Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight
Aside from the DRM issue, Command & Conquer 4 is a really enjoyable experience throughout
- Mobile bases concept works well, online matchmaking is consistently stable, persistent progression is properly addicting, story mostly delivers for long-time fans
- Need for constant Internet connection draws concern, the "levelling" mechanic can lead to some unbalanced multiplayer matches
One of the forefathers of the real-time strategy genre makes a return with the latest instalment in EA's long-running Command & Conquer franchise. While its overzealous DRM is sure to draw plenty of criticism, Tiberian Twilight offers up plenty of worthwhile gameplay tweaks and a solid multiplayer experience that's sure to appeal to long-time fans of the series.
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The RTS genre has undergone a lot of change in the past few years. When the genre was first established, most games adhered strictly to the three basic fundamentals of harvesting resources, building bases and fielding massive armies of throwaway units. But as the genre has matured, there's been a movement towards "streamlining" the overall experience while established genre tropes were either pared down to a bare minimum or eliminated altogether. Relic's Dawn of War 2 famously did away with both base building and the resource gathering, relying instead on off-screen reinforcements via resource-ticking control points.
That a stalwart franchise like the Command & Conquer series would also do away with such concepts is a sign of just how far things have come. Command & Conquer 4 doesn't have any resource harvesting; the only gathering you do involves single hunks of Tiberium used for research points which unlock higher tiered units or upgrades. The game also streamlines the base building concept by introducing the Crawler, an all-in-one super base capable of switching between build and mobile modes in addition to handling unit construction, defensive buildings, upgrades and powers. The mobile base comes in three different flavors, each tailored to a specific strategy: Offense, Defense and Support. The Offense base gets the most unit variety and allows you a greater level of strategic flexibility; it has the tools to deal with pretty much any form of resistance the enemy may put up. The Defense base focuses on infantry and defensive structures, some of which to bunker your infantry. Finally, Support Crawlers can fly, build airborne units, and possess powers which allow you to reveal large chunks of the map or lay waste to your foes from across the map.
And largely, the Crawler actually works well. At first I had a hard time allowing my Crawler to get anywhere near the battle, but there's not much of a penalty when you lose one. Assuming this happens, you simply wait a few seconds, click a big button next to the mini-map on your UI, re-select your class type and choose where in your side's deployment zone you'd like to drop down. Plus, each of the three available technology tiers adds weaponry and armor to your Crawler, transforming it into a powerful unit in its own right.
Unfortunately, the Crawler has a strange effect on the single-player experience: you're forced to pick one of the three different versions, which essentially cuts your strategic options by two-thirds. Yes, it's possible to trade your Crawler for another during a mission, but as a solo strategy it's not ideal. Personally, I'd recommend playing through the single-player campaign cooperatively with a friend; each player can then pick a different Crawler, which increases your tactical flexibility. Having an ally on the battlefield at all times also allows you to utilize strategies like flanking and diversionary tactics.
But this new wrinkle aside, C&C4's single-player campaign breaks down into the classic dual story paths that the franchise is famous for: one focuses on the Global Defense Inititive (the "good" guys) and Nod (the "bad" guys). Both paths feature the same post-apocalyptic stories and end in equally similar manners, however; I don't want to ruin any surprises, so I won't speak about specific plot points, but C&C4 abandons the B-movie vibe found in past efforts in favor of a more "serious" storyline. Strangely, the Scrin from Command & Conquer 3 are nowhere to be found, even though their influence is heavily felt in the storyline. I imagine we may see them again, perhaps in a future expansion. Gameplay-wise, C&C4 retains a lot of the franchise's essence even as it tries to actively do something different and new. Units like the hulking Mammoth tank or burrowing Nod units are still deliciously over-the-top future-fare and the story is entertaining as Joe Kucan delivers yet another enjoyable performance as Kane, the undying and always-present leader of Nod.
But there are actually a lot of different things happening in C&C4 that progress the franchise from its roots. Take the concept of persistent progression, for instance: levels gained in the single-player mode carry over to your online experience, and each new level doles out a bit more functionality for the three Crawler classes. It's possible to unlock units, buildings and powers by playing multiplayer matches but I personally recommend that you play some of the single-player campaign to give yourself a boost before you venture online. Heading into the cut-throat world of competitive multiplayer with only the starter units is a bit like going into battle armed only with a knife and a hope, so spending time with the single-player campaign is a wise choice.
I'm actually speaking from personal experience on that particular tip, as my time with C&C4's multiplayer was during the latter half of its open beta. More than half of my opponents were fully levelled players wielding tier three units, massive defensive buildings and devastating powers. It's no surprise my team was almost always trounced when all our opponents were at max level. Matches were far more enjoyable when teams were evenly paired and I was very impressed with the game's fairly consistent ability to quickly load and handle five-on-five matches without any noticeable lag.I also didn't notice any balancing problems between the GDI and Nod; so long as your team consists of a good blend of the three Crawler classes, the biggest deciding factor ends up being player skill, which is the way it should be. Just never play against a team of fully levelled players unless your team's average level is comfortably close.
C&C4's new direction will no doubt irk the diehard fans who were expecting the same gameplay they've experienced throughout the franchise's history; however, people who don't mind a bit of change should find it to be a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, there is a small monkey wrench thrown into the works: much like the ballyhooed PC version of Assassin's Creed 2, C&C4 has a DRM scheme built-in which requires an Internet connection at all times; losing it, even while playing alone in single-player, results in the loss of any progress you'd made on a mission. While the game won't end, your accomplishments up to that point disappear into the ether. This may be a dealbreaker for some, especially if you've got an unreliable connection. While I was never disconnected from Electronic Arts' servers during my review, the spectre of catastrophe constantly hung over my head like a razor sharp guillotine. It should be interesting to see how the servers hold up once the game releases to the general public, but personally, I found it to be a negative aspect of the game.
Aside from the DRM issue, Command & Conquer 4 is a really enjoyable experience throughout. Yes, diehard fans who can't accept the new Crawler mechanic and the shift away from Tiberium harvesting will no doubt be disappointed, but gamers with an open-mind should give the game a chance. The developers are trying to take the franchise in an interesting new direction, and the fruit of their labor is worth checking out.
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