10 years on, Tiberium Wars remains the best Command & Conquer ever made

Recent history has not been kind to one-time juggernaut of PC strategy gaming, Command & Conquer. 

Following a couple of high profile misfires, EA had hoped to rejuvenate interest in the series with a promising eponymous free-to-play offering set in the Generals universe. A shame, then, that its alpha test was abruptly canned in late 2013, and Victory Games, the studio set up to oversee its development, shuttered. Only the browser-based Tiberium Alliances has been left ticking over at the time of writing, itself potentially not on all that firm a footing considering that a sequel of sorts was axed before even being made public.

EA have made every instalment to date available on their Origin service, but there’s little evidence to suggest that there’s anything new in the pipelines, or that there ever will be. The plan now, it seems, is to mothball mainline Command & Conquer, leaving it available to buy and download merely for posterity and handing the baton to fans in terms of keeping multiplayer services operational.

While it’s certainly true that Command & Conquer has a mixed legacy, with games spanning 3 tonally distinct universes and a revolving door of personnel having worked on each one, some fans feel that it was EA’s gradually more heavy-handed involvement that lead to a terminal decline in quality. But Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, the second game to see release following original creator, Westwood Studios’, formal closure, is arguably the best in the series. It succeeded in modernising the core premise while shaking off much of the camp baggage and backward design quirks that, while charming in the early ‘90s, had eventually became liabilities.

Prior to Tiberium Wars, EALA, a studio kindled from the dying embers of the aforementioned Westwood Studios had turned out Command & Conquer: Generals. It represented a sharp change in direction for an IP that had traditionally kept realism at arm’s length, chronicling a near-future conflict between a pious and interventionist US, an emergent China and a stateless and fluid terrorist threat in the form of the Global Liberation Army. Such a setup could be easily laughed off as a half-baked Tom Clancy daydream in 2001, but nowadays some of it seems almost prophetic.

Despite its markedly different tone, Generals was a significant stepping stone on the road to Command & Conquer 3 from a gameplay perspective. Up until that point, Command & Conquer had stuck rigidly to the archaic formula laid out by its very first iteration in 1997. That is, only allowing a single unit of each type to be constructed at a time, lacking any meaningful unit upgrades and little provision for expanding beyond your starting area. Such a barebones macromanagement system arguably held Command & Conquer back over the years, while contemporaries such as StarCraft and Total Annihilation continued to push the envelope. Generals addressed all of these issues by offering a more nuanced technology tree, multiple construction queues and allowing buildings to be placed anywhere that terrain allowed by worker units rather than by a Construction Yard within a set area of control. This brought Command & Conquer’s macromangent chops up to speed with its contemporaries, and informed every subsequent instalment. 

Generals was itself a bit of a looker on release.

Post-Generals, the Command & Conquer would return to its most famous setting, although there was initially some confusion surrounding what form it would take. EA’s Mark Skaggs jumped the gun somewhat by stating that the next Command & Conquer would actually be set in the Red Alert universe. Skaggs left the company shortly thereafter, and Tiberium Wars was formally announced at E3 2006, pegged for launch the following year.

From the outset, it was clear that Tiberium Wars sought to paint a bleak picture of the future, leaning heavily on what is arguably human civilisation’s second most likely death knell after the large scale warfare between superpowers depicted in Generals: global ecological disaster. The scene-setting preamble talks of a planet overrun with highly toxic, albeit highly valuable, Tiberium, and split into colour-coded zones based on how contaminated they are. 

There’s an interesting social commentary on display here that goes beyond a clumsy sort-of traffic light metaphor. Untouched blue zones are wealthy and pristine modern metropoli, home to the blunt, conventional military might of the GDI. Yellow and red zones, however, are contaminated and borderline uninhabitable respectively, and the unfortunate left-behinds battling to survive in these regions are easy pickings for the quasi-religious fanaticism of the Brotherhood of Nod. The cornerstone of the whole concept is the battle between haves and have-nots: GDI’s conservative order to the Nod’s, raw anarchic chaos; rejecting or embracing apocalyptic and irreversible global change. Again, a not unfamiliar theme these days. 

Most of the fighting takes place in barren wastelands, although some cityscapes do feature.

The single player components of previous games had, for the most part, featured live action mission briefings realised to varying degrees of seriousness. Despite stiff competition from cult luminaries such as Michael Ironside, Tricia Helfer and Lost’s Josh Holloway, Joe Kuncan once again stole the show as the enigmatic and charismatic leader of the Brotherhood of Nod, Kane, lavishing the character with the same cool, psychotic egotism that had made him such a compelling antagonist in both Tiberian Sun and the original Command & Conquer. It is his presence, in addition to the fact that Nod’s in-game arsenal is much more fun to play with than GDI, that makes the Nod campaign the better of the three.  

Indeed, for the first time in the ‘Tiberium’ timeline, a third force entered the fray, in the form of the alien Scrin. Balance wise they sat somewhere between GDI’s blunt instruments and Nod’s glass cannons, and while their arsenal leaned heavily on the crutch of established strategy conceits (shamelessly ripping off StarCraft’s Carriers, for example), they nonetheless offered a pleasing change of scenery.

Conversely, Tiberium Wars actually retconned a lot of its predecessor, Tiberian Sun’s, more outlandish sci-fi trappings. Gone are GDI’s bipedal Titans, gravity-defying MLRS and NOD’s Cyborg Infantry and Banshees, for example, replaced by more conventional-looking military hardware. While some of the explanations given in the game’s Intel Database for such technological backpedalling don’t really hold water, offering a closer parallel between form and function was a smart move. EALA’s designs made it easier to deduce broadly what a unit would do just by looking at it. 

This was a key consideration, given their pretensions of courting the genre’s hardcore competitive scene. Included with the Kane Edition was a DVD showcasing a number of example strategies to get the creative juices flowing, and the company was keen to keep players engaged with its regular Battlecast video content and promotion of professional level play. A shame, then, that it never really took off. Quite why is hard to pin down, but Tiberium Wars’ relatively basic recourse gathering mechanics, game ending superweapons and the fact that base structures that could be steamrolled in seconds by even a meagre force of mid-tier units certainly lowered the skill ceiling somewhat. 

Gameplay followed Generals’ lead in many respects, but cleverly mixed in classic Command & Conquer mechanics so as to offer something of a half way point between the two. Although Construction Yards returned, this time building Cranes opened up additional build queues for structures, and each faction had its own unit designed specifically for cheap, easy (and early, if desired) expansion. Upgrades also returned, and the volume of tanks, troops et al you could build at once was limited only by the the strength of your economy. 

The Scrin demolish Parliament and Big Ben.

The graphics were amazing at the time, and still hold up today. Command & Conquer 3 is a notable early example of heavy shader use, giving the game a very distinct, lens-flare heavy aesthetic style. Multiplayer and single player maps were varied, from futuristic cityscapes to Tiberium-ravaged wastelands of sand, lightning and imposing crystalline megastructures. Explosions and effects also look great even now, up to and including the obligatory mushroom clouds. Likewise, the soundtrack may not be as memorable as the pulsing techno of previous collaborator, Frank Klepacki, but it succeeds admirably in its remit of setting a sombre, more serious tone.

There are many reasons to revisit Command & Conquer 3 on its 10th birthday. Its gameplay is modern enough not to feel outdated, but at the same time quaintly nostalgic. It is chocked full of personality, still looks and sounds pretty good, and is great fun to play. The campaign is an enjoyable romp whichever faction you choose, with varied (if not particularly exotic) mission objectives, and there’s an active multiplayer community even after all this time.  

Sadly, Command & Conquer fans would never have it so good again. Tiberium Wars’ expansion, Kane’s Wrath, featured a great campaign but muddied the waters in skirmish and multiplayer with chronically unbalanced sub-factions. Mark Skaggs’ prophecy of a third Red Alert game would eventually be fulfilled in 2008, but despite some interesting ideas, such as completely amphibious bases, the game’s fiddly micromanagement-heavy style of gameplay and toe-curlingly camp presentation sank its own e-sports ambitions. Then came Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight in late 2010, at a time when it was starting to become clear that traditional RTS was running out of steam. Its oddball team based gameplay was deeply flawed in many respects, and the whole affair felt horribly rushed, although some of the underlying concepts could have gained traction if afforded more time and effort.  

So, while Twilight may have finally set the sun on Command & Conquer, its canonical predecessor recalls a fallen genre giant at the absolute peak of its powers, and challenges the preconception that EA’s creative influence is always a bad thing.

Kane is dead. Long live the king.

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