Platform reviewed on: PC
Legend has it that development of Command & Conquer 4 was at a crossroads very early on, and someone at EA decided that an overhaul of the entire game engine was required. This particular person decided that the formula was all wrong and drastic measures needed to be taken. Resource gathering was deemed outdated. “If you want resource gathering why don’t you release it on CD-ROM!” this person would say. Specific types of buildings that built specific types of units were also considered a thing of the past. “Listen up, it’s called a supermarket. You can buy everything there, from grapes to grape juice, to grape-flavoured bubblegum. You don’t need three grape stores to buy three different grape products!” was also convolutedly stated as an, apparently, apt analogy. But amongst all this change, Brotherhood of Nod shaman/leader Kane would still be alive, somehow. And apparently, an immortal wizard in the vein of Gandalf, without the flowing locks of grey hair. Or so the legend goes.
Now one might wonder what possessed EA to shake things up, as after all this new Command & Conquer serves as a ‘finale’ to the Tiberium saga, ending the story of the numerous and heated GDI versus NOD versus baldy nonsense spouting Kane wars. Not exactly prestige, the Command & Conquer series could always be counted on for a couple of things, that is cheesy B-grade cut scenes with Hollywood-lite production values, coupled with gameplay focussing on being able to mass armies and change strategies in no time at all. Surprisingly these two things remain in-tact, but without some key things: the ability to gather resources, tech up as part of the in-game strategy, and without the feeling of actually building an army. The end result, unfortunately, alternates between being a fun workable fast-paced skirmish and a frustratingly limited and ultimately, confusing mess.
So, gone are the Tiberium harvesters, command centres, barracks and other structures in lieu of a mobile base dubbed ‘The Crawler’ that comes in three distinct flavours: Offensive, Defensive, and Support. Each class of Crawler spawns different units or defensive structures to suit the required strategy or particular play style. Unit numbers are capped by the available command points with each Crawler being able to basically set up shop anywhere and spawn units for your disposal. Along the way you also gain experience points which in turn increases your rank to unlock new units and upgrades. Strategic points are also located across each map providing bonuses, with Tiberium showing up sparingly to provide upgrade points to spend on your respective tech tree. This is a basic explanation of the new Command & Conquer on offer, and to be completely honest, it sounds pretty good on paper.
Execution however is a different story. First off, being able to utilise, in any real strategic way, the upgrade points in the main campaign or on-line comes after several hours of mucking about with the same low-tech squads. Meaning, they’re basically useless for the first five or so hours. Secondly, you only get to control a single walker at a time, and with a unit cap meaning you control roughly ten or so units at any given time, the main campaign consequently feels like an afterthought. What isn’t made clear is that ‘single player’ means a single walker at your disposal as opposed to two when played with a friend, in the co-op campaign mode. What does this mean for the game? Well, pretty much that the single player component doesn’t really work. So this new Command & Conquer really only works as a multiplayer game, which after some thought makes perfect sense when you take into account the class structure of the walkers on offer and the limited unit cap.
But this goes against a lot of Command & Conquer history. Because when you look back at even the ‘above average’ third game, you would engross yourself in the ridiculous story, overacting, generous production values, and somewhat standard ‘mass Mammoth Tanks’ game-play well before dabbling in a little multiplayer. This new play style feels like it was developed as a fun multiplayer mode that somehow got shoehorned into being the entire game. To be honest, the first few hours are a lot of fun, and learning the various classes, how to play aggressive, and always be on the frontlines works in the game’s favour, as each new mission reveals more and more options, units, and challenges.
But then something happens, something that makes you bang your desk and yell obscenities at your monitor. The gameplay takes an ugly turn, revealing its limitations whilst also being frustratingly difficult. Essentially the single player game decides to pit you against multiple enemy walkers, each being able to pump out as many units as you can, in turn making the strategy constant unit selection/production to slowly chip away at your enemies forces. If you’re successful, the game is gracious enough to give you a few minutes to scramble for an objective (usually guarded by another walker) before the enemy walker you just destroyed re-spawns. And if you fail, you simply have to start from scratch as the game offers no penalties for defeat to either side. Simply re-spawn your walker and in less than a minute your army will be back at full strength ready to try again. The problem is, so will theirs.
But it couldn’t be that bad, could it? Well, it’s got some merit and when it works it does feel like an interesting and fun way to play Command & Conquer. But, most people will probably give up long before the game mechanics start to make any real sense. This is a shame because the basic idea for this new approach is somewhat sound, and some simple changes would make it more, well, ‘playable’. Increasing the unit cap, integrating the tech tree into the actual skirmishes, allowing players to control more than a single walker, penalising failure, and giving players units with secondary functions other than ‘shoot’ or ‘repair’, would be a start. Above all, perhaps the real change should have been to separate the single player mechanics from the multiplayer.
Offensive, defensive, or support – it sounds like the choices from a squad based shooter. And in essence the multiplayer in Command & Conquer 4 is pretty similar to that, with teamwork resulting in heated and yes, even strategic encounters. Controlling a single walker defines your role, offensive means you’ll always be on the move, scouting the map, taking charge and taking over control points. Defensive puts your role either right behind the front lines, or simply trying to protect and hold a single control point. Support puts you everywhere, to call on powers and special units and abilities as the moment sees fit. It’s here where the see-saw nature of the battles, with endless streams of units, constant battle, and the real-time rock, paper, scissors nature of each encounter finds a home. The focus on teams as always results in a good or bad time depending on whom you’re grouped with, as a bad game full of control point hopping will bring the shortcomings of the mechanics to the forefront.
Command & Conquer 4 as an experience fluctuates between reactions that are polar opposite of each other. This ‘let’s try something new’ approach is not a complete disaster, even if the in-game chat window is full of comments along these lines. It works, and it doesn’t. It’s enjoyable, and it’s frustrating. It feels like a battle heavy RTS, and it feels like the RTS equivalent of a button masher.