Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars Review

Eleven months ago we got a compilation edition for the Command & Conquer series.  These titles helped define the real time strategy genre and brought new concepts to the table including full motion video briefings and two warring sides that played very differently on the battlefield.  The Brotherhood of Nod, the Global Defense Initiative, Seth, Kane, and all of the other players made a compelling story of global war come to life, making Westwood a household name in the strategy world.  The series moved forward with more compelling stories, allowing us to visit an alternate past where Hitler was killed by none other than Albert Einstein, as well as moving forward into the future of the Tiberium War as it slowly gripped the world.  It is at this point that we jump into Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars – the true return to the Tiberium Universe. 

The game is set in the not-to-distant future as our story begins in March of 2047.  Tiberium has almost completely blanketed the Earth creating completely uninhabitable areas and leaving few areas for the savaged world population.  The GDI views this infestation as a threat to the existence of the human race, but the Brotherhood of Nod views this as a blessing and an opportunity to seize the most powerful substance in the world.  You’ll play both sides in a massive global assault to determine the future of the world – unfortunately there is a third player in the mix, and they aren’t interested in your petty squabbles.  What do the alien Scrin want?  Can they be stopped?  Welcome back, Commander – you are in for a rough ride.

When EA purchased Westwood studios in 1998, many of the original team members left the studio.  Many fans felt that with Command & Conquer Generals the series had missed its mark.  The game was unbalanced, graphically ugly, and lacked many of the hallmark traits of the original series.  It seemed that the spark of the Command & Conquer series had left the building.  EA knew it was time to rebuild this series before it was forever lost to the nostalgia archives of the true fans.

During my visit to EA at E3 2006 I got a behind-closed-doors look at Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars.  Given that I see several hundred games a year, I am difficult to impress, so you can imagine my surprise at the fact that my jaw hung open the entire game demonstration.  I looked over at my non-gaming wife who was equally surprised.  Likewise, my jaded compatriot Mitch was looking at me in disbelief.  EA Los Angeles, under the watchful eye of Mike Verdu, had done the impossible and made us all very excited to see another Command & Conquer title coming our way. 

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars uses SAGE (Strategy Action Game Engine) to create the setting for the game.  The SAGE system is the same engine that created Emperor: Battle for Dune, Command & Conquer: Renegade, and Command & Conquer: Generals, though you’d hardly know it from the constant rebuilds to incorporate the incredible visual effects in the final product.  Dynamic lighting and shadows, reflections, debris, day and night cycle, and many more buzzword-worthy bells and whistles make up the newly-rebuilt engine for Command & Conquer 3, and the end result is beautiful, even on modest hardware. 

The units in Command & Conquer 3 are quite varied and range from relatively small troops to massive Nod Avatar Warmechs.  The Scrin tripod walkers lumber across the landscape like the aliens from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and their smaller crawler units scurry about like roaches.  Each unit is vastly different than the one sitting next to it, which just amazes me given that you’ll see little in the way of performance trouble.  (More on that later)

One of the things that really made my jaw drop was the level of detail in the environments.  Buildings are deformable and destructible, the landscape can be deformed and pocked, and vehicles throw debris and dust into the air.  Everything in the game leaves tracks, small flags wave on the back of the buggies, the Scrin’s liquid Tiberium tanks slosh as they move.  The game does a great job of bringing the eye candy – you won’t be disappointed.

As soon as I left the E3 briefing with EA I could practically hear the Frank Klepacki soundtrack for the original Command & Conquer in my head.  When it was announced that EA had secured Steve Jablonsky to handle the music for Command & Conquer 3 I was a bit disappointed until I read up a bit on Mr. Jablonsky’s accolades.  Steve Jablonsky has handled the music for the upcoming Transformers movie, The Island, The Contender TV series, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, and many other blockbuster Hollywood productions, making him very qualified to handle this title.  The end result is a movie-caliber soundtrack that keeps the storyline moving with heavy metal tracks and techno underpinnings.  Put simply, I’d buy it for my collection.

Since the game returns to the FMV roots of the original titles, we rely on the combined talents of Josh Holloway of Lost fame, Tricia Helfer of Battlestar Galactica, Michael Ironside from…uh..everything, Billy Dee Williams from the Star Wars series, Jennifer Morrison from House, and the quite enigmatic Joseph D. Kucan who reprises his role as the sinister Kane.  While it is silly and hammy at many points, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  The game unfolds via cutscenes that play out every two to three missions, giving you a first person view of the world events as they occur.  Kane’s fanatic view of Tiberium and its role in your mission, and GDI’s constant pressure to resist using Tiberium in any capacity create two divergent views as things unfold.  Again, it may be cheesy but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The sound effects in Command & Conquer 3, much like the graphic package, don’t fail to impress.  EVA is back, as is the insidious sounding Nod acknowledgement voice, complimented by the voice acknowledgements for the individual units as you select them.  GDI units have military bearing and sound like a standing military should.  The Brotherhood of Nod units sound more like mercenaries and fanatics, caring little for their own life as they offer personal sacrifice to Kane.  

During testing I did encounter a few sound glitches with the game.  While playing on my Windows Vista platform, using an Audigy 2 sound card, I picked up the occasional sound looping bug.  Reloading the game often solved the issue, but it did crop up several times during my trip through the campaign.  It is a minor nuisance that probably has more to do with Vista than it does to do with Command & Conquer 3, but it is worth noting.

The original Command & Conquer titles built upon the great control scheme pioneered in Dune 2.  Drag-and-select unit command, a multi-tiered tech tree, and a collection of both infantry and mechanized units used to wage war made up what has become a fairly standard control system for the RTS genre. 

I would like to point out that EA shipped a Key Command card to compliment the manual, giving players a quick reference to the most common functions.  For instance, the Q key selects all combat units, whereas you can select all the on-screen units of one type by selecting a unit and then hitting W.  N selects your Harvester unit, H pops your camera back to your home base, and O gives you a quick look at your objective list.  These are all fairly basic, but the moves that you should learn if you’d ever like to compete are the Attack move, Assault move, Reverse Move, and Formation Move commands.  As this game tends to be more fast paced (more on that later), the shortcut keys help greatly.

Command & Conquer 3 features a 360 degree free-moving camera system.  It allows zooming in and out to a degree, as well as viewing the carnage from any angle.  The camera works perfectly with one exception – I never felt like I could zoom out enough to really have a good handle on my ever-expanding army.  

The developers knew full well that this title would be a competition title and made sure to leverage that idea with new features.  Command & Conquer 3 features a telestrator-like system called Battlecast that allows players to jump in and observe a match in progress. You can even allow a commentator to provide spoken analysis of the battle to those watching the Battlecast, giving them full power to draw on the screen in a fashion similar to a sports replay.  This is pure genius as it provides an environment where even an RTS newcomer would be able to follow along and understand the subtle nuances of a particular battle strategy.  To ensure that viewers cannot influence the outcome of the battle, there is a ‘tape delay’ ranging from 10 to 120 minutes.  The few Battlecasts that I’ve seen have been decently commentated, but this feature will improve as people use it more.

One area I’d like to use more but can’t seem to is the clan system.  The clunky system present on the website is down more often than it is up and provides little to no feedback as to what you are doing when trying to manage your clan.  For instance, when adding a user you simply put in their name and search for them.  When you find the player you want you click a button to add them.  Without a single word of success or failure, you are tossed back to the search screen.  To this day the small clan that was setup at launch remains just 3 people as subsequent invite attempts never seem to make it through.  Put simply, it is quite broken.

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars tells the story of the battle between the recently-resurfaced Brotherhood of Nod and the Global Defense Initiative.  When you start the game you can chose either of the two sides and play through any or all of their campaign without ever switching to the other side.  I personally played one mission from the GDI side, then one from the NOD side, alternating as I completed both campaigns.  The option is yours.

Previous C&C games have focused on this same conflict between GDI and Nod, but in one of the worst kept secret twists ever, there is a third race called the Scrin introduced near the end of both campaigns.  Once you complete both GDI and Nod campaigns (make sure you pick up the alternate endings as well) you can play through a very short Scrin campaign which nicely sets up for an expansion pack. 

The mission structure is fairly simple but varies quite a bit.  Rather than the usual ‘build a base, turtle until you are ready, and then maraud through the streets until you’ve crushed the enemy’ tactics in most RTS games, Command & Conquer 3 shakes things up with a few tried and true mission types.  In one mission you have to defend a key base just outside of a city to allow a convoy to reach your position.  You will also have missions where you have to fly solo with your Commando unit to bomb some enemy communication towers.  It does ease some of the tedium of rebuilding a base in every mission and breaks up the action with a bit more tactical approach than is seen in the rest of the campaign. 

As I said, the mission structure is simple.  You’ll be presented with a map that contains several strategic targets.  Taking out a particular target first will, for instance, stop the resource train enabling the enemy to constantly assault you in future missions.  Another objective might be to destroy an airbase that provides supplies and aircraft to Nod, preventing them from bringing them to bear against you later.  Once you complete these three side missions (there is choice on order, but not on completion / non-completion) you’ll often get a quick FMV briefing telling you how to approach the larger threat in this region.  There are over 30 missions in total, but a few of them are less than 10 minutes long, making this game faster paced than any before it. 

The pacing in the game is a feature of great debate among readers and staff here at Gaming Trend.  I personally use a turtle defense to build up stronger troops, but found that this strategy met with constant bombardment from the enemy AI.   The game seems to be built around rush strategies, allowing players to knock out a full game in less than a half hour.  When you add in how quickly you can generate units by having multiples of the same building, how fast you can fly to the top of the tech tree, and how easily you can obtain superweapons, it can make for a harrowing experience for the more tactical crowd.  Again, this is a strength and a weakness as it creates a fast paced game great for someone who doesn’t want to commit an hour to an online battle, but a weakness in that the top of the tech tree makes everything below it obsolete.  There is little point in building machine gunners once you have Mammoth Tanks and Avatars.  This is a great segue into the next issue that I encountered with the overall gameplay – balance.

The GDI strategy seems to be to use souped-up next-generation versions of traditional war machines of our modern era to slowly tank-roll the enemy.  It is hard to stop a Mammoth Tank brigade flanked by Orcas and Firehawks.  On the other hand, the Nod units are built around stealth and guerilla tactics.  The early units may be balanced by tactics across the board, but you can’t take the Avatar Warmech against a Mammoth Tank and expect a close match.  Even if you use the Avatar scavenge ability and steal beam weapons from your own troops for the mech, you’ll likely lose your very expensive Avatar (along with its beam weapon) to a cheap and easy to produce Mammoth.  Additionally, the Avatar is slow and has no air defense, making it a relatively poor choice for Nod Commanders.  Some additional tuning, whether it be economic or unit strength is required.  There is another unit from the Nod side that sticks in my craw – the Vertigo Bomber.  This unit is able to fly stealthed into your base and bomb almost anything back to the stone age.  They are cheap to produce, hard to spot, and almost impossible to kill without putting 10x their unit cost into anti-air defenses.  Again, a bit of tuning is required.

While the units are arguably in need of tuning, the AI is not.  There are multiple levels of AI skill, as well as a general strategy type that the AI will adopt.  Some are rushers, some turtle, some are balanced, and some push the defensive angle.  You really won’t know which one you will be facing until you field a few scouts.  It keeps you on your toes as the tactic you used in the previous mission may not work for this new AI type. 

It is very easy to get sucked into the incredible production value of Command & Conquer 3 and toss out very high marks to hail its triumphant return.  Unfortunately that would be doing a disservice to the more tactical players who prefer strategy over speed.  The game does look and sound fantastic, but as rusher tactics become more defined it could easily become as shallow as a kiddie pool.

Few RTS titles offer as many missions and AI types as Command & Conquer 3.  There are over 30 missions for the two sides, as well as a short campaign for the Scrin when you top off those two.  When you head online you can play in Ranked 1 vs. 1 and 2 vs. 2, as well as Clan 1 vs. 1 and 2 vs. 2 online.  Much like the feedback system on Xbox Live! you’ll also acquire a rank for your performance online, but this one is far more granular. Stats track your sportsmanship (based on opponent votes), level (total points acquired in online matches), Skill level (based off of your victory and defeat stats), and Favorte Faction.  To further support the competitive play environment, the game ships with VOIP support in the box. When you add BattleCast and the online leaderboard system, you can see where this game could become a game of choice for friendly or professional competition.

There has been one bug that I’ve run into quite often with the online system.  When playing the game across my LAN I encountered a bug where two people could play easily but a third person (or more) joining would be kicked from the game fairly often.  With 20+ maps that support 8 players, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for a little LAN frag action, but getting that to go off without a hitch required a lot of connection re-attempts. 

One area where Command & Conquer 3 is completely unrivaled is the performance department.  I’ve played the game on a 2Ghz machine with 1GB of RAM running a PCI-e 6200 at roughly 25 fps during heavy combat – not too shabby for my work machine.  Playing the game on a more reasonable 7600 GT video card on the same machine yielded framerates in the 40s that never dipped below 30.  I’ve played the game on a Dual Core machine with an 8800GTX and was amazed at how great the game looked at 1680×1050.  While there may be a bug or two or a balance issue to handle, it is clear that EA tested this game out on an extremely wide variety of machines to ensure compatibility and solid performance.  Bravo!

The return of some of the early trappings of the original Command & Conquer series brings this game to life. Full Motion Video, the return of Joseph Kucan, the introduction of a third race to play, and the incredible competitive multiplayer package really shows just how much was spent to make this game the best production possible. I’d like to personally thank EA for bringing this series back to life – C&C Generals turned me off to the series, but this title pulled me back in and promises to keep me hooked until the inevitable expansion pack to be purchased on day 1.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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