Sunday, 21 March 2010 22:58

Review: Command and Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight


Q: What is the name of the military leader marshalling the respective GDI and NOD forces as they continue their battle? A: Major Disappointment!

This week past Electronic Arts (EA) released the latest game in the Command and Conquer real-time-strategy (RTS) franchise, number four.

1995 was a good year for fans of the RTS genre. That is the year two seminal titles launched. One was Warcraft II which greatly improved the gameplay and mechanics of its predecessor, and the other being Westwood Studios' Command and Conquer, which itself built on an earlier game (Dune 2). Westwood Studios was purchased by massive gaming conglomerate Electronic Arts in 1999 and ultimately closed down and absorbed into EA Los Angeles in 2003.

Command and Conquer 3 was released to much acclaim in 2007, followed in 2008 by an expansion, Kane's Wrath, and the third instalment of sister product Red Alert. All three of these titles received positive reviews and I personally enjoyed playing.

Fast forward to 2010; Command and Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight has now hit the shelves. The brand new instalment has been long awaited by legions of fans, much like the worldwide anticipation for Blizzard Software's Starcraft II.

The game wasn't without controversy. Electronic Arts, fearing rampant piracy, inserted digital rights management (or DRM) to minimise the unauthorised distribution of the game. This policy was made known prior to the game's release, and the ensuing debate took away from the pre-release material about the game itself.

This controversy ought to have been foreshadowed after Electronic Arts' previous DRM public relations disaster when the wonderful life-creation evolutionary simulation Spore was dreadfully panned on Amazon.Com reviews, all due to its mandatory registration that prevented the game being installed more than a small number of times.

Command and Conquer 4 has a less mercenary - or perhaps more mercenary, depending on your viewpoint - DRM scheme. This time there are no limitations on number of installations, and no behind-the-scenes rootkit-like applications running. What's taken its place?

Instead, Command and Conquer 4 requires a pervasive (that is, always on) Internet connection. The game continually chatters back and forth the EA's servers. In fact, your game saves aren't even stored locally but on the EA servers.

In many ways, this is akin to World of Warcraft (WoW) and other titles, although there is a significant difference in that WoW is a global subscription-based game that is squarely and deliberately in the multiplayer category. By contrast, Command and Conquer has always been an offline, single-player campaign-driven franchise with a separate multiplayer mode available.

In that respect, Command and Conquer is no different from Doom or Warcraft II - people could play through crafted missions with increasing difficulty and it didn't matter that they had no network connection.

With Command and Conquer 4 the situation has been turned around. While a single player campaign exists, the game has dramatically re-positioned itself as first and foremost an online multiplayer game.

This hits home immediately when you must create an online account and then log in at each session. Here's where my complaining begins. Before even spending a second on gameplay Command and Conquer 4 hints that it will be a bad experience.

To be honest, I don't mind copy protection - in theory, at least - because I purchased my game legally and for the most part my Internet connection is always on. However, it's the remaining portion outside of 'the most part' that bugs me.

I can't load the game onto my laptop and play it when I am in hotels away on business - unless I get online via 3G modem or some other means. That's pretty unfair. Similarly, I can't play the game if my ISP or phone line go down.

Frustratingly, too, there is no option to have the game remember my username meaning I must type both my username and password every time I wish to play. Sure, I prefer to keep my e-mail accounts safe, I don't give away details of my Internet banking or my DropBox account or anything which can be freely accessed online. The greater the security on those the better. Yet, is this the same thing?

A 4Gb game client installed on my local desktop computer is a different matter. I'm not really putting myself at any risk if the username box isn't cleared each time. There's a reason World of Warcraft allows you to remember the username, as does Hotmail, Club Penguin, Yahoo, Facebook and scores of popular online services. Is Command and Conquer really that much more prized by hackers that it really needs a higher plane of security over convenience?

After logging in you find yourself positioned in a chat room lobby. Here you select the type of game you wish to play - solo campaign, multiplayer skirmishes and so on - but here you also find no end of inane banter scrolling up your screen typed in by the many equally pained punters who ponied up their hard-earned.

I'm not keen on rubbish chat, and nor am I so happy that this is what my bandwidth is being used for. Friend invitations appear, as if I'm suddenly in a more militaristic version of Facebook, with random unknowns wanting to be my buddy and get notified whenever I login or off.

Perhaps I'm getting old - after all, I was around when the original Command and Conquer was brand new - but I just fail to see the point of thrusting the game's users into an unwanted and unnecessary social networking experiment. I just want to get going, to harvest my Tiberium resources, build up an army and quash the enemy's forces.

Oh, except here's the rub. You can't anymore.

In a true break from tradition, Command and Conquer 4 is the first in the series to change the game mechanics in such a way you have to ask if it really is Command and Conquer at all.

There is no resource harvesting - in fact, this even breaks the RTS tradition, let alone the franchise - and nor do you eliminate the enemy army.

No, in Command and Conquer 4 you capture control nodes scattered over the map and hold them long enough to win the match by gaining more cumulative points than your opponent who should be holding less nodes than yourself, preferably none at all.

Gone too is the strategy of amassing a mighty ferocious army because the game now enforces a population cap on both sides. Still, you won't be constructing Tiberian harvesters so that's one unit type you needn't worry about.

One interesting positive development is the introduction of units being categorised into three broad categories: offense, defense and support. The initial construction unit, the Crawler, must now be chosen from these categories and can only churn out related units. You can replace your Crawler during the game allowing you to change strategies throughout a campaign.

Storywise, the character Kane returns leading the Brotherhood of Nod. The missions and cut scenes explain his identity and motivations and effectively completes Kane's story arc. Consequently, while future Command and Conquer titles may emerge, Kane may not appear.

He won't be the only one. To me, Command and Conquer 4 was a deceiving title. It wasn't a Command and Conquer game and should not have been labelled thus. The mechanics are too different. Too many signature components of the franchise are not there.

It's a shame; perhaps EA could have released the title under a brand new name and launched a new RTS without crushing the expectations of long-time fans.

As it is, Command and Conquer 4 will sell well because, well, it bares the Command and Conquer moniker. For EA it's surely a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul as although the faithful will buy this release I doubt they'll be coming back fifth time around.


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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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