If you're a real time strategy gamer, Life is Good. Just consider some of the great titles that have appeared in the past couple of years: The Battle for Middle Earth 2 and its expansion; Dawn of War and its sequel, Dark Crusade; Company of Heroes; Supreme Commander. Each of these games--and these are just some of the heavy hitters--are rich, engaging experiences that reward the player with hours of great entertainment. Now, charging through the pack like an amped up bull driving a runaway freight train, comes Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, the newest installment to one of the most beloved RTS franchises ever. Life is Really Good.
There's nothing subtle about C&C3: it's a full-throttle, proudly old school RTS that doesn't really "advance the genre" one bit but proves that the equation of great graphics and style+fast and furious action+solid gameplay and production values=tons o' fun. That's not to say the game totally ignores some of the gameplay refinements that recent RTS titles have brought to the table.
Story and Gameplay
You know the drill: the Good Guys (Global Defense Initiative) and the Bad Guys (Brotherhood of NOD) are mixing it up again, and once more the story is told through full-motion video cutscenes and gleeful, scenery-chewing performances by Michael Ironsides, Billy Dee Williams, Joe Kucan, Josh Holloway, Tricia Helfer and Jennifer Morrison. With great Urgency and Gravity (and a huge wink and a nod) these commanders and officers brief you and send you off on your missions, which are many and varied, and will take well upwards of 20 hours to play through. But wait! This time around there's a third race, the alien Scrin, who can thrive in, and are even healed by, Tiberium. As in most RTS games, the story isn't big on subtlety, but the FMV scenes are a hoot and unless you're particularly offended by B-list movie actors slumming their way through an overwrought script, you'll want to catch them all.
As mentioned, the gameplay is strictly Old School, and you know what? That's just fine by me. Build a base, balance the economy and energy resources, and start sending waves of tanks, aircraft or infantry to keep the enemy off balance while you upgrade structures and climb the tech tree. We're not talking hours of strategizing; everything about this game moves at lightning speed and it's only a matter of minutes before you have an assault force assembled and ready. Turtling really isn't an option--there simply isn't time, and base defense structures are farther up the tech tree. The superweapon end game (nukes for NOD, ION cannon for GDI and Rift Generator for the Scrin) isn't far down the road.
If there is one thing that brings this game down a notch, it's probably some issues with unit balancing. The old-fashioned tank rush is alive and well, and facing off against a good, speedy player often means that the first big assault against your base may be the last. Adding some low-level base defense structures would help. The game is the most fun when both players agree on a more leisurely play style and eshew rushes.
Building and unit types and upgrades--tanks, aircraft, infantry--are mostly holdovers and updates from previous games, and the Scrin are an interesting blend of biomechanical, organic, and high-tech units (not terribly unlike a blend of Zerg and Protoss). Not surprisingly, there's a pretty close, unit-for-unit match between the sides. All sides are equally fun to play in the single player game, skirmishes and in multiplayer.
As firmly rooted as it is in the past, the gameplay does feature a lot of refinements that simply weren't availble to early iterations of the franchise. Enemy AI is pretty strong (and its playstyle quite customizable), and now you have control over waypoints, formations, armor facing, cover, and move orders. Of course, this also means quite a bit more unavoidable micromanagement on top of the already frenetic pace of the battles.
Graphics, Sound and Design
Units are highly detailed, interesting to look at, and distinctive; environments are lush, colorful, and full of character. Each faction has a unique look and tonal palette and there is no visual confusion over which unit or structure one is looking at. Infantry units are fluidly animated and structures all have a lot of moving parts and flashing lights.
Lighting, explosions, and other effects are quite well done and make use of the latest technologies. It's simply a great game to look at, although I'm always bothered by unit and structure scale in RTS games (Company of Heroes comes pretty close to getting this right). The game runs under XP or Vista, but doesn't support DX10. Sound is great--weapon and battle effects are detailed, appropriately punchy and well-placed in space. Of course, the voice-acting is top-notch in its own cheesy way, and the musical score is interesting without overpowering the action.
Although there is basically only one type of multiplayer game in C&C3 (there is no co-op mode), there is a rich menu of options and a couple of genuine innovations at work. Matches can be ranked ladder games, unranked or clan match-ups, and in addition to VOIP support, you can place markers (beacons) on the map for your allies to see, showing the location of enemy structures, units, etc.
The coolest new feature has to be the Battlecast, or the ability to add color commentary to live, time-delayed, or pre-recorded games; or, you can jump into the game as an observer from either side, and even use a telestrator. This is clearly one step in moving RTS games, and games in general, towards greater legitimacy as a "sport." Of course, how entertaining this depends on the ability of the commentator as well as the game, but it's potentially a great learning tool.
Some minor balancing issues and a lack of "strategic depth" aside, Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars is a giddy blast from the past, spiffed up with a sweet new look, a beefed up multiplayer suite, and the return of some familiar faces reprising their roles from the dawn of RTS gaming.
I had high hopes for this game, since the franchise is one of my favorites, and I was not disappointed. If you're a fan of fast-paced, high-energy, great-looking games, you need to add this one to your collection.