Kane. Tank rushes. Resource hoarding. Full-motion video with B-list sci-fi celebs. Yup, the legendary Command & Conquer RTS series is back, and nostalgic fanboys couldn’t be happier. The emergence of Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars last May, however, left more questions than answers. Who’s the mysterious third faction? How does the game play? And can the C&C legacy hold its own in a post–Company of Heroes world? We’re here to answer those questions. We’ve seen the third faction and confronted the enemy in the single-player game. We’ve challenged EA’s finest to a winner-takes-all multiplayer match and lived—so now we’ll tell about it.
First, let’s get you up to speed. Forget the greenhouse effect or holes in the ozone—the crystalline green compound Tiberium is slowly poisoning the planet, spreading across the
landscape and threatening to wipe out life as we know it. Its value as a resource has sparked
a worldwide war. The Global Defense Initiative (GDI) has finally developed a means to combat
the alien mineral’s spread; while cleanup commences in Europe and the States, the evil Kane and his Brotherhood of Nod are back to their old terrorist tricks.
Suddenly, the war takes an unexpected turn. A mysterious force hits Germany: Munich goes
dark, and formerly spotless Cologne is suddenly sprouting fields of Tiberium. Nod isn’t behind
it. It’s aliens—part biological, part mechanical, and 100 percent dependent upon Tiberium to
survive. Flying swarms of intelligent razor blades slice GDI’s scouts to ribbons. Massive, shambling tripods with laser-bearing tentacles punch through the toughest tank armor. City-dwarfing motherships belch out plasmatic destruction. There goes the neighborhood.
While the GDI calls them “invaders,” the Brotherhood of Nod hails them as “visitors.” At some point during C&C3’s 30-mission singleplayer campaign, all becomes clear. You start by choosing either the GDI or Brotherhood of Nod—but by the game’s end, you’ll be crushing humans under foot, tentacle, and/or pseudopod. In order to tell this apocalyptic tale, EA assembled a team of screenwriters, producers, directors, and even MIT eggheads to hash out the campaign’s story line. Executive producer Mike Verdu promises the plot follows right in the footsteps of previous C&C Tiberian titles—he even talks about incorporating limited branching elements during the single-player experience. Your first mission in the GDI campaign in Germany, for example, is a recon sweep through Munich. After its successful completion, you may choose between confronting the alien menace in either Cologne or Frankfurt. Choose Cologne, and you’ll liberate an airfield that will provide air support for you in the Frankfurt scenario. Opt for Frankfurt, and you’ll get extra tanks in Cologne. Ultimately, though, Verdu insists that “no matter what order you do the missions, the story will unfold coherently and end in a satisfying way.”
Even though the calendar in EA’s Los Angeles office says 2006, the first thing you see in the
single-player campaign is full-motion video—a nod to 1996 and the Velveeta-dripping salad days of FMV. Tiberium Wars’ cast includes fanboy fave Joe Kucan returning as Kane (see “Raising Kane,” pg. 73). Watching his back is a veritable who’s-who of sci-fi stars, including Josh Holloway
(Sawyer from Lost), Tricia Helfer (Number Six from the new Battlestar Galactica), and Lando “Billy Dee Williams” Calrissian, just to name a few. The cut-scenes hit that sweet-spot level of camp: just east of Pacino, a bit west of Shatner. The “cinematic” vibe extends beyond cutscenes.
Deserts, bleached out and bleak, give way to Tiberium-heavy “red zones” with vibrant primary colors. (The visuals are gorgeous, but Verdu assures us the demo is running on a single graphics card, with no dual-graphicscard SLI mumbo jumbo.) For units themselves, detailed animations bring each trooper to life, and it’s very easy to pick out even small units from the map at a glance. Considering Nod leans heavily on stealth tactics, scrutinizing every pixel is essential or you might not notice that tank uncloaking inside your base.
All this environmental detail exists for more than just your pixel-hunting pleasure. Slick, reflective office buildings can garrison infantry à la Company of Heroes. Indeed, even if you
don’t order your forces to garrison in a structure, troops near any kind of cover—buildings, cars,
rubble—will automatically use it as defilade. The catch: Nearly everything on a C&C3 map is destructible. That means if you keep units in a location too long, the enemy will be sure to
redecorate the sky with a stunning combination of drywall and troopers.
HARVESTER UNDER ATTACK
C&C3 will no doubt draw some flak for sticking to the old-school “dirt-farming” model of RTS gameplay. The best modern games of the genre, including Relic’s Company of Heroes and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, sport tactical, capture-and-hold resource-gathering models with less emphasis on ordering around servants, peons, peasants, or—in this case—big, bulky harvesters. C&C3, by contrast, still has you scooping up crystals and building power plants—just like in the “good ol’ days.”
Systems like C&C3’s are easy to pick up, but hard to master—hell, Ensemble Studios has predicated an entire series on resource gathering. In addition, dirt farming lends itself well to C&C3’s simplified controls. For better or for worse, you don’t customize individual units for particular combat functions or micromanage special abilities in the heat of a fight. You won’t clash over map control points, or get into constant firefights in key areas. Moreover, you’re not going to know ahead of time where the majority of battles will go down, so there’s almost no camping or bushwhacking in a game of C&C3. Of course, if you’re into tactical gameplay (or if you have 1337 micro skills), that may not sound particularly appealing—this game is built for players more into action than minutiae. It’s also another gameplay decision clearly geared toward making C&C3 “console friendly.” The serendipitous coincidence also makes the game
“more accessible” on PC.
As with the classic resource-gathering setup, the units doing the gathering don’t double as soldiers—so that means you need to keep a vigilant watch on your infrastructure units. Verdu notes, “Some players’ entire strategies revolve around attacking harvesters.” Some call it “cheese,” some say it’s fair game, and others might kick the crap out of you at school the next day for doing it—but for better or for worse, it’s back. To help reduce some of the frustration players might experience, harvesters are now equipped with some basic defenses. Of course, combat-ready harvesters may prove to be counterproductive— rather than run for cover when they’re attacked, your gatherers now stubbornly stand their ground and fight back, even against overwhelming odds. Worse, there’s no button to recall them to a safe haven. On the other hand, if your little buddies do end up getting bullied, you’ll at least get a cheerful “a harvester is under attack” warning from the console so you can send in the armored cavalry. And, to be fair, harvesters are stubborn, but they aren’t totally dim: They’ll automatically seek out replacement Tiberium supplies once their original cache depletes, even if it means traveling across the map to find more. Moreover, should you have more than one harvester, the A.I. is smart enough to send one on a long-distance Tiberium run while keeping the other near the depleted supply,
harvesting the stuff as it slowly replenishes.
The goal, as with most modern RTS games, is to allow you to make strategic decisions without
having to micromanage every single unit on the battlefield. (C&C3’s upcoming competitor Supreme Commander takes a similar approach, allowing you to queue up orders—all the way out to the endgame if you’re thinking that far ahead.) Strategy and planning are all well and good, but nothing beats authentic combat experience. Tiberium Wars moves at a fast, frenetic pace—and maps are small in relation to how quickly your units move. As Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke noted: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” With that, it was time to face my foe.
“WE WANT TO MAKE THIS AS MUCH FUN TO WATCH AS IT IS TO PLAY.”
ENEMY UNITS SPOTTED
My opponent, C&C3 producer Amer Ajami, walks into the room. We nod, two cagey opponents eyeing each other before the battle of wills begins. There’s a catchphrase at EA that you can
expect to hear more of: “RTS as a sport.” Verdu says, “We want to make C&C3 as much fun to
watch as it is to play.” Most of you are probably going, “Shyeah, right.” Whatever the case, EA
has inserted all sorts of bells and whistles into C&C3’s multiplayer game, hoping it’ll become the next major competition vehicle in the world of electronic “sports.” While matches only allow eight actual players, they’ll accommodate far more folks as spectators. Among these spectators, one guy can be designated the “administrator”; he’ll be able to move the camera for everyone else, offer commentary on what’s happening via voice-over-IP, and even use a built-in John Madden–style “telestrator” to break down plays. Good thing, too—I’ll want to replay those reels countless times after I beat this man at his own game. You can mark my words on that.
Amer promises to go easy on me as Mr. Goody Two-Shoes chooses GDI. “I didn’t get into the game biz by being coddled,” I reply while siding with Nod. A Nod harvester bug nixes the first round. Amer quits out, and the “Mission Successful” screen declares me the winner. One for one!
This time, it’s civil war: GDI versus GDI. “Our design philosophy was to make C&C3 as fast as possible,” Verdu says, “right down to loading times.” And C&C3 proceeds at a breakneck pace. From the speedy mission load times (less than 10 seconds) to the relentless tempo of the build-gather-tech-build cycle, there isn’t a single moment to sit back and relax.
This is a real-time strategy experience for quick draws and steely nerves. One benefit (or drawback) of the game’s swift pace is that it’s tough to rush. I should know—I tried. By the
time you get your units ready to overrun enemy territory, he’ll be three levels up the tech chain
and more than capable of taking you on with only a few of his advanced units ready.
OUR MATCH’S TUGOF- WAR STYLE WAS NOT ONLY TYPICAL, BUT INTENTIONAL.
Now for the play-by-play: First thing up—build a power plant, then a refinery. By design, you can’t queue up multiple building orders with a single base. In order to do this, you need to build
separate structures called “cranes.” Each crane occupies a tab on your interface and can build
simultaneously with your main base. I find that it’s kind of a pain to have to switch from tab to tab when other things are going on, so it’s vital to get important structures out early to prevent them from languishing while you’re otherwise occupied. After the infrastructure is up and running, it’s time for a war factory, barracks, and a tech center. The industrial revolution is on! I’m now producing second-tier troops, and buildings are going up so quickly and resource
collection is going so well that I switch plans and go for high-level tech. Checking the clock, I realize that I went from having a single base to building the top-tier units in the game in less than eight minutes.
While I take 15 or so seconds (an ungodly long wait in C&C3 time) to ponder whether Mammoth
Tanks or Zone Troopers are the way to go, Amer rolls up with a passel of shock troops. Fortunately, my base defenses hold. Still, he demolishes an airfield and some very expensive
Orcas. Note that the defensive structures in C&C3 are fierce (perhaps even a wee bit overpowered in this build) and well worth their relatively low cost. Turtling is most definitely a solid option in this game, especially for new players—as long as you cover all the angles. Defense turrets have limited fire arcs. Next, I decide to take a page from the German war machine and try a Luftwaffe-style air blitz. With three airfields erected, I need to start constructing Orcas—and quick. Amer somehow has another force on its way to attack already, this time with at least six Mammoth Tanks. It’s all but over for me, right? Wrong! My Orcas tear through the tanks like a razor-blade tornado. Honestly, it’s a bit disappointing how easily the Mammoth Tanks go down, but who’s complaining? With the assault repelled, this could be the perfect opportunity to press the attack. I hum Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries while ordering the airstrike. The Orcas rain fire upon a few of Amer’s factories, but he was ready for this. Antiaircraft turrets and missile troops turn them into shrapnel. He didn’t plan this, did he? Did he lure me into a trap? At this point, Amer, who had expanded his base into another Tiberium field, quickly rebuilds, and I’m quickly overwhelmed…and…well…this fight is over. What should I have expected? He is the game’s producer, after all.
The ease with which cheap missile troops took down my expensive air units is a harsh reality, but it demonstrates the rigid rock-paper-scissors dynamic built into C&C3’s combat. This tête-à-tête with Amer also underscores the inherent back-andforth gameplay of a C&C3 multiplayer match. He explains that our match’s tug-of-war style was not only typical, but intentional. C&C3 makes it tough for one side to get the upper hand straight out of the box, even if that side is more experienced. You’ve got to exploit strategic rather than tactical mistakes to win, and that makes the matches— quick as they may be—more evenly balanced. Easy for him to say. I’m still wiping sweat from my brow after that loss. Maybe I’ll review the reels and use the telestrator to highlight where things went wrong. Next time, Amer won’t know what hit him.•