In the late 90s, the RTS genre was booming. After the release of Tiberian Dawn, the genre made significant progress and became a staple of PC gaming. You couldn’t go a year without at least two major releases, and leading the charge was Westwood’s very own C&C series and Blizzard’s Warcraft. Whenever the latter brought fantasy combat to the table, the former would be to give us sci-fi madness to maintain the balance. But all of that was about to change. In 1998, one RTS shook the very foundations of the genre. If featured a band of ragtag humans colonizing the vastness of space, and alien races that very much hated them. It’s a game that needs no introductions, and even non-RTS fans know of its greatness. Enter… Dark Colony.
Nah just kidding. It’s Starcraft.
Blizzard’s baby crashed the party like a storm and raised the bar to stratospheric highs. You had an asymmetrical balance between three different factions, a compelling story that had fans waiting years for the (very underwhelming) conclusion, a fantastic soundtrack, and a competitive scene that lasts to this very day. It was fast, it was brutal, it was quirky as all hell and by the Gods, did we love it! And so, the ball was now on Westwood’s court. The playing field was no longer even, their rival ascended to godhood status. But how does one kill a god? By making a deal with the devil. In 1998, EA bought Westwood Studios, and we all know how that song ends. The metaphorical Pandora’s Box was open and with this newfound power, Westwood set out to finish the job.
As usual, this is an old game, so much that it became freeware a while ago. So, here’s the installation process:
With that outta the way… Welcome Back, Commander.
Tiberian Sun is years ahead of its predecessors, both literally and metaphorically, and in the history of the franchise, there was nothing quite like it. Set 35 years after the end of Tiberian Dawn, Westwood wanted to explore the future of the franchise and let their imaginations fly, and the future they imagined is quite logical: Tiberium is now a significant problem that threatens the survival of our entire planet. It twists and adapts everything around it to fits its own purposes. Wildlife is mutated into all sorts of terrifying creatures, plants are changed to spit Tiberium spores, and Tiberium veins consume everything they touch and expand like cancer. Not even humans are safe: those who are lucky simply die from prolonged exposure. Those who are not, mutate, becoming compatible and dependent on the damn thing, forming a third faction calling themselves the Forgotten. I love how none of these elements aren’t just there for background: each faction has mutant units in their armies and you’ll have to deal with Tiberium monsters constantly throughout the campaign.
In stark contrast with that bleak scenario, technology progressed a lot. GDI replaced treads with hover jets, miniature Metal Gears, and learned how to harness the power of sound itself; while Nod perfected the art of making cyborgs, unreliable AIs, and being annoyingly stealthy. Tiberian Sun is a special snowflake in the series, no other game in the franchise has even come close to replicating the dark atmosphere present here. The world of C&C is post-apocalyptic and every aspect of the presentation reflects that.
It’s amazing what a change in perspective can do. Gone is the almost top-down view from the old games, in favor of an isometric view with a lot more detail and they made the best of it. There is no green in the world of Tiberian Sun that isn’t coming from the alien crystal, Earth is a barren wasteland everywhere you go, and the muted, brown and yellow color pallet reflect that so well. The sprites have this “dirtiness” to them that I don’t know how to explain, but even futuristic mechas like GDI’s Mammoth Mk II (that looks like an AT-AT on steroids) don’t feel out of place in this world. But the update is more than just graphical, the game has a pseudo-3D engine now, complete with elevation and bits of destructible terrain, that open shortcuts or flanking routes.
Frank Klepacki is back on the composer’s seat and this is one of his best works. In the original C&C, the OST was good if a bit all over the place. In Red Alert, I think he was experimenting a little, and here in Tib Sun is the place where it all comes together. This is a darker game set in a futuristic Earth that has been screwed by an alien crystal that we don’t understand, and the bigger emphasis on dark, ambient tracks reflects this. Songs like Dusk Hour evoke suspense and dread, Ion Storm brings out a melancholic, slow tune, fitting of a dying world whose future is so uncertain—it also kinda reminds me of Chrono Trigger for some reason. That’s not to say the rocking tunes are cast out completely, no sir. Killing Machine is a track that gets the blood pumping, and Nod Crush makes me wanna steamroll the map with an army of cyborgs. The soundtrack is really immersive this time and I could listen to it for hours.
A serious setting requires serious storytelling, and this is another aspect that the other games never managed to top. Tiberian Sun still rocks the classic FMVs that at this point are essential to the C&C experience, and you can really tell this is where the budget went: better compression technology allows for much higher quality videos, and they got high profile Hollywood actors here! The other games had this unintentional campiness to it (like blinking corpses) but here, the characters are well-realized and important lore is established. Rather than just having a series of excuses to move you from place to place, Tiberian Sun has an actual story, and this is a good hook to talk about it.
Now for a quick recap of the canon plot from Tib Dawn, namely, GDI’s: they fight a lot, Nod uses propaganda against them, they get over it, Nod gets pushed back to its command center in Sarajevo, and GDI nukes the crap outta it from space with its Ion Cannon. Kane is presumed dead—although a body was never found—ending the First Tiberium War. In the coming years, Nod goes hiding underground and GDI takes it to Earth’s orbit. That’s just how much the planet is screwed, nobody wants to say on the surface. I like how this detail is reflected on gameplay, with Nod having access to units that can dig underground and GDI having orbital drop pods. It’s a cool case of gameplay and story integration.
Anyway, the sequel begins with Kane coming back from the dead, taunting GDI’s general James Solomon aboard the Philadelphia—an orbital command station—played by one, the only, James Earl Jones. Yes, you get your orders from Darth Vader himself, how fucking cool is that? Anyway, Vader needs someone to deal with the Nod threat and he puts Commander Michael “Let’s Kick Some Ass” McNeil—played by Kyle Reese, I mean Michael Biehn. This is a big departure from the series tradition, this time you’re not the commander, instead, each side gets an audience surrogate. The idea probably wasn’t too popular with the fans, because this is the only time in the series it happens. Ok, technically it happened one more time, but I’m not ready to talk about that game yet.
Thus, begins the Second Tiberium War. Once again, the GDI campaign is the canon path, but Nod’s will give you some context about the state of the Brotherhood and their ultimate end goal, and you should play both before tackling the expansion. The campaign structure still consists of following a linear path through the story, but now instead of being asked to choose a different version of a map, you have alternative missions that offer advantages on the next main mission. For example, taking out an outpost in a nearby area prevents the enemy from getting reinforcements during your next task, making things much more manageable. But these “optional” objectives might as well be mandatory: skipping them not only makes the next mission harder, but it also means you’re skipping content. And it is quality content, even if I do have some issues with it.
Let’s start with the good. For one, they mostly got rid of the “destroy literally everything” objectives, they show up considerably less this time. Instead, we got much more interesting goals, like capturing specific buildings or defending a crashed alien spaceship. Oh yeah, aliens are officially introduced in this game as the possible (read it: definitive) cause for Tiberium falling on Earth. There’s even a McGuffin called the Tacitus, a sort of database containing all sorts of futuristic technology involving but not limited to the Tiberium. Remember that, it’s gonna be important in later games. Better pathfinding and more versatile units make micro missions more involved and enjoyable and the long-awaited ability to queue units makes the macro aspect ten times more fun! You can only queue up to five units per production type, but for someone coming straight from the previous games, it’s a huge leap.
And speaking of units, Tiberian Sun took the original asymmetrical design of the originals and cranked that shit up to eleven, for better and worse. Each faction is much more specialized in what they do, serving as a foil to each other. GDI has slow but hard-hitting units, Nod has fast but weak units. Nod has annoying multi-cluster missile strikes, GDI has the Absolute Defense Felion Firestorm wall generator; and so on. And on paper this is fine, it’s the little things that annoy the hell outta me. Like how Nod Cyborgs need so many anti-armor shells they might as well be built in the War Factory, or how GDI’s Titan (a tier 1 unit) is both it’s a good frontline shield and siege unit, outranging basic static defense.
There’s also the fact that GDI relies on add-on mechanics. It works exactly how it sounds like; some buildings have slots on them that you can build something else on top. The problem is finding the damn add-on since it takes a slot in the sidebar. Take the static defense for example: by itself, it is just a platform, you have to build and slap either a minigun turret, a rocket launcher or a SAM site on top of it. The issue is, the last two are only unlocked later in the tech tree, forcing you to scroll all the way down. It’s annoying and I can see why this was another mechanic that never came back, at least, not as a slot in the sidebar.
Back to the campaign, my gripes with it are equally as long but less severe. I do believe these are most likely due to the troubled development cycle that the game had, but they're still worth to talk about. There are instances where the game blatantly lies to you, like when it says you’re going to have access to periodic air support. That never happens and you better not count on it. Your arsenal is also inconsistent sometimes: in one mission I had gained access to MCVs and was finally able to expand without having to silo creep, only to have it removed the next mission. This is most likely a result of a feature that didn’t make it to the end product, the loadout system, that would allow you to pick and choose what units to bring for a mission. The scripts are also somewhat broken: one mission in the expansion asked me to destroy some Tiberium related stuff like refineries and silos, but I think because I built my own after capturing an MCV with an engineer, it utterly broke the map. I was forced to restart and not do that to finish the mission.
The AI is also a cheating bastard and while that is expected, in the hands of Nod it can be a nightmare. Subterranean APCs always know exactly where you MCV is, and trust me, they will engie drop you. Stealth doesn’t matter when dealing with cluster missiles, the AI always knows where your buildings are and they will hit whatever they deem most valuable. Fortunately, this can be exploited: simply clump your army (making them the most valuable target instead of, say, your stealth gen) and when you hear “missile launch detected” move them somewhere. Also, did I mention explosions create craters in the terrain? Cause they do and make rebuilding your base a complete pain in the ass! No wonder this didn’t come back in future titles.
None of this is a dealbreaker and I’m only nitpicking it because I genuinely love this game. Out of every C&C game I ever played so far for this retrospective, this is the one I felt could’ve used a little more playtesting and it saddens me that Westwood wasn’t able to reach this game’s true potential. The fact I can still greatly recommend it after complaining so much speaks volumes about its quality. Funny enough, my feelings towards the expansion are almost identical.
The Firestorm expansion feels more like an epilog than an actual new chapter. It is shorter than the main game and the plot picks right where the base game left off. For the first time in the series, both campaigns are canon, functioning as two sides of the same story happening in parallel. The plot is simple: a few days after the end of Tiberian Sun, the Brotherhood is fracted after the “death” of Kane. Anton Slavik (your surrogate for the previous Nod campaign) decides the way to reunite Nod is to reactivate CABAL; Kane’s AI that he built to decipher the Tacitus. GDI would later steal CABAL for itself in an effort to translate the Tacitus themselves. At that point, CABAL betrays everyone and starts a full out war against the world with his army of cyborgs. I mean how could he not, dude looks like the unholy child of Megamind and SHODAN, of course he was going to betray everyone.
The moment to moment story is not as interesting as they were in the base game, in part thanks to the return tot he self-insert commander narrative. Westwood probably didn’t have a big budget for this, since the majority of the cast doesn’t return, a lot of briefings consist only of the EVA AI talking to the player with a generic computer background, and you no longer have side missions—it’s all just a linear path from start to finish. The story itself is also kinda lacking, most missions are a variation of “CABAL is doing shady shit, let’s go stop him”. I’m not saying it’s bad, but again, in comparison to the base game, I feel a little disappointed. There is a cool reveal at the end of the Nod campaign, but I think that particular plot point got retconned. But hey, the finale has CABAL unleashing a goddamn Megazord at you, so I’d say the campaign is worth for that alone.
The missions themselves are not bad and I think they are actually a step above the base game. There’s more creativity in the objectives, like luring Tiberium monsters to wipe out the map (by “conscripting” nearby civilians) or stopping a riot using non-lethal methods. I just wish that last one used different sprites for the riot leaders you have to pacify, I spend 30 minutes hovering every single civilian looking NPC trying to find the last guy. This transitions me nicely into the new units, and while I don’t think they are that interesting, I thank Westwood for finally giving GDI some form of siege with the Juggernaut—as inaccurate as it is—while Nod gained mobile stealth generators for even more sneaky business. There’s even a cool moment when CABAL replaces your regular adjutant voice, just to rub it in who’s really in charge, and I think that’s a nice touch.
This blog ended up way bigger than I expected. I had no idea how much annoying stuff had completely slipped my mind, and I blame nostalgia for that. But even with all the bugs, glitches, stupid balancing, and the trial and error that some missions required (that fucking Kodiak defense mission can bite me!) the fact remains that Tiberian Sun is still a blast to play. And I know I’m not alone in this: not only is the multiplayer still alive and kicking, this game also marks the beginning of the godlike modding scene surround the C&C series, many of which are deserving of a blog on their own. But don’t worry, I’ll find a way to talk about that.
Despite everything, Tiberian Sun was a success. It was a proper evolution of the formula in every aspect you could think of, and it’s one of the high points of the franchise. The RTS genre was truly at the apex of its Golden Age, and once again, C&C was leading that charge, even if it did falter a little with this installment. But history has a funny habit of repeating itself, and just like they did in the past, Westwood now wanted to relax and make something fun with their new, refined engine.
The next entry in the franchise would be Westwood’s last, and arguably best, RTS. A swansong for the company, a hallmark of excellence and a masterclass in fun design. In October of 2000, hell marched upon this world one last time. And it was glorious.