You can't kill the Messiah...
In 2003, after the release of Generals, the C&C series went dark. With the closure of EA Pacific and its subsequent merger with EA Los Angeles — the event that prompted many members of the original team to leave and form Petroglyph Games — the series was effectively put on hold. At the same time, the RTS landscape was changing rapidly. With the advent of 3D, we saw the rise of a different kind of strategy game, focusing more on tactics and special units. It was during this hiatus that series like Dawn of War and Company of Heroes came to light, offering a bigger focus and tactics and micro while downplaying traditional resource and base management. Not only that, but DOTA was already giving the world a sneak peek at the future, by effectively birthing the MOBA genre.
Without many of its original creators, and with the rapid changes in the genre, C&C struggled to find its footing. Many ideas were tossed around but nothing seemed to stick. After years of canceled games and speculation among the fan base, those ideas finally came together to form a single game. In March 2007, four years after Generals, EA released Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars.
Would this be a triumphant return? Or the last gasp of a dying genre? Only one way to find out! Fortunately, from this point forward you won’t need any funky patching to get the games running. The most you’ll need to do is maybe install some old DirectX 9 drivers, so I’m still going to link CNCNZ’s guide just in case. Especially if you own the Origin version for reasons that I’ll get into soon enough.
And with that out the way… Welcome Back, Commander.
Set in 2047, 15 years after the events of Firestorm, the state of the world is worse than it's ever been. Tiberium continues to consume and spread throughout the planet, going so far as to change the whole geopolitical landscape. Countries exist pretty much only in name, and the planet is now divided into Red, Yellow, and Blue zones, based on the level of Tiberium contamination. Red zones represent 30% of Earth’s surface and are a living hell unsuited for human life. With extreme levels of radiation and frequent ion storms, venturing into one without armor is certain death. Yellow Zones are the ones destroyed by both war and Tiberium, but still habitable for humans. They’re plagued by crime and unrest but still host the majority of the population (basically future Detroit). Last and not least, Blue Zones are the ones where Tib presence is minimal and life is almost normal, thanks to GDI’s presence there. At the same time, Nod seems to have gone quiet after the death of their leader — and I’m sure it’s going to stay that way — while GDI has reduced its war budget to focus on restoring the planet. I’m sure that’s gonna go just fine for them.
Look at that clean UI...
In Tiberian Sun, an info dump like the one I just dropped would’ve been relegated to the manual. Here, it’s the first thing the game tells you upon starting GDI’s campaign. Tiberium Wars has a much greater emphasis on story and world-building than any of its predecessors, likely taking cues from titles such as the first Dawn of War. The FMVs return in more abundance and quality than ever, and in true C&C fashion, they got some memorable actors here. Michael Ironside, that you might remember from a little unknown movie from the ’90s called Starship Troopers, plays the role of GDI General Jack Granger, and he really sells the “old, tired, and experienced” vibe. Another person you might recognize is Billy Dee William, Mr. Lando himself, as GDI’s treasury man (and obviously shady politician) Redmond Boyle, and his acting is just delightful to watch.
The Nod side of the story is not far behind. Ajay (played by Josh Holloway of LOST fame I guess? I dunno I never seen the show) your advisor during the campaign is just so into the whole Brotherhood. His excitement is palpable and I can’t help but love him. Kane’s right-hand woman Killian is played by Tricia Helfer of Battlestar Galactica fame. Fun fact: she would later voice Sarah Kerrigan and Sonya Blade. But the true star of this show is always Kane himself. Still played by the one, the only, Joseph Kucan, and by Thor’s mighty hammer, does he kill it in this game! Somehow he hasn’t aged a single day since ‘95, and his delivery just got even more menacing since we last saw him. By far my favorite performance by him, especially in the expansion, where he gets to really go wild.
It makes a strong first impression, and thanks to better technology and professional acting, these are some of the best FMVs the series has to offer. There’s also a lot of them, over an hour of cutscenes to be precise. If that wasn’t enough, the new Database contains enough lore to be a wiki in and of itself, with entries being unlocked as you finish missions and do optional objectives. Unit descriptions, bios, summaries of previous games and events, if you can name it the Database likely has it. It’s totally optional but if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a good while reading those.
Boyle and Granger
All of this shows a commitment to storytelling that, unfortunately, becomes a case of “tell don’t show”. For all the talk about how catastrophically fucked the planet is, we never get to see it. There are only two missions that take place in Red Zones and as far as I can tell, they look virtually identical to every other Yellow Zone (I think the sky is darker?), the old Tiberium fauna and flora that was so predominant in Tib Sun is nowhere to be seen (and no lore explanation is given as to why), and the Forgotten faction has — ironically — been forgotten, relegated to a neutral building you can capture and hire mercenary marauders. You don’t even get to see ion storms! As annoying as they were in gameplay, you can’t deny it helped to sell the setting.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t look post-apocalyptic, cause it does. It just fails to convey the same feeling of dread and uncertainty that its predecessor did. The color pallet is not as muted this time, the units don’t have that “dirtiness” that I’m still not sure how to properly describe, and the whole game feels less sci-fi, thanks to the notable absence of hover tanks, walking mechs, cyborgs, and the firestorm wall generator just to name a few. I understand this is very subjective — and in the interest of fairness, they do give lore explanations as to why some of those things are absent — but I think other fans felt the same way since most of these would eventually return in Kane’s Wrath. But more on that later.
Now, while I don’t completely agree with the art style they adopted, I can commend the visuals and design. Using a much-improved version of the SAGE engine, Tiberium Wars stood the test of time like a champ. Thirteen years later and this game is still a treat for the eyes! Distinct models give every unit an easily identifiable look, the destruction of units and buildings feels even more satisfying than they did in Generals, and the little animations on infantry while idle or selected fill them with personality. Combine that with the voice acting we come to expect from a C&C title, and you have one hell of a roster. The Nod Harvester sounds so disappointed when you tell him not to collect Tiberium, which makes me giggle every time.
Tiberium Wars does a good job with its visual presentation, Too bad I can’t say the same for its music.
That's the way I would describe the music of C&C 3. It’s a completely new sound to the series, one that forgoes the instrumentation style of past entries. Distorted guitars and synths are heavily downplayed in favor of orchestral strings that convey a cinematic feeling. The way the game uses its music is also different. In the previous entries, while the music wasn’t directly tied to any one mission in particular (save for Generals) it did convey the state of its universe perfectly. Red Alert’s music was always exciting and blood pumping, while Tiberian Sun’s depicted the dread of living in this world. As an aside, I’m not really counting Tiberian Dawn’s music for this comparison, as that game had a pretty experimental soundtrack and the story had relatively low stakes compared to future entries.
Prepare to hear this... A lot!
In C&C 3, the music is heavily tied to the action, and that’s my issue with it. It serves to intensity the visual spectacle happening right in front of your eyes. That is so true, that out of the entire soundtrack (a whooping 38 songs if you don’t count the expansion) only a single song goes over the three-minute mark. I can only imagine that was done so that the tracks can easily transition between themselves.
While it works, and it does intensify what’s happening on the screen, it’s not the kind of music that stands on its own, and as such, it doesn’t stick with you. It comes, does its job, and vanishes from your mind. Of course, I won’t pretend to speak for everyone, but at least to me, coming fresh from six other C&C games, it’s a jarring change. One that can easily be explained by looking at the background of the composers: Steve Jablonsky and Trevor Morris. Both had long careers composing for movies prior to working on Tiberium Wars, and funnily enough, for both, this was their second time composing for a video game. Considering the approach to storytelling this game took, all of this was most definitely intentional. I’m just not sure it was the right choice.
There is however one exception: the mission failed theme. You know why? Because, my dear friends, the AI is a cheating bastard. Let’s talk about the campaign!
The campaign is bigger than ever in this game, not necessarily in the number of missions (those are comparable to Tib Sun’s) but in the sheer scope and variety of them. Like any good C&C game, the story will take you all over the world in order to win the Third Tiberium War. Taking a page from the Firestorm expansion, both campaigns are canon and happen in parallel with one another, and both have a new, faceless and voiceless commander as our POV into the plot. The structure of the campaign itself is more akin to what we got in Tiberian Sun, with a map where you can select the order you want to play the next missions, but unlike that game, doing so won’t reward you any advantages in a future map. But even if they did, the new units you get are usually the best ones to achieve victory. Remember this, it will be important in a hot second. GDI’s campaign is especially guilty of this, with their first two or three missions being basically a tutorial teaching you how to garrison, repair, build units, and so on. Which is weird, because the game asks you if you want to play the tutorial the first time you select the campaign mode, so I’m not sure why they thought this was necessary.
Since this game has a bigger focus on its storytelling, the plot of the campaigns benefited greatly from this. GDI’s is kinda boring since they stay the whole game just responding to their opponent’s moves and at the very end there’s something I tentatively call a “moral choice”. Meanwhile, we get a better look at the inner workings of the Brotherhood of Nod (even more than in Tiberian Sun), where everyone but best boy Ajay seems to have some sort of agenda of their own, and when they clash with Kane’s is quite the sight to behold. And speaking of the prophet, his endgame brought some fundamental changes to the universe of C&C. He baits GDI into using their Ion Cannon on top of Temple Prime (huh. Déjà vu, anyone?) producing a massive Tib explosion that could be seen from outer space. Who was there to see, you ask? Motherfucking aliens. After two games and one expansion of teasing, Tiberium Wars finally gives us the damn aliens it promised so long ago. The Scrin are one hell of a change of pace, playing differently from the other two factions, adding depth to the gameplay and intrigue to the story. They get a mini-campaign that unlocks after you complete the other two. Only five missions, but they give a bit more context to the faction and it is the end that the other two campaigns didn’t deliver. Very intentionally so: unlike the past games, Tiberium Wars clearly sets itself up for a sequel, rather than having something conclusive but still prone to continuations.
Now that all the pieces are on the board, we can talk about the gameplay. Everything should feel fairly familiar if you played Generals, and I don’t say that just because it’s running on the same engine. Tiberium Wars feels way more like a sequel to that game than Tiberian Sun’s, taking a lot of lessons from the former, and mashing them with the elements you’d expect from the latter. The UI sees the return of the sidebar (and by extension, the MCV) looking cleaner than ever before. Compact and with no unnecessary spaces around. Your support powers and superweapons are displayed on the left side of the screen for ease of access. You don’t get to choose this time, they are available as long as the required tech structure is on the field. And except for the superweapons, they all cost a pretty penny to use! I found little use for most of them, but the few I did are really good and could be seriously overpowered without the associated cost.
Scrin's air power is supreme.
Another element brought straight from Generals are the individual queues per production facility (that are very easy to manage thanks to the sidebar) and upgrades, both things that should be pretty self-explanatory at this point. There’s also a new crane building that gives you an additional build queue. It can’t build defenses or other cranes though. The one thing that throws me for a loop is the general hotkey layout. C&C 3 uses a weird “Control + Key” layout for certain shortcuts like upgrades or unit abilities and the F1-12 keys for buildings. It takes a while to get used to it. One thing they “borrowed” from other games is that infantry now comes in squads that get progressively weaker the more health (and members) they lose. And no, veterancy won’t make new squad members suddenly appear from thin air. Oh, and speaking of veterancy, it’s back and it is still broken! Just watch this one game and see for yourself the kind of damage a single heroic unit can do.
Last and definitely not least, there are some finer micro commands to give your units, and some of these are essential. You can tell units to take a specific formation by holding both mouse buttons when issuing a move order, change how they'll behave around enemies, or force a vehicle to a specific position (very useful to crush enemy infantry). Here's a free pro-tip: vehicles in this game have to turn to move, and they take extra damage from behind. Always be sure to use R to make your vehicles drive in reverse when retreating. As far as micro is concerned, this is probably the best in the entire series, and I'm sure the developers felt the same way because the game has quite a number of micro missions. And that is awesome, it keeps things fresh, and you’re gonna need that finer degree of control because Tiberium Wars’ difficulty curve looks more like a heartbeat monitor than an actual curve.
There are three reasons for that. One: the AI blatantly cheats. That’s nothing new, the CPU needs some sort of handicap to provide a challenge. Pretty much every RTS in the world does that. True sight, infinite money, the usual. What makes the one in C&C 3 so egregious is the fact that they have all of that, plus a ridiculously reduced build time! In the time it takes for the player to build a single unit, the AI will have 3 or 4 ready to go! But what annoys me more than that, is the fact that it is also inconsistent. Usually, every mission has the AI following some sort of script that you can mildly predict on repeat playthroughs, but sometimes they can just decide they’re done and resign to their fate. It is really weird and I’m not sure what causes that to happen. This also removes some layers of strategy: since the AI will always do the same thing, it makes so that there are only one or two optimal answers, and trust me, on hard difficulty, you either go optimal or go home.
That would’ve been fine by itself. A challenging but nonetheless beatable game is nothing to write home about. It’s the second reason that makes this go from “annoying but manageable” to “who the fuck thought this was a good idea?”. This game came out at a time when balance patches were already a thing. Tiberium Wars went in hard on the e-sports scene thanks to BattleCast, a sub show of C&C TV (holy shit remember that?) that focused on showcasing the best replays and mods. Having a balanced game was essential for that. Why am I mentioning this at all? Because for some unknown reason, the multiplayer patches apply to the campaign mode. I can’t even begin to explain how problematic this is!
Fuck. This. Mission...
Tiberium Wars’ campaign has some missions that are designed to be beaten in a specific way. The first instance of this comes fairly early, in GDI’s sixth mission, Alexandria. In this one, you’re meant to build up your forces and steamroll the fortified Nod position with Mammoth Tanks, the finest armor GDI has available. In earlier versions of the game, you did just that: build a shit ton of tanks and watch as they no-sell enemy fire thanks to their extra thick armor. Needless to say, they were a little bit too strong for competitive play, and you definitely know where this is going. Not only does the nerf make for a much harder mission, but the buff given to Nod’s Black Hand is also out of this world! Now they are the ones no-selling RAILGUN BULLETS TO THE FACE! The dedicated anti-infantry turret can’t deal with them, you’re better off getting a Commando inside an APC and microing the hell outta it! And that in turn, makes mission 9 (Croatia) another pain in the ass, since there’s one base that just loves to spam Black Hand infantry at you. Fuck around, this AI does not.
But you know what, it gets worse! With the release of Kane’s Wrath, it was decided that the game was too “spammy”, so the economy suffered a huge hit. Harvesters wielded fewer credits per run, making the micro aspect of the game much more important. Take a wild guess what happened to the campaign… If all of those disadvantages weren’t enough, the final nail on the coffin is the fact you’re not getting enough money to deal with the AI. What baffles me is the fact that this is the base game suffering from a change made in the expansion pack! You don’t even launch Kane’s Wrath from the same executable! Why couldn’t this be separate, I’ve no idea!
Now, I’m here to tell you it isn’t all hopeless. This is PC gaming we’re talking about, so naturally, fans came up with a solution. All you need to do is install the C&C 3 Original mod for the base game and Kane’s Wrath Classic for the expansion. The first one only changes the economy for base C&C 3, while the latter reverts both the economy and some balance changes. I don’t talk about mods in this series since I want to judge the games by what they offer, but for Tiberium Wars, it just wasn’t fun to have the AI steamroll me because I was constantly running out of funds. I’ll detail the correct way to install these mods at the end of this blog.
Our last stop of today is the Kane’s Wrath expansion. This blog is already gigantic, but this one is worth the extra time. In many ways, this feels like a better version of the Firestorm expansion. Kane’s Wrath is all about our favorite messiah, taking place before, during, and after the Third Tiberium War. It’s kind of impressive how much it manages to add to the original story while not only avoiding contradictions but also changing the context of certain key moments in the plot. There are no other campaigns other than Nod’s this time around, but this was definitely for the best because it means more Kane and he is absolutely killer in this expansion! I swear that intro FMV when he goes “PEACE. TROUGH. POWER!” I can see the spit coming out of his mouth. And that is immediately followed by the only memorable song in this whole game: a remix of “Act On Instinct”. Just, so awesome.
PEACE. TROUGH. POWER!
As for the gameplay, this expansion goes in the vein of Zero Hour. Besides adding upgrades and new units, it also adds two new sub-factions to each race, for a total of 9 available factions. Unlike Zero Hour, the new factions won’t drastically alter your playstyle (nothing crazy like the Air general not having any tanks for example), focusing instead on stressing a particular strength, rather than relying on it. Most of the arsenal is shared, but exclusive units, upgrades and support powers give each faction a flavor of its own. The Black Hand is able to train two commandos and have them be Heroic from the get-go, Reaper-17 has stronger vehicles than other Scrin factions, and so on.
Last but not least, each faction got its own late-game Epic Unit! These are gigantic vehicles meant to utterly and completely raze bases, being able to crush anything that isn’t another Epic Unit. Each has a special ability (like being able to process Tiberium just by driving over it) and any number of hardpoints which can be garrisoned with infantry for specific, permanent upgrades. These are expensive as fuck, but can easily turn the tide of a battle. Needless to say, this is the way to experience the multiplayer. So go have fun!
Replaying Tiberium Wars was interesting. Thanks to patches, I had a different experience from when I first played when it was first released, and having to use mods just to get some semblance of balance back in the campaign was… annoying to say the least. What I realized is that this is a game of two halves: on one, it’s a sequel to one of the most beloved RTS titles in history — Tiberian Sun — but it is also a spiritual successor to the most divisive title in the franchise, Generals. The gameplay certainly evolved and it is the perfect fusion between these two titles, but the changes to lore and economy make me think the developers wanted to trail their own path, but we’re not quite sure where to go. For what it is worth, they did a great job despite my gripes with it. All this team needs is a true sequel and then it will really become something special.
But that would have to wait. Because once again, history is about to repeat itself. Not long after Tiberium Wars, EA Los Angeles was hard at work giving us the next installment of the Red Alert series.
In October 2008, hell came back for one last march...
Here are the steps required to install the mods!