Command & Conquer evokes many fond memories for us. Way back in 1995 when the original game was released, we worked in an office and played it multiplayer over the LAN every lunchtime, varying tactics from week to week in an attempt to beat each other. Turtling and tower defences, air superiority, tank rushes, ad-hoc alliances; these were all tried, the winner switching on a daily basis, with no-one dominating for long as counter-measures were adopted.
Of course, the times they have a-changed, and if our nineties self was to have time travelled forward a decade and a half to play Command & Conquer 4, we’d have barely recognised… wait a minute: actually we’d have recognised quite a lot of it, in a superficial sense. The slightly cartoony visual style, the old faithful units like the GDI Orca VTOL rocket-loaded aircraft and the nippy Nod bikes. You’d expect this, though, and some other less pleasant familiar stuff on the path-finding front that we’ll discuss a little later.
What’s really different here, and what would have really thrown our time travelling selves – along with Lady Gaga’s fashion sense, should we have caught a glimpse of MTV – would be Command & Conquer 4′s lack of base building. Your army is deposited into the world by a mobile construction vehicle or MCV (nicknamed a crawler); a moving base on wheels, or legs, or jet engines, depending on which type of crawler you’re operating with. Unlike the original game’s MCV, these can transform into a building to pump out units, then get up again and trundle off elsewhere.
There are three types of crawler: Offensive, defensive and support, with flexibility being the name of the game. No buildings can be constructed at all, save for a handful of turrets the defensive crawler can support. The offensive crawler specialises in pumping out big mechs and tanks, whereas the support crawler won’t let you build the heavy armoured units, but aircraft instead. Perhaps more importantly, it grants various support commander powers such as an area-effect repair and air-strikes.
As crawlers can be decommissioned and a new one ordered in, the idea is you switch between them depending on the situation. Got a base to assault? Then select the offensive crawler and get cranking those tanks out. Need to defend a ship from enemy assault? The defensive crawler will let you construct those gun turrets and missile batteries. Of course, you can combine strategies, so on an attack mission you could utilise the offensive crawler to produce the big mech and tank army, then switch to a support model to perform repairs on the army as they’re fighting, and buff them with powers that double their rate of fire for a short burst (amongst other useful boons).
But the strategic machinations possible are certainly light when compared to full base building and tech-trees. Troop upgrades are the only form of teching up possible, via a simple method of collecting tiberium crystals on the battlefield. And a small unit cap, with a typical army of not much more than a dozen units, makes it clear that Command & Conquer 4 is designed more for casual players who don’t want to get too bogged down in management and planning details.
The trouble is, in the single player campaign, at times it all feels a bit too simple. Some missions are just about wading across the map and killing, with the main strategic facet consisting of micro-managing your damaged units to be healed. Should you attempt to cut off the flow of enemy unit production by taking down an enemy crawler, another crawler simply lurches more or less straight onto the map to replace it. The traditional sort of Command & Conquer tactical nuances, such as attacking unit production, or taking out a big base’s power to cripple it, just aren’t present.
Further chinks in the single player mode’s armour are the brevity of the two (GDI and Nod) campaigns, which are over surprisingly quickly at just seven missions apiece. And the story; well, it’s a bit, how can we put this… strange. It runs along a very predictable script, albeit harmlessly enough pottering through the plot until the ending, which we can’t really say anything about because that would spoil it. What we can say is that the sudden and odd conclusion of the campaign(s) didn’t satisfy us.
However, Command & Conquer 4′s more streamlined and casual friendly design has really been crafted with multiplayer in mind. What’s good news here is that the campaign can be played co-operatively, with two players supporting each other using different types of crawler. There’s more strategy open to forming here, and also during the online multiplayer battles which pit teams of up to five human players against each other.
It’s in the multiplayer that players can work together to organise co-ordinated actions such as a stealth (cloaked) ambush combined with a minefield and an EMP strike, and it’s here you realise that a lot of this game’s strategy is wrapped up in its diverse range of units and their powers. These are only unlocked through play and levelling up your commander with experience points gained in battle, until you open up the really juicy combat mechs and high-tech upgrades. The enemy might have access to a vehicle with a front mounted scoop which can clear that aforementioned ambush minefield, for example, if one of them has been sensible enough to produce it.
Command & Conquer 4 also scores points with its interface, which contains many useful hot-keys to quickly select all combat units, all engineers and so forth. There are even neat touches such as a reverse move mode, which retreats units walking backwards while laying down covering fire.
What’s less impressive is that the path-finding AI isn’t so slick, with the old Command & Conquer unit jig being in evidence. This happens when you order a tank to move through a group of others, and every single unit on screen reverses, shifts and jiggles about like they’re all involved in some sort of heavy armour barn-dance which goes on for thirty seconds and ends up with half your army on the other side of the map. We exaggerate, of course, but it does tend to rather mess up any formations you’ve tried to use.
And before you go on your merry way to make a decision about whether to buy Command & Conquer 4, along with the positives and negatives we’ve discussed, it’s also worth bearing in mind that it’s necessary to be constantly online to play the game. Yes, even the single player. This is apparently an anti-cheating measure, and while it didn’t particularly bother us, it might do you if you’re in an area of the country without broadband, for example.