The Same, But Better: Inside Command & Conquer Remastered Collection
By Jeremy Parish
As producer of the upcoming Command & Conquer Remastered Collection, Jim Vessella would be the first to admit he probably doesn’t hold the most objective perspective on the game or its legacy.
“We see Command & Conquer as the game that put the real-time strategy genre on the map,” he says. “The original game defined the core mechanics and structure that inspired a generation of RTS games.”
While this kind of grand talk is to be expected from someone intimately involved with a game project, it doesn’t take long to realize that Vassella doesn’t approach C&C from a cynical, corporate perspective. Above all, he has a fan’s view of the seminal RTS series, having spent two-thirds of his life engrossed in the clockwork world of conflict Westwood Studios engineered a quarter-century ago with the series’ debut title. Vassella’s work on C&C’s remake comes from a place of genuine enthusiasm, a trait that makes it easy for him to find common ground with his fellow fans.
“I discovered C&C when I was 12 years old, back in 1995,” Vassella recalls. “I became a C&C superfan. [In 2006], I had the opportunity to work on Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars and afterwards led the development of the expansion pack, Kane’s Wrath. I was a producer on Red Alert 3 and Command & Conquer 4.
“The biggest impact from those projects was working with and seeing the passion from the community. I want to bring that forward into the development of the Remastered Collection, and ensure we are listening to our community from day one of the project. I also try to channel my own 12-year-old self as much as possible, and see if the content we’re creating is positively activating [my] childhood memories and nostalgia.”
Vassella’s characterization of C&C as a defining work of the genre isn’t simply marketing hype or personal enthusiasm, of course. His claim holds up to objective scrutiny. Although the series’ legacy has arguably been overshadowed by more recent interpretations of the RTS, present-day esports favorites like StarCraft and League of Legends might not even exist if C&C hadn’t helped pave their way. The original 1995 game either invented or popularized many of the fundamental pillars of the RTS, from map-obscuring fog-of-war that forces players to send their vulnerable units out into uncharted (and likely hostile) territory to the need to harvest critical resources in order to purchase and fuel a growing military force. The team at Westwood built C&C on principles they had established with 1992’s Dune II, creating a richer, more complex work. And unlike Dune II, C&C wasn’t beholden to the lore of an existing universe, which freed the designers to create their own memorable factions and characters.
Just as C&C stood apart from its contemporary strategy games, the upcoming Remastered Collection isn’t simply your typical reissue; it has a unique claim to authenticity. More than a simple outsourced remake, Remastered Collection is being overseen by several members of the original C&C team, who now work at Petroglyph, the collection’s developer. That includes creative director Joe Bostic (co-creator of Dune II and C&C); audio director Frank Klepacki (C&C’s original composer); technical director Steve Tall (the lead engineer on Command & Conquer: Red Alert, which comprises half the collection); executive producer Ted Morris (Community Manager for the original C&C games); and Petroglyph president and audio engineer Mike Legg.
“While I can’t speak directly on behalf of the team regarding their return to the series, I can say everyone has been pouring their heart into the project,” Vassella says. “On the gameplay side, our primary goal has been to remain authentic to the legacy experience. We wanted to maintain the feel of the units, missions, and combat, while remastering the visuals for a modern presentation.”
The original C&C titles featured 2D bitmap-based graphics, with combat units presented as pre-rendered sprites—something that won’t be changing in the remaster. What has changed, however, is the visual resolution and detail of these elements. Petroglyph has cleaned up and reworked the game’s familiar scenery and other visual components, bumping them up from ’90s-standard 640x480-pixel resolution to modern specs. However, Vassella stresses the fact that the remaster process isn’t simply about visual fidelity but also spiritual authenticity as well. The goal is to create an improved game experience that nevertheless feels convincingly like the game fans fell in love with back in 1995.
“All the gameplay assets have been rebuilt in 4K to match the legacy content frame-by-frame,” he says. “This has also allowed us to enable the real-time switching between the legacy and remastered graphics in solo mode. At the same time, there are many areas of the game where the community was clear they wanted to see a change to the experience. This includes the in-game sidebar user interface, which has received a complete redesign, along with the rebuilt multiplayer experience and updated controls. We’re hoping this combination of classic gameplay combined with modern quality-of-life improvements resonates with fans.”
In the revamped sidebar interface, we see the remaster’s most significant quality-of-life improvement. User interface design has evolved considerably since 1995, as seen in C&C’s own sequels, which helped inform the team’s work here. “This was one of the first pieces of community feedback we received,” says Vassella. “Players wanted elements of the Red Alert 2 and C&C3 sidebars implemented, including the tab system to help prevent the need for excessive scrolling.” While the new sidebar doesn’t go all-in on modern design principles—there’s no mistaking this for some smartphone home screen interface—it’s the kind of dense, information-rich interface today’s game enthusiasts expect. The game’s basic resolution bump plays a big part in this, since the move from 480p to 4K more than quadruples the number of vertical pixels available for the devs to work with. The remastered interface walks a line between the original game’s simple, oversized info panels and one in which everything becomes too dense to be legible, while also incorporating additional functionality to give players greater command over the tasks at hand. “Alongside the sidebar improvements, the UI menu system has been overhauled with new flows for mission selection, controls setup, and multiplayer,” explains Vassella.
As a top-to-bottom remake, Remastered Collection offers more than simply visual embellishments. The game’s audio has been comprehensively reworked, as has its multiplayer component. “The multiplayer system has been entirely rebuilt,” says Vassella. “We’ve added 1-vs.-1 quick matches, leaderboards, replays, lobbies for custom games, and more. The philosophy here is that these elements would all benefit from a modernized experience without compromising the authentic feel of the classic games.”
It’s the revamped soundtrack that seemingly holds the most excitement for Vassella, however. “The soundtrack is a remarkable piece of the project,” he says. “Frank Klepacki has remastered over seven hours of music, which includes over 20 face-melting tracks live recorded by Frank Klepacki and the Tiberian Sons. Frank has also discovered unreleased tracks which are included in the Bonus Gallery, and we’ve even kept the lower-fidelity tracks in the game for veteran fans to listen and compare.”
Reworking a beloved classic to modern specs can always be a tricky prospect; the more popular the game, the more fans it needs to satisfy. Command & Conquer Remastered Collection seems poised to achieve that difficult balance. Fundamentally, what you’ll find here are the same two classic games as ever. But here, they look better, play better, and feature a healthy dose of supplemental content.
“The Bonus Gallery is one of my favorite new features, where we have over four hours of B-roll footage, old photographs, art, and bonus music,” says Vassella. “Players will unlock a piece of this content for each mission they complete. The team at Petroglyph has also added developer notes to many of these items, which helps provide a further backstory to the development of both the Remastered Collection and the original games.”
It’s a fitting tribute to a series that almost single-handedly invented one of gaming’s most popular genres. “When Command & Conquer was released in 1995, it pushed the boundaries of storytelling and world-building for the genre,” says Vassella. “The resource of Tiberium, the ideologies of the factions, the mystery of characters like Kane: These all contributed to an unfolding narrative which kept the player engaged. Players truly felt like they were a military commander growing within these factions, with the modern setting providing a backdrop which felt like it was taken off the evening news. But at the same time, Command & Conquer has never taken itself too seriously. The franchise embraces the quirks of its DNA, from the full motion video cinematics to the tank-rush style of gameplay. This personality has allowed the franchise to stand apart over the past 25 years.”