Controls controls controls. This one's all about the controls. With a number of Xbox 360 RTS games now under its belt (Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars and The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II), EA Los Angeles has more experience than most in the search for a solution to what might possibly be an unsolvable puzzle: how to make a good console RTS. Now Kane's Wrath, the standalone expansion to Tiberium Wars (already out for the PC and reviewed here), has forced its way onto the 360, and once again it's all about the controls.
EALA's solution centres around the new CommandStick radial interface. By pressing the right trigger on the 360 pad a power wheel of sorts displays. Then, by cycling around the power wheel with the left thumb stick, players are able to build units, construct buildings and trigger special powers with simple presses of the A button.
The best thing about the CommandStick interface is that you can use it from anywhere on the battlefield. One of the biggest problems with console RTS games is that you can't quickly jump from one area of the map to another and instinctively pump out infantry, vehicles and buildings and react to the evolving battlefield. Kane's Wrath avoids the problem because, if, for example you're watching a close skirmish between forces in the far corner of a map and you need to quickly pump out some reinforcements all you have to do is bring up the radial interface and make the order from there. There's no need to move the camera all the way back to your barracks, select it and then make the order.
Anyone who's used to playing RTS games on PC, however, will quickly realise that EALA hasn't stumbled upon the ultimate solution. Kane's Wrath's interface is still nowhere near as quick, intuitive or satisfying as the PC version's. Indeed, go from playing any PC RTS to a quick game of Kane's Wrath on the 360, and you'll feel like you're running in water. But that doesn't prevent the CommandStick from being one of the best console RTS control systems we've seen.
For 360 owners who aren't well schooled in the PC RTS, or who are perhaps new to the RTS genre as a whole, Kane's Wrath would be a recommended entry point if it weren't for its ridiculously hard difficulty. When we sat down for a chat with associate producer Jim Vessella earlier in the month, he told us the development team had made the game easier so console players weren't frustrated by constantly losing battles. Well we're not sure EALA has achieved this goal. Even on the easy difficulty setting we found ourselves constantly rushed from multiple directions towards the end of the first mission of the 13 mission single-player campaign. Kane's Wrath was hard on PC, but we struggled through it because it was so much fun. On 360 it seems even harder because the control system doesn't allow for as much control over what's going on. RTS newcomers will find Kane's Wrath extremely hard to get into, that much cannot be denied. RTS fans, those who have played RTS games for many years however, will discover a satisfying challenge.
Speaking of the story, Kane's Wrath takes us through two decades of Tiberium universe history from The Brotherhood of Nod's perspective. It begins in the aftermath of the Second Tiberium War and finishes in the aftermath of the Third Tiberium War, taking in the run up to the outbreak of the Third Tiberium War along the way. The trademark live action cut scenes are all faithfully recreated, with Kane actor Joe Kucan once again proving an entertaining watch. Eye candy comes in the form of Species starlet Natasha Henstridge as Alexa Kovacs, a devoted Kane worshipper. It's all ridiculously over acted of course, but it fits. This is Command & Conquer after all.
Fans of the series will be most interested in the six new sub factions, spread equally across the GDI, Nod and Scrin. While they include new units, powers and upgrades to play around with as well as epic units (the GDI MARV - Mammoth Armed Reclamation Vehicle - is a particular favourite), we're disappointed that there isn't a completely new race to sink our C&C teeth into. The sub factions, while focusing on specific styles of play, are too similar to the base GDI, Nod and Scrin armies from C&C3 for us to get too excited about them.
We were never massive fans of the PC version's Risk-style Global Conquest mode, so we're not sad to see it replaced by the Kane's Challenge mode for the 360 version. Acting like a gauntlet, there are over 90 separate matches for players to work their way through, each with a little pep talk from Kane himself to get the blood pumping. Kane's Challenge suffers from the same problem as the main campaign however, in that it's still way too hard for newcomers.
Fans will get most pleasure from online play, which is well supported by over 50 maps (including about two dozen new maps), leaderboards and the ability to use the Xbox LIVE Vision Camera so your opponent can see your smug grin when you pound him into the ground. The game supports up to four players at once, so two versus two or any combination up to four. All the gameplay modes from Tiberium Wars make a return, including Versus, King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, Capture and Hold and Siege. It all works, it's stable and with friends of similar skill level can be superb fun.
EALA hasn't cracked the console RTS control conundrum, but it' effort in Kane's Wrath is sterling. Indeed if it proves a success the CommandStick radial interface might provide us a glimpse into the control system of the Xbox 360 version of the hotly anticipated Red Alert 3. Kane's Wrath on 360 is, essentially, another step along the steep learning curve control scheme ladder, and we expect further refinements next time around. But with high profile console RTS games EndWar (Ubisoft Shanghai) and Halo Wars (Ensemble Studios) preparing for launch there's some serious competition looming ominously over the horizon. The pressure is on.
Kane's Wrath's biggest problem, though, lies not with the controls but with the difficulty. It feels like it doesn't know what kind of gamer it's aimed at. Is it for the RTS veteran who, in the very first mission, can handle multiple attacks, manage varied build queues and tank rush the enemy base all at the same time? Or is it for the 360 owner who might have only dipped in and out of the RTS genre over the years and, from what he or she has read of the radial interface, now fancies a closer look? In the end Kane's Wrath lands somewhere in the middle.