#10: Nox (PC)
Not all of Westwood’s products were real-time strategy games, though. While the RTS genre is where the company made its name, it had several successful forays into other genres as well. Released toward the end of the company’s lifespan, the 2000 release Nox is an example of one such (moderately) well-received development outside the company’s usual wheelhouse. An action roleplaying game, Nox also retains the dubious distinction of being largely more hyped than the resultant quality justified. While the game was good and moderately well-received, the marketing campaign for it was brilliant, stirring up plenty of anticipation at E3 and other conventions leading up to its eventual release. At one point praised as the spiritual successor to games like Diablo II, it nonetheless ended up being a quality alternate-genre game in Westwood’s library.
Nox is also notable for playing a significant role in the eventual closing of Westwood Studios. Westwood was acquired by EA in 1998, and the parent company slowly hamstrung the company (as they are apt to do) until, a few months after Nox’s release, EA decided to assume rights for the game franchise. The game had just recently received an expansion pack for its multiplayer aspects and was beginning to develop a following. Rather than continue to support the game, EA shut down the servers and effectively rendered the multiplayer element unplayable, another instance in a long history of EA’s tendency to acquire and ruin quality game companies and franchises (a habit that has slowed in recent years, but was at it peak when EA acquired companies like Origin and Westwood).
If there's one genre with which Westwood Studios is synonymous, it's the Command & Conquer series, undoubtedly one of the three most famous and popular real-time strategy franchises in gaming history. In 2002, though, right at the end of its development career, Westwood Studios took the franchise in a slightly new direction, experimenting with the series as more of a shooter than a strategy endeavor. Not unlike the famous vaporware title Starcraft: Ghost, Command & Conquer: Renegade puts the player in the shoes of a unit set against the backdrop of the plot of the broader strategy series, playing through an alternate element of the plot involving stories more suited for a first-person player-oriented viewpoint.
One of the more interesting elements of Command & Conquer: Renegade was the viewpoint toggle. Lots of games allow the player to temporarily enter a first-person view or a third-person view in specific situations or for specific purposes, but Command & Conquer: Renegade was unique in allowing the player to choose which to use for the duration of the entire game. Of course, that also ended up being part of the drawback of the game: by facilitating both first- and third-person gameplay, the developers had to afford for both styles, thus limiting the usefulness of actions that would have been restricted to one view or the other. Additionally, it was readily apparent that Westwood had never developed a shooter, and the game was often overly repetitive. Still, however, the move into a new genre was a unique and risky one that has some internal merit on its own.
Like Neutopia, the Zelda-inspired action/adventure game developed by Hudson Soft for the TurboGrafx-16, Young Merlin is another game that, at one point, was praised as the next Legend of Zelda. Released in 1994, it is one of the last games developed by the company for a console besides the PC (although 2002's Pirates: The Legend of Black Kat, for PlayStation 2 and Xbox, is the company's final console release). While clearly significantly influenced by The Legend of Zelda in its overall game structure, it also bore significant resemblance to some of the older LucasArts graphic adventure games in its style and presentation.
Where the game excelled, however, was in its graphics. The enemies, characters, and especially backdrops were all rendered with incredible complexity and detail for the time of its release, putting the SNES Zelda games to shame in at least that regard. The game had the potential to spin up into its own significant series, but it was largely hamstrung by the storytelling weaknesses; the game's dialog is told mostly in pictures, which, while charming, significantly limits the depth of engagement and the complexity of the narrative. The game was also partially doomed by Westwood's immediately preceding success with Dune and immediately following success with Command & Conquer, which together served to focus the studio's development focus on PC strategy games. Like Psy dropping an album of romantic acoustic ballads, no one expected this direction from Westwood. Man, that's a reference that will date this list.
Released in 2002, Earth & Beyond was Westwood Studios' final game, at least by the standards I'm using; 2003's Command & Conquer: Generals, put out by "Westwood Pacific", was really more of an in-house EA product. At the time of release, the MMORPG had been under development for quite some time, originating in 1997. The long development time led to a massive amount of content available in the game, with over one hundred separate areas for interaction.
The most significant and interesting element of Earth & Beyond, though, was the innovative structure of content delivery. Most MMORPGs risk becoming stale over time; the idea of living in a virtual world suggests the world should change, yet the demands of offering a consistent playing experience force developers to assume as much control over the game world as possible. Earth & Beyond remedied this by delivering story updates in regularly-scheduled intervals. Rather than simply providing a backstory that justified the world structure, Earth & Beyond was characterized by monthly developments to the storyline that provided observable changes and trends in the game world. This participation in a real ongoing story with live plot updates provided an engaging new way of presenting the MMORPG genre, and could be said to be one of the influencing factors behind the structure of World of Warcraft's expansion packs. After EA's closure of Westwood Studios, they almost immediately thereafter closed Earth & Beyond, only fourteen months after its plot begun.
Video game movie tie-ins are almost always awful. However, while writing for a previous Top 10 List on movie-based games, I came to a realization: while movie tie-in games are typically awful, movie-based games that don't share their release schedule with the movie typically do quite well. Goldeneye 007, the Scarface and Godfather games, the Tron game, and nearly any Star Wars game ever released are examples of movie-based games that were successful while being released long after the movie debuted. Westwood Studios' 1997 game Blade Runner is another example of this.
The main selling point behind Blade Runner was its claim to be "the first real time 3D adventure game". The "real time" part of this claim was simultaneously a misnomer and the game's truly unique characteristic. While we might consider "real time" as the opposite of pre-rendered, "real time" in this context refers more to the game's dynamic world. The world develops and continues regardless of the player's actions, rather than waiting for the player to arrive at the necessary checkpoints to push the game plot forward. The game was also among the first truly 3D games, using a proprietary engine that Westwood themselves developed. At the time of the release, the game received significant acclaim for nearly every element. It was even voted by some as the game of the year in its particular genre, only to lose out to the great Curse of Monkey Island.
Like Origin with Ultima and id with their first-person shooter triumvirate, Westwood Studios is nearly synonymous with its most famous franchise, and it should come as no surprise that three of this series' games reside in the top five of this list. The franchise as a whole is typically broken into two separate series, the Tiberium series (encompassing the series' first game and its direct sequel) and the Red Alert series. Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun is the direct sequel to the original Command & Conquer, and the last Command & Conquer real-time strategy game to be developed by Westwood before its liquidation.
Arguably the most characteristic element of the game was, ironically, its hype. While that's usually a claim saved for games that failed to fulfill the hype that surrounded them, in the case of Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, the hype was simply so significant that it was hard for the game to get out from under it. It still succeeded, though; the game was a mammoth commercial success, selling over a million and a half copies in its debut month. The game was praised for nearly every element, but of special note was its seemingly universal appeal. Even gamers that were not into real-time strategy games could find the movies, plot, or graphics particularly appealing. The only drawback to the game were a few glitches, primarily because EA rushed Westwood Studios on releasing the game. Despite its success, EA still decided to take creative control of the series away from Westwood. Are you sensing a theme here?
Despite holding the title "Dune II", Dune II is really an original title. The original game, Dune, was developed by Cryo Interactive a couple years earlier. That's not to say there was anything wrong with the original Dune; it was a strong game and retains a significant fanbase. However, Dune II holds little resemblance to its supposed predecessor aside from being based on the same source material. That source material itself is among the more beloved science fiction franchises ever created. Dune, released in 1966, was an award-winning science fiction novel by Frank Herbert that has gone on to be considered one of the foundations of the modern science fiction genre.
Dune II is a foundation of its own: the game is credited by many as the first real-time strategy game. That's not to say that elements of the genre did not exist before; several games, such as The Ancient Art of War, Herzog Zwei, and even Lemmings, popularized and developed some of the gameplay concepts of the real-time strategy genre. Sticking with my theory on the four phases of genre development, though, Dune II popularized the genre. It was responsible for formalizing many of the ideas that had been tossed around by previous games, and is among the first games to be visually comparable to modern real-time strategy games. The game has gone on to a reverent legacy, credited by many as one of the most significant releases in video game history.
Compared to the franchises, series, and genres for which Westwood Studios (then Westwood Associates) is most famous, DragonStrike is a bit of an oddity. Actually, DragonStrike is a bit of an oddity in video game history in general. Based on Dungeons & Dragons (like Ultima, but unlike Ultima bearing no real resemblance to the tabletop game), the game is something like a shoot 'em up built to resemble a flight simulator mixed with significant role-playing elements in a fantasy setting. Its audience has always been limited due to its release on the underappreciated Amiga and Commodore 64 consoles, although it also received a DOS release, one of Westwood's earliest endeavors on the budding young platform. For those familiar with it, it remains one of the most underrated games ever. The viewpoint and graphics were years ahead of their time, and the gameplay structure is of a type that remains tragically underdeveloped in subsequent video game history. One might consider the genre one that never quite reached the later phases of development.
Unfortunately, for many, the name DragonStrike conjures up images of the NES release rather than the other platforms' release, and the NES game actually is effectively a completely different gamein every possible way. Rather than the faux-3D viewpoint, the NES version features top-down gameplay more reminiscent of a traditional shoot 'em up. That's not to say the NES version is bad (or that it isn't, I don't actually know how well it was received), but it wasn't nearly as unique as the original Amiga release.
Chances are, if you have any familiarity with Westwood Studios, you knew this list would come to this. Westwood's two best games are the two earliest releases in its most famous franchise, Command & Conquer. The first, released in 1995 for PC and later ported to several other consoles, was released to nearly unanimous acclaim. It is almost surprising for an original intellectual property to have achieved such notoriety; typically at that age in gaming, a significantly successful series was needed to build the hype necessary for sales figures and ratings as high as those that Command & Conquer received.
Command & Conquer received those ratings, though, in large part because it was the second half of Westwood Studios' popularization of the real-time strategy genre. While Dune had popularized it within a niche audience, Command & Conquer elevated it to widespread appeal. This was the release that put real-time strategy games alongside first-person shooters, platformers, and RPGs as the industry's heavyweights, and paved the way for Blizzard's domination in the following decade. The truly remarkable element of Command & Conquer is that due to the unique elements of the genre, it is not quite as prone to iterative improvement as other genres. A good real-time strategy game remains timeless because the important elements – balance, strategy, depth – are not dependent on graphics power or processor speed, but rather are solely dependent on quality game design. Command & Conquer is one of the best-designed games ever, perhaps surpassed in its genre only by…
…its sequel. Well, 'sequel' is a bit of a misnomer. Although the game carries the same title as the original Command & Conquer, it is essentially a standalone new franchise; it is billed in some ways as a prequel as well, but timeline discrepancies and retroactive continuity make it arguably better to regard the franchises as distinct, with Red Alert departing from the original game. One of the most captivating elements of the game comes from this departure from the franchise's previous installment. Command & Conquer: Red Alert is an alternative history game (both within the series and compared to the world as a whole), contemplating a war between the United States and Soviet Union in Europe had the real World War II never occurred.
Alternate history always has some inherent engagement to it, but the quality of Command & Conquer: Red Alert goes far beyond an interesting premise. Its production values and game design are among the best the genre has ever seen, and as mentioned in the previous section, help make the game rather timeless in its genre. Perhaps as a way of repenting for its sins, EA took the unusual step of releasing both Command & Conquer and Command & Conquer: Red Alert as freeware in 2007 and 2008 respectively. That decision means that anyone can now play these two titans of video game history, and if you haven't yet, you are nearly obligated as a gamer to go do so now. No, seriously. Stop reading. Go play it. Why are you still here?
Honorable Mentions: Eye of the Beholder, The Legend of Kyrandia, Mines of Titan, Emperor: Battle for Dune, The Lion King, Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos.
Like Origin Systems, Westwood Studios fell victim to a power grab by the villain of the gaming industry, Electronic Arts. As we mentioned in discussing Origin Systems, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, EA had a strong tendency to buy successful studios, hamstring them with limited budgets and impossible development deadlines, and then put them out of their misery once they had milked them for all the profit they were worth. Westwood Studios was no different. Purchased in 1998 at the height of its dominance of PC gaming, Westwood was quickly destroyed by EA. Many employees left right away, while others left as the low budgets and rushed timelines took their toll. EA, apparently blind to the idea that the slashed budgets and rushed games were responsible for a drop in the quality of Westwood's products, blamed the studio. Even after the moderate success of the company's final product, Earth & Beyond, EA shut the company down. Its developers went on to found two new companies, Jet Set Games and Petroglyph Games, the latter responsible for the popular Star Wars-themed real-time strategy game Star Wars: Empire at War. Today, EA has started to realize that its prior policy was completely non-productive, and has since moved more toward nurturing game development studios rather than sticking them in a blender and juicing them for sweet, sweet profit.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!
List by DDJGames (01/04/2013)
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