Billed as the finale
to the long running real-time strategy franchise featuring Nod and GDI forces, EA Los Angeles' Command & Conquer 4 is going to be a surprise to any fan of the Tiberian series. While you'll see signature units and structures like GDI Mammoth Tanks and Nod Obelisks, you won't find the familiar C&C game mechanics. Base building has for the most part been eliminated. Building harvesters to collect Tiberium has been cut. No longer will you have to set up power stations to sustain bases or memorize build orders. Instead, you'll take part in the capture point gameplay you may be familiar with in games like Relic's Dawn of War. Its gameplay is solidly built and electric quick, but it's an at times awkward, inconsistent finale for a series that's been running for 15 years.
Instead of getting the ultimate refinement of the franchise's familiar gather, build, and rush formula, you get a high-speed prototype gameplay model based on capture points, mobile bases, and superfast unit production. It's going to be tough for some fans of C&C, but once you accept the fact that it's a different kind of game, you'll find the play mechanics to be entertaining. The game caters to players who prefer to constantly be on the move, and divides Nod and GDI units, structures, and powers available into three classes. The Offensive class gets all ground units and a number of upgrades, the Defense class can build turrets and garrisonable structures along with a unique array of units, and the Support class can construct flying units and is the only class capable of unleashing powers on the battlefield. When playing by yourself, picking a class can feel limiting, but in team games where everyone can take on different roles, it's easier to fill in the gaps.
If you decide to take a chance on Command & Conquer 4, be prepared for a learning curve. Mechanics on the battlefield are built around the idea of a mobile base, called a crawler, which differs depending on which of the three classes you choose. The crawler is your all-in-one building, serving as your sole production structure and research center. It can move, so it's easily relocated, and can also pump out units at an extremely high speed, making hitting the low unit cap a simple, quick procedure.
Command & Conquer has always been about swift-moving gameplay, and the fourth Tiberian franchise entry follows suit. During a match you'll need to always be moving. Faster units should be sent out to capture so you can start gaining points on your way to the victory cap and securing additional spawn zones. You're also rewarded with points for enemies you kill, so the process of getting to the point cap in adversarial play greatly encourages conflict and rapid expansion, ensuring frantic, explosive action with little pause.
This non-stop pace is maintained even after your crawler is destroyed, since you can respawn as a different class moments afterward. Considering how quickly forces can be replenished, it'll only be a minute or so until you're back to full strength. Building a new army means you'll lose out on the veterancy bonuses associated with keeping the same units alive, but overall there's little sense of loss while playing Command & Conquer 4. Everything is so readily replaceable, everything so swiftly rectified, that there's never any real downtime. If your army of Mammoth Tanks gets taken out, for instance, you can have another wave ready in a minute. And if you need to relocate your crawler, units can be constructed as it's moving, then unleashed in rapid succession when it sets back down.
It's a system that's fast, flexible, and fun, but your build choices start to lose a clearly defined sense of meaning since it's so easy to swap roles and army configurations. You park your crawler near a zone of battle to activate an area of effect repair field, queue up units to build, set a way point and continuously and swiftly replenish your army as units fall in battle. In this sense, tactical sophistication is lost amidst a seesaw surge of who can sustain the largest volume of their best units. With a coordinated group of players who take the time to synchronize attack pushes and defensive maneuvers and properly manage engineers, team games can be satisfying, but the gameplay structure doesn't feel like it's built for the solo player.
Assuming you're interested in competitive, team-based online combat then you'll have an easier time enjoying what EA LA has created. You'll also find more depth to the game with continued play, such as the way team members should run their fast units to pick up Tiberium shards around maps to upgrade tech and shift between production tiers. Smaller parts of the game, such as shooting control nodes to capture them faster and the way blue veterancy spheres add additional parts onto your units, like an extra gun arm onto GDI's Titan MK IIs, offer more incentive to micromanage. However, you'll need to get around the game's irritating unlock system to enjoy this to its fullest extent.
As you begin your Command & Conquer 4 experience, you'll find progressing through the story campaign, skirmishing against the AI, and competing online earns you experience. This is based on performance and can also be enhanced with achievements earned for things like killing and earning veterancy for units, and when enough experience is earned you level up. Progression tracks for GDI and Nod forces are separate, but the unlock mechanics work the same way for both. When you start out in the game, you'll only have a small number of units and upgrades available across all modes, and each level up unlocks a few more. For the single-player campaign, it feels like it fits since real-time strategy campaigns tend to open up more combat options as they progress anyway. For skirmish and multiplayer modes, however, it's unfortunate that you're so artificially limited. With enough play in any mode you can eventually unlock all the units and upgrades, but otherwise you'll be spending time online with an unnecessarily underpowered army, a strange departure from the norm within the real-time strategy genre.
This system also has the effect of directing you through the story campaign first to start earning experience, which may be the main draw to many franchise fans anyway to see how events with Kane wrap up. Those who remember the lengthy campaign in Command & Conquer 3 and three playable factions may be in for another surprise here, in addition to the gameplay changes. The alien Scrin faction has been cut, so it's back to the classic GDI versus Nod conflict. The campaign here is also relatively brief, with three short tutorial missions followed by seven for GDI and seven more for Nod.
You don't play through all of them consecutively, but instead choose early on whether you want to follow along with GDI or Nod forces. This does change the story as you play from different perspectives, though follows along with the same major plot points. EA LA does some interesting things with this structure by letting you see the same events from different sides. For instance, in one of the more memorable Nod missions, you're asked to bring down an absolutely gigantic GDI ship by spreading across a map and capturing anti-air towers. Then when you play through as GDI, you'll play through the aftermath of the scenario, repairing the ship after it's shot down to get it back into the sky. There's also the option to play through the campaign co-operatively, for which is seems most of the missions were designed. Many require you to traverse, attack, and defend large tracts of land, and by yourself with only a small number of units at any one time and aggressive enemy AI, playing the campaign alone feels like you're missing out.
As should be expected, the franchise staple live-action cutscenes are in place at the beginning and end of missions, and Joe Kucan yet again returns to play the role of Kane, the Brotherhood of Nod's bald and bearded spewer of fiery rhetoric. All the hammy, overexaggerated acting is in place, but Command & Conquer 4 lacks the sense of epic scale you might expect for the conclusion of a franchise like this, as well as the celebrity cameos we've seen in the past. And because the campaign is so brief, the story feels like it's in an awful rush to get to the end. When it finally gets there, the conclusion isn't even very satisfying, leaving a bitter aftertaste as you watch the credits roll and consider that this is supposed to be the end.
With all the focus on co-operative play and online team challenges, the game does make it easy to get involved. When you load it up you're dropped right into a general chat window, and from there you can ask others online who's free for a game and send around invites to form parties. Along with the emphasis on connectivity comes a cost. You may be disappointed to learn that the game requires a constant internet connection to work. This shouldn't be a big deal for MMO players or other hardcore gamers who have their PCs connected at all times, but it's going to be irritating for anyone with a spotty connection, and a potential deal breaker for people who might not have regular internet access.
Graphics and sound are a different story, since both are very well done. The visuals are sharp and detailed, with flashy effects and explosions that help reinforce the sense of chaos on the battlefield. It's a style anyone that played Command & Conquer 3 should be familiar with, but prettier. This graphical quality is matched by strong sound effects throughout and a dynamic orchestral soundtrack that gives a nice sense of flow to the online conflicts.
©2010-03-18, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved