Developer: EA Los Angeles / Publisher: Electronic Arts / ESRB: Teen (Mild Language, Violence) / Played on: PC / Price: $19.99
Not a lot of people liked Rocky V. Tommy “The Machine” Gunn’s ridiculous jheri curl, an uninteresting allegory about the evils of fight fixing, and a 90s hip-hop version of the classic theme song combined to make audiences long for the simple genius of the original. In what should have been a memorable celebration of all that had come before this bad movie was made even worse by eschewing most of the attributes that made the series great. Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight commits the same fallacy, but with greater disappointment, since we can’t even laugh at the jheri curls.
C&C4 replaces its familiar base-building mechanic with a mobile crawler that spews out all of the game’s units. These crawlers come in three varieties – offense, defense, and support, each of which has access to a different set of units, turrets (in the case of defense), and support abilities (in the case of support). The game also strips out all resource management, instead allotting you a finite amount of command points to allocate to units. Each unit consumes a certain amount of points that are refunded upon its destruction. If you’re reading this thinking “infinite units,” you’re very much correct.
In order to prevent every mission devolving into rolling your crawler right up to an enemy’s doorstep and flowing units until you win, C&C4’s campaign uses escort missions, or their near cousin in the I-want-to-break-my-keyboard-in-half- family, time limits. Losing a mission because the truck you’re trying to protect drove straight into a sea of Molotov-wielding fanatics feels incredibly cheap, as though you’re being punished because the system is fundamentally busted. For what small consolation it provides, the campaign is short – both factions (GDI and NOD) offer less than ten missions each, and can be completed in a sitting.
Playing through the campaign in co-op helps immensely, as this doubles the unit cap allowed on your side. However, many of the missions are designed to be played by two people so require a solo player to be in multiple places at once. I understand tailoring the campaign for co-op, but requiring it is just dumb. Red Alert 3 gave you an AI teammate when playing alone, so why didn’t that happen here? Attempting missions solo is intensely frustrating and stressful. Also, you get no experience for losing a mission, so that’s cool.
Speaking of experience, C&C4 attempts to use the unlock system pioneered by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to unlock units, defensive structures, and abilities as you level. This presents a few problems. First, if you want to jump right in to multiplayer, you’ll only have a handful of units available. Second, playing through the campaign will bump you to level 12, and each online victory past that will gain about one level each. Since the last unlock occurs at level 20, it won’t take you long to unlock everything.
Spending a few hours in multiplayer makes it clear that the rest of the game is just tagalong for this mode, as it’s the only aspect of C&C4 that really works. There’s only one mode – the Battlefield-esque capture-and-hold that pits two teams against each other for control of point-granting nodes. The first team to hit the point cap wins. The interplay between the units and mobile constructors works much better in this atmosphere, but with only 12 maps and one mode, the depth and quantity of play is more fitting a downloadable game than a full boxed product.
Mission briefings are delivered via first-person live-action movies, and just like the gameplay, these movies are experimental yet flawed. The directing shows signs of modernization, mostly through using an unstable camera and the occasional loss of focus in a manner popularized by The Bourne Identity. Additionally, the movie sequences portray interesting scenes from a first-person perspective, such as presenting an impassioned speech to a stadium packed with participants only to suffer an assassination attempt. Unfortunately, despite these incremental improvements over the briefing / story cutscenes of previous games, the story in C&C4 is incomprehensible. Some levels will have you fighting against a particular character, only to be allied with them or protect them in the next without explanation. The story most critically fails at the involvement of a love interest for the main character / player. Witnessing a tear-stained actress turn to the camera and say “I almost lost you once, don’t ever do that to me again” made me writhe in discomfort and pity.
Joe Kucan, the game’s perennial villain Kane, provides the lone bright spot in the game’s story, as he’s somehow able to entertain with nothing more than a serious stare, prim leather epaulettes, and a well-trimmed goatee. C&C has always been self-serious, but with a small wink and a nod that made the B-grade story and acting easier to swallow. C&C4’s story is simultaneously worse than the rest of the series and presented far more seriously, degrading it on both counts.
The nuts and bolts of C&C4’s controls are unchanged from C&C3 / Red Alert 3. Issuing orders, assigning command groups, and building units is a simple matter, but the units have moderate pathfinding issues. Yes, pathfinding — that part of RTS games that hasn’t been an issue since 2001. Micro control is a crapshoot as units get stuck on each other or freeze in place. At times, I had to use the game’s poor pathfinding to my advantage by blocking engineers from capturing bases I had to protect. I felt dirty, but slightly justified – like beating up a quadriplegic neo-Nazi.
Control issues even blight some game menus. Here’s a run-down of what’s necessary to load a save after losing: on the “you lose” screen, hit next or replay (they’re the only two options and they do the same thing), hit escape to skip the movie, hit back twice, and then click on load. The process is annoying at the best of defeats and utterly maddening after losing due to suicidal civilian transports. More than once I tabbed out of the game and killed it from the task manager because doing so was faster than watching the end-level cutscene and waiting to re-load.
C&C4 ain’t a looker, which is especially confusing considering the same studio developed the visually superior Red Alert 3. Units are huge, blocky, and geometrically simple. Despite taking place on a planet supposedly consumed by the alien crystalline substance tiberium, all of the game’s maps look like generic windswept ruin. Brown dirt, rusted metal, and uninteresting rock crags form a landscape that is often the butt of “next-gen” jokes – brown and boring. The odd tiberium crystal poking out here and there provides a splash of color, though sadly enough, they are the prettiest thing in the game. Even Command & Conquer 2 managed to work in more color; would it have been so hard to do the same now? Units are visually distinct, so at least that’s never an issue, but the game looks as though it was developed for a standard-definition television.
I’m all for experimentation, but C&C4 is obviously cherry-picking innovations that worked in other games and trying to mash them together: low unit counts and no base building from Dawn of War, experience system from Modern Warfare, and capture-and-hold modes from Battlefield. Even though the mashup doesn’t work, the fact that this game caps off a venerated series by discarding everything intrinsic to the series is even more galling. So much of Command & Conquer 4 doesn’t work – the campaign, graphics, and story all feel shoehorned in to create a game around a concept that should’ve been a simpler, less complicated multiplayer game. Who knows, maybe EA will pull a Rocky Balboa and make up for this game 15 years down the line with a fitting end to the series. Until then, just play Red Alert 3.