Review: Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight could have been so much more than what it ended up being. What could have been a fresh, unique take on the RTS genre instead turns into an unbalanced, frustrating mess that only the most dedicated and determined players have an opportunity to really enjoy.

Stay away from this one, folks — unless you’re a masochist there’s probably not going to be anything enjoyable for you in this game.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (PC) 
Developer: EA Los Angeles
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: March 16th, 2010
MSRP: $49.99

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I did not beat both campaign missions, nor did I grind my way to the maximum level of 20 for both sides (although I progressed reasonably far). It should become fairly clear by the end of the review why I didn’t/was unable to, but if you decide that fact invalidates most of the points I’ve made, feel free to buy the game and try it for yourself.

Originally I was going to make this review unscored, but seeing all of the complaints in the in-game chat — and because part of the reason why I was unable to finish was due to specific design flaws in the game combined with an almost complete failure of the multiplayer system — I expect most people who pick up this game will experience something very similar. If you’re of the opinion that a game needs to be 100% completed in order to be reviewed, then take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight is a dramatic departure from the Command & Conquer series. Pretty much everything familiar from the previous games is gone, aside from the storyline and the main characters. There are no resources to collect or gather, very few structures to be built, a pretty harsh population/unit cap, and a very short campaign mode.

There are two factions, the GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod. The main unit in Command & Conquer 4 is your crawler, a mobile base that churns out units on command with very little wait time. Your crawler can be one of three classes: Offense, Defense, or Support.

Offense focuses on putting out strong, damaging units, but doesn’t have any support or fortification options. Defense obviously focuses more on defensive units, and allows you to build various structures like bunkers, turrets, and tunnels. Support is mostly an air-based class, allowing you to fly over obstacles while still doing significant damage from your planes; it also gives access to various support abilities, like healing your units, speeding up build time, calling in air strikes, or creating earthquakes.

You can only have one crawler at a time, and if you want to build one of a different class, you have to scrap your current one. Nothing limits your ability to create units aside from your population cap, determined by command points, and your level (which I’ll talk about in a bit). If you have the command points, you can build it.

The crawler has two modes: mobile, and immobile. While mobile, it can move around, and can also build units that are then stored inside it. The only way to get the units out is to switch it to immobile mode. You can freely switch back and forth between the two modes at any time with no cost or penalty — generally, the idea is to keep your base mostly mobile, stopping briefly to let it deposit new units, and then packing it back up and carting it around with you. The crawlers have significant amounts of health and are pretty difficult to destroy, but even if you do lose one, you can drop a new crawler down onto specific spawn points on the map that you’re in control of.

Combat will be familiar to anyone who’s played an RTS before: select your units, right-click your enemies, and watch them blow each other up. Because of the strict population cap, it’s rare that you ever have more than 8-10 units out at once. Because you can’t overwhelm your enemy with numbers, you have to carefully decide what to build on the fly (which you can do because of your crawler). Every unit in the game has hard counters, and the game really boils down to seeing what your enemy has, scrapping most of your current units, building the appropriate counter quickly, and then going back and forth like that as your enemy does the same.

The single-player campaign mode has a few different objectives, although they mostly end up being one of two things: capture specific points around the map, escort and protect units trying to cross from one side of the map to the other, or a combination of both. In addition to simply throwing units at your opponents, you can also capture various structures around the map, like bunkers, anti-aircraft cannons and artillery, and extra spawn points that can give you a significant advantage. You can also collect tiberium crystals, which either provide you with upgrade points if you bring them back to your base, or can be used to turn one of your units into a devastating suicide bomb.

Multiplayer only has one game mode, which involves capturing 5 control points. Each control point you hold gives you points over time, and the first team to 2,500 wins the match.

Let’s start with the few good things. Graphically, the game looks solid. Most units — except for some of the support class’ air units — have sharp, distinct looks, and it’s generally easy to tell what’s going on just by glancing at the map. Even when I had a bunch of units on the screen, I never got any stutter or slowdown, and it was pretty awesome watching a 20-unit battle full of lasers, rockets, bullets, and other assorted explosives. The soundtrack is also quite nice, particularly the Nod themes.

Overall, this doesn’t sound all that bad. On paper, it’s an interesting twist on the RTS genre, and it certainly has promise. The execution, however, is where the game entirely falls apart.

My absolute biggest complaint (of many complaints) is that Command & Conquer 4 requires you to grind. That’s right, grind. You have a level for each faction, max of 20, and you don’t gain access to various units, abilities, and structures until you hit the appropriate level. This, again, doesn’t sound like a bad idea on paper, but the problem is twofold: your levels apply across BOTH single- and multiplayer, and the game seems to be designed for a person who is already at the maximum level, or close to it.

In single-player mode, the problem is apparent almost immediately. Starting out, you have access to three or four tier-one units per class, a single upgrade — and if you’re playing Defense or Support — a single structure or support power. By the second or third level in each campaign, the computer is throwing tier-two and three units at you, and you’ll find that you simply don’t have access to the units you need to counter them.

Without the right counters, one or two of these high-level units can wipe out your entire army, since they have about 5x more hit points and do significantly more damage than any of your units. In my early play time with Nod, a single Armadillo GDI unit could take down about 75% of my fleet before I was finally able to kill it, and as soon as I killed it, the AI crawler would just spit another one out. I don’t have a problem with RTS games where units are unlocked as you progress, but generally the levels in those games are balanced — these definitely aren’t.

After losing a few missions simply because of not having enough options, you’ll sigh and decide to go grind. Experience is mostly gained by killing enemy units, so the multiplayer mode works for earning experience. Unfortunately, the multiplayer has problems of its own. One, of course, is balance — you still have the exact same problems as in single-player. The game does not take level into account when matching, which means you’ll find yourself up against significantly more powerful players who easily wipe the floor with you; again, this is because you don’t have anything to counter their units.

This, of course, assumes that you can even get INTO a multiplayer match, because the auto-matching system is abysmal. Over three nights, I tried over, and over, and over again to get placed into a multiplayer game, and all but once the search timed out after 3 minutes.

Your only option then, aside from replaying the first campaign mission past the tutorial over and over, is playing skirmish mode (multiplayer but against computer AI) with your units still grossly underpowered. I was so sick of the entire thing, I just played a series of games where I gave myself four AI on the strongest difficulty level, and played against a team of 5 easy computers, and managed to squeeze out a few levels to get me to a point where I could continue in the campaign.

The other issue with the campaign is that the game basically forces you into doing co-op. To start with, the Offense and Defense classes seem to complement each other, which means that to successfully play as one you really need to have another player backing you up with the opposite. You may be able to win some early levels solo as any class, but I quickly found that Support was the only viable choice for most maps.

You’ll also find that most maps have you going up against at least two or three enemy crawlers, compared to your one. This means that they have two to three times the units you do, and often you’re tasked with covering multiple, totally separate points across the map with eight or less units. For the frequent escort missions, you’ll find the vehicles and transports you’re supposed to be escorting dive headfirst into waves of enemies being spawned by multiple crawlers.

Getting stuck once again on a Nod campaign where I was supposed to hold five different control points with my one crawler while I tried to fight off waves of tier three units, I attempted to find a random co-op partner (and I already hate playing with randoms).

Much like my attempts to play multiplayer, that also ended in failure. When not in an actual game or match, you have access to a chat lobby, so you can talk to other players and try to coordinate games. The problem I had was that, as I was attempting to complete the final GDI campaign, I couldn’t actually find anyone at the same point as me. People who haven’t reached where you are in the story can’t join your game, and the people I found who had actually gone through the frustration and finished the campaign missions had utterly no desire to replay any of the campaigns.

The chat lobbies are also abnormally small, appearing to only hold about 20 people each, so I found myself going in and out of about 15 different lobbies trying to find ANYONE who would co-op with me. When I finally found a guy who was on the same mission as me, his Internet cut out and he got booted.

Did I mention that the game requires persistent online connection? If your Internet cuts out at all while you’re playing, you are ripped out of the game and you lose all unsaved progress.

Another lesser complaint I had was with the cutscenes. From what I remember of past games in the series (which admittedly is very little), the cutscenes were always a bit aware of the fact they’re over the top. Command & Conquer 4 removes a lot of the humor, and tries to be serious and dramatic, and not in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. Most of the scenes fall flat, some of the acting is truly embarrassing, and was I not reviewing the game I would have skipped every single one because I found them awkward and uninteresting.

Also incredibly annoying were the controls. While you can assign units to hotkeys, I found it extremely frustrating that each unit could only be a part of one group. Normally, when I play RTSs, I’ll make a hotkey for my entire combat group, a hotkey just for the healing units, a hotkey for the ground units, a hotkey for a smaller strike force, etc. Here, everyone can be in one group, and that’s it.

It’s manageable, but unpleasant, especially given how bad your own units’ AI is and how much microing you have to do. It’s incredibly common for your units to be shot at from a distance, and they will just sit there and take it without even moving until you select them and and click on the specific unit attacking you. Even more annoying is trying to control the healing units — while they’re usually fairly good about healing damaged units, sometimes they’ll wade right into the front lines of battle and start attacking an enemy instead of healing.

You can’t put them in a group with your main combat units, because having that group attack a target means the healers will attack too. You can have them guard a unit, and they’ll follow and heal on their own, but if that unit dies they’ll stop responding, and they’ll just stand still and will not heal any of the units next to them until they’re individually selected and told to heal again. I don’t expect the computer to play the game for me, obviously, but just a little bit of intelligence from my units would have been nice.

Overall, the game is a complete exercise in frustration. The campaign maps feel extremely unbalanced if not playing co-op and simply aren’t fun, it’s incredibly difficult to find anyone to actually co-op with you, and the multiplayer matchmaking is horribly broken and, right now, it’s virtually impossible to actually get into a game unless you’re playing in a private game with friends. Look at the official forums, or even look at the in-game chat, and you’ll mostly see a barrage of complaints.

Like I said before, I didn’t reach the max level for GDI or Nod. I’m sure some people will say I don’t like the game because I suck at it, and maybe they’re right. I won’t even try to claim I’m an expert, but again I lay some of the blame on EA. If you’re going to totally change the core gameplay of a series, it’s in your best interest to provide a solid, decent tutorial for both newbies and series veterans explaining how the game changed and how it’s meant to be played. It’s also helpful to have some sort of learning curve, rather than 3 lame tutorial missions that lead directly into a ballbusting campaign where you’re outnumbered, outleveled, and outmatched.

Looking in the main chat rooms, those who aren’t cursing the game are usually just asking a ton of questions. It’s clear that most players are confused, and there’s really no documentation available to help anyone — the manual is very generic, and most players, especially those who are trying to play the game solo, are completely lost and don’t understand what they’re doing wrong. I’ll also say that on the rare occasions when I was doing very well instead of struggling along, I was still rather bored. It turned from a frustrating pointless struggle into what was basically a fullblown steamroll.

It’s feasible — and I expect — that once you actually manage to hit the level cap, the game becomes more fun, since you actually have all the units and tools you’re supposed to have. After suffering through all the grinding though, I can’t imagine that anyone would really still be interested in playing, especially given all the other great games out right now. And, after all that, I really doubt there are going to be too many people around to play with — I couldn’t even get a game going or a co-op partner the day of release.

There are even more minor gripes and complaints I could make, but this should be enough to get the point across. Newbies and those who have been away from the series for a while will certainly have better RTSs to play, and diehard fans of the series will be left wondering just what the hell happened to the Command & Conquer they fell in love with in the first place and why the story’s conclusion was so muddled and disappointing.

It’s really too bad — there’s clear potential in this game, and it attempted some fairly unique stuff. With some very serious polishing, tweaking, and rebalancing, I think this game could have been quite enjoyable. As it stands, it’s a waste of time, far too frustrating, and absolutely not worth $49.99.

Score: 3.0 — Poor (3s went wrong somewhere along the line. The original idea might have promise, but in practice the game has failed. Threatens to be interesting sometimes, but rarely.)