The '90s heyday of the real-time strategy game is long over, but Westwood Studios' classic Command & Conquer games are being kept very much alive.
CnCNet is a hugely impressive community project providing a network of servers for the C&C games, several of which were released as freeware some years ago. The website provides downloads of the games which are optimised for modern systems and ready for online play on CnCNet servers.
Westwood's original single-player campaigns and cutscenes are all present and correct, and the games come with their respective expansions - each with dozens of "new" offline missions and multiplayer maps. The servers also support a range of actively developed mods, with their own gameplay enhancements, missions and new units.
In January, CnCNet reached a new peak of over 800 players online simultaneously. Clearly, a tiny number compared to modern hits: but it's a ringing endorsement of the enduring appeal and playability of games which are over 20 years old.
It's hard to overstate the historic importance of Westwood's games. The Las Vegas-based studio codified almost all the key elements of the RTS with Dune II as early as 1992, and together with Blizzard they had turned the genre into a phenomenon by 1995.
Both the original Command & Conquer and its prequel Red Alert stand up brilliantly over two decades later, and Red Alert 2 may still be the most deliriously entertaining strategy game ever made. There is still no substitute for the outrageous Cold War camp of its cutscenes, or for the thrill of unleashing psychically-controlled giant squid on an unsuspecting enemy navy.
That CnCNet have made all of this possible with modern systems is a tremendous success, and a fine example of how communities can not only keep great games alive, but actually keep them moving forward. Mission accomplished, CnCNet - here's to 1,000 concurrent players, one day soon.