All right then. If Tiberian Sun is the unassailable classic of the Command & Conquer franchise, what of the sequel that emerged seven years later? Built merely by “EA” rather than Westwood Studios, is C&C3: Tiberium Wars a dead husk wearing the skin of C&C or a genuine continuation?
Ho ho ho.
Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars
One thing I really respect is that the game does not even mention the Scrin until they appear in the last acts of the GDI and Nod campaigns (which occur over the same time period but from the different faction viewpoints). They’re not in the game menu, so you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a two horse race as normal.
Okay, I came in knowing they existed and I guess this blog has just spoilt the surprise for you, but if you weren’t expecting it, then their arrival would have been pretty exciting. Considering there is exactly zero narrative foreshadowing (except that laid down by, well, Tiberian Sun seven years prior).
On the other hand, the Scrin show up so abruptly that the characters don’t really respond to them. Real-world associate Chris McPhail and I have touched on this in one of our recent Close, But No Biscuit episodes (can’t remember which) — the jist of it is that unbelievable things can happen but somebody has to call bullshit to give them weight. While Kane might have been anticipating the invasion all along because Kane is mysterious, GDI and the rest of Nod were clearly not. Some people could maybe have acted like this was a totally insane surprise, at least for a bit?
Contrast this to MacNeill in Tiberian Sun, when he is asked to investigate the crashed Scrin Ship and he scoffs about UFOs (to which General Solomon deploys the excellent counter-argument “I don’t care what it is, I just care that Nod want it”). Here, your general and his staff are just like “whatevs babe” and continue giving you missions like normal, casually name-dropping the Tacitus (another thing MacNeill dismissed as a “shiner myth”) along the way and then forgetting about it. (Oh wait, yes, by the end of expansion pack Firestorm we did manage to translate all its secrets… didn’t we?)
So an excellent set-up in the fundamental structure of the game itself, but sadly a ball dropped by the narrative itself.
In terms of actual gameplay, the difficulty level is all over the fucking joint.
All units are very fragile; or rather, they’re all very fragile to some specific other units. If your force contains the wrong types, there’s no wiggle room — you’re decimated in seconds, simple as. Needless to say, the AI always seems to have the perfect force composition to slice through all of your defences, no matter how carefully-crafted. Even the ability to garrison civilian structures to provide makeshift fortifications doesn’t add much, as there are several units (which your enemy invariably has) that can instantly obliterate a garrison.
Most maps are very small, with one or two Tiberium fields that are also very quickly exhausted. As units are so fragile, but also not cheap, money evaporates with each wave of enemy soldiers, making it frequently impossible to build up an attack force for having it eroded during defence.
This is the heart of the difficulty spikes: several missions constantly throw waves of enemies at you, and while you must deal with a lack of money the AI clearly does not. Since your units are so fragile, you have to pay attention to every engagement — and when enemies are constantly attacking from three directions it is impossible to send out an aggressive sally on top of that, as paying too much attention to an assault leaves your base wide open.
Did I mention you cannot build walls? That’s the thing — with sufficient fortification in Tiberian Sun, you could leave your base behind and be confident that it wouldn’t melt like butter in the sun. It might take some damage, might need one or two repairs, but it didn’t need constant care and attention. Constant care and attention and a fast pace works when there’s one thing to focus on, like in a first-person shooter where there is only you, but scaling that out to managing an army of glass cannons just doesn’t work.
When the game is not throwing endless waves at you, though, and the enemies obey the same constraints as you, things do become much more comfortable and you can start to appreciate some of the good things.
APCs are no longer unarmed, having their own machine guns and even allowing the squad inside to shoot out. Engineers can reactivate large units that leave behind husks when they die, so a canny player can nab the odd unit from another faction. The campaigns are big and meaty and give you plenty of levels to enjoy once the complete tech tree has been unlocked, rather than giving you the super-weapon in the final mission and then stopping.
My favourite thing is probably the intelligence database. As you complete objectives and explore maps then you accrue written chunks of extra lore; nothing that changes the face of the clunky main plot, but mildly interesting tidbits that round out the universe. Stuff that’s good to know if you’re interested, but wouldn’t make sense in a live-action briefing room scene.
Unfortunately, the written lore is often used as a crutch to explain why all the cool walking units of Tiberian Sun have been replaced with boring tanks. Stories of uninhabitable red zones are only stories until a few final missions in each campaign, with most scenarios taking place in cheerful sunny cities that could be in any game but for the neatly contained Tiberium fields in the corners.
Where is the unstoppable corruption? Where are the carpets of vein-hole monsters and evilly glowing trees? The mutant Tiberium Fiends and awful flesh-bag visceroids spawning from dead infantry?
Although this game is ostensibly set in the future, the mood of the missions makes it feel like Tiberium infestation has reversed, along with the technology level of the GDI. The striking industrial futurism and bleak weirdness has all been swept away — it’s like another game was made and they loosely draped the Command & Conquer fiction over the top, using the solid concept of the intelligence database to paper over the cracks.
It’s fair, I wasn’t expecting too much from C&C3, but I have to admit that some of the design decisions are quite staggering. I can respect that they wanted to change-up and expand the formula, but the end result of a frantic StarCraft-style rush rush rush seems to create more painful frustration than interesting tactical challenges.
But I seriously cannot understand why they turned off all the iconic units from Tiberian Sun and didn’t at least bring some back as bonuses in the campaigns. I cannot understand why they blitzed all the weird and cool stuff and replaced it with boring and generic stuff. If you’re not going to use the resources you have available, why even bother?
I like the broad direction of the story — bringing in the Scrin, beginning to reveal Kane’s true nature — but the package and the delivery are sadly nowhere near up to scratch.