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Welcome Back Commander: A C&C Retrospective - Death of a Franchise


Throughout this retrospective of mine, it was my goal to make each entry more than just a really long opinion. I know every blog is subjective to some degree, and at the end of the day that opinion will inevitably make its way into the text (or subtext), but I strive to add something to the conversation. I try to highlight the good parts of each game, discuss the bad ones, and measure how well they aged. Which brings me back to the crux of my current predicament: how the fuck do I talk about this game?

Even if you're not a fan of the RTS genre (and if that's the case, I appreciate that you clicked this blog, and hope I can entertain you) the "popularity" of Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight precedes itself. It was the game that killed the series, the canker that brought down one of the pillars of the genre, and added one more studio to EA's bone necklace. It's an unmitigated disaster, not because of the actual game (though that didn't do it any favors either), but because of how it came to be, and what it came to represent. So it might surprise you that I never actually played it before. I knew it was bad but never bothered to examine in-depth why. When I decided to write this series, I intentionally avoided any information beyond what I already knew. You're getting a fresh perspective on it in the year of our Lord 2020. That said, I'm going to be mean to this game. Brutally so, to the point where you might wanna call its parents. In a sense, it won't even be fair, given the circumstances of its upbringing, yet I'm still going to trash it anyway.

So I hope you have your ticket in hand, cause we got a train wreck to catch. Let's fucking do this.

No "Welcome Back" To You

You know, I considered making this just a copy and paste of the notes I took while playing. It would’ve been woefully unprofessional, but I think you’d find it extremely entertaining, especially towards the end when I turned caps lock on and didn’t bother fixing the typos. But alas, a game as infamous as this warrants an actual, civilized discussion. So before I get into it, let’s go for a brief history lesson. It’s 2009, a little after the release of the Uprising expansion. That one got an even more mixed (mixer?) reception than its base game, something that undoubtedly doesn’t please the shareholders. So EA, in its “infinite wisdom," decides that the next project needs to bring in the big stacks. They turn their attention to the Asian market, and thus, a multiplayer-only prototype was born. Something that was A) never meant to have any single-player component and B) never meant to be released on this side of the world. As you can probably guess by the fact I’m even writing this at all, both of these things ended up coming true.

I want you to keep this fact in mind going forward: this was never intended to be C&C4, let alone the conclusion to the saga. It’s a role that this game was never intended to play. Executive meddling forced this upon the developers, and the result is a game that can’t possibly do justice to the series’ legacy. That said, this is an explanation, not an excuse. Even removed from the C&C brand, Tiberian Twilight is still one of the most lethargic experiences I ever had with a videogame.

I don't blame EA LA, they’re the victims here. Just imagine one day you're told to transform a beloved RTS franchise into a soulless cash grab for Chinese markets, but then your boss tells you to instead make that the conclusion to a (then) 15-year franchise that practically created the genre! Something you know will piss off an entire fanbase but are powerless to stop it! I'd call it demoralizing, but that implies there would still be some moral high ground left after the fact, and as we all know, after this title, C&C wasn't exactly in a position to Obi-Wan anyone.

A Long Time Ago, In An Executive Meddling Far, Far Away...

OK, I've stalled enough, let's actually talk about the damn game. TT begins with a login screen. No, wait, let me try it again. TiTwi begins with an authentication screen. Yeah, welcome to always-online DRM, I hope you don't enjoy your stay. I don't know how this "feature" managed to avoid the cutting room. It made perfect sense for the original project, but after the clusterduck that was Red Alert 3's DRM system—something I didn't mention since it wasn't that relevant for the points I was trying to make—you'd think they try to avoid that particular headache. But alas, here we are.

Set some ten years after the events of Kane's Wrath, mankind is now at the brink of extinction. 98% of the planet has become a Red Zone and thus uninhabitable. GDI's technology failed to contain the advances of Tiberium, and the problem became too great for even Kane to ignore. In a desperate attempt to keep the planet alive, GDI and Kane strike a deal: Kane will build his Tiberium Control Network, something that as the name implies, will be able to control and harness the crystal, while GDI will provide the resources. In a show of good faith, Kane gifts them the Tacitus and…

Wait, what? 

If you're confused as to why the Tacitus isn't either destroyed, inside the Legion AI, or both, I'm glad to inform you that you didn't miss anything. It's just a plot point that will never be acknowledged or explained, and that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the game. After the lengths C&C3 and its expansion went to establish a strong canon, it’s disheartening to see the sequel discard all of that literally in the opening cinematic. I might as well tell you now that there will be no alien invasion or cyborg army in this game. You may now shake your head in disappointment.

Anyway, the game begins properly 15 years after the formation of Nod and GDI’s uneasy alliance, with the Network nearing completion. Just like that, the Tiberium crisis is solved. Not only that, but humanity now has virtually unlimited energy and resources at its disposal. I’d like to point out that the alien race with space travel technology, and whose entire existence is based on Tiberium, never managed to do something like this. Otherwise, they would not be consuming planets around the cosmos, and the fact an idiot like me with no storytelling skills finds this completely fucking ridiculous should speak volumes about how low this game’s standards really are. And this is how the biggest crisis in C&C history is resolved. Off-screen and without fanfare. This would be like if Return of the King started after Frodo destroyed the ring, and the plot just handwaved how they got there.

If you ask me, this was probably the setting for the original pitch, and I think it could’ve worked: it would’ve disconnected it from the mainline titles while still being technically canon. My best guess is that this was the original plan, and they had to add all the other stuff after corporate demanded a numbered title. But enough speculation, let us continue. After separatist groups on both sides start some shit up, we eventually end up fighting the Fourth Tiberian War, where all the secrets will be revealed (or so claimed the press releases). Thankfully, it is mercifully short, both in-universe and in real life.

How They Massacred My Boy...

After logging in for a second time (seriously, fuck this DRM) and fixing my resolution, I was presented with a menu that looks straight out of an MMO (or more accurately, a MOBA), and everything instantly felt wrong. The music didn’t fit, the animations on the background feel like they were cut straight from a promotional website, I can’t customize my hotkeys and the global chat tells me there are actually people playing this in 2020, something I refuse to believe.

Upon starting the campaign mode, we are presented with our voiceless, faceless, featureless POV commander and his wife. So, you remember when I said in the Tiberian Sun blog that the whole surrogate protagonist happened one more time? Yeah, this is it, and it’s… oh, it's something. Our self-insert has a defined backstory and a given name (which is never mentioned during the campaign as far as I know), something that runs completely contrary to what the idea of self-inserting is. It’s also so freaking awkward! It reminded me of when I watched the Persona 4 Animation: I just wanted to slap the MC so he would say something! ANYTHING! By the way, our self-insert also has some state-of-the-art implants for his eyes, and you better believe that’s going to be a plot point. This is all presented in some of the cheapest FMVs to ever “grace” the series, something that is definitely a result of the team not getting the necessary budget. There’s like five named characters (played by actors I do not recognize), the GDI uniforms look like something straight outta the Battleship movie and Nod’s aren’t doing much better, and I’m pretty sure they recycled sets multiple times. It is a mess.

And the presentation is really where the cheapness of it all shows the most. One look at any screenshot and you instantly get assaulted by that cartoon art style that just screams “Chinese mobile game”. Not helping is the art direction. Every unit (and I mean, every single one) looks like they’re ready to get 3D printed and sold to kids, it’s ridiculous. The Scorpion tank literally has a tail and pincers, the Avatar has FOUR ARMS for some reason, the Mammoth Tank went from looking like the embodiment of freedom to a sardine box with turrets, the infantry can barely be called that anymore since everyone got stuffed inside power armor that is about as tall as every other tank, I could go on for hours. Having units this goofy juxtaposed against a plot that takes itself this seriously makes for some serious mood whiplash. Also, I don’t know where to put this, but the subtitles didn’t match what was being said on multiple occasions. Not just with missing words, there are moments where entire sentences are spelled out but no one actually says them. 

Then there’s the noise TibWi calls a soundtrack. In all honesty, that isn’t really fair. The music here has the same issue of Tiberium Wars’ of being extremely unmemorable, but it’s exacerbated by the fact that every song goes full orchestral ham. There’s an overabundance of french horns, strings, and Bulgarian chants (I think they’re Bulgarian) that I’m sure are intended to give a sense of greatness to what should’ve been the grand finale of a saga. In that sense, I get what the music was going for, but the same criticism I gave Tiberium Wars echoes here: it doesn’t fit C&C. There is however one song that I absolutely loathe: the one called “To The Death”. Dear fucking God, if I never hear that track ever again it would’ve been too soon! I swear the last bit of the choir repeats ENDLESSLY when you’re in combat as Nod, and it gets so tiring that I almost ripped my ears off! Because of this song, I almost wrote off the entire OST as unnecessary garbage. I legitimately had to mute the music towards the end of my playthrough. It was that bad.

If it looks like I’m blazing through this write-up compared to the rest, that’s because I am. For reasons that should be obvious at this point, this game has considerably less content compared to the rest of the series. The campaign won’t take you more than three hours, but if it wasn’t clear, I really wouldn’t recommend it.

I Have So Many Questions

If there is one thing I can praise the C&C series for, it is that every entry has a gameplay style of its own. They’re all strategy games, and while some fundamentals carry on between each title, the nitty-gritty details of each vary drastically. In keeping with that spirit, TiWi also plays very differently from other entries. That’s not gonna be a compliment for very long. For starters, they got rid of base-building in favor of a mobile, all-in-one MCV, bringing this closer to the territory of Real-Time Tactics. Now, a strategy game without base building isn’t a flawed premise: Dawn of War II made an entire game outta that, and for an example that might hit closer to home, the Hierarchy’s whole gimmick in Petroglyph Studios’ own Universe At War is that their tech and production facilities are giant walkers that you can customize. But where the former offers a multitude of ways to customize your units and requires clever usage of terrain, and the latter still abides by traditional RTS rules, Tiblight’s whole gameplay loop revolves around a boring and shallow counter system.

There are 5 different types of damage, and each works best against certain types of armor. In theory, you want to pick the right damage type to gain the upper hand. In practice, this becomes the only effective way to fight. Click the enemy, see what counters it (the game literally tells you which of your units do that), and spam that shit. Any form of damage that isn’t that unit’s specific counter will do pathetic damage. When you factor in the absence of any form of resource management (units only cost population. Yes we have a pop cap, the most anti-C&C feature ever) and every match becomes a slugfest to see who can spam counters faster. It’s like watching Baiken mirror matches in Accent Core, except with none of the tension, skill, hype, or plot. I will concede that the visual cue when a unit is countering another (they shoot a different colored bullet then) is a nice touch.

I think the whole counter system is a necessary evil to mitigate the fact this game uses a class system. God, it just sounds less and less like C&C. Basically, the Crawlers (as the game calls it) fall into one of three categories: Offense, Defense, Support. Each of them has access to a different set of units: vehicles, infantry, and air respectively. So in order to avoid a situation where a single unit completely negates the entire arsenal of another player, the game does goofy shit like: not all air units are vulnerable to the same type of anti-air fire, the Commando is no longer an infantry shredding machine, infantry can no longer be crushed, the Scorpion Tank can ATTACK AIR WHAT THE FUCK? See what I mean? The game is full of these arbitrary and completely nonsensical mechanics. Oh, and losing your walker doesn’t matter since you can respawn. It’s limited during the campaign, but that doesn’t matter cause the game offers no challenge at all.

If the counter system wasn’t bad enough as is, it becomes downright infuriating with the (and I feel dirty just from writing this) universal progression system that locks units, buildings (oh yeah, the Defense class can build static defense), support powers and upgrades. To give you an idea of how bad this system really is, by the end of the campaign I still couldn’t build any Class’ ultimate unit. And this carries into the multi-player, instantly putting new players at a tremendous disadvantage, not to mention it is boring as hell.

The bottom bar is back, which is fitting, since below the bar is exactly where this game belongs. Sorry, that joke doesn’t even make sense. I’m so tired guys, let’s end this.

The End of C&C

For all intents and purposes, this is the end of the Tiberium saga. So it would be extremely remiss of me to end this without at least discussing the plot, but since I can feel my sanity slipping away with each word—and Steam just warned me the Remasters are ready to play—I’ll keep this brief. Because of the way this game was designed, every mission takes place in a tiny map with the same two objectives: either control this one neutral building (which by the way, is the sole game mode of the multi-player), destroy the enemy crawler, or both. That’s it. For ten agonizing missions. Actually no, that’s wrong. Since the first three missions are tutorials, the campaign effectively has only seven missions.

Actually there is this one escort mission that is so bad I actually want to talk about it. After the first three missions, you’re presented with a “dilemma”: either follow Kane and help him finish the Network or join General “I Actually Forgot Her Name” and her splinter GDI faction to stop him. After siding with the only character in this game with some actual charisma, the next mission asks you to capture a neutral building. I know, what a surprise. Anyway, after that, you have to escort some civilian vehicles, and of them has MC’s wife in it. And it is awful! The way the convoy moves is by checking whether your Crawler is around. If yes, then it will make a b-line to the next “checkpoint”, at which moment it will stop and check again. Because of that, you have to constantly rush ahead or risk the convoy being destroyed by running straight into enemy fire. The driver must be a member of the Karskin squad. Then, there’s this moment where it transitions to an in-game cutscene, where a mob destroys one of the transports with Motolovs. For whatever reason, this happens during a call from the wife, and the way that transmission ends implies that it was her transport that got blown up. And your troops just stand there watching! But then get this, she’s totally fine the very next cutscene! I couldn’t stop laughing!

Since nothing of note happens between this point and the ending, I’ll just skip to that part. After Kane reveals to the player that he’s been trying to “ascend” for thousands of years now—yes, the big reveal that Kane was immortal, and in fact, not human is also presented with the same degree of laziness as the rest of the game. This should’ve been HUGE! 15 years of hints and this is what we get!—you’re off to complete his Network and save humanity I guess. So you do that, and the Network, combined with your ocular implants, will interface with the Tacitus and open Kane’s portal at Threshold-13 (the Scrin tower at the end of Tib Wars). Whats-her-name shows up, shoots you cause she thinks the MC is Kane (MC has Kane’s appearance after his body was injected with Kane’s DNA. I’m not joking). Then Kane shows up and chokes her with a single hand, says humanity is too fragile, and fucks off through the portal. Wife-san cries over the dying MC-kun and the game ends. By the way, this whole final FMV takes place in a white void.

That’s it. That’s how C&C ends. I’m told some details play out differently in the GDI campaign but that ending is the same, but if you think I’m going back to check, you got another thing coming. I'm done, get me the fuck outta here.

Deafening Silence

Tiberian Twilight was panned by critics and fans alike upon its release. As a strategy game, it is a boring slog at best. As a title that bears the C&C moniker, it's a complete betrayal of everything that encompasses the series. And as a completion to a saga, it falls short in every regard, with weak characters, bad motivations, and a seriously unsatisfying ending that not only fails to develop the hanging threads left behind by Kane’s Wrath, but also leaves multiple unanswered questions, all while making the previous games retroactively pointless. 

It represented the fall of an RTS titan, which was made all the worse by the resurgence of another: in that same year, we got the first part of the Starcraft II trilogy, and I hardly need to tell you how successful that game was. EA later went through the motions and rebranded the L.A. studio to Danger Close Games, forcing them to work on the Medal of Honor series. This is how C&C died. Not with a bang, but with the sad cries of a betrayed fanbase. And this is sad. C&C deserved better than this, and one could argue that its fall helped to establish the niche status that the RTS genre never really managed to escape.

For the next ten years, the series would be no more than a memory, with many choosing to forget that C&C4 ever existed. But that's not quite where our story ends. While the series would not see any substantial releases until this year, the fans weren’t resting on their laurels. Because he who controls the past commands the future. He who commands the future conquers the past. No matter what EA does, the past of Command & Conquer belongs to us.

And we conquered the shit outta it.

- Wine, videogames and top hats.

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About Niorone of us since 5:29 PM on 12.15.2014

Writer for fun, professional amateur and 16-bit dreamer.

Brazilian man born and raised, under the hot sun where I spend most of my days. Currently working on a series dedicated to the documentation of the local gaming culture and landscape, that I call Brazil Of Games. I took the name from an old TV series that aired a long time ago here but no trace of it exists on the Internet.

The Brazil Of Games:

[*] The original blog about Nintendo's departure from my country that planted the seed for everything that's to come, all the way back in 2017.

[*] The first real installment, where I explore the origins of the world's first digital-only console, the Zeebo. And why it failed.

[*] Meet the Locadora, the parlors where we got our first contact with gaming!

[*] A follow up of sorts to the previous blog, where I explore Brazil's most revered game: Top Gear!

[*] The SEGA Genesis might have been born in Japan, but it was Brazil that made it its home! Here's how it happened.

[*] It's no secret we love soccer games. So here's a brief history of the Mod that forever changed how we played them!

[*] Folklore is not something many games explore. Here's a game based on a local folk tale from my hometown.

[*] Everyone knows that gaming really started in the days of the arcade parlors. Brazil's history with them was a very curious one, thanks to legendary company Taito and their many, many bootlegs!

[*] Every story has a beginning. Here's to the game that created our whole gaming industry, AmazĂ´nia! May your legacy be remembered for all eternity!

[*] Happy 20th anniversary PlayStation 2! This one is dedicated to the console that changed everything!

[*] A mini review of the cute little indie platformer Out There Somewhere.

[*] What do you get when you mix history, culture, and Metroid? You get the little hidden gem that is Dandara!