Bald, goatee-sporting villain? Check. Cheesy live-action cut scenes? Check. Lots of blabbering on about tiberium nodes? Check. Must be time for a new entry in the Command & Conquer franchise! Of course, I poke fun at those things only because I love them. The Command & Conquer series has been a staple of my real-time strategy diet ever since the first title came out way back in 1995. So it was with great anticipation that I sat down to review Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight, billed as the final entry in the “Tiberium Saga.” Did Kane save the best for last?
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Decision
Tiberian Twilight’s story takes place 15 years after the events in Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, and 10 years after that game’s expansion Kane’s Wrath. Tiberium nodes have grown unchecked, threatening to render the planet uninhabitable. In an effort to save humanity, Kane and GDI have established a tenuous alliance dedicated to stopping the spread of Tiberium and harnessing it for power. Unfortunately, extremists are threatening to destroy what little peace remains. In the course of your adventure you will be tasked with a serious decision – do you take the opportunity to destroy the murderous madman Kane once and for all, or will you join him in his scheme to control the world?
Tiberian Twilight’s solo campaign is divided into two campaigns after the brief three-mission tutorial sequence. At that point you’ll be given the choice of which campaign to play, and after beating one you’ll have the opportunity to go back and play the other to see an alternate ending. Each campaign consists of seven or so missions, which will take you about 30 minutes each to complete. Compared to Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars’ lengthy three-faction campaign, the short shrift given to solo play is disappointing.
If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It. Then Fix It Some More.
I must confess that Tiberian Twilight boasts some of the most baffling design decisions I’ve ever seen in a franchise game. Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars was a stellar update to the series, delivering an engrossing single-player campaign and great old-school multiplayer RTS action. One would think that making a sequel would be as simple as copying that formula, but making it a bigger and better, more epic conclusion to the Kane storyline.
Unfortunately the designers of Tiberian Twilight went the opposite route, changing almost every fundamental gameplay aspect of the Command & Conquer series to create a game that – aside from mentions of NOD and GDI – barely resembles anything that has come before in the series. For starters, there is no more base building and no more resource gathering. Instead, units are created from a single mobile base unit called a “Crawler.” Instead of the strategic base building decisions and resource constraints of previous Command & Conquer games, you’re tasked with more tactical decisions in leading small squads of units around the map.
Another thing likely to stick in the craw of many a gamer will be the game’s strict population cap. While population caps aren’t new, they are a recent addition to the Command & Conquer universe. This population cap, combined with the lack of resources and base management, meant each of my missions played out much the same. Churn out 8 or 9 units, attack the enemy until they die, repeat. While the game tries to provide some semblance of tactical play with the way certain units counter each other, I found little incentive other than to just create two or three of each unit and use them up as cannon fodder until I wore my opponent down.
This style of stripped down gameplay isn’t new – games like Dawn of War have long since perfected it, and in the right hands it can be a great deal of fun. However, hammering it onto a 15-year old franchise whose fan base has come to expect old-school RTS gameplay borders on sacrilege. Those looking for the classic gameplay of the previous games in the series may be disappointed in the new direction, and my time in the game’s lobbies waiting on matches seemed to confirm that sentiment.
One Is A Lonely Number
Fortunately the game’s multiplayer is a much better format for the new design. Multiplayer matches are waged over capture points on the map, whose meter can be ticked over to your side by attacking them or stationing units near them. This results in some terrific back and forth tug-of-war style rounds that are fast and frantic. It’s obvious that this form of quick, tactical gameplay is what the developers were ultimately aiming for, but without a solid single player campaign to serve as a foundation, it only rarely achieves a consistent fun factor. There is also a co-op option that allows you to team up with a friend to complete the campaign, but your time with human players is definitely more rewarding in head to head matches.
One interesting wrinkle is the introduction of role-playing elements and unlocks. As you complete solo and multiplayer missions you’ll earn XP which will unlock new units and upgrades. This definitely gives you a lot of incentive to finish the campaign, where you’ll earn quite a few levels, and gives the multiplayer some legs until you unlock everything. Unfortunately this also introduces a problem with any game that features highly beneficial unlocks – that of imbalance between new players and those who have had the game awhile. Unlike shooters where skill often plays a larger role than what weapon you carry, a strategy match where your opponent can simply build better units than you is a handicap that is difficult to overcome.
The role-playing elements also extend into the game itself. Your Crawler unit can spawn as one of three “classes,” each with its own set of units and abilities. The Offense class is geared for heavy hitting military units good for attacking. The Defense class can build simple defensive structures and specializes in highly mobile and cost-efficient soldiers. The Support class is a flying base that can call in airstrikes on opponents and specializes in aerial units. Because you can switch Crawlers by despawning and respawning a new one, changing classes is a viable tactic and adds immensely to the game’s otherwise shallow rock/paper/scissors strategy.
Ham It Up, Baldie!
You have to either love or hate the Command & Conquer series’ live-action cut-scenes, and I’ve always leaned towards the “love” side – for nostalgia’s sake if nothing else. Joe Kucan reprises his role as Kane, though he is disappointingly subdued in a script that doesn’t really let him showcase his evil. By and large the acting is great, though the entire narrative just isn’t as entertaining as the previous game in the series. Even the drab sets seem to reflect the idea that somebody’s heart just wasn’t in it to give Kane the slam-bang climactic finale he deserved.
The game’s graphics are solid, if unspectacular. Unit animations are fun to watch, from the slow thudding pace of the Mastodons to the burrowing evil of the NOD Scorpions. However, the biggest flaw is the decision to put the camera so close to the battlefield. While it serves its purpose in showing off the brightly colored units, I guarantee you that at least ten times a game you’ll scroll back on your mouse wheel trying to zoom the view out. It’s just another nitpick design decision that makes you pound your head on your desk wondering why…why…why.
Draconian DRM, or the Future of Gaming?
No review of Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight would be complete without mentioning the inclusion of EA’s controversial DRM scheme. While EA doesn’t want to call it DRM, it functions as such even as it provides some benefits. So what’s the big deal?
Basically it functions similarly to Ubisoft’s widely denounced DRM in that the game requires an internet connection and login to play, even if you just want to play the single-player campaign. While I didn’t experience any major issues, I did have a couple of occasions where I had to try to log in multiple times because the game said my connection was down (even though I verified that it was not).
In the interest of fairness, this persistent connectivity does offer some intriguing benefits. For starters, you’re always connected with other Command & Conquer 4 players, even if you’re just playing through the campaign. Rather than being stuck at a static menu screen when loading up a solo mission, you’ll be dumped into a lobby where other gamers may be chatting about the game or inviting each other to multiplayer matches. While some will find it more beneficial than others, it does give a glimpse into a possible future of PC gaming in which social networks are integrated seamlessly into the games we play.
The other benefit is that your stats and unlocks are saved on EA’s servers, which in theory should help preserve the integrity of the game from cheaters and hackers. The flip side, of course, is that if EA chooses to shut their servers down there’s not a heck of a lot you can do about it. One would hope that there will eventually be an option for honest buyers to play their game offline anytime they want, but that’s a debate that is certainly beyond the scope of this review.
Going Out With a Whimper
Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight is ultimately a disappointment, sort of like the third Matrix movie. What many real-time strategy fans hoped would be the crowning achievement of the Kane saga turns out to be more of a tacked on coda to Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars. By making the incomprehensible decision to change almost every aspect of the series’ classic gameplay, then serving it up in a lackluster campaign, the developers managed to alienate old fans and new fans alike.
There are some bright moments in multiplayer skirmishes, and not all of the changes are bad. The role-playing aspects are a nice touch that deserve to be given a second chance in a better game. And if you’re a real-time strategy fan that just wants to pass the time during the annual PC gaming slump, you can certainly find some quick, turn-off-your-brain enjoyment here. Those of you who were looking for Kane to be sent off in spectacular fashion, however, will unfortunately have to just replay Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars and dream of what could have been.