The rumble of gunfire and artillery bursts fades into the background as I make my way alone towards the enemy base. I hide behind a boulder, watching the shadows of passing Apaches and transport helicopters, either which could spell my doom if they so much as glance at me. I check up on my team's status before moving ahead. It's not looking good: We're 1500 points behind and just lost a refinery, with NOD still pounding my base. With funds running dry, this could be my last shot at making a difference.
With the coast clear, I rush from the boulder to the tunnel, then to another rock just outside NOD's front door. The base itself looks quiet. At least 15 out of their 20 players are busy trying to break into GDI territory. The silence is crushed by the grinding engine erupting to my right. A GDI APC managed to break past the siege, halfway dead, with at least 3 teammates inside. The APC careens past me through the base entrance, welcomed by a waiting NOD tank. The APC's driver lets his minigun rip, but the wounded transport stands no chance against a fresh tank. I watch the fight from the shadows, repair gun in hand. I could run out from cover, heal the APC and give my teammates a fighting chance. Or, I could use the tank brawl as a distraction to sneak into the base undetected.
I take out my silenced pistol and dash into the base, just as the APC explodes. The kill list fills with my teammates' names as I enter the power plant. I cover the plant's core in C4, and spend the next long 30 seconds waiting in silence, my heart pounding as the timer on the bombs creeps closer to 0.
Renegade X is a rare occurrence: a fan-made total conversion mod that not only made its way to a playable state, but hit all the notes it set out for and then some. Developed by Totem Arts, the now-standalone Unreal Engine game is a revival of one of the lesser-known C&C games, Command & Conquer: Renegade. Like the 2002 original game, Renegade X consists of a passable single-player campaign (available as separate download) and an incredible multiplayer mode, though this time the multiplayer is put front-and-center, and for the better.
A confession: I do have a sort of bias here, as C&C: Renegade was one of my favorite games of all time. The idea of playing as a single unit in the backdrop of Westwood's epic Command & Conquer universe was irresistible, and Renegade delivered on that premise in all the ways that mattered, featuring a Thanksgiving's feast of weapons and vehicles set in some of the largest single-player maps any FPS had seen at that point (some stages could take 90+ minutes to complete). The real treat, however, was the online multiplayer. Released at the dawn of DSL internet, this was the first internet game I ever got working, and the sensation of taking part in massive skirmishes against enemy bases never got old. Sadly, the game itself did.
When EA purchased, and later liquidated, Westwood Interactive, Renegade became much more difficult to play. Official websites closed, logins failed and servers went offline within half a decade of Renegade's release. An extremely dedicated community fought hard to keep the online component alive, developing workarounds to the login barrier and even setting up their own anti-cheat client. But by 2010 the loopholes required to get Renegade running online, nevermind on a modern system, were too much for any but the most rabid C&C fans. And rabid we were, as no other game out there was even trying to do what Renegade did. We were left starving, alone and forgotten, doomed to become another casualty of an EA acquisition.
Miraculously, some of those old Renegade fans were both smart enough to see the game's slow death coming, and crazy enough to do something about it. For almost a decade they've been working on rebuilding Renegade from scratch in the Unreal Engine. They could have settled with a "spiritual successor" or just an HD remaster, but they didn't stop there. Renegade X has every bit of content the original $50 game had and then some. In fact, this game has more content available in beta than most AAA online games have at launch, without charging you a dime. It's visually breathtaking, intellectually challenging, and viscerally satisfying.
At first glance, Renegade X looks like a mix between Battlefield and Team Fortress. Two teams, NOD and GDI, must destroy all the buildings in the opposing team's base while defending their own. To accomplish this, they have a choice of infantry units, vehicles, tanks, air units, air strikes, nuclear weapons and even an orbital satellite cannon. With the exception of the occasional Tiberium silo, there are no control points to capture or barriers to unlock along the way, there is simply a goal to get to by any means that must be destroyed any way possible. This is where Renegade X invites both careful tactical thought and all-out insane brawling, often at the same time.
"This game has more content available in beta than most AAA online games have at launch."
The key is variety. Each team has more than 10 infantry classes and 7 vehicle types, completely unique to their own faction and serving different roles on the battlefield. GDI has most of the hard-hitting rocket launcher units and massive tanks for brutal sieges, while NOD has high-tech stealth units and vehicles meant to strike with quick precision. While each infantry unit is highly specialized, there's nothing stopping an engineer from going on the offensive or a sniper defending a base from advancing helicopters. How you use each class's strengths is up to you, and there's plenty of room to get creative.
Despite the huge differences between the factions, the teams are evenly balanced at the start of the game. Your objective is to upset that balance by whittling away at the enemy's resources until you can overtake their base. Every building destroyed is a major blow to either force. Lose the Tiberium refinery, and you lose your main source of income. Lose a power plant, and all units and vehicles cost double. And heaven help you if your barracks or vehicle factory goes, since that means no more specialized units for the rest of the game. Even if you lose some buildings (and you will) your team still has means to compensate for their weaknesses. In fact I've seen teams get knocked down to just one remaining structure and still come back to win the game.
While the scale of the structures in each base is impressive, most of the maps are actually quite small. Often the NOD and GDI bases are right next to each other, separated by a rocky cliff or rolling hill with a long path going around. This brevity actually works in the game's favor, as tanks and infantry don't have far to go to find something to shoot at and front lines can shift quickly from one base to the other. Most of the maps do have a noticeable "MOBA" formula going on, a main lane between the bases with one or two side paths. It can be a little disappointing to jump into a new map and realize after ten minutes that you've seen all it has to offer, but you'll be thankful for the simplicity when trying to find ways to stop a line of Mammoth tanks from bulldozing your base.
"I've seen teams get knocked down to just one remaining structure and still come back to win the game."
Making progress in Renegade X at any distance depends enormously on teamwork, and this can be hit-or-miss. There are no assigned commanders or formal team structure, so it's entirely up to players how to organize their team, which can result in either clever and precise tactics or total anarchy. The team to organize effectively first is usually the victor. Sadly, there's no in-game VOIP and never will be, so player communication depends on memorizing pre-designated command keys for simple things like "I need repairs!" (or the ever-popular "Don't get in my way!") and typing in chat. You can't really blame a non-profit developer for not being able to implement voice chat, but it's hard not to notice how much better Renegade X would be with it.
When you do get a coordinated team in a full server and all of the elements come together, Renegade X has some genuine Normandy Beach moments. Tanks pummel each other endlessly, kept alive by engineers frantically running through the shrapnel. The battle can turn just from one sniper taking out a tank's engineer, or an airstrike on the front line, or a stealth unit planting a nuke in your base while you're away. Every move you make during a pitched battle, whether attacking or defending, can make or break your entire team, and the tension of fending off a massive assault or taking part in an APC rush into enemy territory is enough to leave your hands shaking, and your fist pumping in the air when a plan actually comes together. Winning is an addictive experience that will have you coming back for the thrill of C4ing an enemy MCT, hijacking an abandoned flame tank or watching your ion cannon take out the Airstrip.
Other times, you'll be cursing the symptoms of Renegade X's relative obscurity. At the time of this writing, there are only a few servers with anybody playing on them. Peak hours are normally in the evening, but when a server loses players the game can die quickly. You're also at the mercy of whichever server is actually populated at the time, so better not do anything to get banned. When nobody else is playing, you can still run single-player skirmishes using bot teams. It's a nice feature that the original Renegade was sorely missing, but the AI in Renegade X never attempts any complex tactics like APC rushes or bombing MCTs (actually it behaves a lot like the AI in the original Command & Conquer) and is horrible at driving anything.
And this is the awkward situation Renegade X finds itself in. Totem Arts has created a unique, well-crafted multiplayer experience that it absolutely cannot sell or profit from, due to the legalities of C&C's ownership. They can't run paid ads on other websites and have barely gotten recognition from major gaming news outlets. Most of the people who know it exists are former C&C: Renegade players, many of which are still just playing the original game. In fact there's probably more people involved in developing Renegade X than actively playing it in a day.
There was another freeware game that ambitiously revived a lost franchise better than anyone could have expected. Its name was MechWarrior: Living Legends. Though the Crysis-based game enjoyed immense popularity with BattleTech fans, development on the game was unexpectedly shut down when the current holders of the MechWarrior IP ordered a cease-and-desist. Totem Arts is in the same grey area of fan dedication and IP ownership, and while EA has so far given them their blessing to continue work on Renegade X, this could change if the game starts to steal any thunder from EA's current franchises.
"There's probably more people involved in developing Renegade X than actively playing it."
Renegade X deserves to be played more. To recreate a game lost to time is one thing, to actually improve upon it in almost every way is monumental. The endless vehicular stalemates that plagued C&C: Renegade are all but gone. The new weapons and abilities open the doors for new tactics even after years of flame rushes and harvy walking. This is by no means a perfect game, especially with some dull weapons and bizarre vehicle physics thrown into the mix, but it fully accomplishes what it sets out to do, and the result is a freeware game that feels more complete than many of the for-profit free-to-play games on the market today.