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.