Several months ago I wrote a piece called Real-Time Strategy “Level Design”, which received a very favorable reception. As such, I’ve decided to expand the series with at least two more posts. This post will be looking at three more levels from the original Command & Conquer – all from the “Covert Operations” expansion, as that generally has the most interesting levels – whilst the third part to be published in the future will examine three levels from Tiberian Sun, the next game in the same fictional universe which Westwood released several years later. Whilst Tiberian Sun is otherwise a very strong game, many of the levels are less like “puzzles” than those in the earlier games, so fewer of them merit the level of analysis I’m aiming to deliver. Due to the latter game being rushed out to release, the balance is not quite as tight as the original, and whilst many of most interesting original levels rely on using the unique abilities of particular units, this aspect is somewhat lost in the sequel. Nevertheless, today we’re sticking with the original classic and looking at three more interesting puzzle levels.
The first level is called Hostile Takeover. The second half is standard build-up-your-base-and-crush-your-foe fare, but the first half of the level is an interesting sequence for the player to puzzle out. You begin the mission with a flame tank – deadly against soldiers, and also quite effective against buildings, though an aspect easily forgotten – and four rocket soldiers. You need to reach the white X in the top left corner. The first part is simply choosing the best units for the situation as the player sends the rocket infantry forward to destroy the tank whilst keeping the more fragile flame tank in reserve (though it can be committed to the battle as well if you’d prefer). In this mission you play as the Brotherhood of Nod, and heading north finds you a ruined Nod outpost – a barracks and a communications centre, circled in yellow. At this point the game plays a rather clever trick on the player. When the ruined base is revealed, the player can just about see two of the three tanks blocking the route ahead. Making sure those tanks are within the player’s sight at the exact moment you gain control of the buildings seemingly sends an obvious message – here are the units you have to kill, and we’ve just given you the buildings with which to kill them. At this point the player has $0. Selling the communications centre will yield exactly $500 which can be spent on five minigun infantry or one rocket soldier and two minigunners. Either way, any force assembled here is going to be inadequate to deal with the tanks parked in the pass which, seemingly, you need to kill. Indeed, the AI of these particular tanks is set to hold ground – they cannot be lured out to be killed one by one, nor can they be easily pulled out of position to slip past. The only way to persuade them to move is by placing troops on the tile directly in front of them, triggering the “run over this soldier!” AI state, otherwise they will not pursue anything you send at them. The player might end up trying half a dozen different ways of getting past those tanks, but even if a unit or two manages to sneak past the onslaught – very unlikely – there is another Mammoth Tank blocking another bridge up ahead.
A different strategy is required. Once the player realizes there is no way to push past those tanks, they may explore down to the south-west and find a selection of Chinook helicopters behind a pair of guard towers. These are unique among all units in the entire game because they can be captured by engineers… and engineers cost exactly $500. Instead of offering up your troops to be crushed beneath the treads of the tanks blocking the pass, the player needs to sell the communications centre, use all the money on a single engineer, break through the fence to the south-west, capture a Chinook and fly to the desired location. Unlike other levels where the player is only given a single way forward, this level gives the player two ways forward – a false way and a real way, and the player has to realize that blasting through things in your way isn’t always the best way forward, even when such a route is seemingly handed up to the player. Many other levels in the game have similar (though less crucial) situations where capturing a building or sneaking instead of fighting can either help you, or open the possibilities for other tactics beyond open combat. As with many levels in the expansion pack, the player is given only what is required – a player who has learned this lesson in the game’s design may quickly question the presence of a communications centre that seemingly serves no purpose…
One other thing to note about this level. If we take a closer look at where the player’s units start there is a large civilian building on the other side of the river. When the level starts and most of the map is shrouded, you are just about able to make this out. By this point the player will have learned that these buildings always have crates of money inside them. Having acquired the Chinook you can then take a few units over there, destroy it, and retrieve the crate, whereas accessing it via the bridge – which leads into the opposing base – is impossible until you’ve finished the level anyway, at which point the value of an extra few thousand dollars is zero. It’s a nice little addition – most Chinook missions give you a single thing to use the Chinook for, whereas this mission supports a little observation on behalf of the player as a method to acquire a significant amount of extra starting resources.
The second level is called Blindsided, and starts the player with just a single commando (instant-kill weapon against soldiers, C4 charges which instant-kill buildings if successfully planted). The map is divided into two halves by a river. What happens in the second half is, like the previous example, less to with level design than the first half as there are multiple possible solutions to it. The first half, however, takes a leaf out of the same book as the first level, as well as one of the levels examined in the previous entry. The side of the map you start on (the bottom) has a Nod base on each side (you play as GDI, the opposing force). The base on the right which we’ll come to shortly has an Obelisk of Light guarding it (a deadly base defense) whilst the one on the left has just a single turret with some troops. Your first move is to kill off the turret and the surrounding soldiers, and then to refer back to the mission briefing. The briefing for this states that you must destroy the SAM sites (the orange circles) – once done, a helicopter will arrive with five engineers, and then depart. Which five buildings to capture? One’s inclination may be towards the airstrip in order to bring in tanks, but what you need here is the quantity of units, not the quality. Remember that mission last time where a meat-shield of units was required to let the commando get through safely? A similar tactic is required here, but with a twist.
You need to capture the five buildings marked and sell all but the barracks (#1) in order to build up enough of an army to rush the other base – that much is clear. In the mission from the previous entry the player had to take account of one extra issue – the gunboat patrolling down the middle of this map. This time, by contrast, the player has two extra issues to contend with. Firstly, the harvester, highlighted in the white circle below. This unit is ordinarily only for gathering resources, but under computer control has a very specific piece of attack code – when shot by a soldier, it will hunt that soldier down until it runs the soldier over. In other missions this can be used to lure harvesters into traps, but in this instance when you only have troops, it’s a problem. If multiple soldiers shoot it, it appears the harvester unit stores a list of those who have attacked it and plans to crush them all. This is an issue for two reasons – firstly because your horde of units is going to have to stand still to kill the Obelisk as fast as possible, which means you don’t want to worry about them being run over instead; and secondly, you need to keep the enemy harvester alive in order to subsequently capture the refinery (blue circle) and claim it as your own.
The second complication is the selection of normal soldiers inside the second base. When you attacked the first base, you could take your time – none of the soldiers would attack you unless you came close and triggered them, so your commando can safely pick them off one by one. No such luxury is possible here, however – once you have committed to battle several of the troops within the base will attack your soldiers, including potentially several wielding flamethrowers which will decimate your stack of troops. What this means is that the player has to control their troops not just to destroy the obelisk – undoubtedly the primary objective – but to also avoid firing even a single bullet at the harvester, whilst also drawing fire from the turrets so that the commando can finish them off, whilst also dealing with the troops that emerge from the base to defend it. Careful use of the commando is essential – I would recommend using him to pick off the individual soldiers – but your entire army must be carefully managed to ensure that which must die dies, and that which must not doesn’t take a single bullet. This a demanding section of micromanagement, especially if the commando took damage earlier, and especially if you try to make sure to keep the commando alive (a useful though not vital unit for the rest of the level). Many players seem to mark this one down (along with Twist of Fate, a level I haven’t examined here) as one of the trickiest in the expansion. Like the level before, this level gets the player thinking about factors they might not normally consider – in the first case the sale value of a single building was the key to cracking the level, and in this case keeping an enemy unit alive and carefully balancing what you attack and what you don’t is the way to make it through alive.
The third level from the original we’re talking about today is Death Squad. Unlike the above two, this is a mission with a number of possible solutions, but the one I describe here is one which allows you to keep the highest possible number of your own units alive, and indeed – if done perfectly – this mission can be completed without losing a single unit. When you begin, you are given nine units. Many of them are not particularly important for this strategy (though are useful for others), but the useful units are as follows. #1 is a commando, a unit we’ve seen a lot of in these analyses. #2 is a buggy – fast and weak. #3 is a pair of stealth tanks which can cloak and remain hidden, but must be visible to fire. This is only one way this level might be completed, but the method that requires the fewest units, keeps all your units alive, and hopefully shows the extent to which some of the level design of this game enables something close to an ideal of “perfect play”.
In this mission you need to destroy an “Advanced Communications Centre” at the back of the GDI base (the building circled in white in the picture below). Between your little force and the objective are five distinct obstacles, each of which can be navigated without losing a unit. The first is the exterior base defenses; the second is a commando; the third is a group of grenadiers; the fourth is a Mammoth Tank, the strongest unit in the enemy arsenal; and the fifth is an Advanced Guard Tower (AGT), which will decimate the player’s troops and easily kill most of the light vehicles the player’s been given for this mission. Firstly the player can send stealth tanks around the corner, followed by a unit as bait. All enemy units have a certain radius in which they’ll detect your units and pursue – sending something visible will cause the commando to come out and fight (the dark red line). It can then be quickly disposed of – if their commando remains alive, your commando may be killed, and that makes this strategy impossible to complete. The stealth tanks can then destroy part of the wall shown in the dark green circles, at which point the buggy can be brought up to join them.
However, giving the player stealth tanks in this mission is a clever move on the designer’s part. As above, all the enemy units have a radius within which they will attack any units – any visible units. Bringing the buggy up too soon will trigger the Mammoth Tank to close range and the grenadiers to close in, and your stealth tanks, buggy and commando cannot hold off that kind of force. Even if the enemy units cannot pursue your cloaked stealth tanks, they can pursue visible units next to the cloaked stealth tanks, thereby forcing the player to carefully place their stealth tanks to ensure any enemy units moving around the map don’t stumble upon them, something made trickier by the small amount of room you have to maneuver down the right side of the base (see the picture below). Once the wall is open sending through your commando will trigger the grenadiers and the Mammoth Tanks, but backing off will return the Mammoth to where it started – the grenadiers can be picked off by your commando pretty safely. At this point, things get a bit hectic – you want to send the buggy (the dark green) through to trigger the Mammoth, get its attention, then start running circles around the guard tower and the Mammoth both. Once their attention has been grabbed (and the AGT is firing away from the objective, as shown by the black arrows), it’s then simply a matter of running the commando (light green) up to the Communications Centre and destroying it.
This level gives you a selection of different units with a selection of different potential strategies. Any kind of all-out assault is bound to fail, but the map is full of possibilities. You have commandos that can instantly kill troops; you have stealth tanks which can navigate their base unseen; you have rocket troops that can even attack their helicopter gunship, if you choose to attack through the other side of the base. Although large in size the GDI base is very sparsely populated – it seems clearly designed to allow you to use your units carefully and cleverly to overcome obstacles one at a time. At the same time, although the player has a lot of choice over the early stages of the level the final challenge – the Mammoth Tank and the AGT – must be dealt with no matter how you approach the level. You lack sufficient firepower to handle them without significant (or critical) losses, so the player has to find a strategy to either handle or negate the effect of both. The placement of the sandbags on either side are an interesting choice – did the designers mean to allow you to shoot through them and rush around the Mammoth? Sandbags are destroyed from a single explosive hit, so maybe that was the intention. As I mentioned before there are multiple solutions to this mission. A quick search of Youtube will find others, including one version where the majority of the player’s units are sacrificed to lure the Mammoth Tank away, after which your two stealth tanks are placed to the south-east of the objective and are just about able to snipe it without the AGTs damaging them. The solution I presented here was one which uses the units you’re given carefully – rather than just as cannon fodder – and is, I think, the most elegant solution to the level and hopefully showcases the depth of strategy possible with some of the level designs in this game.
These three levels all need the player to think carefully about the unit’s they’re facing and the units at their disposal. The first level cleverly subverts the player’s expectations about how the game teaches you your objectives – it shows one way to do the mission, but that method is only a trick, and you need to explore the rest of the map (and think carefully about the value of the buildings you’ve been handed) to find the right way through to your objective. without killing the tanks in the way. The second mission needs you to distinguish between units that need killing and those which don’t – in rushing the secondary base you need to keep the harvester alive – and again subverts the RTS norm of kill-everything-in-sight (something the original C&C often does well in its more puzzle-like missions). The third mission has a variety of solutions but a map carefully designed to allow for careful tactical play, including a deathless victory, and gives you a base that is near-impenetrable with a full frontal assault yet very exploitable by using the AI and the units you’ve been given. In the third part of this series I’ll be moving on to Tiberian Sun, the narrative sequel to the game, which has a variety of missions that both serve as tricky puzzles and reward players who figure out complex sequences of actions (much like these), rather than simply killing everything in sight.