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.
On the plus side, the team porting Kane's Wrath to the Xbox 360 has thought long and hard about the control scheme, and has come up with something genuinely fantastic. RTS games have a hard time on consoles in general because they're designed from the ground up for the PC's control system. That's not something that Kane's Wrath overcomes - anyone who plays PC games will still pine for a mouse and keyboard when playing this, in a way that an FPS gamer, for example, probably wouldn't. However, this is still probably the best effort we've seen yet at sensible RTS control using a joypad, largely because it tries to find its own way around the challenge rather than just emulating mouse controls on a thumbstick.
The chief innovation is a radial menu, called forth by a trigger, which allows you to rapidly select and navigate just about anything to do with your unit production, build queue, groupings and selections. It takes a little getting used to, but it's ultimately a very powerful way to control the game - not remotely as precise or elegant as a mouse, but a bloody good compromise and one which console RTS fans will definitely appreciate.
If that comparison with the PC version is Kane's Wrath's strongest suit on consoles, though, it's in another comparison with the PC version that the game delivers its most serious disappointment. When Kieron reviewed the PC expansion pack a few months ago, almost half of his review was given over to the Global Conquest mode, a Risk-style strategy game with surprising depth which served as a non-linear supplement to the campaign mode. It was, arguably, one of the biggest innovations that EA has made to C&C in many years.
It's also been completely removed from the console version of the game. In its place, we've got something called Kane's Challenge, which is a pretty competently put-together set of pre-rolled challenges that can be played through as any one of the nine sub-factions. To call this a weak substitute would be overstating its value somewhat. A major, innovative and entertaining game mode has been removed, and what we've got instead is a small collection of skirmish games to play through.
As you would expect from a C&C game, what you do get is very well polished and presented, and of course, there's plenty of live-action cut-scene footage there to entertain the fans. The online modes remain largely unchanged from C&C3, which is to say that they work nicely - and that the Xbox Live-powered functionality of the console version is actually superior to the weak match-making and poor interface of the PC's online modes.
None of that, though, can really compensate for the fact that console owners are being asked to pay more money for a lesser product. Taken on its own merits, we'd describe the 360 version of Kane's Wrath as a relatively solid but entirely uninspired expansion - one for the dedicated fans only, albeit one with a very clever new control system. It's by comparison with the PC expansion that this game starts to look seriously bad, and even while acknowledging that not every 360 owner has a gaming-capable PC, our score reflects the fact that this is one game where the console version is definitely inferior.
5 / 10