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.
The careful unit-balancing means it is possible to take down a flock of tanks with a swarm of tier-1 infantry, which is an admirable achievement from a series traditionally known for races up the tech tree. But it would be much easier, and much more fun, to use tier-2 Mammoths and Scorpion Tanks, or tier-3 Support powers that blow up half the screen, which you can't do for too long.
Sensibly, the experience points - earned from kills, achievements and grabbing respawning lumps of Tiberium - are at least shared between single-player, the co-op campaign, skirmish and multiplayer, so you can get a bit of headstart before wandering online.
On the other hand, this means you don't even get to play with the best stuff in the campaign unless you come back to it later. A playthrough of one of the two short campaigns and a few skirmish, co-op or multiplayer muckabouts will get you to level 10 without too much pain - seven or eight hours, I'd say - at which point you can access about 50 per cent of the unlocks. Getting all the way to the top, and the really big toys, will take a whole lot longer - especially as you need to level up GDI and Nod separately.
It must have looked like a great idea on paper. "The kids love Modern Warfare! Let's do that, but in an RTS! We can't fail." But they have failed. It's depressing and infuriating to look at your build and powers menus and see lots of little padlocks.
This isn't how RTS works - that choice and spread of units is key. It's just a grindy, exaggerated throwback to the bad old days of single-player RTS campaigns, when all sense of momentum and progress was artificially hung around denying you the better units until the later levels. It's like a long, unskippable tutorial.
The upside is that you'll definitely learn the units rather than make a dash for the big stuff every time. You'll really come to value the tier-1 infantry and especially the bouncy, healy/grabby/fighty Engineers. The downside is: give me the game I have paid for! These aren't just a few fun bonuses. They're the entire bloody tech tree.
It's even harder to accept because it also seems like a feeble attempt to justify the always-online requirement. Yep, just like Ubisoft's contempt-to-the-max DRM system, this will kick you out if your net connection drops for any reason - even in single-player.
That the game is constantly monitoring and uploading your experience-point count isn't justification enough, because there's no reason it can't wait to do that until you're next back online, just like consoles do with their unlocks. C&C4 has an engine that plays really nicely on a mid-range laptop, but you won't be able to play the game on a train, a plane, a holiday, an oilrig or a subterranean cave-system inhabited by molemen unless there's Wi-Fi in range. It's the misjudgement cherry on top of a whole cake of weird decisions.
There is redemption of a sort. Once you've got most of the toys in hand, the multiplayer is a really good time, especially because of its teamplay focus. The Defence guy locks down the spawn and capture points with turrets and infantry-filled bunkers, Offence guy swarms around the map grabbing caps and trashing enemy crawlers with tanks and walkers, and Support guy causes trouble with planes and powers, such as mines and healing rays.
With close-quarters maps and no glacial up-front building, it means instant, constant warfare, and a genuine opportunity for even the most inept player to enjoy the carnage and chaos of online RTS. The respawning Crawlers and lack of resources means it's basically impossible to not build an army and go thump something.
At the same time, the careful countering and the unlock system means adept players can really excel. Casuals might kill enough things to level up, but they're unlikely to win. It's nothing at all like Command & Conquer, but - eventually - it's a thoughtful and bombastic multiplayer RTS that's welcoming to everyone.
On the one hand, it's important to look at this as its own game rather than through change-fearing spectacles. On the other, it's called Command & Conquer 4, and that bald bloke who keeps waving his arms and talking about ascension is all over it. It's still aimed at the fans. That it is such a giant step away from the mechanics C&C has clung onto for so long is bold and exciting in concept, but so absolute in practice that it's an insult to the faithful.
6 / 10