There's a good chance that Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight is not what you were expecting. This real-time tactical game shares some attributes with the Tiberium-fueled strategy games that came before it--flashy graphical effects, GDI and Nod forces pummeling each other, and a scowling antihero with a stare so intense his eyes pierce your soul. But Tiberian Twilight stands out not for its use of age-old series standbys, but for reinvented mechanics that have little in common with those of its predecessors. Base-building and broad strategizing have been supplanted by small-scale micromanagement; standard battles have given way to capture-point conquest. It's a bold shift for the apparently final chapter of the saga, though not always a positive one. The disappointing campaign ends in a conclusion unworthy of Kane's melodramatic legacy, and the moment-to-moment gameplay is too limited to be consistently engaging. And yet the multiplayer action and single-player skirmishes are good fun, if not remarkably so, and a system of persistent unlocks provides nice rewards across every mode. This may not be the exhilarating finale to Kane's exploits you had hoped for, but Tiberian Twilight is a pleasant diversion good for occasional grins, though not for riotous thrills.
Those persistent unlocks are central to the experience--one that takes place in an always-online environment. Even if you plan on playing only the single-player campaign and skirmishes against the artificial intelligence, you must always sign into an online portal first. This always-online approach to PC games is part of an unwelcome but growing trend, but at least the game provides some sensible context for it. Like most strategy games, Command & Conquer 4 offers a single-player campaign, offline skirmishes, and online battles; but unlike most strategy games, it rewards you with experience based on your activity in every mode. No matter which mode you play, finishing a match inches you closer to your next level. Gaining levels means new units, new powers, and new upgrades--goodies that you can then take with you into any of the modes. This persistency, along with the way you automatically join online chat and can create player parties from the main interface, contributes to a pseudo-massively-multiplayer environment. This isn't a massively multiplayer game, of course, so it's still a disappointment that you can't practice your skills or get reacquainted with Kane if a windstorm knocks out your Internet connection. Nevertheless, this focus on community and advancement makes the online-only requirement bearable, if not wholly reasonable.
Yet Command & Conquer has been just as much about hammy acting and over-the-top plot developments as it has about online competition. Actor Joe Kucan once again fills the shoes of Kane, the sociopathic leader of the Brotherhood of Nod--a messiah to a cult of blind followers seeking "ascension." Tiberian Twilight is the final entry in the series, at least where Kane's story is concerned; revealing too much here could risk spoiling some of the campaign's surprises. Melodramatic live-action cutscenes feature Kane and other key characters speaking directly to you, and as you'd expect in a C&C game, the actors chew up the scenery with broad body language and tragicomic line delivery. Yet this story takes itself somewhat more seriously than previous ones did. The sets don't look so low-budget this time. The lighting is dark and oppressive. The excellent (if sometimes bombastic) soundtrack enhances the darkness with poignant jabs from oboes and bassoons. Kane is even more intense, more frightening, and yet more vulnerable too.
The campaign's most interesting facet is that after a few missions that serve as a tutorial, you make a decision: side with Kane and join the Brotherhood, or stick with the more law-abiding Global Defense Initiative--that is, GDI. You are still able to play out the story from the other side of events no matter which faction you initially choose, and it's admittedly fascinating to experience events from both angles. Either way, however, it's hard not to be disappointed by the flaccid ending, which hardly grants Kane the grand send-off such an iconic and deliciously self-important figure deserved. Perhaps this lukewarm departure is disappointingly fitting, however, as the campaign itself isn't grand either, but rather occurs on a smaller magnitude than you may be used to in a Command & Conquer game--in terms of both length (the campaign will probably take you six or seven hours to complete) and strategic scale.
That smaller scale is Tiberium Twlight's most obvious change over its predecessors. Command & Conquer 3's lengthy campaign was notable for several exciting large-scale missions spread across multiple fronts. By contrast, C&C4 puts you in control of a relatively small force whose size is limited by a predesignated number of command points. You order up units from your mobile base, called a crawler. Each unit costs a certain number of points, so your unit cap depends on the units you create, with larger and more powerful units costing more to build than smaller ones. In the team-based, five-versus-five online skirmishes, this format has its limitations but still makes for battles that can be fun to manage. (More on this to come.) But the campaign feels restrictive. As a rule, you simply lead around the same control group from spot to spot as you complete your mission objectives. In this respect and in others, Tiberian Twilight shares some similarities with last year's Dawn of War II. But the campaign of Relic's Warhammer 40K-themed opus was notable for its compelling you-versus-the-hordes pandemonium and role-playing-style looting. By comparison, this campaign plods along on smaller maps, offering few thrills, no unit customization, and little sense of forward momentum. You can invite a friend to join you cooperatively, in which case two players lead their own lone control group around. This is one of the few cases in which adding a friend doesn't turn up the volume.