Last year's Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars featured a horde of freaky alien units, hammy acting, and lots of explosions. With Kane's Wrath, Electronic Arts provides freakier aliens, hammier acting, and bigger explosions, and then mixes them into a stand-alone expansion pack that gives us more ways to experience the terrific gameplay. The additions don't improve the core game in any meaningful way, and the campaign misses its mark, but if you're a fan of last year's entry, you'll enjoy this follow-up.
The story, such as it is, fills a number of gaps in Command & Conquer history, jumping around like a jackrabbit on speed. For example, the first act takes place between the second and third Tiberium Wars, whereas the second act jumps to events that took place during C&C3. Joe Kucan as Kane almost saves this scattershot structure with his usual superb mix of spittled monologues and ominous glares. As Alexa, though, actress Natasha Henstridge misses the whole point by misunderstanding the difference between histrionics and plain bad acting. She is less energetic than her bouncy hairdo. Cheese is expected in a Command & Conquer campaign, but its taste is altogether overpowering here. With the third act, Kane's Wrath starts hitting the right notes and then comes to a halt, leaving the promise of yet another expansion...the same promise Tiberium Wars left us with. Let's hope that the inevitable second expansion pack makes good on it.
Once you take command of the battlefield, things pick up, but not in the ways you might expect from an expansion pack. You play as the Nod faction through the whole of the 13-mission campaign, which is fine, but it fails to capitalize on the pitifully brief Scrin campaign of Tiberium Wars. Nevertheless, this is at heart the same gameplay that made last year's game such a success. It's fast-paced, fun, and eminently playable. When the game emphasizes these strengths, such as in a mission where you have to capture a GDI researcher, the gameplay soars. Other missions serve to remind us of overlooked possibilities. For instance, in one scenario, you're teased with the possibility of experiencing one of Tiberium Wars' best missions from the perspective of a different commander. But rather than delivering on the promise of a heart-pounding battle, the game whips the rug out from under you--you get stuck using a commando and saboteur, then a dinky attack bike. Talk about an anticlimax.
Thankfully, all of the issues that the campaign presents are mostly offset by the variety of new toys available. Many of them come courtesy of the subfactions in Kane's Wrath. You can still play skirmishes against other players and the AI as the standard GDI, Nod, and Scrin factions, which have seen some minor changes. However, you should check out the subfactions if you want access to the best goodies. For the most part, the subfactions aren't radically different from their vanilla counterparts, but they bring some subtle and interesting additions. For example, the Nod subfaction called the Black Hand replaces the avatar warmech with a flame-spewing monstrosity called the purifier. The Black Hand has no flying units, though, so this isn't the faction for you if you like to spam venom aircraft. Other tweaks have very little obvious impact, such as the addition of shields to harvesters of the Reaper-17 Scrin subfaction, though such small changes have subtle effects on the overall balance.
Some of the new units are available to the main faction and subfactions alike. For example, all GDI players get the hammerhead helicopter, which is invaluable for troop transport and can stay aloft for a while without having to refuel. The Scrin mechapede is a particular favorite, given that you can extend its length by adding pods to it, and there are four different types of pods you can use. This flexibility makes the mechapede one of the most versatile units in the game, but in the spirit of the Scrin, it requires a healthy amount of micromanagement. The most sensational units are the new epic units. Each faction and its subfactions get access to a new powerful unit: the MARV tank for GDI, the redeemer for the Nod, and the eradicator hexapod for the Scrin. How important they are to your strategy depends on how long your matches draw out, which is always a crapshoot in the rush-heavy Command & Conquer. However, if you get to the point where you can create one, you'll enjoy the additional help it provides on the battlefield. They have powerful attacks (even more powerful if infantry is garrisoned inside), but their other abilities can be helpful as well. For example, if you need extra credits, just drive your MARV over some Tiberium, and it will be added to your coffers instantly.
The controls have been far improved over last year's entry. The sidebar has been replaced with a command wheel, which is easily pulled up with the right trigger. Here, you can easily access build queues, special abilities, and control groups. And because the whole thing is a breeze, you will rarely fumble with the controller. there are some sticking points other console RTSs have dealt with more successfully, however. Without an approximated click-and-drag ability, selecting units can be a chore, for example. Overall, however, interfacing with the game is simple and stress-free. You should also note that aside from some minor frame rate drops during quick map scrolling, Kane's Wrath runs extremely well, without any hints of the technical gaffes that have plagued other recent console real-time strategy games.
Electronic Arts' wisest move in the Xbox 360 version of Kane's Wrath was to remove the underwhelming Global Conquest mode seen in the PC version and replace it with a mode called Kane's Challenge. This mode may sound rather uninteresting on paper, but it relies on the fast and furious action that the series is best at providing. It is simply a series of stand-alone skirmishes: 10 for each faction, for a total of 90 scenarios in all. In turn, these challenges will prepare you for online play, where you can take on up to three others in a variety of different ways. Versus provides your standard skirmishes, and is the most commonly played mode. However, all of the other modes from Tiberium Wars--Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, Capture and Hold, and Siege--are still present. While some players have reported connection problems, all of our online sessions performed smoothly without any noticeable lag.
All of these additions--new units, a new campaign, and so on--add more ways to play, and plenty of subtle variety. Not every addition is significant, and in some cases, they're underwhelming (Steel Talon subfaction, this means you). Yet the core gameplay is so good and performs so well on the platform that Command & Conquer fans would do well to pick up a copy.