Thursday, March 25, 2010

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight Review

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight, developed by EA Los Angeles and published by Electronic Arts.
The Good: Diverse classes with specific units and upgrades, unique “capture the flag” resource collection, fast-paced multiplayer appeals to a wider audience, looks nice
The Not So Good: New players prohibited from using most content and placed at a distinct disadvantage by linear unlocks, requires persistent online connection (even for single player), terrible pathfinding and units cannot fire and move simultaneously, horrendous game balance with arbitrarily constrained unit counts, pointless skirmish mode with no AI coordination, multiplayer maps are too big for less than ten players, linear conventional campaign, slow repair times makes it a pointless endeavor and negate unit experience, indistinct combatants
What say you? Clearly not a sequel, unique classes and resource collection are countered by a tedious and unfair unlock system, online requirement, oversimplified and unbalanced mechanics, and unit disorganization: 3/8

My first foray into the real time strategy genre was a little niche title called Command & Conquer: Red Alert (you probably haven’t heard of it). My most memorable aspect of the game was my personal favorite weapon: the Tesla coil. Ah, frying those pesky Americans to death. Good times. Anyway, many iterations later (none of which reviewed here, as Electronic Arts is sporadic at best providing review copies, seemingly once every three years) brings us to the conclusion (probably) of the Tiberian half of the Command & Conquer universe, a “twilight” if you will. An lo, it was to be called “Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight.” And it was good. Or was it?

As you would probably expect, Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight looks good. The game includes varied terrain in different environments (desert, snow, urban) with nice attention to detail. The most apparent feature is the use of clouds, which go across the landscape in a dramatic dance of drama. The unit animations are also well done, the models are varied, and the weapon effects are quite nice, with plenty of glowing explosions of death. In addition, Command & Conquer 4 runs well on mid-range systems with most of the graphical options cranked up; you can’t ask for much more. The full motion videos of games past make a return; while the campy nature has been turned down, the acting still leaves a lot to be desired, making them a less enjoyable feature. The sound design is acceptable, with appropriate effects to accompany the mayhem. Some of the instructions are voiced and others are not (especially in the tutorial) and the game features some repetitive unit responses that aren’t terribly funny. I did enjoy the music, though, so Command & Conquer 4 delivers a solid presentation.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight features the epic conclusion (maybe) to the epic struggle between the epic GDI and epic NOD. Epically. The campaign can be played alone and with a friend; while it features objectives that are clearly indicated on the map, it is terribly linear with scripted events and no variety in your objectives. Clearly, Command & Conquer 4 has not evolved beyond the same format used fifteen years ago. The campaign missions are not interesting at all, and actually can be infuriating. Take the first NOD mission, for example (which includes a scripted event during which your units don’t fire…makes sense to me!): you have to guard a convoy that advances whenever your crawler gets near it, preventing you from actually defending it as it always stays far ahead of your troops. Additionally, the first three missions are tutorials that don’t give you any experience, just wasted time. Skirmish games are equally inane: since Command & Conquer 4 requires teamwork to secure all of the required objective locations, coordination with the unresponsive AI is impossible. Multiplayer can be entertaining if you have a good team that sticks to their roles. Victory points are earned from capturing nodes, destroying units, and harvesting tiberium. The online game is very friendly to novice players, since you can respawn with no penalty. Even the multiplayer game is subject to criticism, though, as the maps are designed for five-on-five matches only, and games involving less than ten players result in too much undefended territory. In addition, automatch takes three minutes to find no matches, and custom games frequently have players drop in and out; actually joining a multiplayer game can be quite painful. At least multiplayer is timer-based (there will eventually be a winner), so there are no stalemates.

OK, time for two big complaints. Command & Conquer 4 has opted to go for persistent unlocks, like what you see in Call of Duty, where new units and abilities are given to you based on how much you play. This is really stupid. When you start the game for the first time, you are given five units and one ability in each class. If you then join a multiplayer game against more experienced players, you are instantly at a disadvantage because you have less powerful units and abilities. Who thought this would work in a strategy game? I hate persistent unlocks that make a difference, and they make a huge difference here. Even more maddening is that fact that GDI and NOD unlocks are separate, requiring you to play the game twice as much to gain the same units and abilities for both sides. Idiotic. Additionally, you don’t even get to choose your unlocks, as the developers have arbitrarily decided what’s best instead of letting you choose what works for your tactics. Way to remove strategy and highlight tedium. Simply put, experience ruins the game experience. And the fun doesn’t stop there: Command & Conquer 4 requires a constant internet connection in order to play. Yes, this includes single player modes as well. Brilliant. So much for playing the game on a laptop on the road. Epic fail.

Remember the resource collection that was a staple of Command & Conquer games of old? Gone. Instead we have an interesting capture the flag method of resource collection: tiberium spawns at several locations on a map, and you must use a unit to carry it back to your spawn point. This unlocks more upgrades, but only if you’ve unlocked them through experience first (of course…we wouldn’t want a balanced game, now would we?). Upgrades include bonuses to range, speed, damage, repair, and more abilities for specific units. It’s too bad all but one of them aren’t available to new players. You can even detonate the tiberium on purpose to serve as a giant bomb, destroying your pursuers in the process. This is by far the most interesting aspect of Command & Conquer 4, but, sadly, it’s the only interesting aspect of Command & Conquer 4.

Also completely unlike previous games in the series, Command & Conquer 4 features a single unit serving as your mobile base. The crawler comes in three classes, which determines which units and abilities are available. Offensive crawlers get more powerful units, defensive crawlers get structures, infantry, and superweapons, and support crawlers get air units and spells. What this does is force you into a role and makes coordination more important. Having this mobile base does make construction easier, as all of you units will spawn from your crawler. In fact, you can even queue units while the crawler is moving, and they will automatically deploy when you set down. Command & Conquer 4 could use an infinite queue, however, as constantly clicking the button for replacement is tedious. There is no penalty for death in Command & Conquer 4: you simply respawn and keep all of your upgrades. In fact, the game wants you to die and pick a more appropriate class on occasion. The offensive class is the most traditional and subsequently least interesting: you just get lots of troops. The defensive turrets and bunkers are useful and the support powers are appealing, improving rate of fire, repair, bombardment, or armor for a short period of time.

Command & Conquer 4 does feature the classic counter system for determining maximum damage. You use guns on light units, cannons on medium targets, rockets for air assets, lasers on heavy things, and blasts on reinforced enemies. Each unit has its advantages (and disadvantages) and the key to the game is to produce the appropriate units for your enemy’s armada. The game features a decent interface that makes selecting all of your units easy, and you can place them in formation or order varied stances and abilities (which must be manually triggered, but you have such a low number of units it’s not that micro-intensive). Units gain experience through battle and gain improved armor and damage over time.

The actual gameplay of Command & Conquer 4 is poor. First off, the population cap is very small: you will never have more than ten units at a time, and since there is no economic cost for producing units (just time), everyone will always have the maximum number of units, resulting in a lot of stalemates and drawn-out battles unless one of the sides has the perfect counters. There is no strategy beyond simple countering. Additionally, the penalty for death is too minor: instantaneous reinforcements means losing units is no big deal, and extremely lengthy repair times and minor veteran bonuses makes units expendable. Even worse is the pathfinding, or more specifically when units are moving near other units. They run into each other almost constantly, and since units can’t fire and move at the same time (of course they can’t…what is this, real life?), units will get killed as they slowly jostle around friendly units, not returning fire. Brilliant. You lose units not because of poor tactics, but because they can’t stand still. This also impact the “guard” order: units that guard are always moving and, thus, never fire. So what’s the point? The enemy AI is only a roadblock, decent when in superior numbers but no match in skirmish games. Thus, Command & Conquer 4 will get its longevity through multiplayer, multiplayer that restricts content from all but the most experienced players.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight certainly does not suffer from “sequel-itis,” as this is a completely different game. This does not bother me, actually, despite the clear attempt to cash in on the Command & Conquer name without resembling Command & Conquer gameplay in any way. No, the game fails for many, many other reasons. First, the good news: class-based gameplay stolen from World in Conflict is nice (in theory) and I do like the “capture the flag” method of resource collection. The game is certainly easier to learn, so it’s clear the developers aimed for a larger fan base. However, the end result is that Command & Conquer 4 will appeal to nobody. The campaign is a completely linear affair that injects no innovation. Skirmish mode is worthless as you can’t coordinate with the AI (and coordination is essential in the game’s control-point-based mode). Almost all of the content is locked for new players, requiring a lot of play time to reach the more interesting stuff. The game requires a constant internet connection to play, even for the single player campaign. The population cap is so low that everyone is maxed out, making for equal fights that are only resolved by producing appropriate counter units. Units heal so slowly that preserving units because of experience bonuses is impossible. There is no penalty for death, as you will just churn out units as quickly as they die with no economic considerations whatsoever. Pathfinding is terrible, with units constantly running into each other and moving to arrange themselves, which is a significant problem since units only fire when stationary. The base game is flawed, and the experience features are flawed. If I come back and play Command & Conquer 4 after a month’s absence, I am at a disadvantage not because I am less skilled, but because I simply have not logged as many hours and unlocked as many gadgets as others. Screw that. Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight is not worth the effort.