--it takes a serious amount of concentrated fire to take down most characters, although a well-placed shot from a sniper can be deadly. To offset their power, snipers are practically useless against buildings and vehicles. That's part of the reason why team tactics are so important--coordinated, concentrated assaults are necessary to breach automated base defenses and destroy key structures. Destroying enemy structures is satisfying--the loss of any of the main structures will cripple the opposing team in some manner, preventing it from using vehicles or advanced character classes, and so on. The best way to dish out damage to the enemy's base is to use either the GDI's or the Nod's respective superweapons, the ion cannon and the nuclear strike. Beacons for these must be deployed at the target spot, after which a devastating and visually impressive attack will commence.
Renegade uses a proprietary 3D engine that Westwood built for the game. The vehicles and character models look good, and you can clearly distinguish between different vehicles and characters from a distance. The game has a few other notable graphical features--you can play it from a third-person perspective as well as from the standard first-person view, and in a subtle yet very sensible touch, you'll automatically pull back your weapon when you're standing right in front of a wall or a friendly officer. On the other hand, the game's textures and environments are simple, and the weapon effects are nothing special. Renegade's indoor environments look particularly bland, though it's nice that you can move from indoor to outdoor environments seamlessly.
Much like the graphics, the audio in Renegade does an adequate job but isn't exceptional. The bass-heavy, synthetic music that plays throughout the single-player game sounds much like the stuff from the original C&C, but it drones quietly in the background and isn't memorable. No music plays during multiplayer, though you'll hear an odd "boink!" sound whenever you take out an enemy player. In multiplayer, you'll also constantly hear the robotic female voice of your computer informing you that various targets, either yours or the enemy's, are being attacked. These audible warnings are of questionable use and can get rather grating during large matches where a lot is going on all at once. Other than that, the voice acting found in Renegade's single-player mode all sounds great--Havoc's voice is dead-on--though you'll sometimes hear the same lines incessantly from enemy troops searching for you.
Most PC gamers have extremely high standards for shooters after having played outstanding games like Half-Life and Unreal Tournament. Renegade aims to match the high-level quality of these much older games but falls short--Westwood has never made a shooter before, and you can tell. That doesn't mean Renegade isn't a fun game. For one thing, Westwood is extremely experienced at making multiplayer games, and that too comes across in Renegade. In the end, the game's single-player mode is a fine homage to a real-time strategy classic, while the multiplayer mode has a lot to offer those interested in multiplayer shooters--especially those who also consider themselves C&C fans. Furthermore, like all of Westwood's products, Renegade is also a highly accessible, impressively produced game, making it well suited for players who've wanted to get into shooters but have felt intimidated by their generally steep learning curves.