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Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight

Hands-on multiplayer skirmishes

C&C 4, with its focus on tight-knit unit groups and a clear lack of tank-pumping factories, presents itself as the black sheep of the Command & Conquer universe. It's plain to see where they got the inspiration, no matter how many times EA try to pretend the game's substantive differences came about of their own accord: they've spent the summer lodging with Dawn of War II. The cynical will look at this with scepticism, concluding that competing with Relic at their style of the real-time strategy click-fest is probably a safer bet than challenging Blizzard - Starcraft II may or may not come out in 2010, after all.

The concerned consensus is thus: shaking everything up after a decade and a half of a very established formula shows a lack of faith in the series from the developers, not to mention that they've discarded the traditional C&C formula on what is billed the swansong for the Tiberium saga - could it not have waited until the next iteration, leaving this as an extravagant last hurrah for the game's current guise? For a fifteen year fan of the series, there's a twang of remorse. I actually quite like base building.

Look past the bleary-eyed sentimentality, though, and you've got a team of developers who have finally been given the reigns to reinvent an ancient stony wheel. With no gloriously-executed mammoth tank rushes looming on the horizon - the numbers, stats and other minutiae are still being worked out, but a good rule of thumb is 'less units at once' - C&C's playing field has had to change accordingly. Or, in laymen terms: no engineer rushes on eight out of every ten games. Which isn't such a bad thing, when you think about it.

To compensate, EA have ramped up the player count. 5v5 support is not only included but encouraged, and it's this mode - titled Domination - which EA were showing off in a recent hands-on session (although you can also read our impressions on some of the single-player content elsewhere on this site), lining up ten top-of-the-line PC's with lovely, expensive mice and letting two teams repeatedly muck it out as either the GDI or NOD factions. There's no sign of the Scrin, yet.

The point of Domination is to capture and hold various control points scattered around the map, forcing players out of their comfort zones and into frequent confrontations with enemy forces. Success comes from juggling the action on-screen with anticipating what upgrades to queue up for the next fight, which means it's all very hectic. So far, so Dawn of War II.

It doesn't help that at first glance it barely even looks like C&C. The once-ubiquitous Tiberium crystals have all but disappeared, making the yellow and red zones look like tired, barren deserts. In terms of gameplay, though, it means there's no mass harvesting to be done. Instead, the neon crystals spawn at various points around the map, offering lucrative tech upgrades to anyone who uses a unit to drag them back to base - where each member of the team will get points that are spent separately. A green crystal is worth a single point, but a blue one is worth two: collecting five points allows you to reach tier 2, and then seven after that brings the tier 3 options. These numbers are yet to be set in stone, however. But the emphasis, of course, is clearly on working as a team to rack up the tech levels whilst denying the opposition of their own fancy doodads and wotsits. They'd just waste them, anyway.

It all starts with your carrier, essentially a class-based mobile MCV, which gives players the option of choosing attack, defence or support. These swaggering, looming structures are C&C at its most unrecognisable, and the embodiment of the new 'one building' ethos, but they give birth to some very familiar sights: Juggernauts! Flame Tanks! Firehawks! The GDI and NOD factions have been skirmishing for so long now their units have changed fifty times over, but watching their traditional staples pop out and roam about caused a flurry of excitement - and anticipation - on my part.

Each carrier type only provides a certain amount of units. Attack and defence, other than being self-explanatory, contain most of the recognisable units. The support carriers, which managed to prove essential in my games, produce some new sights: a few Spanners in the air healed other air units and a handful of Shepherd Tanks dotted around the terrain helped deflect enemy attacks. But support isn't all passive, which would be boring, providing some insane firepower by way of, amongst others, Firehawks and Orcas. Seeing groups of Firehawks flatten relatively unguarded control points - before another teammate moved up a fleet of tanks to capture it - was a common (and successful) team tactic for us.

If carriers weren't enough, an even bigger shift in the game's dynamics come from the new unit and damage types, which essentially function as a slightly more complicated version of rock, paper, scissors. C&C has always had that approach, of course, but now it's been formalised and detailed on the HUD into gun, cannon, beam, rocket and blast damage types. It's all a bit confusing at first, but EA have nicely incorporated it into the game's visual feedback: attacks will flash a lighter colour (all GDI fire in blue, and NOD in red) when your units are causing the maximum possible damage.

To keep multiplayer games moving, the game also divvies up the resources and unit quota of dropped/inactive players amongst the rest of a team - very useful for when xXx-HaSHbrOWNz-xXx quits out fifteen seconds into the game. EA are also not looking to lock a player into his choice of carrier for the entire game, so switching from one type to another is possible. It takes a while (because they don't want you doing it every fifteen seconds), but you don't lose any of your units in the process.

Despite the changes, though, much of the game's combat felt like C&C's traditional hyperbole. Having five players controlling an army allowed for plenty of fractured skirmishes over control points on the outskirts of the map, as well as one grand convergence of forces contesting over the centre. It's unclear how dedicated players of the old C&C style will react in the long run - their concerns are, at least partially, understandable - but EA are promising they'll create the best multiplayer C&C experience ever. That's a tall order: Red Alert 3 let you fire communist bears out of cannons, after all.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight is released for the PC on 19th March 2010.

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