I’m sure there are people who are going to disagree with me on this, but I’m pretty disappointed with Command and Conquer 3. It has what is probably the best graphics engine I’ve ever seen for an RTS with superior unit animation and artwork, but otherwise I see it as a throwback – a little slice of retro gaming. Reminiscent of the early days of FMV, in the first 30 minutes of play you probably sit and watch 15 minutes of movie, albeit of a much higher quality than back then. It’s a blast from the past era of over-scripted campaign missions and over-acted, over-produced, over-long movie segments linking them all together. Having recently replayed Red Alert 2: Yuri’s Revenge with the child of a family friend (he has a very old computer and was looking for a game he could play on it), C&C3 doesn’t really feel all that differently. This is a particular regret for me, because I was hoping for a game more like Zero Hour and what I got is a game more like Tiberian Sun.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for, literally, the past decade, the C&C franchise is a long and storied tale of a strange crystal (Tiberium) appearing spontaneously all over the earth, and the ongoing battle between the forces of good (called the Global Defense Initiative), and the maniacal pseudo-religious fanaticism of a guy named Kane and his legions (called the brotherhood of NOD), who see Tiberium as the key to the next level of human evolution. Over the span of a dozen videogames the battle between NOD and GDI has raged, bringing us to the present where Tiberium infestation has reached toxic proportions making a big chunk of the earth’s surface uninhabitable, civilization is on the brink of collapse, and still the battle continues.
The sole harvested resource in the game RTS structure is Tiberium, which is used to construct buildings, research new technology upgrades, and buy military forces. These forces despite a few small tweaks have changed surprisingly little over the years. There remains the basic infantry forces (machinegun, rocket, grenade, sniper, heavy trooper and engineer), the basic GDI mechanized forces (prowler tank, mammoth tank, and APC), and the basic NOD units (bike, buggy, flame tank, suicide bomber). Both sides of the conflict have a simple air force – fighter, bomber and transport. There are also a few new units – both sides have a heavy combat mech walker, and the GDI now have a mobile artillery unit, but people familiar with the series are going to find more units they recognize than those they don’t. The biggest addition to the series is an entirely new side in the conflict – an alien race known as the Scrin. I can’t say as this is a bold move – most RTS games these days have three sides (many have a lot more than that) – but it does give some new combat strategies to a franchise that was in serious danger of becoming stale, and they’ve done a nice job creating and balancing the new bizarre alien units.
Base construction takes place in a circle around your construction yard. Buildings near the edge of the circle will form a little easement bump out on the circle, so it is possible to sort of push the construction range around a bit, but it’s a far cry from the ZH ‘build anything you like anywhere you can get away with it’ approach that I was hoping for. You do as before have the option of building a second construction yard (or a new unit called a surveyor) and setting it off somewhere to make a satellite base.
Combat is nicely paced. It’s fast enough to be exciting, and yet slow enough to allow you to do some troop micromanagement. The micromanagement is not strictly necessary, but it does give you an edge to victory. The single player campaign can be played from either side (GDI or NOD). Each is about 20 missions long spread over 5 acts. You might have a choice of which mission to undertake at any given time from several, but it doesn’t seem to matter in what order you do them or offer any real strategic decisions at all, so I’m not sure I’d characterize the mission tree as either branching or non-linear. The missions range along the typical search and destroy to protect and escort goals, some timed and some not, with some fresh mapmaking creativity keeping them interesting. As is sort of par for the course these days you receive mission objective updates and changes on the fly during the mission. The AI is pretty good at getting you out of your groove. If you’re a turtle chances are the AI is going to probe and hammer at your base until it finds a weakness. If you’re a rusher you’re going to be met with some stiff base defenses by the enemy.
The movies look great as do all the graphics and effects. They’ve got Lando Calrissian, the guy who played the drill sergeant in Starship Troopers, and the woman who plays Boomer/Athena in the Battlestar Galactica TV series. All of them ham the living snot out of their roles. I respect their decision to dress the women in the videos in sensible military skirts and blouses as opposed to Kari Wuhrer’s Lara Croft garb from RA2 – I’m disappointed, but I respect it. Now that you know there is an alien race in the mix you can probably guess where the plotline is going. At least for me, there were few surprises along the way. Comparable to the graphics I would have liked to be blown away by the boom of the heavy guns and the explosive blasts, but even with my 10” subwoofer and my sound turned up I just couldn’t find the power. The sounds remained flattened and almost arcade-ish.
Multiplayer, away from all the heavy scripting and movies, is where I think this game really wins. One-on-one or two-on-two ladder tournaments are available online. I’m not a big fan of beating strangers, 12-year old armchair Napoleons halfway around the world. I’m even less of a fan of being beaten by them. For people like me, you can play skirmish mode online with up to eight friends/AI generals. All matches are annihilation type, last team standing. There is a kind of interesting system called Battlecast where you can go online and just watch others play online. Watching the strategies of others is a good way to learn some new ones yourself, and some of the matches are really great to watch. The only downside is that the participants have to agree to let you watch and (thus far at least) just about 100% of the people kick you out.
I guess much like you would expect of a sequel, C&C3 is simply a modernization of C&C2 and others in the series – flashier graphics, some new units. I’m not certain why they were so mysterious about it back when they released C&C: The First Decade; it’s not like there were any great corporate secrets in the offing. From a gameplay standpoint I would have been happier had they gone with a more open mission structure and something that feels a little less crushed by the weight of all the filmmaking going on. Still and all it’s well-polished, and undeniably continues the C&C legacy.