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Command & Conquer 4 (PC)

Command & Conquer 4 (PC)

Command and Conquer 4
The Command and Conquer series is rightly revered by real-time strategy buffs as one of the most important in the entire genre. For fifteen years different generations have built bases, amassed units and then gone and marched on to victory against a variety of opponents, all done using the same tried and tested interface that has been replicated countless times. However, time doesn’t wait for anyone and anything and even the third imagining of C&C garnered praise for its retro charm but little in the way of innovation. Since then other titles have made their own impact and changed the way people think about real-time strategy, whether it’s the sheer scope of Supreme Commander, the role-playing elements of Warcraft 3, or the micromanagement of the Total War series. Electronic Arts sat down and pondered just how they could make Command and Conquer relevant again and how they could breathe new life into the franchise.

Of course, in doing so, they risk upsetting the die-hard fans who don’t embrace change. If they wanted something different then they would buy those other games. Command and Conquer has always retained the same elements at its core, even when it got flat out silly in Red Alert 3. Just how much would the changes affect the game and would it still be Command and Conquer as we know it? Getting it right was especially crucial since as this game was also bringing to a close the Brotherhood of Nod and GDI saga and promised to answer the numerous questions players had about Kane and his agenda. Although, what a perfect time to bring it to a close. Out with the old, in with the new is a recurring theme in the game itself.

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Gameplay
Most of the tried and tested gameplay elements of Command and Conquer have been removed, replace or revamped. While the game setting and unit names might seem familiar in cases, ultimately this where the similarities between Tiberium Twilight and the other games end.  Forget base building, huge armies, the need for power and protecting Tiberium harvesting operations. Those are now anachronisms in a game that is going all out to be progressive, even if it has to drag people kicking and screaming to get there.

Rather than building a base the player now selects to be Offense, Defence or Support and is then provided with a unit known as a Crawler. These are sort of like mobile bases in that they can build units but they are also powerful and upgradeable units in their own right and are key to victory. The units that the Crawler can build vary on what class was initially selected but it is possible to change class as and when required allowing different units to tackle different situations.

The emphasis is on small skirmishes and territorial positioning rather than the tried and tested build and bash tactics that reduce most maps to a tiring war of attrition. The population cap keeps things fast flowing and easy to manage, introducing elements of problem solving when it comes to defeating the enemy. For each situation there are certain units or upgrades that will be the best selection and learning these is a key part of player development.

Development is something that does play a huge part in the game dynamic. Introducing an experience system that gives player profiles unlockable units, upgrades and weapons means that it is possible to specialise in a particular area and have access to units far ahead in the loose tech-tree. That isn’t always the best plan though, another difference from the C&C of old. Newer doesn’t necessarily mean better and stronger and it’s not impossible to see some of the more advanced units taken down by a wave of low-tier infantry if they are not used correctly. It is an intelligent move to have the experience system active during the single player campaigns and skirmish maps as not only does it reward the player for what are genuine efforts and time invested in the game that are often overlooked by game developers – how often does the single player campaign ultimately play like little more than an extended tutorial for online play? – but it does provide a means to getting some upgrades before having to face the unforgiving online world of competitive real-time strategy.

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The persistent unlock option is likely to be the most divisive thing in the game. At the start a player has a frustratingly limited amount of units that are unspectacular at best and using them can become repetitive. Even after some significant headway is made into the campaign the player will still be presented with lots of padlocks as units are built. However, this would seem to be a smart play on the part of Electronic Arts, albeit a bold one, because it does present a reason to keep playing the game long term and to venture into online, which is something some players may have been reluctant to do otherwise. Every minute invested into the game is taking the player closer to something, even if at times it looks a long way off. This should be a welcome addition to the game and RTS titles in general. Gone are the days where there was nothing achieved for completing the single player campaigns and now there is a genuine incentive to want to progress to the competitive side of play.

The game also has a feel of “capture the flag to it” with the control node system. Players must “influence” control nodes by defeating any enemies in the vicinity of one and then keep units close enough to it until it adopts the uniform of the player faction. These nodes have to be monitored and watched and having them is essential to progressing through the game and acquiring resources. Also gone is harvesting the in game resource, Tiberium. Instead this now spawns at random points and intervals and units have to take the resource back to one of the control node to utilise it.

In game combat has also had a radical overhaul. Now defeated units drop crates that can be used to heal and provide experience to units. How these are distributed is a key part of the strategic elements. Some units take damage quite easily even when upgraded. Should these be given priority for healing, or is it best to keep something a bit more robust at full health? Want more experience in less powerful units so they are more effective, or is it best to have one truly lethal killing machine? Decisions the player will have to make on the fly and ones that keep the pace of the game ticking over nicely. No wait for building queues when units can simply heal and get quickly into the next fracas.

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Graphics
Without a shadow of doubt the most graphically impressive in the series, the game is truly beautiful to behold and the level of detail on the units is spectacular. The landscape is really well put together and ties in with the themes of the game. The combination of the organic and the mechanic create for some startling vistas that feel they belong in another genre entirely. Enemy units are revealed through a heat shimmer in the distance, a nice graphical touch replacing the standard “fog of war” employed by other games.

Combat is when appreciation of the graphics becomes clearer. The unit animations all seem to have a genuine fluidity rather than those same few scenes being used over and over again like in an anime feature. The lighting effects mean that laser beams seem to genuinely pulse and glow with energy and explosions are beautifully rendered. The carnage looks great even when zoomed out and can be a tad distracting at times. With such in game detail the decision to keep everything scaled down comes across as an even more sensible one to avoid slow down for those players with machines of lesser capability. Be under no illusions – this game hasn’t skimped on the detail simply because of the genre. It really does stand out.

The cut scenes seem to have moved from the b-movie camp-fest that has amused and bemused players alike over the years. Instead they have tried to play it deadly serious, which seems a drastic shift in tone, yet one that is overall in keeping with the game. The attempts at delivering these short and supposedly nuanced performances do vary in their success and even with the clearly high production values throughout the game, there are those who make appearances who can’t disguise their “extra in Emmerdale” background.

Again, the die-hards might not like it but they do flesh out the story nicely and are some of the most crisp and polished cut-scenes used in a game yet.

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Audio
The Audio is functional if not spectacular. The explosions hit all the right notes but don’t really resonate and the sound of combat doesn’t really match up to the visual impressiveness of the virtual firework display on the screen. The unit voiceovers become repetitive after a while and they are still, if truth be told, a little bit cheesy. These are all minor quibbles and there is nothing wrong with any of it, however in a game that has been so keen to overhaul its interface and to break away from tradition it is a tad disappointing that the in game sound hasn’t been similarly focused upon.

The soundtrack is a string score that is stirring and atmospheric without ever coming close to anthemic. The incredible work of the brilliant Frank Klepacki is sorely missed from this installment and that would have been the icing on the cake of a truly impressive package.

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Multiplayer
Multiplayer is a huge leap forward in terms of what has gone before. The new teamplay focus, emphasised by the different classes and units available, becomes critical to victory and communication is key. Playing in 5v5 matches and attempting to secure control points is a genuinely fun experience, completely divorced from the “who can spawn their units fastest” experience familiar to most people who have played these games before.

Because of the small number of units a player has to focus on, coupled with the lack of bases and ways to repair on the move, the multiplayer game is one of constant combat, being played at a pace almost unseen before in the genre. The maps are nicely claustrophobic too meaning that securing control points early can be both a blessing and a curse. Committing to acquiring and defending one far away with fast units can be a gamble that pays off. Equally, it can be one that diverts attention and becomes a series of pyrrhic victories.

The option to be able to respawn crawlers and continually get into the thick of the action also means that even the most inexperienced player can make themselves useful. Equally, there are enough subtleties in the unique characteristics of each unit to mean experienced players can make a difference, especially if they are wading into the fray with a beefed up profile. Any transferrable skills acquired in previous versions or in other RTS titles almost certainly won’t confer any special advantage here. The game is about knowing our own capabilities but also that of team-mates.

It loses points for the fact that, like Ubisoft’s games, it requires a constant internet connection to play. The DRM is similarly flawed as well and any interruption to the internet connection will mean players lose their data and experience. This is at complete odds with its “pick up and play” simplicity as it cannot be played in any offline capacity at all. It is an almost upsetting decision that a game that has moved towards finding a balance between layered complexity and accessible simplicity decides, right at the end, to needless complicate the matter by implementing something that is sure to cause more complaints than enhance anyone’s gaming experience.

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Summary
Bold, beautiful and ballsy, this game represents real progress not just for Command and Conquer but for real-time strategy as a whole. Fast paced, action packed and exciting are all descriptions not commonly associated with this genre yet Electronic Arts have managed to pull it off in fine style. Fans of the series who are demanding nothing more than a graphical overhaul of what has gone before will be disappointed. Those who are willing to embrace the changes will be rewarded with a simple game of surprising depth.

Gameplay 91/100 Genuinely fun with a healthy learning curve, it may not be the most mentally taxing real-time strategy title but there aren’t many this quick to deliver the goods.
Graphics 92/100 The best looking Command and Conquer yet and a game that stands shoulder to shoulder with any of the recent genre titles in terms of how it looks. Even the cut-scenes have gone serious this time around. Wonderfully polished and something EA can be proud of.
Sound 79/100 Perfunctory and a little disappointing, the sound doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary in a game that has tried so hard to rip up the rule book. The score redeems it slightly but compared to previous ones in the franchise it too falls short.
Value 85/100 Loads of replayability value and a genuine requirement to keep playing to see everything the game has to offer. Points lost because of the intrusive DRM that detracts from the whole experience.
Overall
(Not an Average)
89/100 Close to true greatness and revolutionary in some aspects, there are some areas where the game falls down. Still fantastic in its own right, as a harbinger for what might follow in the series it is truly exciting. Fear not the changes for they are good.

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About Author

Stuart Davidson

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