Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances Preview: Casual Commandos

New browser game gets the Nod.

This is not Command & Conquer as we know it. In fact, it's not even war as many of us know it. One of the first things that Martin Lohlein, senior producer at Phenomic tells journalists playing the closed beta is that Tiberium Alliances is that he "wanted to give C&C players a chance to engage with the franchise in a different place in their gaming schedule."

If you do rigorously schedule your gaming, then that place could be on your daily commute, in line at the bank or in a well-hidden Firefox tab at work. The idea is that Tiberium Alliances will run on any device with a browser, allowing you to manage its ongoing conflicts with a few clicks, sending succinct instructions on what to get on with until you check back during your lunch break.

In practice this might sound almost like play by mail but in its current state what Tiberium Alliances most resembles is a cross between Phonemic's similar fantasy effort, Lords of Ultima and, well, a Facebook game.

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Expect to start with a small army and upgrade it very slowly indeed.

It works like this: I click to deploy my base buildings across a grid. I click to upgrade them. I watch them collect or produce one of several resources, which I then pump back into the purchase of further incremental upgrades. Essentially, everything contributes to a slow, shallow-gradient grind toward Better Stuff and, in a move that I'm not sure is cynical or genius, absolutely everything has a countdown timer attached to it.

For example, in just fourteen seconds time I'll be able to send out another task force to raid the ramshackle renegade shantytown that bulges like a boil on the edge of my territory. After thirty eight seconds I'll have another Tiberium bonus to collect from one of my harvesters, or I could wait twelve minutes to expand my command centre.

I'd really like to upgrade the infantry I'm about to dispatch and though I don't quite have the resources for it, checking the unit's status tells me I'll have them in twenty minutes and sixteen seconds. Whatever it is that I want to get or to do, there's a countdown for it. I feel a bit like I'm cooking, like I have a dozen egg timers in front of me, all telling me when to toss the next pancake or stir the next pot.

No, not cooking. I'm making microwave meals. Playing Tiberium Alliances feels a lot like opening and closing an enormous bank of microwaves, taking out or putting in dishes of food and, when that food is ready, sending it out to war. Should a resource, building or unit not be available quite as quickly as you might like then - aha, yes, there it is - that 'Add funds' button will get things done, although Lohlein's aim "is to ensure that non-paying players are still able to find a place amongst the top players."

There's less to say about combat at present. Purchasing and slowly upgrading units as you would structures, you organise them into attack waves that roll towards enemy or AI bases in a pre-set formation, arranging them to inflict as much damage as possible.

They then trundle in straight lines, towards victory or death, while the game makes battle noises that sound like a corpulent man noisily eating a packet of crisps while truants kick over dustbins outside his house.

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Research points are earned by… attacking other bases? And are currently thin on the ground.

Of course, Tiberium Alliances can only become more polished with time. Lohlein insists that the game will move away from the current grinding and clock-watching towards something that really can be dipped into more casually. "We're limiting the amount of things you can do in a day," he explains. "The game is really tailored to be played in two to three short sessions in a day. There's a minimum engagement required to keep up with the game, but it's much less than you'd usually expect in the genre." Players are encouraged to group together to form those titular Tiberium alliances, bolstering one another's forces as they chase high scores.

Deliberately choosing to abandon my base for a few days to see what happens, I find I am, of course, mercilessly crushed. The game may suit a casual, flighty player, but certainly makes no excuses for the negligent, though it is forgiving.

It's still in need of both balancing and shifts toward the tactical and away from the grind, but Lohlein is confident that data provided by the beta experience will help Phonemic achieve this. It remains to be seen whether the aim to develop a game so casual and relatively non-committal is a recipe for success or merely curious diversion, or indeed if the latter is all that Tiberium Alliances ever wants to be.

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