"WMDs." "Preemptive Strike." "Shock and Awe." If these sound like buzzwords ripped from five years' worth of U.S. news headlines -- you'd be hearing right. Except now, this household, post-millennial vocabulary is injected into Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars' mission outlines. Under C&C's real-time strategy guise, however, these scenarios aren't shoved into a stress-position of overly-specific locations, conditions, and outcomes. Instead, the gameplay mechanics (and arms-race missions) are simultaneously pulpy, unhinged, and just-one-more-skirmish addictive.
Returning to center stage 17 years after the events of C&C2: Tiberian Sun, the showdown between the G.I. Joes of the year 2047 (the GDI) and their Cobra-La adversaries (the Brotherhood of Nod) reach a flashpoint once again. The GDI lulled itself into complacency since the Second Tiberium War due to the lack of an overt Nod presence. During those last 17 years, Nod had dug even further underground to serve as their initial gambit. But now Kane, Nod's enigmatic messiah who's long since lost count of how many of his nine lives are left, executes a series of brilliant and blinding attacks against the GDI. He cripples the GDI star wars program, launches a tactical nuke, obliterates a key GDI space station, and in so doing, Kane -- efficiently and effectively -- starts the Third Tiberium War. Quoting everyone from Jesus ("And he cried with a loud voice … Lazarus, come forth!") to Saddam Hussein (by starting the "Mother of All Wars"), the megalomaniacal Kane has returned in top form.
Welcome back, Commander. You've got a lot of work to do.
In keeping with the C&C tradition, Tiberium Wars offers a heady mix of brutish do-ya-feel-lucky-punk gameplay, stirred into the just-technical-enough jargon to root itself in sci-fi plausibility. You could receive a Nod mission briefing from Ajay (Josh Holloway of Lost fame) with a 5 o'clock shadow slathered across his cocky grin, practically sporting a 10-gallon hat with his Wild West swagger … then you might unlock some piece of research intel describing the process for reaching "an explosive catalyst for detonating existing Tiberium crystal deposits in a sub-critical reaction." Hey, who the heck knows? Sounds like a blast, though.
Along with Josh Holloway (and the returning Joe Kucan as Kane) are veteran and freshman actors hailing from all over the entertainment exosphere: Rounding out Nod's top talent is Tricia Helfer from the incomparable Battlestar Galactica; GDI recruited the always-awesome Michael Ironside (Starship Troopers) to play General Jack Granger; Grace Park (also of Battlestar Galactica) as can-do Lieutenant Sandra Telfair; and Jennifer Morrison sheds her House M.D. lab coat to suit up as Lieutenant Kirce James. But the William Shatner Overactors Award is reserved for a frothing-at-the-mouth Billy Dee Williams hamming it up as GDI Director Redmond Boyle (not to mention recapping his Star Wars role as the Only Black Guy in the Movie). While I can't deny how much I love every minute of C&C3's triumphal return of full motion video, I can only grimace and grin at such eyebrow-raising performances from the once and future Lando Calrissian. Which is made all the more wonderfully bad by abolishing the Golden Rule of the Screen Actors Guild -- "breaking the fourth wall" -- and having every actor address the camera (you) directly. You're about as responsive as Gordon Freeman on Ambien, but it convincingly vests your interests in the missions' outcomes when this cast emotes every don't-fail-us-now expression in their thespian repertoire.
Combine all of this campy goodness into a C&C gameplay mechanic that's a throwback to, well, itself, and you've got all the ingredients parsed out for a perfectly-timed and timeless comeback. A comeback throwing in old reliables like pre-building infrastructure, single resource gathering (started back when one resource was eventually judged rather "limiting"), right-hand menus, and properly beefed-up superweapons. And then there's two -- no wait, make that three -- highly-differentiated forces.
The third faction making its C&C debut is the alien Giger-esque Scrin; their bug-carapace aesthetic channeling flashbacks of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, and not a little Starship Troopers while they're at it. And, just to invoke some more H. G. Wells, the Scrin are the ones that seeded Earth with Tiberium way back in 1995 -- back when Tiberium first appeared all over the planet in the first C&C -- allowing the element to spread like a virus throughout the continents and ripen the atmosphere for alien colonization. Completing the storyline campaign from either the GDI or Nod perspective unlocks this aerial-dominating race. Smart money is on a more robust Scrin campaign emerging from a requisite expansion pack or two, since they only make a brief four showings in C&C3. Although you can certainly "unlock" the Scrin immediately in skirmish mode, gleefully squealing along with their indecipherable alien chatter, claiming the universe's Cradle of Civilization across exquisitely balanced maps supporting up to 8 players, while pitted against variable-level AI opponents or online human opponents. Finally, with the Scrin, the scissors have been added to a war that's long been waged with just rocks and paper.
Given experience -- and perhaps a compelling announcer's voice -- you can implement C&C3's "battlecast" system, which allows you add running commentary (not to mention colored lines and squiggles) to recorded matches. There's a minimum 10-minute delay in viewing online skirmishes which serves as a healthy buffer against buddies spotting for enemy movements in real-time. To producer EA's detriment (or credit, depending) everyone appears a little too busy fighting instead of Monday morning quarterbacking. With ranked and clan ladders erected, a worldbuilder toolset prepped for download, and already thousands of archived player matches, it looks like C&C3 isn't just here to command your attention, it's here to conquer the online space for some time now.
Brutal and beautiful, C&C3: Tiberium Wars is a visceral return to the RTS series that started it all. Even if you tread the thin line between love and hate for full motion video cut scenes, the missions, skirmishes, and all-out atmospherics forgive much. What it lacks in subtlety and innovation it makes up for in character and refinement, dovetailed with a little U.S. foreign policy for good measure.
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