Navigating the free-to-play landscape in Command & Conquer

Command & Conquer Punching through routes in EA's freetoplay sequel
The term "free-to-play" carries with it a certain stigma in the video game industry. It invariably causes gamers to flinch, calling to mind social games like FarmVille. However, as more recognizable experiences enter the realm of free-to-play software, the knee-jerk reaction has begun to subside. With the Command & Conquer series launching under the freemium banner later this year, it would appear that EA is banking on tamer attitudes toward free, microtransaction-based titles.

Despite the simplified, non-sequel sounding name, EA's free-to-play Command & Conquer is a continuation of the strategy series. First announced as Command & Conquer: Generals 2 in 2011, developer BioWare Victory plans to launch the game this year with a campaign that continues the Generals lineage, and later refresh the free-to-play game with content set in the Tiberium and Red Alert universes.

There lies a very ambitious development plan in place for this series, with gamers playing a key part of the process. Immediately after launch, Victory says it will begin crunching numbers and plugging into the fan community to see what needs to be fixed, changed, or tweaked. Victory promises changes based on this feedback will be implemented every week. Calling it a "Live Service," Victory anticipates the instant feedback will allow Command & Conquer's new free-to-play focus to improve and expand quickly.

The downsides of shifting to a free-to-play focus are immediate for franchise fans. Though there will be single-player content, Command & Conquer will not include a single-player campaign and Victory has no plans to include cutscenes or cinematics, which is a massive blow to series supporters. Additionally, Command & Conquer is another in EA's growing list of games that require a constant internet connection.%Gallery-179834% EA is billing Command & Conquer as a "triple-A RTS." Victory's free-to-play title is still under development, leaving us to encounter several crashes and graphical glitches during our time with it. It's unclear how its business model structure will affect these elements at launch, specifically in the case of server issues when the game is open to anyone with a suitable computer. For the most part, Command & Conquer looked gorgeous, using a modified version of DICE's Frostbite 2 engine.

"It's almost a shame that you have to play this from an RTS perspective," Lead designer Sam Bass said. When zoomed in – never an ideal way to play RTS titles – there is an impressive level of graphic detail. With Frostbite, much of the environment in Command & Conquer is destructible, which leads to more dynamic matches, as routes can be shaped and deformed.

Two factions were playable at the event: the flexible European Union and the terrorizing Global Liberation Army. A third faction, the low-level Asia Pacific Alliance army, was locked away during the preview. Victory says more factions will be rolled out over time. As with Command & Conquer: Generals, players select a General that adds themed flavor and modifications to a selected faction. Generals, too, will be added over time.

Command & Conquer continues with the popular resource-management gameplay style. Two types – gold and oil – are harvested differently depending on the faction selected. The GLA uses small worker units to harvest gold, while the EU choppers it back to the base in the air.

Battle style between each faction varies as well. The EU's standard infantry and tanks form a frontline assault. The GLA uses more drastic methods, such as suicide bombers, angry mobs, and insurgents to engage opponents. It's unclear how many factions Victory plans to launch with, but gameplay between those available during the preview was distinctive, forcing players to adapt to different strategies.

Victory has yet to determine available game modes in Command & Conquer, save for the lack of a single-player campaign. During the event, press was shown 'Player-vs-Player deathmatch' and 'Domination,' along with 'Player-vs-A.I. skirmishes,' and an 'Onslaught' mode that pits two players against a maniacal AI that attacks in waves. There is a lot of fantastic flavor in the audio during Onslaught matches, with the A.I. announcing its plan with each successive wave.

With the omission of cutscenes and a campaign, the screaming A.I. during Onslaught matches may be as close as players get to a story experience in Command & Conquer.

With such an early look, it's difficult to gauge where Command & Conquer can go. The franchise's return is welcome, but in the face of a strong competitor in StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm, and its deep single-player lineage, too much of the color from C&C may be lost without it feeling like a shell. But pitted against Blizzard's expansion and its $40 price, Victory's free-to-play model is at least economically more appealing.

Victory has yet to detail its monetization plans for Command & Conquer's new free-to-play structure, so it's unclear how transactions will change the game or affect its future development. In its early state, what we saw is a game that still needs time to iron out its issues. A curtain covers much of the content in the game, and it has to go up before we can commit to rejoining any faction's war effort.

Kevin Kelly is a writer and pop culture junkie with a fixation on video games, movies, and board games. His writing has been seen at io9, Film School Rejects, Machinima, TechRadar, Wizard World, and The Austin Chronicle. He lives in Los Angeles and does not know how to surf. Follow him on Twitter @kevinkelly.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.