Version tested: PC
When Command & Conquer 4 was announced, they made it sound like it was time for some answers. You want to find out who Kane really is and where he comes from? How he never dies? How his tiny beard always looks so neat? You want to know about that stuff, do you? Are you sure? Wouldn't you like some more questions? Don't you like questions? C'mon, what's wrong with questions? Why are you leaving? Won't you come back?
Command & Conquer 4 is the conclusion of the Tiberium saga, but you would have to be more naive than the Trojan doorman wheeling in the horse to think this really means the end of C&C. Granted, a thing happens which suggests an end to the last 15 years (and 70 in-game years) of conflict between the GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod, and another thing is said which implies Kane is something more than human, but that's how C&C usually ends.
So there's nothing final or particularly satisfying about C&C4's conclusion, and for some reason it tries to replace the tried-and-tested campy cut-scenes with something grittier and nuanced. We're supposed to take this stuff seriously now? While long-time Kane actor Joe Kucan clearly relishes the opportunity to at last lend some subtlety and moral greyness to the shiny-scalped megalomaniac (or is he, etc), the rest of the unstarry cast can only muster bad soap opera.
Most of the story involves watching your unnamed character's wife unconvincingly crying at you, while the climax involves an all-white room and an unconvincing painting of a door. Glimpses of the supposedly Tiberium- and war-ravaged world outside the small Battlestar-on-a-budget set from which Kane and company address you are transparently just 2009 folk chatting from 2009 streets and gardens.
C&C's legendary cut-scenes have always been cheaptastic, but historically that's part of the charm. In C&C4 the attempts at gravitas just make them sad and limp. Meanwhile, the game component - remember that? - throws out almost everything traditionally associated with the series. Long-term C&C fans seem to be the people Tiberian Twilight is least interested in.
The question is whether these upstanding old PC gamers are necessary sacrifices, because C&C4 does have a bigger picture in mind, rather than being about ruthless change for the sake of it. In an age where traditional RTS is fragmenting, fleeing from the old build-and-bash core to various extremes - Dawn of War II's role-playing, Supreme Commander 2's sandbox tech tree, StarCraft 2's absolute precision - EA is looking for a way to keep C&C relevant. C&C3 was retro and wild, Red Alert 3 was full-pelt silly and had co-op, but something had to change.
Something did. Everything, in fact. Base-building, harvesters, Tiberium fields, power requirements, large armies, the Scrin - bar the faction names GDI and Nod, and a few returning iconic units, everything familiar has been removed. The entire game has been rebuilt, leaving something that's both back-to-basics and completely unrecognisable.
Here's how it works. At the start of a mission or match, you choose to play as Offence, Defence or Support. You're then given a Crawler, which is a mobile base with a reasonable amount of biffing power in its own right. The units and upgrades it builds (some crawl, some walk, some fly) depend on which of the three classes you pick.
The building of units is limited only by an absurdly small population cap and wait time - there's no resource-collection whatsoever. You then proceed to capture various points on the map and to hurl your dozen-odd-strong armies at any other players/AI. If your crawler gets nobbled, you can spawn in a new one after a short wait.
It's fast and it's enthralling, even if it's small and permits little variance in single-player missions. For the most part, it's a game of countering - building the right rocks to the enemy's scissors - rather than being a land-grab and build-order race.
The closest comparison is probably World in Conflict, another baseless RTS that involved taking a specific role rather than constructing an army the size of Belgium. The idea in WIC is that everything is fair, everyone is equal and there's always room to achieve contribute regardless of personal skill level.
Which is entirely not the case in Command & Conquer 4, largely thanks (or not) to a new me-too persistent unlock system. Persistent unlocks are great in some contexts, but not in a way which means people starting out only have access to three different units and pretty much zero Support powers.