Thoughts: Tiberian Twilight.

This may end up being slightly incoherent. This is partly due to the fact that I’m writing this at two in the morning on sod-all sleep, but mainly it’s because Tiberian Twilight makes me so angry that it’s kind of hard to think straight.

While I was playing through this I got quite a few PMs on Steam to the tune of “What the hell are you doing?” Tiberian Twilight certainly seems to have a reputation as a shitty game, and after completing the Nod campaign I can tell you that this reputation is richly deserved. I knew going in that it would be bad – although I did not quite understand just how bad – but I did it because I felt I owed it to the series to see it out to the end. Watching Joe Kucan ham things up as Kane is as integral a part of my childhood as grazed knees in the playground are for other, less psychotic children. And after the utter nadir that was C&C 3, surely the only way left for the series to go was up?

Okay, I’m going to give Tiberian Twilight just the tiniest glimmer of praise to begin with. C&C as a formula is something that’s not just stale, it’s downright putrefying at this point. If they were going to do a fourth game they needed to change things up a little bit, and it’s actually kind of interesting to me how similar the some of the broad design principles are between this Tiberian Twilight and Starcraft II, a game which succeeded in rejuvenating a formula that was certainly dated, if not quite as tired as C&C’s. To their credit, the developers of C&C 4 did recognise that something had to change. It’s just that where Starcraft II’s approach in everything bar the storytelling was one of refined excellence, Tiberian Twilight instead rushes in, seizes the wrong end of the “change” stick and proceeds to beat itself to death with it.

As a result, the few genuinely good ideas Tiberian Twilight has are mired within a horrible morass of poor animation, crappy visual design, and audio that is by turns bland and ear-meltingly bad. And even if all these things were not true, the core gameplay these good ideas have been bolted onto in the first place fucking sucks. It’s terrible. Tiberian Twilight may actually be, pound for pound, the single worst RTS I’ve ever played.  I’m casting my mind back over the years in an attempt to think of a competitor for the title, but while I have certainly played strategy games that were poorly designed or painfully bland I don’t think I’ve ever encountered one that sabotaged so many of its core concepts with such reckless abandon. Base building? That’s gone. Resource gathering? Screw you, there’s no economy in this game. Teching up? It’s almost comically one-dimensional and is almost completely out of your hands anyway.  C&C may have needed a shot in the arm, but instead the developers have cut and cut away at it like a gaggle of drunken surgeons until all that’s left is this mutilated, unrecognisable corpse.

Tiberian Twilight’s gameplay revolves around a thing called a “crawler”. You start every game looking at a grid that demarcates your deployment zone, into which you can call exactly one crawler. The crawler is a mobile construction vehicle which can be one of three types – attack, defence and support – and the type you pick will determine which units and abilities you get to play with during the mission.  This isn’t the worst idea in the world, although I seem to recall Kane’s Wrath doing something rather similar so it’s not exactly original, but things quickly nosedive from this relative highpoint when you scour the map for a decent location to set up a base only to quickly realise that there isn’t one. There are no resources in Tiberian Twilight; the only things limiting what you can build are time and an arbitrary supply cap, which means it doesn’t matter where you set up your crawler. That’s one of the key elements of the RTS just chucked out the window. I wouldn’t have a huge problem with this if they’d replaced it with something good but the thinking behind it seems to have been – well, base building and resource gathering slows down the game so we’ll just get rid of it, with no thought given to the massive impact this would have on every other aspect of the gameplay.

The crawler can pack up and move at will while still building queued units on the march. If this sounds like it might be kind of fun, trust me: it really isn’t. In practice you just walk it up as close to the enemy as you dare and start having it spew out units in their general direction. Hunting down CPU crawlers is a truly mind-numbing business because the computer has absolutely no problem abusing the crawler’s mobility to its fullest extent, keeping it mobile almost the entire time and just setting it down every so often to vomit out a fresh batch of troops. They haven’t just lobotomised the base-building element here; this is a complete removal of the brain of C&C, a game which was always more about supply lines and the economy than it was a collection of soft and hard counters. Those are in the game, by the way, but good luck trying to decipher the awful UI and visual design trying to figure out what is going on. In order to find out what a unit does you have to mouseover its icon in the build menu because there’s no chance of being able to tell just by looking at it. “Cannon; good against medium units,” says the tooltip. What’s a medium unit? Everything in this game is so overproportioned and cartoony that just about anything bigger than an infantryman could be a medium unit. Lasers are good against heavy units, apparently, but tanks apparently do not count as heavy units. Or at least not the tanks I was fighting. Other tanks, maybe, but this particular type of tank not so much. Nothing has a descriptive name, instead plumping for cryptic nomenclature like “Initiate” or “Redeemer” that don’t tell you a damn thing about what the unit actually does.

Now, Starcraft II did something similar but it was at least vaguely intuitive and you unlocked stuff gradually during the course of the campaign which gave you time to familiarise yourself with your units at a manageable rate. Here, nothing works the way you expect it to, and the game makes absolutely zero effort to teach you because they’ve removed tech progression from the game as well, instead plumping for a baffling XP system where you level up for winning missions and you unlock more units with each level. This has catastrophic effects on both the player’s ability to assimilate unit roles and the developer’s ability to design a balanced mission; I am reasonably sure I played missions where I was expected to have a unlocked certain unit that would have made things easy for me, except because I hadn’t ground out enough XP to level up I had to do things the hard way. At least that’s the only explanation I can come up with for why Tiberian Twilight is so utterly and incredibly difficult. The CPU has access to units and tech tiers that you don’t, as well as multiple crawlers, and it has no problem using them to grind you into the dust. Playing through Tiberian Twilight’s single-player campaign was an exercise in mad frustration until I dropped the difficulty down to Easy, and even then getting through a couple of the missions was like being trapped in a waking nightmare.

The singleplayer is complete garbage. Really, I don’t even have the words to express how bad it is. Tiberian Twilight is the steaming stream of effluent pouring forth from a fossilised industry that is almost completely devoid of good ideas or the talent to implement them effectively. Even the music is completely out of place when put in the context of the game’s lineage, sounding more like something out of Battlestar Galactica than the weird fusion of industrial and electronica that the first C&C deployed to such good effect. But hey, surely the FMV sequences provide some relief, though? That’s basically what C&C is all about, right? Corny FMV sequences?

Ahahaha. No. That would be assuming the people behind this travesty understood what made C&C’s cutscenes so fondly remembered when their frenzied hacking at the actual gameplay very much indicates that they don’t understand the series at all. I’m not going to write too much about the cutscenes except to say that not only have the they jettisoned their prior B-movie joie de vivre in favour of something far more po-faced and boring – they actually take themselves seriously, which is by far the worst thing a C&C cutscene could possibly do; did nobody learn from Tiberian Sun? —  but there’s now an association between the words “Joe Kucan” and “ham” that goes beyond the quality of his acting. Far be it for me to criticise somebody for having the temerity to age in the fifteen year gap separating the first Command and Conquer and this game; however, when you’re playing the immortal leader of a world-spanning cult it does become a bit of a problem.

Bleurgh. I really, really hate this game. Even if it wasn’t a personal insult to my childhood I’d hate Tiberian Twilight’s guts. There’s just so much I haven’t mentioned – the awful maps, the identikit captureable buildings that all look the same, the storyline that never ever explains what the fuck is going on, the inexplicable decision to have the player’s wife call them over and over and over, breaking into what I assume are encrypted military communications channels to simper and cry and tell the player she loves them – but which I don’t even want to think about any more. It’s a weird, unholy confluence of a tired license and terrible game design which showcases the absolute worst aspects of each while strangling any nascent good ideas in the crib. For god’s sake don’t buy it. Don’t play it. Stay as far away from it as you possibly can. If you don’t you’ll only encourage them to make C&C 5, and given the series’ current trend in quality it’d suck so hard it would, in fact, open up a gravitational singularity which would consume the Earth and everyone on it. Another C&C game or the continued existence of the human race. It’s your choice.

Tagged , , , ,

12 thoughts on “Thoughts: Tiberian Twilight.

  1. innokenti says:

    Just such a shame to see the series taking turns for the worse like this. Makes one sad.

    • hentzau says:

      They haven’t made a good Command and Conquer game since about 2004, so it’s hardly new.

      (That said, I still haven’t played Generals. I should play Generals.)

      • innokenti says:

        You should. It’s… not particularly C&C but it’s a good game in its own right. Robust and interesting.

  2. Max says:

    “Tiberian Twilight instead rushes in, seizes the wrong end of the “change” stick and proceeds to beat itself to death with it” – brilliant

  3. I’ve not played Tiberium Twilight yet (picked it up in a Steam sale a couple of weeks ago though), but I have dipped into Tiberium Alliances and that seemed pretty horrific.

  4. Everblue says:

    The worst thing about the whole game sounds like that you get barraged by phone calls from your wife.

    I mean, I get that at work. I don’t need it in a game.

    • hentzau says:

      I don’t even know why they thought it would be a good idea to put that in a strategy game about an apocalyptic future Earth. It’s not exactly the first thing that springs to mind when you think C&C, you know?

      Urgh, just thinking about it makes me angry again.

  5. Darren says:

    The Battle for Middle Earth games, which were kind of the spiritual successors to C&C: Generals, were quite enjoyable. The first was more experimental, but the pace and scale were kind of iffy. The second was more traditional but was better-paced, more impressive, and easier to wrap your head around. It was also plagued by balance issues, but a combination of official and ultimately fan-made patches have mostly fixed those. The pre-expansion 1.05 patch featured perhaps the boldest re-balancing I’ve ever seen in a game, with Nazgul crushing units like bowling pins and Saruman blasting whole armies to death with fireballs and energy blasts.

    They were the reason I tried C&C 3, which in turn was a pretty generic RTS that I don’t remember very well. Weird how one company can turn out such wildly different products.

    • Everblue says:

      Have you played the Lord of the Rings mod for Medieval 2 Total War? It is really really nicely done – they’ve gone so far as to create castles and towns to match those from the films.

      Had a fun game the other day where I was trying to defend the western half of Osgiliath from orcs swimming across the river.

Leave a Reply