Game: Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars
System: PC DVD-ROM
In a return to form for the ailing Command & Conquer franchise, Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, a 3d real-time strategy game, is the first in almost 6 years to use the series’ patented mechanics since 2001’s Red Alert 2 and the second to use the 3d SAGE engine, after 2003’s Generals. It also returns to the fundamental roots that made the original game so popular more than 10 years ago –a fast and frantic style of play complemented by live-action cutscenes and an over the top presentation. It has been criticised for a faulty online infrastructure and significantly simplified gameplay, but these claims carry little weight when compared to the list of things C&C 3 does right. The unit designs are fantastic, the missions are varied and compelling, the graphics are gorgeous even on modest hardware setups, the production values are unparalleled and the game is ultimately a joy to play. It is not without its faults, and it consciously sets itself up for an expansion pack, but Tiberium Wars is nevertheless one of the most fun and accessible RTS titles in a long time, and a worthy successor to the Command & Conquer mantle. Please note that this review will focus on the ‘Kane Edition’ in scoring, only one of 3 released stockkeeping units, and that it will contain content and plot SPOILERS for the both this game and its predecessors.
Traditionally, conflict in the Command & Conquer series has been played out by the Global Defence Initiative, an UN-like military entity, and The Brotherhood of Nod, a worldwide terrorist network financed by its monopoly of the alien substance ‘Tiberium’ that landed on Earth 50 years prior to Tiberium Wars. However this new entry brings with it a new alien race, the Scrin (a name which is never used in the campaign- they are merely referred to as ‘visitors’), which may or may not be the creators of Tiberium (or as they call it, ‘Ichor’), but have certainly arrived on our planet to harvest it. Each faction’s identity is well defined, and while they might be initially reminiscent of the 3 species in Starcraft, those similarities are only superficial. The conventional GDI relies on advanced technology and military strength to fight its war. It tanks are stronger, its bombers are faster and it can trigger a strike from the orbital Ion Cannon to annihilate a point on the map. The flagship GDI unit is the Mammoth Tank, returning in its original form, and is unmatched on the battlefield, boasting both ground and anti-air capabilities. Nod lacks the strength of GDI, and has to use its stealth technology, numbers and various Tiberium-based powers to win. Its Catalyst Missile devastates fields of Tiberium, the sole resource that all sides rely on by starting a chemical chain reaction. Thus entire bases situated around the mineral, or clustered around Tiberium Refineries and Silos are always vulnerable to Nod. They also have access to tactical Nuclear Warheads that are largely unchanged from their Red Alert 2 and Generals incarnations. New to the fray, the Scrin utilises outworldly sciences to overcome the human sides. Connections will immediately be drawn to the Protoss, whose arsenal also includes Photon Cannon base defense, conjurable Ion Storms, a powerful Carrier air unit, shield generators as well as interstellar gateways as means for summoning troops, but they are actually significantly different. Scrin forces are extremely fragile, and depend emphatically on their enormous damage output and air dominance to survive. They also are the most adept at Tiberium use, and can harvest it much more effectively than the other sides. An interesting detail too is that now infantry is trained as squads, rather than single soldiers used to represent squads. The differences between the sides are illustrated further by the visual group dynamic and behavior of a bunch of GDI Rifleman as compared to the hunched Nod Shadow Teams, and the insidious Scrin Buzzers. Overall, this triangular relationship keeps the sides different enough, but offers each the right tools to conceptually be able to deal with any threat put forward by the others.
There is a return-to-roots vibe that pervades every element of Tiberium Wars. Many features that were missing from the series departure, Generals, are back, such as the mentioned live-action cutscenes. Most satisfyingly, the trademark Command & Conquer sidebar interface has returned, putting the decidedly Blizzard-esque system used in the last game to rest. The methodology is like this- buildings and units can be queued up using a panel on the right- there is no need to select production structures or worker-units on the field to achieve this. Construction is thusly limited to a field around any existing structures already placed. One resultant implication is that you can capture an enemy building with an Engineer or a Saboteur, and then immediately lay down a Sonic Emitter defense next to it, inside the opponent’s base, without having to bring over a bulldozer unit to build it! The system is extended this time though, allowing you to have multiple unit and structure building queues based on the number requisites you have. For example, in Red Alert 2, even if you built 2 War Factories, you could still only order up one tank at a time, and you would have to designate one Factory as the primary operational one. Not anymore. The same is true of buildings in Tiberium Wars, except you can get by without 2 Construction Yards. Cranes offer a cheap alternative to a full ConYard and allow you to line up 2 orders in unison. Expanding a base has also been given a kick in the pants this time- it no longer needs another expensive MCV either. Surveyors can be bought at a fraction of the price and can quickly go over to a Tiberium field and deploy, allowing you to immediately drop a pre-built Refinery next to it. As you can tell, there isn’t a lot of time spent establishing an economy or creeping in this game- you get to the action straight away. The presentation is top-notch too. For those with medium- to high-end PCs, this will be likely the best looking RTS on the market. Surprisingly though, it is more than serviceable on even dated machines. It especially runs like a dream when compared, side by side, to its main rival, Supreme Commander- there is essentially no contest. Menus are lively enough but the theatre of war maps are stunning and animated superbly. Technically speaking, Tiberium Wars is a landmark achievement across the board, and, despite the immense volume of assets at work here, loads faster than anything else I’ve seen, even on my modest 1Gb memory setup. The only area in which it is not jaw-droppingly impressive is the music- series mainstay Frank Klepacki does not return and the score suffers for it. It is still above average as RTS games go, but his scores, particularly for Red Alert were legendary.
Fans of real-time strategy may be immediately drawn to the multiplayer arena, but Tiberium Wars boasts an impressive 35-mission-long singleplayer outing, spanning branching campaigns for each side that are sewn together by impressive star-studded cutscenes which were curiously removed from Generals (to much fan backlash). While cheesy, camp and honestly not up to Hollywood standards, they are a pleasant addition, even if they take themselves too seriously. Of specific note is the sheer volume of film and TV stars that have been assembled in this game. The ensemble cast stretches from Lost’s Josh Holloway to Michael Ironside, known for his similar role in Starship Troopers, and even Joe Kucan, Command & Conquer’s original cinematics director, who reprises his signature role of Nod leader Kane. Although not as lighthearted as those in Red Alert 2, these cinematic interludes certainly help immerse the player into the scenario. There is no denying the narrative lacks depth, but there is enough in it to get you emotionally engaged in the war. Missions themselves are well crafted and put most every unit and strategy to good use at one point or another. Knocking down impenetrable defenses, going guerilla in urban environs with a commando, making pinpoint strikes with bombers and artillery and even struggling against 2 entrenched opponents at the same time is all business as usual in the campaigns. Confusion as to what must be done next is a non-issue as the missions are interlaced with an unprecedented number of video cues from your communications liaison. Each group of sorties is divided into a real-world geographic ‘theatre’ which gives foundation to the objectives achieved in one area, as they directly affect options available in another. Victory is rewarded with a bronze, silver or gold medal, depending on difficulty, and additional decoration comes from completing side-quests or reaching particular milestones in battle. This is ample incentive to go back and give a completed mission 110%, even if these merits do not translate to any unlocked content. There are only 2 complaints to be had with the singleplayer portion of Tiberium Wars. The first is concerning the Scrin campaign. Despite being arguably the most interesting addition to the series, their campaign is cut short at only 4 missions compared to roughly 15 a piece for the other sides. Additionally, while the GDI plot wraps up well, the Nod story is left deliberately open-ended with Kane, the player, and his Inner Circle about to ‘ascend’ using a Scrin structure acquired in the final mission. This, and more, practically beg for the obligatory expansion pack that all Command & Conquers thus far have received.
Tiberium Wars is without a doubt a fitting sequel, but there are many gameplay and plot threads from Tiberian Sun which have either not been followed up on, relegated to background details or just plain forgotten about. Although the existing factions have not been markedly changed on the whole, Nod has received a major overhaul since Tiberian Sun- the only recognizable aspects are the attack bikes, the Obelisk of Light and the Nuclear Missile. Most of the old units have been cast aside- the Tick Tank is replaced with a generic Scorpion Tank, the Artillery Platform is gone in favour of the very Prism Tank-like Laser Cannon and the burrowing Devil’s Tongue Flame Tank is now just a plain old flame-throwing Flame Tank. The Banshee has gone over to the Scrin side, understandably, but what of the Cyborg units, a mainstay of the Nod force of old? Indeed Cyborgs are not the only curious omissions when it comes to units. Mutants are merely paid lip-service in Tiberium Wars and are now relegated to a neutral faction consisting of only one unit- the Mutant Marauder, and are, even then, only to be found on a number of maps that can be counted on one hand. What of Tiberian Sun: Firestorm’s titular Firestorm Defense? Even Red Alert 2 had a similar feature to defend against Super-Weapons, but here there is none. GDI has been scarred to a far lesser extent. The previous game’s Juggernaut returns, albeit a shadow of its former self, as a long range bombing walker. Mammoths return as tanks, not mechs, and the Ion Cannon is a lot more useful than its dismal point-and-shoot versions in the past have been. Plot holes also abound here. Screen-filling Ion Storms? Sorry, Earth just stopped having those a while back (despite the cause – Tiberium – reaching critical concentrations everywhere). There are no mentions of CABAL, the artificial antagonist of Firstorm, or of any old characters either. Kane is not only alive after his apparent death, 30 years ago, but he seems to have not aged a day. The curiosity of this is compounded by the allusions towards him being either a cyborg himself, an alien, or a series of clones that were strewn throughout the previous literature being all but abandoned here (no other explanation for his survival is given or hinted at). The course of Tiberium Wars, if anything, only serves to reiterate that Kane is just a normal human being. His enigmatic agenda for Nod is also given a rather simplistic closure with his intention to summon the Scrin based on information gleaned from the Tacitus. However, this begs the question of the purpose of the first Tiberium War- apparently Nod had no knowledge of the alien species at that time, which, when considered, renders that conflict illogical. To its credit, there are a vast number of Intel datasheets scattered throughout the game that enrich its own mythology. It simply requires exercising some liberalism with regard to the old canon in order to be enjoyed.
It is a sad thing to report that Tiberium Wars’ multiplayer offering is plagued by minor problems that combine to render it a less than satisfying experience. Cosmetic oversights, such as the inability to toggle Super-Weapon use on or off are made blatant by their inclusion in every title previous to this. Also no nations (as in Red Alert) or generals (like in Generals; Zero Hour) exist to diversify the core factions, gravely limiting the variety of tactics one is likely to encounter on the field. This, like the open-ended Nod campaign, scream for an expansion in my opinion. An uproar has developed in the few weeks since release over the prevalence of tier-1 tanks in online matches, due mostly to the ratio of temporal and monetary investment in creating a battalion of them, as compared to defending, teching, or spending cash on different units. Natural counters to the ‘tank rush’, like anti-vehicle defenses or Missile Squad infantry simply do not do their job- it takes almost a 2:1 ratio (based on money spent) of these counter units to stop a force of tanks. Consequently, the GDI Predator Tank is, at the moment, the most popular unit online, and some of the more obscure combatants are never seen at all. Online, I have not seen the anti-air Pitbull buggy used. Not even once. In contrast, the skirmish mode is fantastic- it has more customization and A.I. tweaking options than I have seen before. You can alter the difficulty, attack pattern, resource-gathering techniques and more. It is worthy enough of a substitute until the online play gets its act together. There has been suggestion that Electronic Arts has shown little interest in supporting its products post-release. Still, considering that Generals evolved, eventually, into a deep and balanced strategy game (if only after 5 major patches and an expansion), there is at least a glimmer of hope that the same attention will be paid to Tiberium Wars. Balance problems inevitably plague all games of this type (Starcraft, Warcraft III anyone?) and are usually remedied over the course of the game’s life. However bugs still prevail in other areas. The online competition channel goes through GameSpy, and not EA-owned servers. Some have attributed the unnatural level of latency involved in playing to this decision and various petitions are active right now imploring EA to host the games themselves. Luckily, it is not an enormous stretch to imagine that there will be support for these things in the coming weeks. EA has even pledged themselves already to the development of a couple of additional features that should be turning up soon.
These features will likely set Tiberium Wars apart from the pack, even if it is never going to be the most detailed RTS out there. First is the standard World Editor that has been marked for an ‘early-April’ release. Even though it was built on the same engine as Generals and the Battle for Middle-Earth series, the SAGE editor that facilitates customisation of those games is not usable here, the reason being that the EA Los Angeles team plans to make the Tiberium Wars editor ‘unlike the [programs] that have been shipped with games so far’. This is at least encouraging, if ambiguous. Secondly, the BattleCast system aims to turn the game into a veritable online spectator sport. BattleCasting, so to speak, is the ability to broadcast and watch matches live, as they are being played, or to view old matches as archived at CommandAndConquer.com. The real draw here is that you do not even need the retail game installed to view these- the BattleCast client will be freeware and made available in the next week. To consolidate the new game-as-sport concept, commentators will be able to offer their insights on the match as it progresses, and, if EALA has anything to say about it, meritorious commentators will be ranked, made famous, and invited to host sponsored tournaments and leagues in the future. All interesting in theory, it is impossible to properly critique these as-yet unreleased features, but keep in mind there are some ambitious things in store for the latest C&C.
After finishing the campaigns, whether one bothered to complete all the side-objectives or complete the missions on ‘hard’ difficulty, there is very little unlockable content to signify the achievements. Tiberium Wars, by default, comes with no bonus content whatsoever. The cutscenes can be unlocked, and there may some incentive in completing campaigns a second time, making different decisions in order to see them all, but that is about it. Finally, both GDI and Nod must be taken to final victory in order to open up the Scrin’s mini course. For those left wanting more, you had better hoped you picked up one of the 2 editions of the game other than the basic one- they all contain everything described so far, and more. One alternative to the vanilla release is the ‘Special Edition’. Ironically it is never called that- in the United States this is referred to as the ‘Pre-Order Edition’ or, at some retailers, given separately as a pre-order pack before release of the main game. Luckily Europeans and Australians got the best deal this time- this version is actually our default retail release. Anyway, this box contains the game, an additional DVD with previews of a making-of featurette, a Tiberium Wars trailer, and a GDI strategy video. Even better, it comes with a second bonus CD that contains Command & Conquer: Gold Edition, comprising the original game and its Covert Operations expansion pack. The catch is that it is not an updated version for Windows XP and Vista- this is the same release from 1996 and will require a lot of fiddling with compatibility modes to run on your machine, assuming you are running one of those newer operating systems. The second alternative is billed as the ultimate version and comes with a significantly marked up (depending where you live) retail price – the ‘Kane Edition’. This is definitely a more complete version for those who don’t mind shelling out extra cash- it is missing the original C&C but has a treasure trove of video content on a bonus DVD video disc, awfully like the recent God of War II. It has behind-the-scenes, a blooper reel, and a series of strategy videos from the developers, covering not only GDI, but Nod, Scrin, Singleplayer (only 1 mission really), Multiplayer and general tactics. They offer enough of an insight to franchise veterans about the nuances of the retooled factions in Tiberium Wars but are also an excellent crash course for anyone new to Command & Conquer or even RTS at large. Even if you think you know all there is to know about the game’s intricacies, it is still funny to see how excited screen actors like House’s Jennifer Morrison or even Billy Dee Williams get about breaking the fourth wall with the direct to camera performances the game requires. Regardless of what he says, I cannot see this being the game for Williams, but hey, it’s all good. Not that I ever noticed, but this version also has some unique skins and 5 exclusive maps in the main game too. Not game-breaking stuff, but worth mentioning. While a miniature Avatar War-mech or Hand of Nod figurine would have been a great cherry on top, the Kane Edition is definitely my recommendation, assuming you don’t have to pay through the nose for it. There were only 100,000 copies of it made (all are numbered too), and so if the price goes way up on eBay, that’s likely why- forego it in that case. In Australia I was lucky to find one at less than the RRP of a normal game, but then it is still likely more than Americans would pay anyway…
Tiberium Wars has all the makings of a great Command & Conquer. It has fast gameplay, a beautiful presentation, and the classic cheesy cutscenes intact. However, it is still not a very deep game when compared to its main competition, Supreme Commander, classics like Starcraft or even its direct forerunner, Command & Conquer: Generals, and this is the source of most of its criticism. I believe this to be a deliberate design choice though. There is no doubt in my mind that a few patches and a likely expansion will propel it to surpass Generals and Zero Hour and stand alone as the undisputed best title in the series. Its unique features, once rolled out, will make it stand out amongst the other franchises as well, and, if executed better than the failed ‘UnrealTV’, BattleCasting could become the observation and replay-sharing mechanism to revolutionise the RTS genre. The Kane Edition offers all the content needed to make this a great package and a worthwhile investment for when the online portion is cleaned up. Even if that isn’t your bag, the campaigns are long and involved enough to keep you satisfied and the skirmish mode offers more customization options than I’ve seen before. In all, Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars does not disappoint, and is definitely worth picking up if you are at all inclined toward this type of game.
To be honest, I can’t see the appeal in games like Supreme Commander. I wasn’t even particularly taken by Starcraft in its day- the game that got me into RTS was Red Alert 2. Not sure what exactly it was about the game… but everything from the mission briefing installation sequence to the trained dolphins appealed to me. While I played and enjoyed Generals and Warcraft III, this is really the game I have been waiting for. It’s not perfect, but anyone who has missed games like RA2 and been bored to tears by the needlessly complicated RTS offerings of late will definitely find their money’s worth in Tiberium Wars.