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Command & Conquer 4 Review: Breaking Rules

April 22nd, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 15 Comments · Electronic Arts, Gameshark, Review, RTS

I hated writing this review. I hated playing this game. I hated thinking about playing this game because I had to write the review.

When people talk about strategy/RPG hybrids, I wonder how many of them mean a game like this where you need to play for hours and hours and hours just to see how the cool units and powers work? Do people who love RTS campaign stories wish that the skirmish game worked in the same way and only trickled stuff to you gradually?

This design decision breaks one of the rules of real time strategy design. Now this is not always a bad thing. A lot of great RTSes have come from breaking the rules. Majesty, for example. Sacrifice. You could argue that Starcraft 2‘s blatant disregard for anything that has happened in the genre over the last five years breaks rules.

But I hate the idea of unlocking things that I never used to have to unlock. I mentioned my displeasure at this sort of thing in my comments on Napoleon: Total War, too. There is always some level of unlocking in a strategy game, of course – tech trees and building upgrades – but these are confined to a single session. Age of Mythology doesn’t tell you that you can’t release the Kraken until you’ve spent a dozen hours killing smaller units in skirmish or multiplayer. And when the cooler units are locked away from you for this time period then you don’t get to see everything that a game as potentially great as C&C 4 has to offer.

The difference between this and RPGs is that RPGs are generally analogous to the RTS story campaigns. Power is tied to progress through a story and it will take time to see everything that the game wants to show you. You will get the strength you need when you need it.

I didn’t say a lot about the resource collection in C&C 4, mostly because the changes are a little baffling. For a war and series all about tiberium, sidelining it in favor of a basic population cap model (with some capture the tiberium flag type stuff for upgrades) strikes me as a bad move. It’s not that I miss harvesters and refineries as much as I think this is a step too far.

Anyway, I’m not as patient as Tom Chick is. He kept playing the game in spite of its problems. I think I’m done.


15 Comments so far ↓

  • Quinten

    I personally don’t have an issue with unit unlocks for playing a lot. I don’t like what they did by locking vital units that would normally be available from the get go. If the grinding gave you upgraded versions of the units you already have anyways, it wouldn’t be annoying and intrusive. I was a big C&C fan especially 3, but this is the first C&C I did not, and will not, buy.
    C&C3 was a big deal because it went away from the unpopular changes in Generals, to the old style of game play. As a fan, that is what I liked. I enjoyed Red Alert 3 only because I liked the versatility of the Japanese faction, but I will admit it is not a good game. 4 looks like it went off the deep end.

  • Jaz

    I’m interested in how this could work well. Lets say you had some sort of “general” (your “character”) who levelled up as they played skirmishes and campaign matches and the like. The basic tech and unit trees would stay the same, but if you’ve been playing for a while, you could get faster build times or spend points on various perks or bonuses.

    And even then, when it comes down to multiplayer, it’s just never going to be a test of skill while another player could have 10% stronger AA guns or similar just because they spent a long weekend binging on the game. So yeah, Quinten, I pretty much agree with you, but it’s still a strategy game, and I can’t help feeling that you should owe your victories to your art of war above all else.

  • James Allen

    It’s even worse because the content remains locked for multiplayer as well, putting you at an instant disadvantage against those who simply played the game more.

  • Quinten

    I think that this absolutely won’t work for multiplayer. Maybe different skill sets that have bonuses and/or special units (think Civ4) could be unlocked by playing the campaign, for skirmish and multiplayer. Then it isn’t better, it is just a different set for hardcore people to master something different. That was how I viewed the special armies in Kanes Wrath, but they were not locked at the beginning. No grinding though, for god’s sake, no grinding.

  • Joseph Crook

    Well Troy, at least you can put this farce behind you now and never look back. I myself will from here on out feign ignorance of it ever have even existed. C&C 4 what? See? Already forgotten.

  • Jared H.

    I love the CnC universe, I just find it interesting but when I first heard about all the gameplay changes they were making, I was worried for the exact reasons you say you didn’t like the game. I was still gonna buy it though. It wasn’t until I found out about the required online connectivity that I decided I wouldn’t be ever buying it. For me that’s the bigger problem. I shouldn’t have to be online to play a by myself.

  • Otagan

    The problem with systems like this that unlock more items/weapons/units/whatever as you play more is a twofold problem. First, players who have played more get access to a larger pool of stuff to choose from, some of which will be undeniably superior to the starting equipment unless the game balance is flawless (and it never is). Second, players who have played more are better simply because they have played more. That is a twofold advantage to those who have played since launch, and serves to discourage new players who might otherwise be more enthusiastic.

    The perk system in Bad Company 2 is a particularly egregious offender in this regard. Every player has access to three perk slots that provide some form of character specialization, and you don’t even get a single option for a non-vehicle perk until you’ve amassed roughly 40,000 experience (20 really good games, about 8 hours, or many more mediocre games). These aren’t sidegrades. You don’t have to sacrifice anything to take a perk. They are flat out upgrades that starting players simply do not get. Considering the starting players are the ones more likely to need them, refusing to give even a basic perk choice from the beginning is one of the most boneheaded design decisions I have seen in quite some time.

    In short, this is a terrible trend that needs to be nipped in the bud so long as studios cannot do it effectively. Either have a sensible unlock system with reasonably strong starting weapons and the unlockables providing variety, or give everyone the full set of items from the very beginning. I much prefer the latter, as it allows me to play the game on my own terms without having the creators dictate what I can and cannot use.

  • Ginger Yellow

    As far as I can tell the whole idea was just a fancy cover story for using the same crappy DRM as Ubisoft.

  • JonathanStrange

    Unlocking units is not a major issue for me; I sometimes don’t notice it and it rarely affects my enjoyment of the game.

    I still think locked units are often a mistake. In general, hiding the good stuff whether it be locked units, CnC functions, additional maps, scenarios, etc. is often a bit annoying and needlessly restrictive.

    Far more important, casual players – who constitute a significant percentage of all players – may NEVER see the good stuff and not realize it exists. I’ve friends who complain about a game’s controls as minimal because they’ve not accessed the precise controls yet, or grumble that another game is tactically limited without knowing they’ve simply not reached the level where the CnC ship becomes available.

    I sometimes think that at least a sampling of the higher level units or abilities should be allowed early on to let us know they exist. Otherwise you’ll have players who, discouraged ’cause their units are weak, their aiming is off, their options restricted, will quit your clever game without really finding out what the possibilities are.

  • Josh Bycer

    I still feel that the best RTS I’ve played that had an unlocking system was Age of Empires 3 and its expansions. What made the Home City system great was that instead of restricting tactics and units from the player, it allowed the player to supplement their existing strategy. Everything the player needed to win a match was available from the start and things were only added from there.

  • Zer0s

    Mr Strange do you mean Sword of the Stars? If so, at least in that game it was a design decision that permeated the whole game and made sense within the game’s context and universe. I’d suppose that a fast read of the manual would lead to a discovery of the basic “core” technologies (which were always present unlike the awesomer stuff), but that’s a thing of days past sadly.

    And by how Troy makes it sounds, it’s vastly different and superior to C&C4’s system.

  • Thomas Kiley

    Good review, but if you hated it so much, why did you give it a C- not what ever the lowest score is?

  • Troy

    C- because the unit design is still good, and the class system is in fact a novel and interesting idea. It’s not all bad. Just mostly.

  • LintMan

    Chiming in a bit late here:

    “Do people who love RTS campaign stories wish that the skirmish game worked in the same way and only trickled stuff to you gradually?”

    Hell, no! At least, not me. I like RPG’s but hate “grind” with a passion, and certainly don’t need it to be added to RTS’s.

    “Power is tied to progress through a story and it will take time to see everything that the game wants to show you. You will get the strength you need when you need it.”

    Does this really HAVE to be the case? I think that the whole “trickle the unit access out to the player over the course of the campaign, saving the best unit for last” is really hackneyed. And annoyng as hell: since I don’t play multiplayer, that means that when the campaigns ends, the game is done for me, and if the campaigns saves the best units for the final missions, that means I only ever get to use them once.

    Surely there must be other ways to make a campaign give a sense of progress? I know I can think of several right off the top of me head.

    As far as C&C4 goes – I probably would have given it a chance and bought it despite the grind – just to finish the whole story, but the online-always DRM for the SP game sunk that. No way I’m rewarding that with my money.

  • Ian Bowes (spelk)

    I think the Skirmish game should be open, with the full toolset available, or at least make the unit list available the same across competing players.

    The Campaign with a clear unlockable unit tree, I think helps newcomers to the genre, in that it introduces mechanics and “unit vs” relationships in a digestible manner. You’re not overwhelmed with choice, but you are given enough for you to experiment throughout the missions. The more you play, the more of the toolset you’re exposed to and thus your play options become wider the more accustomed to the game you get. Its like crafting a long tutorial with the Campaign itself. So by the end of it, you should have a grasp over the interplay between units, and the difference between the crawler classes.

    If its versus multiplayer then both players need to be balanced, and only have the same unit loadouts available.

    Doesn’t the much praised Demigod do this opening up of unlockables the more you play? It even drip feeds you bonuses in a skirmish as part of the “rolling snowball” mechanic to smash through the “war of attrition” gameplay.

    As for only having the best units at the end of the game, well the end of the campaigns are sort of a lead up to multiplayer, or at least the co-op play, surely. And you can replay any mission you want – I presume this means you can use unlocked units in these earlier missions if you have enough collectable Tiberium to unlock their use in the mission.

    Its been streamlined, its been scaled lower for a more personal engagement with the units. You’re not going to get more than 12 or 14 units to play with, so your loadout becomes important. Although I don’t quite agree with their online only mechanism, it did provide a tailored staged campaign with easy multiplayer possibilities if I want it.