The Good: EA attempts a complete redesign on what they claim is the end of the Command and Conquer story arc The Bad: And Fail The Ugly: Badly
I gotta say right off the ole bat-arino that just getting C&C4 to run was something of a trial, despite the fact that my newly upgraded rig far surpasses the recommended system requirements. Downloaded through the EA download manager (EA’s spin on Steam), the download seemed to go OK, but during install would report that the files were corrupted. Their download manager does no error checking during download? Maybe so. So I downloaded it a second time, and this time it installed, but crashed when I tried to start the campaign. Enter EA technical support, who had me try the usual suspects of video and audio drivers, then spent some time wondering if there was some problem with my internet connection (the DRM requires constant connection to EA servers). We goof with my antivirus and spend some time culling out my task manager (though I keep it pretty lean for gaming in the first place). No dice. They recommended I try a reinstall, which I do. Also no dice. Just for the heck of it I decided to try another download (that’s number three, for those keeping count, and something north of 15GB of data all told) and reinstall. And suddenly, everything runs fine. So apparently not only does their download manager not check the files for corruption as they download, but the installer doesn’t check the installed files either. Wonderful. Even after all of that the volume levels on the movies are all messed up – music blaring, voices a whisper – and the sound menus only seem to change in-game sound effects. So I have no idea how the C&C storyline concludes, and I’m not curious enough to try a fourth download and install to find out. Kane could be alive, dead, undead, resurrected. Whatever. I’ll have to wait for someone to update the Wikipedia page and read about it there.
So, for those of you who have been playing the Command & Conquer series for the past fifteen or so years, if you were expecting to just open up the game and jump right in, think again. The entire crystal-gathering, base building, RTS structure has been tossed and been recast in what is more like World in Conflict, a sort of tactical RPG hybrid so far from the original C&C concept as to be unrecognizable. So far from the C&C legacy that comparisons to the ill-conceived C&C: Renegade almost make themselves – both sort of misguided transparent attempts to move the C&C universe into a new franchise structure, assuming that the players would come along with nothing more to cling to than the C&C name. If so, EA is going to be disappointed.
The game starts with you selecting your crawler, a relatively slow moving unit that can be unpacked to construct units and then repacked to move again. Three crawler flavors are available – offense, defense, and support – and the choice determines the kinds of units that you can build. Offensive units are typically ground-based vehicles, the defensive units are turrets and various infantry types, and support builds repair units and aircraft. If at some point you feel like you’ve made the wrong choice given the types of enemies you’re running up against, you can recycle your crawler and pick a different one. Units are built solely against a command cap, not based on cost, so the game is really all about commanding your limited group of units around the map, and replacing them when they get destroyed.
The single player game starts with a few quick tutorial levels then gets rolling when you decide if you want to play as GDI or go with NOD (there’s no Scrin, or any other playable faction in the game). I imagine there’s some plot justification for this, but without the movie dialog I don’t know what it is. Playing through the game earns you experience points which unlocks units and technologies in a fixed order – so they’ve done away with the typical RTS tech tree structure as well. The GDI and NOD experience trees are separated, so playing as GDI unlocks the GDI units, but then you have to go back and play as NOD to unlock the NOD side. This experience leveling is linked to your online user profile, which probably seemed like a good idea on the drawing board but has disastrous multiplayer consequences that I’ll get back to in a moment.
The biggest problem with the game is that it seems more like a drudge than a game. You’re extremely limited in the number of units that you can have – a couple of dozen tops, and maybe far fewer if you opt for the big ones – so you grab the clump and click this target, then grab the clump and click that target. The amount of strategy in the single player game is seriously lacking. In fact the entire single player game – and it extends only a half dozen levels or so beyond the split point – is little more than a paltry tutorial which allows you to collect a few experience points while it closes the C&C storyline in a way I couldn’t hear.
The game is somewhat better on the multiplayer front, wherein up to ten players can slug it out in capture the flag fashion, fighting over key locations on the map. Since you can start building all your advanced units immediately without gathering resources, building a base, and clawing your way up the tech tree, the excitement of combat begins almost immediately, and that gives the whole turtle/steamroller dynamic a new spin. Sounds good, right? Except for the fact that the matchmaking service doesn’t take the experience level of the players into account – this is that disaster I mentioned earlier. Since it took almost two weeks to get it running on my PC, when I went online I ran into a large number of players who had climbed a considerable way up the experience ladder. Let’s just say that it’s tough to beat mammoth tanks with light tanks and leave it at that.
Throughout, the game has high production values. The cutscenes, the artwork, the voicework, the music – nothing less than we’ve come to expect from the C&C series. Pity it couldn’t have been linked to a better game. The game description claims something like 90 different units, and though I haven’t experienced and unlocked them all, I’m impressed by the raw number. The DRM, which I’m sure everyone has heard a lot about by now, is probably even more intrusive than it needs to be. While I had been of the belief that my internet connection was pretty stable, and I’ve had just about zero problems with StarCraft 2 which has the same “always online even for single player” requirement, C&C 4 seems to be somehow more sensitive, frequently dropping me if my wife goes online to check so much as her email. And when you’re dropped, you’re dropped. Whatever you were doing at the time, which seems to me happens most often roughly 99.7% of the way through a mission (though that’s probably just my perception), is lost and you have to restart.
Why they picked this iteration, what they say closes the C&C story arc, to ditch the old C&C gameplay model, I don’t know. StarCraft 2 seems to be taking the route of the vintage RTS gameplay and just polishing and balancing the heck out of it. But for whatever reason C&C4 didn’t go that route, but their World in Conflict spin just doesn’t seem to balance out very well. While it’s not a good ending, it is an ending, and given where the series has been headed in the most recent iterations I think we can all be thankful for that.