Version tested: Xbox 360
"Standalone expansion pack" isn't a very exciting phrase, but we're going to have to work with the tools we're given, and it's the most apt description for what Command & Conquer 3: Kane's Wrath actually is. On the PC, this was a straightforward expansion pack for a popular real-time strategy game, sold cheaply and requiring the original game to be installed. On consoles, it arrives as a game in its own right - not full-price, thankfully, but a standalone game regardless.
This retreat from the expansion pack concept raises a few issues. For a start, there's the possibility of players who never picked up last year's C&C3 giving this a shot, only to face a truncated and disjointed campaign mode that makes absolutely no sense to anyone who hasn't played the original. We're not saying C&C's story makes sense in general, mind you, but at least the high-camp melodrama normally follows something like a conventional story arc. Kane's Wrath's campaign only lets you play one side, gives you a limited number of missions and spreads them around a 20-year time period spanning a pair of wars from previous games. The stuff of expansion packs, then, not of full games.
The second issue is simply one of value. This is a bit more expensive than its PC counterpart, not to mention a few months later, and as such it really needs to justify itself pretty well before anyone reaches for their wallet. If you're a fan of Command & Conquer, Kane's Wrath manages that - just about. Unfortunately, along the way it manages to crowbar in enough disappointment to ensure that even devoted fans will want to think hard before parting with their cash.
The good stuff first. Like most strategy game expansions, Kane's Wrath comes with a handful of new units - in this case, mostly introduced through "sub-factions", splinter groups from the existing armies which each have their own unique quirks. A few existing units have also been tweaked slightly, and each side has been granted a new super-weapon - our favourite being Nod's Redeemer, which is no relation to Unreal Tournament's mini-nuke but rather is a huge, stompy, laser-beam-sprouting mech.
The Redeemer isn't the best new unit in the game, though. That honour unquestionably goes to the Mechapede, a truly brilliant unit introduced for the alien Scrin faction. As the name suggests, it's a bit like a centipede in design, but you can actually add nodes to the unit to create an increasingly large, sinuous centipede, with increasingly deadly powers at its disposal.
Units like the Mechapede really only emphasise, however, just how glacial the movement of C&C's game mechanics are. Despite the new units and slightly altered balance, despite the introduction of new sub-factions, Kane's Wrath still plays pretty much the same as C&C3 did - which, of course, played pretty much the same as previous C&C titles did. The formula works, and it's popular, but by god it's starting to feel long in the tooth.
Moreover, the innovation that the team is apparently capable of, judging from the new units, was switched off when it came to mission design. Your missions in the campaign are taken directly from the C&C textbook - alternating mostly between "crush the enemy" missions and "do something stealthy with these three units" missions, which have remained popular with game designers over the years for no readily apparent reason. Hints at possible variety fall flat. Missions which take place during other battles from previous C&C games are an obvious opportunity to do something cool, but nothing cool happens, which is a crying shame.