March 6, 2000
Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun
It's been three years since Command & Conquer: Red Alert won our 1996 Strategy Game of the Year award -- three years that have seen the likes of Age of Empires, Total Annihilation, and Starcraft up the ante, but at long last, Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun has arrived. Was it worth the wait? Well, not really. This latest incarnation is still a solid game, but it now rates squarely in the middle of the pack.
Why? Consider its competition -- the most impressive and daunting of which might have been its own predecessor Red Alert. Tiberian Sun, while a strong real-time strategy game in its own right, simply does not come close to being the ground breaking title that Red Alert was -- witness the fact that when Red Alert debuted, stores were sold out, either in advance, or in minutes of receiving their first shipments; with Tiberian Sun there was no shortage of supply, and in fact many retailers were selling the standard version (I'll get to the "Platinum Version" in a moment) as low as $29.99 a week after its release.
Could be that Westwood just was ready with some better distribution channels this time, or it could be that the field that the Command & Conquer line largely pioneered is now just so stuffed to the gills with wannabes that the game playing public is largely sated already, despite the pedigree of this title. In either case, some credit for the decent, if only that, initial showing for Tiberian Sun must rest with Westwood itself for releasing a good, but not great followup.
If you've played any of the Command & Conquer games, especially Red Alert, you'll feel right at home in Tiberian Sun. . . in fact, it might take you a little while to see what's changed. It's still your basic NOD vs. GDI battle, two futuristic societies duking it out on an unforgiving Earth, but this time with some truly 3-D terrain, some nifty new units, some decent actors in the cut scenes and, if you're willing to shell out an additional fifteen bucks, a "special edition" manual, individually numbered silver box, "soundtrack" CD, and cute little pewter figurine of a laser-toting footsoldier of the 22nd century that come with the "Platinum Edition" -- a through and through marketing ploy if I ever saw one. In case you can't tell, I think the "Platinum Edition" is a pretty much a complete waste of money unless you really, really want to get a geek's eye view of the Tiberian Sun world -- there are no new levels, new units, multiplayer server software, or anything special about the "Platinum Edition" other than the aforementioned toys and trivialities that add nothing to the game itself which, if you're like me, is why you'd buy it in the first place.
Okay, end of rant. The quick line on Tiberian Sun is that given three years, it needed to be a good deal more than it is to once again truly wow the PC gaming world. Still, if you liked Red Alert, it's safe to say you'll like Tiberian Sun -- it's a nice update to the Command & Conquer gaming universe, and is on par with all the currently released titles (although I write this on the eve of the release of Age of Empires 2, so that statement may be short lived). Included this time are unit build queues, waypoints, better environment manipulation ability (subterranean and aquatic APCs, enginners that can repair bridges), a good outside threat (the mutants and tiberian fiends), and the aforementioned 3D environment, all of which add considerable depth to the game play, even if most of these features are to be expected these days.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
As with all real time strategy titles, Tiberian Sun is a mouse-controlled game that even a novice can quickly pick up the finer points of relatively quickly. In the single player version you are introduced to the whole NOD vs. GDI conflict via a nice intro movie and are updated on your progress throughout the game with cut scenes before and after each mission. In multiplayer, you are just dropped right in the middle of the action and you're off. Perhaps it's just a personal beef, but many game studios now think it necessary to include a little mini-movie parceled out into 45 second chunks over the course of a game to make the whole thing cohesive and enjoyable -- I say, cut to the chase and spend less time on backstory and more on making a game so cool I can't wait to play it again and again. But maybe that's just me. I'm not going to tell you the storyline for Tiberian Sun other than to say that the bad guy you thought you killed (yeah, right) at the end of Red Alert is back with all the acting talent of Bernie from Weekend at Bernie's and that you'll once again have to save the universe by beating him up.
As for the game interface, not much has been added -- the basic HUD display in the upper right still shows the game map, building repair and sale icons, and your base's power supply. Same scrollable list of units on the right, same basic keyboard commands and structure. Taken as a whole, that may sound like a criticism, but this is one place where Westwood has done right in leaving well enough alone. The original Command & Conquer interface was one of its best points and part of what made the whole system easy to learn and fun to play and thankfully they have resisted the urge to tinker with the success of this presentation.
For those of you who are completely new to the Command & Conquer games, suffice it to say that the basic point is to gather raw materials (tiberium -- a type of ore which is readily converted to monetary units) to build your base, upgrade structures, and outfit infantry, armor, air power, and a vast array of futuristic weapons and defenses. You gather tiberium with a harvester, which then returns it to your base for processing. Beyond that, this is a game of superiority of firepower and money. Tactics do come into play, but as there is only a single resource to be managed in this game, it almost always comes down to who can outproduce the other guy. In this, the folks at Westwood might have taken a page from their competitors who require from two to four different resources to fully control the game, a requirement that adds a good deal to the tactics of other titles; Tiberian Sun, like all the Command & Conquer titles that have gone before, is more slugfest than intellectual exercise. There are days when such simplicity is appealing, and others where I am left wondering what more might have been with some complexity.
Simply put, multiplayer is where it's at in Tiberian Sun. No computer AI can match taking on your buddies, especially in terms of the satisfaction you get from sneaking those stealth tanks or subterranean APCs into their base for an engineer surprise party. Also, this time around the latency and dropped games over the Internet are greatly decreased, which is a welcome change from Red Alert. If you've never played a multiplayer real time strategy game, you will want to check out Tiberian Sun, especially on the larger six to eight player maps.
If there's a single area I'd identify as completely overhauled and improved in Tiberian Sun it is definitely in its graphical sophistication and terrain modeling. The maps are truly beautiful, and the movement of units, fires, explosions, day and night colors are all very much worth a look.
The presentation of the three dimension terrain, including bridges that units can drive under, tunnels through which an entire army can disappear to re-emerge on the far side, and the multi-level cliffs and ridges that give the map its texture (and the game its best tactical challenges) all really do serve notice that there has indeed been significant additions to this game over the past three years. All in all, I think that the terrain in Tiberian Sun is superior to any other I have seen, and additionally serves to point out that the programmers at Westwood have learned a great deal about how to build good path-finding AI into their units -- what once was the bane of the original Command & Conquer is no longer a significant issue, and even serves to enhance the gameplay as you watch your tanks wend their way down a narrow valley while your infantry charges ahead to take the high ground.
The manual for Tiberian Sun would have you believe that there are extensive new sound effects in this game, but as a Command & Conquer veteran I must say that if there are, they are few and far between. Some new voices and music have been added, that's true, but the industrial score of Tiberian Sun and the "Yes sir", "I'm on it", and "Building in progress. . ." voice-overs are really just so much background noise and basic gameplay taglines that I feel this claim of Tiberian Sun being a whole new supercharged game in terms of its audio is, again, just so much marketing hype.
Required: Microsoft Windows 95/98 or Windows NT 4.0, Pentium 166mhz, 32 MB of RAM
2 MB video card, 4X CD-ROM Drive, Windows-compatible mouse and keyboard, 640x480 SVGA high color (16-bit) display, Windows and DirectSound compatible sound card, 200 MB hard drive space.
Tiberian Sun continues in the tradition of other Westwood games in that it has a very good manual with clear explanations of units and game commands. What's missing is a good quick reference card or an in-game help screen (at least I couldn't find one). In the "Platinum Edition", you also get some additional pages of artists' renderings and storyboards from the game's production, all of which are interesting to browse through, but don't do much for you in the thick of battle.
Westwood Studios has a very good game in Tiberian Sun -- one that will be good for many an hour on rainy nights this winter, but it is not the masterwork that Red Alert was. Sometimes the price of being the best is increased expectations and increased demands for leadership and innovation. Such is the case with this latest installment in the venerable Command & Conquer line, and so it is that it comes up a bit short of once again knocking one out of the park. Overall, Tiberian Sun rates an 85 -- solid work, good effort, but a bit uninspired given the time they had to perfect it; perhaps it is time to retire this story and this world and start anew, try to surprise us with a whole new take on tanks and infantry and weapons of war -- lose the desire to make a game into a movie and to rest on one's laurels.
Review Posted On 28 September 1999.
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