1997 and early 1998, the era of the real-time strategy game? It seemed
like not a week passed without the release of a new title seeking to
follow up on the success of Warcraft II and the original Command &
Conquer. Some of them were good; a lot of them were very bad. But when the
dust finally settled, there were three clear winnersAge of Empires,
Starcraft, and Command and Conquer: Red Alert. Since then, the Starcraft
empire has expanded by adding Brood War, as good an add-on pack as one
could ask for. On the other hand, fans of AoE and Red Alert have been
waiting (mostly impatiently) for follow-ups. Thus it was with much
anticipation that I opened up my Platinum edition of C&C: Tiberian
Sun. Ive been playing it for a while now, and you know what? Its
like 1997 all over again, only slicker, prettier, and better-balanced.
Whether you think thats a good thing or a bad thing will probably determine how you feel about Tiberian Sun, the game that dares to boldly go where pretty much everyone has been before.
Tiberian Sun leaves behind the Soviet/NATO alternate history of Red Alert and returns to the original C&C stare-down between the forces of the evil NOD and virtuous GDI. It seems that NODs fearless leader, Kain, has miraculously escaped the perdition that awaited him at the end of Command and Conquer and has returned to bedevil GDI yet again. This time, he plans to use the mutating properties of tiberium--the strange uber-resource of the C&C worldto make the world over in his image. The story is conveyed in a series of pricey and elaborate FMVs that star such actors as James Earl Jones and Michael Biehn, and as such stories go, its a pretty good one.
The campaigns arent too shabby, either. You get to play as GDI or NOD, and the Freeman, tiberium-warped mutants, also play a big part. Though theres no tutorial, the missions do a good job of gradually introducing you to your units and their capabilities. The AI in the campaign games is fairly sharp, and the scenarios themselves are challenging and interesting. Most of them take curious little twists, and youll often have to attain several objectives before completing the mission. However, if youre like me, you might gnash your teeth over the considerable number of "commando" type missions. Some of these quite tense and interesting, and require thoughtful base infiltration and prisoner rescue. Some, on the other hand, are tedious exercises in load-and-save that are more about painstakingly revealing map areas than strategy. Give me a base-building shoot em up anytime.
The games graphics have been given a considerable overhaul since Red Alert. The terrain is the best-looking thing about the game, and the dynamic lighting is especially impressive. Adding to the landscapes graphic allure is its deformabilityif a big wing of Orca bombers hits the enemy base, theyll leave a big smoking crater. Even better, these alterations to the landscape will affect your tactics; for instance, a group of disc throwers in a crater (the grenadiers of the TS world) will be able to sling ordnance at direct-fire troops who cant target them. Attack and damage effects are pretty nifty, too. NOD Flame tanks spew sheets of fiery death, igniting infantry that runs around in flames. GDI Titans use red targeting lasers on their enemies, and the rays from disruptor tanks cut swathes through enemy troops as damaged units spark and smoke. Graphically, the units themselves are a bit of a mixed bag. The voxel-based sprites sometimes look very niceespecially GDI Titans and Wolverines, as well as NOD arty and the air units. But the NOD tanks are disappointingly benign-looking. Infantry isnt especially striking, but if youre playing at 800x600 theyre so small that detail isnt really an issue. Overall, however, as with so many other aspects of the game, theres nothing really inspired about the graphics. The overall impression is one of extreme competence.
The games interface is pretty much the same as that in Red Alert. Westwood has had the good sense to crib relentlessly from the advances in RTS games over the last couple of yearsfor example, you can queue units in production and use waypoints and scads of hot keys. But the games screen looks almost exactly like Red Alerts, with scrolling production options and the strategic map taking up the right side of the screen. If youve played RA, youll be at home immediately.
While gameplay will seem in many ways very familiar, its also the area in which Tiberian Sun differs most from Red Alert. Some of the basics remain the same: taking out enemy harvesters is still a very effective strategy, and its still very hard to protect them. Ive always found this one of the most irritating things about the C&C series. Since you can only build in the immediate vicinity of existing buildings, the only way to fortify the distant tiberium fields youll find yourself farming is by building an expensive and vulnerable MCV and sending it off, or by leapfrogging power stations. Too bad TS didnt take its lead from Starcraft here, which allows its SCVs to build anywhere. Westwood has included a "harvester truce" option that allows you to make harvesters invulnerable, but it seems an awkward compromise that makes resource gathering either of the utmost importance or of none at all.
On the other hand, Westwood has done a remarkable job of balancing play. NOD has all manner of nifty sneaky stuff, including burrowing tanks, deadly (maybe too deadly) artillery, and cloaking devices. GDI has more conventionalbut more powerful--units. And the Freemen have some nasty units as well, including the railgun-equipped ghoststalker and the pernicious mutant hijacker. Overall, the variety and balance of units is terrific. From the Cyborg Commandos to Jump Troopers to Amphibious APCs, each unit offers intriguing tactical possibilities. Though lamentably lacking air-to-air combat (whats up with that?), combat in Tiberian Sun is as challenging and thoughtful as in any RTS game. This is a big improvement on Red Alert, the game that spawned the term "tank rush." You wont get away with that in TS. Though many have tried to come up with so-called "unbeatable" rush strategies for TS on Westwood Online, thus far someones found a counter for each of them.
Multiplayer is supported over LAN, modem and on Westwood Online, and is one of the games real strengths. I predict that the variety of units and abilities will have players coming up unique strategies for a long time.
There are still some niggling problems: while pathfinding is usually excellent, harvesters are still prone to do unbelievably stupid things, and riding herd on them is perhaps the most aggravating thing about the game. And for some reason, you cant ally with other players during skirmish or modem games. Finally, while Westwood online is usually very stable, its not quite as fast or reliable as Battle.net.
Heres the bottom line: Westwood took precisely no risks with Tiberian Sun, and turned out a game that plays and looks a lot like Red Alert, only with nicer graphics, better balance, and state-of-the-art RTS amenities. It seems that Westwood will be waiting until Command and Conquer: Renegade to produce a truly revolutionary game. In the meantime, Tiberian Sun is merely an extremely well-done edition of a tried-and-true game engine. If youre happy with that, youll love Tiberian Sun; if you expected something more after such a long wait, youll be disappointed.