Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight
Command & Conquer 4 still knows how to pile on the schlock. We're now up to 2077, thirty years after the third game, so all your units are either vehicles or people in chunky robot suits because it's the future - though the Mammoth Tank is still going strong. You, the conquering commander, once were blind but now you see, as experimental (futuristic) eye surgery allows your visually-challenged character to return to the fray, though in typical C&C fashion it's from a mute first-person perspective. It becomes quickly apparent that your optical implants, other than having a totally sweet TV tuner built-in that can broadcast the news straight into your head, are the integral part of Kane's latest mysterious master plan.
Much has been made of this game being the last chapter in the Tiberium saga, wrapping up the series with a bang bigger than a whole fleet of Mammoth tanks. So long Kane, farewell GDI, auf wiedersehen Tiberium. In execution it's all a bit vague, offering up some conclusions but failing to definitively answer everything the sci-fi soap opera has crafted over the ages. If you're been holding out on answers for 15 years this conclusion will probably prove more frustrating than being on the business end of a successful engineer rush.
The plot is this: Kane's finally had enough, though after a few too many years of underwhelming instalments so have we. This is the endgame for realsies this time, with Kane allying himself with GDI forces 15 years before the start of the game so he can get them to build a giant Tiberian-controlling device with all their shiny technology. And it looks like it worked. For now. Cue dramatic tension and an inevitable conflict.
It's all a big excuse to take out resource farming and bring mobile quadruped monstrosities, lovingly dubbed Crawlers, to the mix. EA clearly didn't like my original suggestion of MMCV. They're big, impressive structures - NOD going for a sleek black insectoid look, GDI taking their design cues from the Mechwarrior series - which slowly plod along when packed up, queuing up to four units to plop out when deployed. In their stationary state they, other than issue reinforcements, emit a soothing regenerative aura to all nearby units. They also, from tier 2 onwards, carry some impressive guns - never a bad idea for the battlefield, if you ask me.
The most fundamental rule of C&C4: where your tanks go, the Crawler shall follow close behind. It's all class-based now, too, spreading out C&C's recognisable mainstay units across Offensive, Defensive and Support Crawlers. Offense gets most of the heavily-armoured tanks, which throw big punches but have high demands on your population cap; Defence offers up deployable turrets, bunkers and masses of infantry and Support gives you air units and a variety of useful buffs and debuffs. It doesn't seem quite as potent as the other two so probably won't see much use, though a well placed airstrike is certainly an effective way of thinning the crowds.
There's a very real sense that, whereas vintage Command & Conquer let you loose on the battlefield, Tiberian Twilight is trying to restrict you to prescribed sets of units and abilities. Whilst turtling behind a magnificent impenetrable base was rarely the best way to win in multiplayer, it still proved for some entertainment every now and then - who doesn't have fond memories of walls of tesla coils in the original Red Alert? Don't even think about doing it here unless you want to be obliterated within minutes.
It does its best to help players who don't live and breathe the genre. Losing a Crawler, for instance, is irksome but not necessarily game-ending as you're given the option to respawn after a brief cooldown period. There are a couple of caveats in that you can only do it a limited number of times in single-player and that Crawlers can only be deployed in certain zones on the map, but for the most part you can get back on your feet within a minute or two. The option to manually self-destruct is also present, and one of the more upmarket tactics is to groom the most effective squad across multiple Crawlers.
Without sprawling fields of Tiberian to hoover up, unit economy is controlled by a fixed and meagre unit cap that rarely allows for more than ten units in the squad. For a series most famous for grand base building and great big tank rushes, the move to pare the game back and focus on a single, tight group of units is guaranteed to prove contentious with fans of the C&C of yesteryear.
It also means veterancy is now what separates the men from the boys. Defeated units, and structures around the map, have a habit of spewing out little blue and green Tiberian crates: picking up the former upgrades your units, usually with a fancier looking gun, and the latter boosts a unit's rank to make your little soldier harder, faster, stronger and better. Whilst you can quickly produce new units on-the-go, they don't pack nearly as much of a punch as a well-maintained squad, so it's always a good idea to keep a couple of engineers in the thick of it to perform repairs.
Then there's your level as a commander. It's all gone a bit persistent, so every enemy unit you take out - across all game modes - nets you a handful of XP. New units and upgrades are kept under lock and key until you've reached the required level, meaning if you want to summon your own Mastodons and Avatars you'll need to put in a fair few hours beforehand. This is fine for staggering progression throughout the singleplayer campaign, but frustrating when applied to multiplayer.
In order to offset the fact that new players are at a considerable unit disadvantage, the game creates a whole new system of counters to give them a bit of a fighting chance. It's all quite convoluted, combining six damage types against five armour types, but the HUD - now at the bottom of the screen - does a good job of informing you what kills what, even going so far as to tell you what units to build to blow up enemies if you mouse over them. The game also turns GDI shots pink (from blue) and NOD shots orange (from red) if they're correctly firing at their optimum targets, which makes micro-management an easier task and a deadly GDI strikeforce look a tad silly.
This all turns the game into a series of dense skirmishes. Travelling around with your base means you're always focusing your efforts into one location, usually right next to a big pack of enemy units. It's all about staying on your toes, moving across the map in a grouped, precise and well-nursed pack. With no resource management to consider, stand-off engagements turn into a case of who can pump out the most units first as you try to whittle down the health of the enemy's Crawler without losing yours. In its most basic sense it takes the moments from previous C&C games where you were defending your base and makes an entire game out of it. Only it forgets to bring the rest of the base.
While the focus of the game is on 5v5 multiplayer battles, EA's matchmaking servers were inactive at time of writing (though we'll post some multiplayer impressions down the line) leaving just the single-player campaign and skirmish mode. The campaign, a scant 17 missions and with 3 of those hand-holding tutorial levels, seems a bit thin on the ground. As a point of reference, that's about half the length of previous games in the series.
At times it can be quite spectacular, with all your mechanised squads clunking and grinding across the game's fabulously muted environments. Tiberian might be on the way out, but most of the world's surface is still barren and uninhabitable. The new variable style of play means levels can show a bit more gusto than before, changing your objectives and frequently forcing you to switch between attack and defence mid-mission. Seeing as you don't have to worry about building a base and establishing an economy, you'll also find yourself being flung gung-ho into confrontations from the start.
It's still not changed that much: it's as much about destroying everything at location A and then defending location B as it ever has been. But too much of the campaign has a habit of resorting to cheap tricks, such as backing you into a corner with multiple enemy Crawlers or pitting you against a combination of enemy units without the means to take them down with optimum efficiency. One level, a protracted boss fight, is endemic of everything wrong with the game: it teleports about the map, regenerating its health, whilst converting from one crawler type to another at whim. Fighting it is a tedious war of attrition that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and goes on for what feels like an age. Seeing as it's detailed in pink and piloted by a character with spiky hair and a penchant for hamming it up means it's also quite hard to take as a credible menace.
The campaign is more enjoyable in co-op, though it could be pointed out that even filling out tax returns would be more entertaining if it had a co-op mode. It's also a lot easier, with a combined unit cap that always turns out to be higher than what you'd be able to produce if you were on your tod and the ability to effectively cover two locations at once.
It's all tied together by a staple diet of live action cut-scenes a bit darker (read: grittier) than in previous games. Your camera angle has been given a bit more personality, too, such as the ability to interact with your surroundings from time to time and a doting wife. The brief storyline has you allying yourself with either Kane, who hates something but has never really explained what it is, or the GDI's Commander James, a gruff middle-aged woman who hates Kane. In one instance the game demands you choose an allegiance. Which side do you pick? Well, Kane. Obviously. It's not Commander James they've plastered over the game's cover, after all.
As the game progresses you start to realise Kane's plan has got something to do with the mysterious Scrin tower that's been lying dormant since the end of C&C3, though even after completing the game I'm not entirely sure what exactly was going on. What's important is that something happened, and Kane's still as obsessed with everyone ascending as he ever was. Nice explosions, though.
With rumours abound that EA might be laying off the majority of the C&C team after the game's release, there's a very real chance of C&C4 being the swansong for the series. It plays around with some interesting ideas, triumphing with some but failing at others. It's clear that EA are onto something with their new-age C&C formula but, as it stands, the core needs a little work. The series, once the most explosive game of the medium, looks like it's going out with a whimper.