The Good: Some cool, new units. Some of them are very cool. Many new skirmish maps. The Bad: Shortish uninspired campaign. Awkward turn-based Risk game implementation. The Ugly: There’s nothing ugly here, just very little that is really beautiful either.
Is it just me, or is the Command and Conquer franchise starting to get a sort of Wing Commander vibe to it? For those of you too young to remember, Wing Commander was THE hot space shooter in the early 90’s or so. It sort of hit it’s peak with Wing Commander III in 1994 (or at least that’s when Wikipedia says it was released) as a sprawling space opera that advanced the storyline through cutscenes starring, among others, Mark “please stop calling me Luke Skywalker” Hamill. My point here is that at some point the storyline overwhelmed the game; that the actual gameplay sort of stagnated as the series came closer and closer to becoming a movie. And while Command and Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath isn’t to that point yet, this entry into the C&C universe, and the single player campaign specifically, feels more like it’s about the story they’re trying to tell and less about the game, the missions providing a weak excuse to tie the cutscenes together. It’s also like I’m watching one of my wife’s soap operas: Kane’s alive, no he’s dead, no he’s alive, no he’s been kidnapped by Alexis Carrington who doesn’t realize that she’s carrying his baby. Yeee.
KW introduces a slew of new units, many of which are just tweaks to old units, but some of which are all new. There is now, for example, a heavy Goliath that has a bunker on top which can house an infantry unit. You can put a rocket team in there to give the Goliath some air attack capabilities. There is also a harvester armed with rocket launchers for self-defense. GDI also now as an anti-air vehicle to give mobile groups some cover from Venom packs, a heavy attack helicopter that does not need to refuel and rearm like the old ones did, and a mobile sonic cannon much like the fixed base defense but on wheels. NOD picks up a mobile bunker that can be fixed just once, an anti-air vehicle, an artillery unit (that has the unfortunate habit of shelling your units that get to close to the enemy), and the Purifier, which is a mech carrying flamethrowers. Given that you could use a mech before to pick up a flame tank, this isn’t really that dramatic an improvement. The Scrin pick up some stuff too, but I haven’t played around with them as much and am not all that familiar with the new units there. Those are not all of the new units, just the ones that I’ve seen a lot of. These new units often come with a catch, however, namely that GDI, NOD, and the Scrin have fractured into sub-factions (a la Generals), and many of these new units are only available to certain sub-factions. While I like the sub-factions I would have preferred that the new units be available to all sub-factions with maybe some balance tweaks for different groups, but they didn’t ask me, and that’s the choice that they made. Each side has also gained a super unit, a really enormous monster machine that looks almost comically huge on the battlefield (The GDI MARV – some kind of weaponized monster harvester is about 5 times the size of a Mammoth tank). They’ve very expensive, slow, and require a huge investment to assemble one. I suspect very few games will last long enough for someone to actually commit all the resources and time to build one.
The single player campaign consists of only 13 missions, all of them you play as NOD. The first couple missions are tutorial missions sort of, with very limited goals and restricted units available to you. Several more are quite short. I completed the first seven missions in about four hours and the entire campaign in about ten, and I’m far from an expert at these things. The campaign is very small, not particularly well thought out or executed, and something of a disappointment without a truly memorable mission map in the bunch. The story is quite fragmented, taking place before, during, and after the events of C&C3 (in no particular order), and if it has a central theme or a story to tell beyond “NOD and Kane lives” or perhaps “everyone who works for NOD is insane” I didn’t see it.
This expansion pack integrates a Risk-inspired element into the skirmish maps, which is becoming rather fashionable among RTS games now, but this seems to be one of the more awkward implementations. You can still just play a single skirmish map if you choose, but you can also play a series of skirmish maps in a quest for global domination. The global Risk map is sort of a stylized neon version of the one from Wargames. You have bases, and use those bases to create strike forces, collections of units, that you can then send out to build new bases or attack enemy bases to extend your domain. Earning income, forming strike groups, and moving them around the map is done in a turn-based fashion. Combat with another base is done in the RTS, though you can also choose to let the computer calculate the odds and figure the outcome of the combat for you without playing the RTS. The computer is actually fairly reasonable about the outcome calculation. If you’re good at C&C you can probably pull off a win with less loss of units, but it’s not suicide to let the computer run the calculation out if you don’t want to play the RTS (though why you’d be playing C&C3 if you don’t want to play the RTS is beyond me). The three races are shooting for three separate goals, which does bring some variety into the gameplay strategy depending on who are you playing as. Where it goes wrong is primarily the lack of boundary lines on the map. A base has a ring of influence around it, the larger the base the larger the ring, but from looking at the map it is difficult (unnecessarily so) to figure out how many bases you really need to build to completely occupy a territory. It’s a weird problem in dense packing mathematics – how many circles fit in an area the shape of North America – and really detracts from the excitement and achievement of winning a battle because by doing so you haven’t secured any tangible identifiable goal, or at least nothing as clear as some bordered territory that afterwards is definitely under your control. I played several Risk games in preparation for this review, and there was never a strong desire to play them until the finish (which, against two medium opponents for me took about 45 turns). The game just seemed to go on and on without joy or excitement.
Graphically the expansion pack has changed little. The new units look very good, with the exception of the monster units that look goofy. The overall theme color of the game has gone from green to red (all the menus, all the borders) befitting the overall NOD storyline. Most of the acting is cheesy and over-the-top, but satisfyingly so. Carl Lumbly (you may not have heard of him, but he starred in the short-lived Raimi series M.A.N.T.I.S. and he does a ton of cartoon voice work, and has a long-time part on Alias which I don’t watch) actually manages to bring a little gravitas to his role of NOD general gone fanatic – bravo to him.
I think as a framework given all the new units, KW will make for some more interesting skirmish play online, and the game has added something like two dozen new multiplayer maps to try them out on. The single player campaign is very weak, and the Risk game is too poorly thought out to sustain the level of addiction that it takes to play an entire game. If you’re the kind of person who does not tend to play online, I can’t in good faith recommend this game – there’s just not enough meat here. However, the online crowd is going to appreciate all the new stuff, and if that’s you, then go for it.