Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars
They're Here, And Lando Calrissian knows it. ''This is war against an enemy unlike any that mankind has ever seen!" screams a wild-eyed Billy Dee Williams, hiding out in an Icelandic bunker as the alien menace thunders overhead. "If you don't use everything in your power... If you don't use every asset available to fight this war right now... Then you are failing every man, woman and child on this planet!" Then suddenly, he mellows. "Do the right thing commander... That's all I can ask... Do the right thing..." Ladies and gentlemen, the FMV has landed - and so have the new faces in the third act of the Tiberium Wars.
Hie first place they strike is fair London town, a 'blue zone' city unaffected by the crystalline tiberium plague that's turning our planet into a toxic, yet energy rich, wasteland. "The GDI unambiguously sees them as the invaders: they show up, their intentions are hostile, they start laying waste to cities and fighting both GDI and Nod troops," explains C&C3 executive producer Mike Verdu when I quiz him. "Kane, on the other hand, keeps on referring to these guys as 'the visitors' - and it's clear that there's some kind of agenda..."
But what does this mean for the C&C franchise? The delicate balance between the solid, dependable, build-and-conquer GDI and the sly, finesse and stealth techniques of the Nod is about to be trampled upon merrily - and one false move could spell disaster for the Westwood enclave at EA. So with such an unflinching juggernaut of a franchise, just how very dare they shake things up?
Just Moved In
There's more than a touch of World of Warcraft's Draenei to C&C's friendly neighbourhood alien invaders - perhaps it's in their shimmering light blue colourings and rather bulbous crystalline vehicles and units, although there's also a vague insectoid nature in there too. They've been camping out just beyond the orbit of Neptune you see, and they've been there for generations - just waiting for when the time is ripe and juicy for an attack. And that time would appear to be 2047.
Now I don't want you to start thinking that the very fabric of C&C is being broken (for better or worse that certainly isn't the case), but the invaders are strikingly different in concept from anything the series has seen before.
"To some extent we've named the alien units as they would be perceived by GDI and Nod. so the basic alien infantry are called buzzers, picks up Verdu as we hover behind one of his accomplices, busily playing through a GDI mission set in the battered shell of Cologne in Germany.
"To a GDI soldier on the field they would seem to be a cloud of intelligent flying razor blades. They flock and swarm almost like a swarm of particles across the battlefield; when they come into contact with you, they spin around and cut you to shreds." As he finishes, a tripod with wavy medusa tentacles sprouting from its top appears, firing independent laser blasts in every direction and making strange squeaking and screeching noises. It's instantly noticeable too that it's shrouded in the aforementioned alien infantry buzzers...
"Yes. They can also combine with other alien units, so you essentially get this protective cloud," nods Verdu as the GDI scream for help on the monitor below us. Don't mistake this for the reinvention of the wheel though. Yes, the invaders have warp bubbles that summon units through wyrm-holes rather than the traditional conveyor belt approach. Yes, they can summon and control flashy ion storms that boost their own units while hassling others; and yes, they even have a unit that gobbles up tiberium, then pukes it all up over passing human troops and incinerates them. However, the new C&C faction still works very much in the venerable build/harvest/rush/ defend fashion. This isn't a Supreme Commander-style rethink of the RTS genre - it's a consolidation of years and years of the C&C franchise: slick, pretty, effective, mega-budget and (E.T. totally withstanding), back to basics.
So You're Back, Commander?
I soon discover this for myself when I'm pitted as GDI against a fellow journalist who's limbering up as a servant of Kane. While I'm immersing myself in the familiar procedures of building power stations, sending out harvesters and wandering up the production ladder, I can't help but notice how slick everything is.
Hip friendly C&C toolbar may be iconic, but in C&C3, its use has been streamlined -it's almost iPod-like in its ergonomic yet deep design. Much as I hate to parrot the promises made by Verdu when I interviewed him back in May, the whole affair does feel crisp, clean and vital in a way that few RTSs have ever mustered. Soon, I've mustered a happy collection of Mammoth tanks, goliath Juggernaut walkers and a smattering of Orca gunships. Now, I'm in the mood for something a little more substantial than the sniper/infantry and flametank/pitbull confrontations my Nod adversary and I have been sharing at the crossroads at the centre of our urban map. Leaving behind a skeleton defence force, I send my chaps to the north-east of the map, ready the airforce and click and select one of a few applicable formations. Then I set walker and buggy alike, travelling at the same speed into the jaws of the valley of death. As soon as my planes leave the airstrip however, a huge Nod force decloaks a fraction to the south of my base and the counter-offensive massacre begins. "Wanker!" I exclaim loudly.
Heading my opponent's attack force, in front of a flotilla of stealth tanks, is an Avatar War Meeh, a 40ft bipedal creation that the Nod commander can upgrade at his whim. Fancy nicking the flame-thrower component from a flametank and sticking it on? Go for it. Think a stealth field generator would help your walking metal hulk camp outside the enemy's base? Then pluck one from a stealth tank.
Either way, what Mike Verdu casually calls a "flame-spewing, beam-firing, stealth bipedal robot of death" is bearing down on my base with surprising vitesse. Now if my defence force weren't scampering back through a Tiberium patch several miles away, and if I had any engineers who weren't being toasted in a beautiful billow of flame by a flametank, then I might have been able to knock the damn thing down - and take it over myself. As matters stand, however, I'm pretty well screwed.
As the dust settles on my ignominious defeat, I sit down, steal a consolatory pain de raisin from a nearby journalist feed-trough and have a good old think. Command & Conquer 3 is dead-set on providing the well-trodden, clean, solid RTS experience that both the diehard fans and marketing execs demand - again, it's not a revolution. But at the same time, there is an unknown factor.
The Tiberium universe may have been crying out for an injection of mystery and wonderment, but are these blue fellas the ones to do it? Are their otherworldly Gipers and visuals a little too 'out there' for a series that's previously defined itself on flames and hard steel? At the same time, will their cool ion storms and razor-blade infantry prove to be gimmicks cut-and-pasted over a well-worn template? To be honest (and I'm aware that I'm paid to have opinions about this kind of thing) it's impossible to tell yet - I haven't seen enough.
What I can tell you is that the rudiments of the game are pixel-perfect. The undimmed joy I felt as I heard the first harvest of tiberium trickle into my refinery completely obliterated the many lingering doubts I had about Command & Conquer: Generals. More than any of the seguels and spin-offs, Tiberium Wars genuinely feels like a dyed in the wool C&C game. The FMV sections (a series hallmark) arc priceless - and the prospect of having extra-terrestrial FMV sections in the alien campaign (EA will only say that the seguences "won't be live action") is certainly intriguing. Will the visitors be talking to you, the alien commander, through a series of clicks and whistles? Will you crush Kane and Michael Ironside alike, squishing them under your blue insectoid/crystalline leg-like appendage? Watch this space, commander.
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Do You Remember the first time you played Command & Conquer? It was probably a long time ago, perhaps before the genre became lost in the game's unending list of po-faced clones, but whenever it was I can guarantee one thing: you thought that the installation process was blinding. For me, booting up the original C&C demo off a ZONE coverdisc back in 1995, and having a sexy computer woman talking at me through a haze of futuristic green meshes was much like communing with God himself. But the best was yet to come: the gentle tinkle of harvested tiberium turning to cash, the trundle of Mammoth tanks, the distant scream of a grunt caught in a tiberium patch and those FMVs of Kane -marvellous, marvellous Kane. We won't see those days again.
Well not until C&C3. any road. "Really in our heart of hearts we're returning to the first C&C." explains executive producer Mike Verdu. "That crisp, fun feeling of the first one that felt like the military sort of slipped maybe 30 years into the future." Verdu and a nice PR lady are sitting bamboozled in front of me while I explain my love for C&C through the medium of vague impressions of the Commando. It's a really rich universe and for people like me who really cut their teeth on the original C&C. I can't imagine not doing another game set in that universe, Verdu continues. "It's a very compelling place -1 always thought tiberium was incredibly cool and Kane was one of the most compelling villains." So Kane's coming back? The bald, brilliant, bearded bastard is coming back? "Oh yeah," nods Verdu. "Oh, yeah."
When we last left the Tiberium universe in Tiberian Sun expansion pack Firestorm (before returning to the still wackier antics of Yuri and co in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 and the determinedly bullish, grumpy and serious demeanour of Generals), the evil Nod super-computer CABAL (that sounded like a robot Bob Hoskins) was having a shit-fit - and both the goody-two-shoes GDI and nefarious Nod had to team up against it. This uneasy no-score draw seems to have continued beyond the end of the game - until now that is.
"The year that the game starts is 2047, so it's been a while since the end of Firestorm." begins Verdu as he trots out the initial set-up of Tiberium Wars. "When the game starts there's been a period of relative peace, so the GDI have started work on trying to reverse the tiberium outbreak, and tiberium is everywhere. It's gotten pretty bad by the time the game opens; there are outbreaks in a lot of different areas. A good part of the Earth's surface, as much as 20%, is uninhabitable - it's like the surface of an alien planet at this point"
Make note of that word 'alien' kids, we're coming to that soon... So it's now really nasty and GDI is running the projections and saying: 'Yeah, another 80 years or so and there's going to nothing left, this planet's gone'. So they're working really hard now that the war has died down to reverse the contamination and start restoring Earth to the state it was before."
Getting The Nod
But while the GDI have their back turned, too busy saving whales and sending letters of environmental complaint to the letters page in the Metro, the Nod are building up their forces. Seeing as the Nod aren't usually too backward with their warfare, what with their training camps that look like giant hands and gigantic deathpyramid obelisks, you might have thought that it'd be easy to spot their fresh recruitment drive in the tiberium-ravaged Yellow Zone hinterlands of the globe - but the GDI remain blissfully unaware.
Now EA aren't keen on revealing anything about the Nod (the game isn't that far into production, and the marketing machine hasn't got that far yet), but they're revealing even less on the third contingent entering the C&C universe. Now it could be one of the Haywire AIs from Firestorm, but that would just be bleedin' dull - so the odds-on bet is that we'll be dealing with a force that's much less close to home. Tiberium itself is widely acknowledged to have come from the inky blackness of space (and the GDI themselves stumbled on the wreckage of an alien spacecraft back in Tiberian Sun), so the concept of aliens terraforming Earth through the tiberium plague before turning up, 'man with a van' in tow, intent on moving in through force is a prime possibility. EA's own stance after a long process of journalistic badgering runs as follows.
Me: "What can you tell us about the mysterious third faction? Verdu: "Not much right now. Their entrance into the scene is shrouded in mystery at this point. I can't really say much about it other than there's a third side." Me: "Would they by any chance perhaps have something to do with the presence of the tiberium on Earth maybe? Verdu: "Enn... I think yon can draw your own conclusions."
Conclusions drawn then. Let's move onto the bread and butter of C&C past the shiny Westwood-cum-EA gloss - and find out how it's going to play. "It's worth highlighting the kind of game that we're building, and that's fast fluid, responsive and very crisp in execution," explains Verdu, clearly glad we're veering away from things we'ie not allowed to discuss. "When you click, we want the game to react instantly - there's just no delay from when you give a unit an order and its response. We re setting a very high standard for ourselves - if you play a game that came out perhaps five years ago, it runs just lightning fast on a computer from the present day. It just has this delightfully crisp responsive feel to it and that's the essence of what we're trying to get to."
A lot of what's returning is blindingly obvious - the Mammoth, the Orca, the Commando, the Nod Stealth tank, the Ion Cannon, the Nuke superweapon, the Hand of Nod - there'd be rioting on the streets if they didn't show their big metal faces. As for battlefields - expect barren wastelands with tiberium glaciers welling up from underneath, deserts, tundra and even the fully-functioning, super-modern cities of the previously secure 'blue zones'. One of the many avenues that EA are looking thoughtful about is just how destructible these areas will be - wanting to ramp up damage sequences for buildings so that you'll be able to blast pieces off them and have a good look at their interiors. Seeing as cityscapes were already pretty impressive, what with building occupations and flashbangs in Generals, god only knows what they'll be like come C&C3.
In fact, technology-wise, we're still looking at what was created for Generals - albeit substantially upgraded through the BFME series. "It's not disposable technology - there's a good solid foundation there that we continue to build on, adds Verdu. "We added a lot of new stuff for BFME2 and we continue to do work on the engine - tightening up the controls, making improvements on the graphics... We're doing basically a new particle system that will allow us to create these magnificent explosions, smoke and fire and weather effects. The technology is definitely coming along."
And when the man says weather -he's not just talking about scattered showers subtly relieving the pain of soldiers charred by a quick march through a hectare of tiberium. He's talking ion storms - which, in essence, are large, swirly and liable to change battlefield conditions like the ion wind. Quite how these gusty scientific monstrosities will affect gameplay is in constant discussion in EA's Californian digs - current thought being that one of the sides (perhaps even the MYSTERY one) is so keyed into tiberium usage and ion thingies that their units' effectiveness will vary depending on how close they are to a storm's centre. They 'll even be able to summon a storm after an impromptu technological raindance, and shift it about the place at their whim - no doubt important since not everyone will be so keen on all those ions flying around all over the place. Whatever the hell an ion actually is - all I know about ions is that they're purple in Star Trek.
Trapped beneath these storms of twirling purple (maybe) storminess, meanwhile, will be some fresh new units. GDI Mammoth tanks (so familiar and nice that I'd almost describe them as cuddly) are getting an upstart cousin that's very much in the model of Scrappy Doo - although perhaps less liable to stand in a small box on a railway platform or swing on convenient ropes. This Predator tank will be faster and more agile than the Mammoth, with less armour and a potential railgun upgrade. It will also be far, far less likely to be carried away in a runaway mine cart shouting "Raggy!" But I digress.
"As far as infantry goes there's a rifleman, a missile-trooper and a grenadier, and each fulfils a role in the combat chain, continues Verdu, unaware that my mind is inexplicably fixed somewhere above the cartoons of Hanna-Barbera rather than his thrilling new RTS. "In particular, we have a unit called the Zone Trooper which is like elite heavy infantry in a power-suit. He's really good for tramping around red zones that are infested with tiberium. Unable to think of a Hanna-Barbera analogy for this, we'll move on to the new Firehawk fast attack jet - a fast high-altitude aircraft that you can deploy really quickly. And, interestingly enough, it wouldn't be that out of place in The Jetsons.
Tiling is though, we haven't quite finished with the experimental concepts rolling around the great big ex-Westwood octagonal tombola development drum. For example, there's the idea of giving one of the sides a mobile base (which would perhaps make sense if they were maybe, perhaps, potentially part of a MYSTERY expeditionary alien force). Doubling up as centre for resource/production management and supreme mega-combat, the idea is that it'll provide an 'all or nothing' feel to combat, especially in multiplayer, in which the heart of your operations will be at the forefront of your assault. Another feature, meanwhile, will be customisation through combination -jamming two units together to create a super-unit with the capabilities of both. So you could make something that's generally ground-based and mix it with a touch of airpower - although whether or not this capability will be reserved for one MYSTERIOUS force or will be open to all three has not been revealed.
One thing that'll be the same for GDI good, Nod bad and Whoever MYSTERIOUS though, is the intriguing way that campaigns will work in C&C3 - adding a touch of the non-linear to proceedings. "Each campaign is actually made up of what we're calling "theatres of war'," picks up Verdu. "And in each one you'll actually have a choice of what targets you go after, and what order to get to an ultimate goal. For each of those missions there's a very specific belief it that rolls forward into subsequent ones. For example, you might have an area that has an airfield, a port and an R&D lab all leading to a goal of some kind. Do you go for the airfield and get air-strikes or air units that you wouldn't have had before? Do you go for the port and get maybe an aircraft carrier or a battleship to support your assault on the target? Or do you go for the R&D lab and maybe get a tech upgrade?
Lying alongside these branching tales of violence, meanwhile, will be one of your own making. A World Domination mode that'll do what it says on the tin - letting you select a starting location on the globe, build structures and units and proceed to dominate things world-wise. Coupled with the ever-resilient C&C multiplayer (now packaged with VOIP and spectator modes) then as a package Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars looks like it'll more than make up for having 11 entire syllables in its name.
In fact, the only thing that would make me more intrigued about Command & Conquer 3, is if Tanya out of Red Alert managed to make some sort of dimension jump into the game - but that's only because I'm a boy and thereby a fan of sexy FMV ladies who kill. It's still a way off, and it has some hefty competition in the form of Supreme Commander, but to have it on the horizon makes the strategy scene a brighter and more happy place. Welcome back. Commander.
It's Back! After a barren spell of over a decade, the original Command & Conquer franchise has come home, the prodigal son returning after years of wayward meanderings and ill-advised investments. Forget the debacle that was Tiberian Sun and the misjudged digression that was Generals - Tiberium Wars is the game we've been waiting for since that first, unforgettable moment way back in 1995 when the RTS genre was truly born.
It's a comeback of admirable proportions, like an old, much-loved slugger stepping back into the ring, a decade of saggy man-boobs replaced by a chiselled physique not seen since his heyday when he reigned supreme over his division. And while C&C3 may lack the tricks and guile of its more visionary title contenders (Total War, Supreme Commander), its old-school approach to combat still raises a nostalgic smile and sends a shot of adrenalin through calcified arteries as it conies out punching like its life depends on it.
The War Continues
The year is 2047. Tiberium - that energyrich yet dangerously toxic otherworldly power source - has spread to cover much of the known world. After several years of inactivity, the terrorist faction Nod suddenly strikes at the very heart of the world's peacekeepers the Global Defence Initiative (GDI), obliterating its entire chain of command in a single, devastating attack.
So begins the Third Tiberium War, a battle for global supremacy presented from two diametrically opposed perspectives and packed with enough twists and turns to make your head fall off. As your faction's leading battlefield commander, it's up to you to spearhead all military operations, taking orders from your commanding officers and, every once in a while, liaising with the head cheeses: Kane, Nod's enigmatic slap-headed leader and GDI Director Redmond Boyle, a glorified number juggler promoted by proxy to the head of GDI's military command when all of his superiors are wiped out by Nod's calculated attack.
Just Like Old Times
After the initial FMV formalities (for more on which check out the 'FMVs: The Verdict') you're thrown straight into the action, in a blistering, aesthetically sumptuous battlefield that screams, "C&C is back!" like a foghorn signalling the return of a super-tanker.
Tliis is C&C how you remember it from all those years ago: base-building, unitmassing, Tiberium-harvesting madness. It's RTS gaming in its purest form, bolstered by a myriad of additions and improvements that try to take the series' two-dimensional template and inflate it into a multifaceted yet recognisable strategy experience. And while the gameplay is still rooted in the build-and-rush mechanics of its forebears, C&C3, to its credit, does more than simply rest on the fading memories of past glories.
Tiberium Wars simply teems with excellent features that perfectly complement its established gameplay model. Infantry units, for instance, can now be garrisoned, allowing you to place them cunningly inside buildings for both height and armour advantage, spitting out bullets and missiles at enemies as they pass beneath, then tumbling to earth along with chunks of concrete after tanks pummel their hiding places to dust.
Directional unit armour is another feature that goes some way towards transforming the heedless skirmishes of yore into something approaching tactical subtlety - though admittedly, you'll still rarely (if ever) feel the need to employ any recognisable battle plans or flanking manoeuvres. Like it or not. sheer weight of numbers still takes precedence over cunning tactics in the C&C universe.
But that's kind of beside the point Y'see, Tiberium Wars isn't so much about innovation as it is about a slick, polished and exciting gaming experience. There's nothing here whatsoever that'll make you coo with awe, rub your eyes with disbelief or drag your jaw along the floor, but conversely, there's little here that'll truly disappoint if you approach the game with eyes wide open.
If you're a C&C fan, you already know the drill. Build a base, fortify it collect resources, amass a force and hit the enemy as hard as you can. But unlike countless C&C copycats still doing the rounds these days, Tiberium IVors pulls off this template with an almost unparalleled finesse - so much so that you start to forgive it its archaic approach to RTS gaming.
Every nook, every corner, every second of your experience is buffed to the kind of sheen that will strip you of any lurking cynicism you may harbour. This is mass entertainment at its finest, a hugely accomplished piece of programming that will no doubt unify the hardcore and mainstream markets while placating us critics with the sheer joy of its pick-up-and-play action.
Put simply, RTS games don't come much more polished. Take player guidance, for example. Never - not once - arc you left in any doubt as to what you're supposed to be doing, where your next target is or what bearing your next objective will have on the outcome of a level, thanks to regular midmission briefings that keep you updated yet never patronised or mollycoddled. Visually, C&C3 is also beyond reproach. The engine purrs along like a finely tuned Ferrari, generating levels of detail that many other RTS games can't even sniff at, yet never compromising on performance. While Supreme Commander and Medieval II: Total War made even higher-end machines beg for mercy, Tiberium Wars wholeheartedly invites you to crank up the graphics settings to the max with a near-unparalleled smoothness of play, even on its largest, most demanding levels.
Spit And Polish
The attention to detail is also superb. Buildings degenerate as your shells and bullets pound them, sagging, cracking, charring and then tumbling down. Vanquished vehicles no longer just explode, they spew out their contents, sending ragdoll corpses arcing through the air on waves of fire. Meanwhile, back at your base, small repair droids buzz around autonomously fixing any damaged units that lie within your immediate borders.
Each building and unit has ittnwil character, distinct appearance and unique movement - a level of detail that makes a mockery of many of the game's rivals - while the interface is one of the most streamlined you'll see any time soon, with only the somewhat fiddly queuincj options coming in for any real criticism.
Every building you construct plays a key role in the race for unit upgrades and battlefield reinforcements, and while the upgrades may be? somewhat throwaway and simplistic, the range of reinforcements on offer is quite the opposite.
Ion Cannons, nukes, Orca strikes, additional infantry, sniper units, decoy armies, radar jamming, cloaks and mortar attacks are just some of the many trump cards you can call in to help sway the outcome of a battle, each with a beautifully clear icon situated on the left of the screen as it becomes available. In fact, they're so intuitive to use that incorporating them into your tactical vocabulary becomes second nature in no time.
So what about the units? Well, if truth be told, they're somewhat of a mixed bag, with both Nod and GDI's arsenals borrowing a too heavily from the original C&C for comfort.
All of the units you'd hope to see are pt esent and correct here (as well as a whole new arsenal once you've completed the two main campaigns). These include the terrorist faction's fire-spewing and stealth units or the GDI's hulking, twin-turreted Mammoth tanks that you'll welcome back with the type of sloppy kiss usually reserved for a long-lost loved one, especially once you hear the familiar squish of enemy corpses beneath your tracks.
Orcas and Venom assault craft buzz around the skies harassing ground units, while foot soldiers come equipped with the traditional line-up of machine guns, flamethrowers, bazookas and grenades (grenadiers can even throw their exploding pineapples from inside APCs, which is a great touch), and engineers can capture enemy buildings and units. What's more, units can gain promotions (making them more effective killers), and some can even be upgraded with railguns, jetpacks, mortars or superior armour.
Ain't Over Till It's Over
Much has changed in the world of RTS gaming since Command & Conquer made the genre a worldwide phenomenon, but to this day, the series' heritage and following remains as ardent as ever. After so many failed attempts to recapture the magic of the original game, EA LA must be congratulated on its success. Not only has it managed to raise the franchise from the grave dug by Command & Conquer Generals, it's also managed to create an RTS outing packed with entertainment and slick gameplay.
But, for all C&C3's entertainment value, for all its beautiful craftsmanship and stunning attention to detail, the fact remains that the RTS genre has moved on. We've gone beyond the basic build-and-rush premise represented here, and however brightly it gleams, Tiberium Wars still lacks the substance of some of its more modern and forward-thinking rivals.
Like a once-great champ who's come out of retirement for one last crack at the title, Command & Conquer: Tiberium Wars doesn't quite have enough tricks in its repertoire to defeat its younger, fresher opponents. But while it may be more contender than king these days, it still packs one hell of a punch. Welcome back C&C, we've missed you.