Fun, face-paced, and addictive in spite of flaws
Cons - Poor AI, uninteresting single-player campaign, much of the in-game voice work is extremely cheesy, GLA faction isn't a believable opponent against USA or China, "General" subfactions in the Zero Hour expansion are poorly designed and unbalanced
Of all the games from my childhood, I may have spent more time on Command and Conquer Generals than nearly any other, with a few possible exceptions. And to this day, the game still holds up as a fun and satisfying experience with enough pizazz to appeal even to gamers who aren't typically fans of strategy or RTS games.
The game includes 3 main factions, USA, China, and the Global Liberation Army (GLA), a Middle-Eastern terrorist faction meant to resemble Al-Qaeda. Each of the factions have an entirely unique set of units, structures and abilities, with each faction specializing in a different aspect of combat (ex. The USA specializes in powerful and high-tech, but expensive units; China focuses on sheer numbers and brute force, while the GLA focuses on mobility and underhanded tactics such as toxins and demo traps). If you have the Zero Hour expansion, the game also offers 3 sub-factions ("Generals") which have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, such as the USA Air Force General, or the Chinese Infantry General. However while these sub-factions offer the player a handful of unique units or abilities, they feel sloppily designed and unbalanced (The Chinese Tank General completely lacks artillery, while the GLA Stealth General completely lacks tanks for example) and feel like an add-on thrown in at the last minute.
The core gameplay is streamlined and you'll be able to start cranking out units and engaging in battle almost immediately - the game has only one resource ("funds") and you won't have to spend inordinate amounts of time waiting to "do research" or build structures just to access later units and abilities, which in my opinion is a huge plus. Units and combat look great from a bird's eye perspective and the large diversity of units, each with their own special abilities and even voice work keeps the combat fresh and exciting.
The game isn't perfect by any means however, and one of the most annoying faults is the poor enemy AI. On the hardest setting the AI can put up a good fight, but only because the enemy is given a funds handicap and is able to crank out wave after wave of units. The AI usually just sends swarms of units at whatever is in sight - for example it might send a Gattling Tank to attack your base defense, even though it is an anti-infantry weapon which is virtually useless against buildings. Or instead of sending an infantry unit to capture your oil derrick (a source of funds in the game), it may just have the infantry unit unload it's machine gun on it for 5 minutes until it is destroyed. Other times, the AI may send a swarm of units to attack a specific unit or structure, but they will completely ignore everything else in their path even if they are getting bombarded - ex. the AI may send 5 tanks into your base to destroy a single unarmed Radar Van, and all the while you may have your own tanks firing away at them from the side, and the enemy will completely ignore them even though yours are destroying them. In short, the AI relies simply on throwing swarm after swarm of units at you, and can only pose a threat in sheer numbers.
Aside from the game's Skirmish (free battle) mode, the game boasts several single player campaigns - 1 campaign for each faction in "vanilla" Generals", and a new campaign for each faction in the Zero Hour expansion - as well as a unique "Generals' Challenge" campaign in Zero Hour. While the campaigns contain some interesting and challenging missions, there's very little in the way of plot or characters (the plot simply involves the USA and/or China battling GLA terrorists in the Middle East, again, and again, and again), And the "vanilla" Generals campaigns don't include cutscenes at all. The only thing that actually stands out about the plot is how unbelievable it is that the GLA terrorists, using salvaged Soviet and WWII-era weaponry could actually pose a serious threat to the modern USA or Chinese militaries.
The Generals Challenge Campaign has you pick one of the game's 9 "General" subfactions, and face off against the other Generals in several missions (leading to a final battle against a "Boss General").There's no plot here to speak of and these missions in particular seem poorly designed and incomplete - the taunts from the enemy generals as you battle them breathe a little life into the missions but can quickly become annoying, and some of the characters just sound downright cheesy or stupid more than threatening.
The in-game voice acting as a whole is either a hit or miss, some of the one-liners are witty and humorous, while others are simply cheesy or cliched. The USA faction as a whole has the best unit voiceovers, but nothing that truly stands out - the GLA is somewhere in the middle, with mostly stereotypical Middle Eastern or Russian accents, and China winning the award for the "most cheesy", with many of the one-liners sounding like they came from a B-list 80s Kung Fu Film. Though if nothing else, the fact that every unit in the game has its own unique voice work actually gives your units a hint of personality, rather than having them feel like disposable cannon fodder.
In the long run, the Generals' core-gameplay is fun and addictive enough that it outweighs any of the nitpicking, and this game remains fun to play in short bursts to this day 10 years later. Even better, the game still has a very active modding community, and several professional-quality mods exist (such as Shockwave and Rise of the Reds mods by SWR Productions) which expand on the core of the game and ad some amazing new content without changing it radically, and make an already enjoyable game even better. CNC Generals is a classic, and can be a real treat even to those who aren't normally fans of this genre - I recommend it.