So here it is, the end of the Tiberian saga. The series that began a whopping 15 years ago with Westwood Studios' ground breaking Command & Conquer ends here with Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight. Sniff.
It's a load of old tosh, of course. The Tiberian saga may be over, but the universe is alive and well. And, as is the video game way, if C&C4 sells well there will be a C&C5. Well, probably. But EA would have us believe Kane and co are uttering their last words in a saga that's entertained us as much for its über camp live action cut scenes as its bombastic tank rushes. So, we'll play along, and ready the handkerchiefs.
The most important question to answer is: is C&C4 a fitting finale? Well, that's probably the third most important question to answer, behind: does Kane's big bald head finally get its comeuppance, and, did you know I played C&C4 with Joseph D. Kucan (the actor who plays Kane), like, he was sitting right next to me and playing as Nod and stuff? The former, well, you'll have to discover the answer to that one for yourself. The latter: no, you didn't. But then there's a lot of awesome cool stuff you don't know about me.
So, back to the third most important question to answer: is C&C4 a fitting finale? Well, the answer will vary depending on the type of C&C fan you are. If you're a series veteran who's stood by C&C from the very first FMV to the end of C&C3: Kane's Wrath, if you care about the canon and agonise over the art style, then, well, the answer is probably a big fat no.
Why? Because C&C4 isn't very C&C at all. EA LA's only done a Relic Entertainment and stripped away base building and resource gathering completely, replacing it with a class-based system and Modern Warfare-style experience gain. Stay with me here.
Instead of a mobile construction vehicle (MCV), you have what's called a Crawler. The Crawler acts as a mobile base which can unpack anywhere on the battlefield and produce units in the blink of an eye. There is no need to gather Tiberium - the iconic green resource that has fuelled the fight between the Global Defence Initiative and the Brotherhood of Nod for years - with Harvesters. Nor is there a need to build a base. All you need concern yourself with is the production of units, limited only by a unit cap, completing objectives, and, if you're playing competitive multiplayer, capturing control nodes.
Well, after you've chosen your class. Whether you're playing as the GDI or Nod, the same three classes present themselves: Offence, Defence, and Support. Your decision determines not only your play style but the units and abilities available to you. The Offence class, for example, is great for damage dealing, and has loads of heavy duty tanks, such as the Nod Scorpion and Stealth tanks, at its disposal. The Defence class allows you to build a base of sorts, but not really: as GDI you can reinforce your deployed Crawler with bunkers, turrets, and the lovely Ion Cannon; as Nod you've got the wonderful Obelisk of Light (still the coolest structure in the C&C universe). The Support class, on the other hand, grants the player access to powers, like artillery and airstrikes, and air units, like the iconic Orca.
The theory behind the class system is clear: give the player choice. Whether you're playing the campaign or multiplayer, you can decide what kind of approach to take, be it offensive, defensive, or supportive. If your Crawler is destroyed, no bother - you can instantly respwawn another. And at a whim you can destroy your existing Crawler and respawn as another class. This, EA LA hopes, puts the FPS in the RTS.
That, and the new experience system. Here, you're able to level up through persistent experience gain across all game modes: campaign (solo or co-op), skirmish, and competitive multiplayer. As you level up, new units, upgrades, structures, and powers are unlocked. You begin the game as a lowly recruit, with a descent but uninspiring arsenal of units available for production. But as you play, more toys present themselves, with the juicy tier three units, such as the GDI Juggernaut and the Nod Leviathan, eventually reporting for duty.
Now, the community is, predictably, up in arms about all this. You can understand why: so much of what fans have come to know and love about the Tiberian games has been done away with, replaced with mechanics never before seen in the series. But their despair has more to do with the profound effect this has had on C&C's traditional tank rush gameplay. The action comes thick and fast, and multiplayer matches quickly descend into pitched battles where units clobber each other in a shower of particle effects as players desperately attempt to control nodes and, therefore, gain victory points.
So, you can't turtle, bust out your tried and trusted build order in the blink of an eye, maximise your economy to within a Tiberium crystal of its life, then tank rush the enemy base into oblivion. This, no matter what the naysayers claim, is undoubtedly a good thing. But good intentions do not always result in good gameplay experiences.
EA LA will say that the game's got six playable factions, even if they're condensed into two. This isn't really fair. In past C&C games, all unit types - offensive, defensive, and supportive - were available to you from the get go. Just because you separate them out and call it a class system doesn't mean you've suddenly tripled your faction count. Make no mistake, C&C4 has only two factions. This is the uncomfortable truth.
Then there's the persistent, Modern Warfare 2-style ranking system, which grants nothing more than the illusion of strategic depth. As you earn experience and progress up the ranking ladder, you automatically unlock new units, structure, and abilities. There is no strategy here. There is no talent tree to spend points in. You do not decide the upgrades (aka perks) you wish to take with you out on to the battlefield. Not only is the system threadbare, but it forces the player into the ridiculous situation of having to grind experience through skirmishes or player versus player matches just to be able to complete some of the campaign missions.
While we might have accepted these issues in multiplayer, which feels remarkably different to any RTS experience out there, it's hard to give the disappointing campaign the benefit of the doubt. Put simply, it's a tiresome trudge through what's little more than a multiplayer tutorial. Now, the campaign components of RTS games have always suffered from this problem, but Relic's Dawn of War II has shown what can be done. C&C4's campaign missions spawn you on a map and charge you with completing old hat objectives, like protecting civilian convoys from Nod attacks, or taking out three Crawlers so you can power down the forcefield on another one. There's nothing exciting, fresh, or memorable about what you're doing. Chaos Rising is the most set-piece driven RTS ever, with crumbling environments and ingenious objectives lending its campaign a thrill-a-minute feel. Tiberian Twilight's campaign, on the other hand, is, well... boring. The core will plough through to see how the saga wraps up (and to see what becomes of series favourite Kane), but everyone else will quickly gravitate towards the multiplayer.
Weirdly, however, if you're not a C&C obsessive, you'll probably enjoy Tiberian Twilight quite a bit. It's accessible, visceral, and looks lovely (if a tad too cartooney for its own good). EA LA may have pissed off thousands of hardcore fans in its attempt to revolutionise the genre, but in doing so it's rid the tried and trusted C&C formula of many of its more intimidating mechanics. Having your base rushed only minutes after a match begins, for example, doesn't happen, simply because there's no point. One) you don't have a base in the traditional sense, and two) control nodes are the name of the game. Tiberian Twilight's perfectly enjoyable in this regard: quick fire, intense competitive multiplayer matches in which everyone feels like they're contributing to the cause, no matter how many commands they can input per 60 seconds, are the norm. Five-on-five matches are a spectacular joy - a relentless array of earth-shattering explosions, pew pew lasers, and heart-thumping music. Having to nab different-coloured Tiberium crystals and bring them back to your deploy zone to upgrade your units lends multiplayer a fun capture the flag feel, and there can be no dismissing the ease with which you can quickly adapt to your opponent's strategy and coordinate control point assaults. Simply, multiplayer's great.
None of this matters to the hardcore, who are already complaining about what's become of their beloved series. They accuse EA of pandering to the casual gamer and dumbing down the core C&C experience so violently that the end result isn't a C&C game at all. This isn't the case, but there is some truth to what they say. Without base building, without Tiberium, without Harvesters, without more Mammoth Tanks than your graphics card can hope to render, C&C's torch burns less brightly. Think of Command and Conquer as an old couple who've been married for decades. Suddenly, Command dies, leaving Conquer to live on irreparably changed. For those who fondly remember geeking out to C&C's FMVs and reading the game's manual from cover to cover, there is a sadness over the loss of something important here.
Even the live action cinematics have taken a turn for the worse. I understand they're supposed to be grittier than the hilariously over-the-top, boobalicious cutscenes of old, but the seriousness only serves to make dour the impressive gloss. Terrible acting works when it's part of the charm. Take away the charm, and all you have left is terrible acting.
My criticism of this more progressive C&C is at odds with my belief that the RTS developers should follow Relic Entertainment's good work with Company of Heroes and Dawn of War and evolve the genre. C&C3.5 is not the answer, but neither is C&C4. Lead designer Sam Bass has spoken of the disconnect between the developer's vision and fan demands. He has revealed the game's origin as a skunkworks project from a small team allowed to experiment free from the concerns of anyone's bottom line. The story goes that after C&C3 sold well, the call from on high to create a sequel was sounded. Rather than just do C&C3 again, reasoned the team, it would be better to try and bring this new style of play into the Tiberian universe. C&C4 is the result, and I applaud the effort. But I question the wisdom of running with an experiment for the last game in this most celebrated of sagas.
Ultimately, C&C4 is a curiosity, one that succeeds in moving the RTS genre forward and is at times brilliant fun, but it fails as a fitting finale to one of the most loved science fiction tales in gaming. In 1995, Westwood popularised the RTS genre with a landmark title. It seems unlikely that history will judge Tiberian Twilight quite so fondly.