Real-world associate Chris McPhail and I might have been going through Star Wars in our Close, But No Biscuit podcast of late, but there’s another piece of cultural media that deeply affected my robot designs — Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun. The goody-goody Global Defence Initiatve forces had several grungy, industrial, brutalist, utilitarian hulks that evoked power and strength and resilience so much that I took my first faltering steps into 3D modelling trying desperately to ape them. If Star Wars set the robot wheels in motion for me, then Tiberian Sun gave them life.
Look at it this way — if I’d known the Final Sun level editor existed at the time, I’d have cut my modding teeth on Tiberian Sun over Age of Empires II. Oh yes.
Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun
The other Star Wars connection is less tenuous and personal — the voice of Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones, stars in the live-action intermission story sequences as the leader of the GDI. It’s not just a rollicking strategy game, it’s a full-on late-90s sci-fi cheese-fest with a mix of really rather good practical sets and make-up effects and… er… maybe less good CGI backgrounds.
I like to pretend I’m averse to the dark and the gritty but Tiberian Sun‘s apocalyptic grey and brown environments are mighty atmospheric. The world is being slowly but surely consumed by alien Tiberium crystals and everything is a bit shit — but that’s balanced out by the laser beams and the crazy fancy units that go stomping through these wastelands. While the GDI get awesomely extrapolated modern-day militaristic units, the Brotherhood of Nod go off the rails with stranger designs that stop the dark and gritty from taking over the universe.
It is, perhaps, the perfect balance of seriousness and silliness — battling over a dying world with soldiers pouring out of a barracks shaped like a giant hand.
It fits my taste in gameplay too because as a real-time strategy game there’s an utter lack of cruft. You build stuff, plonk it down, send your troops to attack and watch the fireworks.
There’s not too much going on that it gets crazy, with the action focused on having roughly the right troops and putting them in roughly the right places. There is a lot of wiggle-room so you don’t need to have the exact rock to the enemy’s scissors or click ten thousand very short-lived and situational abilities per second. There’s no need to bone up on the minutiae of attack and armour types and micro-percentage differences; things are clean and obvious enough that you can simply start playing and you’ll quickly get a feel for it.
It is, basically, an RTS on a scale comprehensible to people like me.
One of the things I’ve found quite striking about the campaign is its willingness to vary mission length. The modern counterpoint is surely Starcraft II which, regardless of what’s going on in any given scenario (be it a small-team raid or a titanic clash between a literally flame-haired demigoddess with an eldritch horror from outside the universe), doggedly sticks to the 20-minute mark — making it perfectly polished but with none of the peaks and troughs that make missions genuinely stand out.
In Tiberian Sun, however, I have found myself taking from forty minutes to an hour in some missions, and spent less than five in others. Maybe that’s a little bit extreme, but it’s also refreshing. The perfect example would be the “Retrieve the Disrupter Crystals” mission — if you can run in with your initial squad and smash up the train fast enough, the mission ends there and then; but take your time and you’ll have to punch through another base-building skirmish to get that precious cargo.
Starcraft II tried many things to add variety to the traditional strategy setup, but I never saw it adding explicit short-cuts to missions — nor letting failure bleed into extended scenarios.
Of course longer missions need to engender a desire to stick with them, which Tiberian Sun does by providing walls. Seriously, I think walls are one of the most underrated yet brilliant features an RTS can have.
Walls allow you to connect with your base in a way that no other buildings can. Most buildings go anywhere; apart from the Tiberium Refinery going as close to the fields as possible, there are no limits except for a vague “must be close to existing buildings”. Walls though, walls are important: they need to go at chokepoints, they need to fit in with the natural environment around you, they need to enclose your power stations, they need to be seeded with gates so your troops can still get around…
Walls make a faceless collection of buildings into a meaningful home, meaningfully organised (or not) as reflects your own personality. Tiberian Sun even offers pavement, which allows units to move faster, and GDI turret towers slot directly into the walls without causing breaks.
This is the future we were promised. This is why I love Warcraft III only as a vessel for custom maps and can’t stand its out-of-the-box melee gameplay.
To be fair, Tiberian Sun is quite a bit smaller than I remember. While the plot is a grand global conflict, the missions are quite tight and line-of-sight radii and attack ranges are all rather short. Sometimes mission areas will expand after you’ve completed a first objective, but even after that the maps often remain a bit claustrophobic. And sometimes, okay, the last five or ten minutes of a mission is hunting down that one SAM-site you missed before it’ll concede that yes, you have indeed eliminated all the Nod presence in the region.
It’s an older RTS, so some of the conveniences that would make it even more seductive are also missing. There’s no “attack-move” so troops will wander right past enemies when they’re clearly taking fire, and patrol routes have to be constructed with a strange waypoint system rather than the intuitive shift+clicks that everyone else would converge on.
I still love it.
If the engine used the graphics card properly and was therefore interceptible by FRAPS I’d have done this as a talky review with background videos, because it’s hard to do Tiberian Sun justice in words alone — it’s a game that looks and sounds so good too, factors which enhance gameplay a hundredfold. The gentle ticking of money flowing in from your harvesters, the meaty whumps of cannon fire and the shattering crunches of damaged buildings…
Tiberian Sun is one of those games that fires on all cylinders, and barring a few missteps here and there, it’s a true classic.