To a lot of people, myself included, Command & Conquer (1995) was the definitive RTS. It had base building, tech trees, plenty of varied units, a story to delight sci-fi and B-movie nerds, and an overall character that's never been replicated by its peers. Over the last 15 years it's spawned sequels, spin-offs, and sequels to spin-offs but C&C4 is to be the last in the original "Tiberium" timeline. The safest and most obvious direction to go in would have been to let the series die as it lived with a fond re-hashing of C&C's best features and traits but C&C4 is something quite different.
The story began in the late 90s when a meteorite crashed near the river Tiber in Italy and an alien substance was discovered. The substance, which became known as Tiberium, had the very useful property of drawing precious metals out from the surrounding area and depositing them as crystals. An organisation known as the Brothernood Of Nod rose to prominence, having apparently spent centuries preparing for the discovery of Tiberium and researching the means by which to harvest it. They soon became very rich and built a vast private army with which they scared the proverbial out of the UN, provoking the First Tiberium War.
70-odd years, three world wars, two alleged deaths of Nod's leader, and an alien invasion later, the world is in pretty bad shape. Tiberium has spread and made most of the planet's surface uninhabitable as the substance has the nasty habit of turning people into horrible mutants or killing them outright if they aren't as fortunate. What remains of the UN's Global Defense Initiative meets with Kane, Nod's strangely youthful leader, to discuss plans to drive Tiberium back using a new technology that could save life on Earth. Enter Player 1, GDI's new commander, fresh from an explosive incident that left you blind, but now as good as new thanks to a bionic implant.
The first of many breaks from tradition is the initial lack of two separate campaigns. The first couple of missions serve as compulsory tutorials that force you to fly GDI's flag until Kane gives you the option of lending him a hand instead. Break from tradition number two is the experience system.
In a world where every game has to be an RPG, C&C4 rewards you with experience points as you play and each time you level up another batch of units and support powers will be made available to you in all game modes. This means that if you dive straight into online multiplayer you'll have only the first tier of units at your disposal but, if that is the route you take, you can level up in multiplayer and then begin the single player campaign with a maxed out profile and have every unit and power available from mission one. C&C4 also borrows the RPG class system, giving you the option of deploying an offensive, defensive, or support force, each with its own selection of units to suit that style of play.
You'll notice that I mention units but not structures. This is because there aren't any. In C&C4 your Mobile Construction Vehicle, now referred to as a "crawler," is your all-in-one base. No barracks, no war factory; everything builds from your crawler. The exception to the rule is the ability to build defences such as bunkers and obelisks if you deploy a defense crawler but you probably won't want to as they eat into your command points.
Command points are both the unit cap and currency of C&C4. That's right, there's no resource harvesting either, in spite of the bountiful presence of Tiberium. All that stands between you and your Mammoth tank is build time; no waiting around for harvesters to trundle back and forth. With no structures there's no need to work through a build order before hearing the sweet sound of "new construction options" so the pace of the game is lightning fast in comparison with previous games in the series. A side effect is that your units have little of the worth you would once attach to them. When an army had taken ten minutes and thousands of credits to build, every casualty was painful. In C&C4 the low unit cap ensures that it will never take more than a couple of minutes to build as big a force as you're allowed to have, and then you can queue up build orders to instantly churn out a new unit each time something dies and frees up some command points. You're the supervisor of a conveyor belt of death.
On paper that sounds fun but it can lead to multiplayer stalemates where each player simply sets their rally point to be right on the opponent's crawler and queues tank after oh so disposable tank. With no resource gathering there's nothing to stop you.
An aspect of C&C4 that's had a lot of negative press is its need for a permanent internet connection, even for offline play. There's a big warning on the box if you buy it from a shop but as I was given a digital copy to review it certainly took me by surprise when my wi-fi hiccupped for a second and an error message popped up telling me that my campaign progress would no longer be saved. I'm sure DRM is part of the reason for this arrangement but this isn't just about giving pirates an extra hoop to jump through.
C&C4 is full of surprises and oddities but the strangest thing of all is the presence of a chatroom at the bottom of every menu screen. C&C4 needs to have an active internet connection because when you're checking the end-of-mission stats the bottom quarter of the interface will be dedicated to a window full of people ranting about how disappointed they are with the game. Even when you're configuring your display options a good chunk of your monitor will be playing host to txtspk co-op requests from people you've never met. It's bizarre and not entirely welcome in my opinion, as a mostly single player gamer.
Right at the start of this review I mentioned the inimitable character of the C&C series and I attribute that mostly to the cinematics and music. Unfortunately C&C4 departs from the source for both and the game suffers for it, from the perspective of a C&C fan.
At their best, C&C cinematics were full of hammy acting but they absolutely knew it. They were making a video game, not an Oscar winner, and they had some fun. Joe Kucan returns as Kane for one last hurrah and he's the superb super-villain we know and love but the actors and actresses around him can be difficult to watch. I feel bad for singling out one person but the actress playing your character's wife really misses the mark. We get it, you're very much in love and don't want anything nasty to happen to your husband, but take a moment to think about who the audience is. While this excessively sentimental pap might be right at home on Neighbours, it's going to do nothing but wind up an audience who's only here to see a bald bloke talk about taking over the world and occasionally point a gun at a minion or two.
The music follows a similar path; going for a big, orchestral, cinematic sound even though C&C fans would mostly rather listen to Hell March than Holst. It's just not the same without Frank Keplacki, the series' go-to composer before EA ate Westwood. The game is so sombre and overly serious without Keplacki's beeps, bloops, and guitar riffs.
The point I'm making is that this isn't the C&C we know or the C&C we asked for, and the finale of a series strikes me as a poor choice of timing for sweeping changes. Maybe I'm oversimplifying things but the overall product gives the impression that the folks at EA looked at Relic's Company Of Heroes and Dawn Of War and said "We should make a game like that!" in the same way that they looked at God Of War and made Dante's Inferno. If they want to take that approach to making games then I can live with it but did EA's Dawn Of War homage have to be part of the C&C series? They could have created an entirely new IP and built their small-scale unit-centric RTS in it. They could have even spawned another C&C spin-off in the Generals mould with which to conduct their gameplay experiment. To generate hype about C&C4 being the exciting conclusion to the C&C series and then deliver a game that isn't C&C is a bit of a bait and switch.
I'm giving C&C4 seven out of ten but, to be honest, giving a score that high leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The fact is that this is a fully functioning, highly polished RTS and it gets accordingly high marks for that. The trouble is that every time I've loaded up the game while I've been putting this review together I've had to look at all of those in-game chatrooms and I've seen a hell of a lot of absolutely gutted C&C veterans. Unfortunately I'm one of them.