Command and Conquer 3 : Tiberium Wars
No matter how many times they try, developers just can’t seem to get RTS games quite right on a console format. Hampered by the control system and lack of resolution real-estate, most attempts thus far have made a bludgeoning stab at the genre rather than a precisely co-ordinated attack at the minds of couch-bound gamers, and left many with a feeling that maybe the relationship just isn’t meant to be. Last year, EA attempted to change that situation with the relatively well received Battle For Middle Earth II; a game that almost managed to instill the strategic mindset into thousands of players, but still fell agonisingly short of the quality marker to be crowned a true classic. The same development studio returns this year with a version of Command and Conquer; a title with as much strategic pedigree as any other in the industry, and one that has all the requisite hallmarks to turn the tide of the battle against console-RTS adequacy.
Harking back to the series roots, ‘C&C3: Tiberium Wars’ features the return of fantastically cheesy and over-the-top full-motion video (with fan-favourite NOD leader Kane resurrected for another stellar performance) and speedy gameplay. In fact the sheer pace of the game engine may be a bit of a shock to those players introduced to the series through ‘Generals’, or even anybody thats gotten used to titles such as Company of Heroes or Dawn of War on the PC. Whilst speed probably wont be the primary concern of many genre die-hards, there is no doubt that the emphasis on fast-action gameplay gives Tiberium Wars an adrenalised atmosphere, perfect for the average console gamer. Units fly around the battlefield at an alarming rate, similar to that of the first PC title in the series all those years ago, and probably closer to the original Red Alert than anything else.
Of course the same sense of speed that charges the atmosphere also plays right into the hands of the chief bug-bear of a console implementation; the control scheme. EA has taken a wise evolutionary step here, and anybody that played BFMEII last year will feel right at home with the new tweaked interface, which is no bad thing at all.
With the lack of any keyboard input, all of the usual build, unit selection and tactical choices have to be mapped to an on-screen menu, and making such a system easy and fast to navigate has proven to be a chore in the past. To get around this issue, C&C3 essentially uses the right and left triggers as the kick-off point for any of the on-screen input, with the face buttons and bumpers acting as modifiers and context-sensitive choices depending on the units selected. Pulling the right trigger brings up the main build menu from anywhere on the battlefield, or a context-sensitive menu depending on the group or structure selected, whilst the A button acts as confirmation in all circumstances. The d-pad acts as group selection and assignment, as well as cycling through your choice of ’special’ units (engineer, commando etc), and waypoints can be plotted with the left bumper.
Whilst navigating the environment this way can be daunting at first, there is an excellent set of tutorials in the main menu that walks new players through all of the basics; and once you’ve played through the first couple of missions in the GDI campaign, the crucial elements will have become second nature and you simply wont be thinking about the pad anymore. There really isn’t any functionality I can think of that’s more than one or two button presses away, which is the ultimate compliment I can pay the interface, and other console-bound RTS games could do worse than to bastardize the system for future releases.
That’s one hurdle successfully leaped by the development team then, with another to go. The issue of on-screen visuals proves to be a little more tricky to circumnavigate, but whilst any team has to code for standard-definition resolutions as well as the more advanced HDTV variety, this won’t be going away in a hurry unfortunately.
Simply put, on a HDTV (and especially so at 1080p), Tiberium Wars looks fantastic. All of the detail resplendent in the PC version is translated well, and whilst the 360 still cannot match the raw horsepower of a top-end PC, it is at least a close-run competition this time around. There are a few frame-rate issues from time to time, but text is clean and precise, and units stand out well from the terrain without ever looking artificial. Heat-haze and environmental effects are thrown into the mix, as well as a stylishly muted colour palette that accentuates the rain and weather effects on some of the menacingly darker levels.
Drop down to a standard-definition resolution however and all of the usual complaints begin to manifest themselves. Ground troops suddenly turn out to be near-impossible to spot without zooming right in; and text, whilst by no means as bad as some other titles, still isn’t suitably adapted.
Of course that particular complaint is largely the issue of the delivery platform, and not the software developers themselves. There is only so much that can be packed onto a lower-res screen, so it would be harsh to criticise the title for failing to deliver in those circumstances. That isn’t to say that Tiberium Wars doesn’t play well on older technology however. Whilst there are the niggles listed above, you can certainly see well enough to hammer out a decent game, and the frame-rate drops that occur more frequently at higher resolutions fade away to be of less consequence.
So essentially that’s the two main problems with console RTS games knocked out of the park, finally. Unfortunately whilst the team has done a stellar job in overhauling the main mechanics of the title, less attention has been paid to the fine balance needed for a successful single-player game, and this shines through a couple of times during the campaign mode. Some of the tasks in question simply require a keyboard and mouse to successfully complete, at least without absolute perfect timing and game-save abuse every two minutes. Unfortunately this particular issue only occurs near the beginning of both the campaign modes, with the knock-on effect of all the subsequent missions seeming like a leisurely stroll. It’s by no means a game-breaking problem, but it would have been nice to see the missions adapted properly, and a more uniformly scaling difficulty level as a result.
With all that said, each of the single-player modes is a joy to play through, with the fantastically awful acting in the HD cutscenes a suitable prize to be offered up along the way. There are a few cast members that you’d think could do a little better (Michael Ironside, Billy D Williams etc), but they all get caught up in the silly atmosphere of the story and deliver some excellently over-the-top performances. I might be in the minority of people that can appreciate the intentionally bad production values here, but if this sounds like your sort of thing, you’ll be in heaven.
Multi-player is as well-balanced and robust as you would expect from the Live service and a game of this caliber. There seem to be a decent number of opponents on offer at the moment and thus far I haven’t run into any of the annoying Halo-esque college frat-boy crowd that plagues other titles. On another positive note, there doesn’t seem to be any clearly over-powered race or any cheap tactics in use yet (besides the obligatory tank-rush), although I’m sure this will come in time. Network lag issues seem to be minimal, making the game as fast-paced as it needs to be. Given a strong takeup of the game, this could well be one of the more enduring multiplayer communities on Live, and with the generally good-natured games I experienced, that could be very good news for the public persona of the service.
With Tiberium Wars finally correcting so many of the problems that have beset the genre since its console inception, it would be hard not to recommend this as a purchase to any 360-owning strategy fan. Whilst there are still some hardware limitations that cramp the immediacy of the control and the clarity of action on lower-end equipment, the core mechanics have now reached a point where the benefits outweigh the issues when playing on a console, and with the Live service in tow you could even make a solid argument for this to be the definitive version of Command and Conquer 3. High praise indeed, and all the sweeter for being fairly unexpected.
Nine out of ten
- Excellent control scheme
- Fantastic graphics
- Fast paced
- Good multiplayer and single player
- Standard-definition is too cluttered and hard to make out