Xbox 360 owners are in for a treat with Tiberium Wars. First and foremost, it's an excellent real-time strategy game that features an intense story and a well-rounded set of multiplayer options. It's spirited and fun, and a great way for console enthusiasts to experience the fast and frantic action of a Command & Conquer game. Yet it's no mean feat that it plays so well without a mouse and keyboard. By using an intuitive control scheme similar to Electronic Arts' own Battle for Middle-earth 2, Command & Conquer 3 Tiberium Wars proves that strategy has a big role to play on consoles. If you have an Xbox 360 and even the remotest interest in earth-shattering explosions or campy science fiction, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.
When playing the campaign, you're rewarded with a whole lot of live-action video in between missions, featuring familiar actors getting hammy in near-future command centers. There's never been anything subtle about Command & Conquer's full-motion video in its previous PC incarnations, and true to form, the campaigns are loaded with wonderfully overblown sequences filled with intrigue and suspense. Actor Joe Kucan has returned as Nod figurehead Kane, and he's as irresistibly creepy as ever. He and other familiar actors serve up a heaping of extravagant solemnity against a backdrop of flashing lights and important-looking video screens.
If you think it sounds over the top, you'd be right--but it's cheesy in a good way, and it won't take you long to get involved in the story and the characters that drive it. The narrative is structured well, with the Global Defense Initiative and Brotherhood of Nod campaigns telling the same story from opposing viewpoints. There's also a new player in the mix: the alien Scrin race. At this stage in the series, the mineral tiberium has propagated over most of the Earth, but it's more than just an environmental plight--it's a key to future technology. It'll take you a couple dozen hours to get through the campaigns, and just when you think you've finished, there are a few surprise missions in store, and they are well worth the time it takes to unlock them. There are also plenty of reasons to return to the campaign once you're done, since the game rewards you with medals based on your performance.
The missions themselves are incredibly varied and involve a lot more than destroying an enemy base or defending a particular structure. You'll have to do these things, of course, but you have both primary and secondary objectives to complete, and they include using engineers to capture certain buildings, amassing beam cannons to take out defenses, or teaming up with your sworn enemy to defend against alien attacks. You'll be doing it all in a variety of real-world theaters, such as Washington, DC; downtown Sydney; and the eerily dry Amazon basin. The near-future take on familiar locales makes the intense battles feel even more thrilling because the settings are recognizable and meaningful.
That's not to say the combat isn't gripping on its own. If you're inclined to turtle up in real-time strategy games, you'll be in for a surprise: Battles are intense and focused, and they give you little time to prepare. Like most strategy games, Tiberium Wars still requires you to build up resources, but it's a quick process of plopping down a bunch of tiberium refineries and power generators and then finding the action, because if you don't, the action will quickly find you. Once you get past the first two acts of each campaign, you'll discover that Tiberium Wars' artificial intelligence is aggressive and resourceful, and it will take advantage of your strategic flaws. Don't expect to put your trust in one or two favored units, because even the most powerful units have noticeable weaknesses.
It's a rusher's paradise, but you shouldn't take it to mean that technological advancement and thoughtful strategy don't have their places. You won't need to deal with long and complex tech trees, but you do have multiple powers and upgrades to earn by building various structures. The powers run the gamut from GDI's powerful ion strike to Nod's vapor bomb, and they fit each faction perfectly. As you use units, they level up, making them more effective in battle, and there are some cases where you improve units by more unconventional means. For example, you can use a Nod warmech to destroy your own flame tank, and the mech will then spew fire in addition to its own native attack.
How differently each faction plays is impressive. GDI units tend to be straightforward and powerful, and a huge force of mammoth tanks and juggernauts is a challenge to counter. Nod relies on sneakiness and smart use of unique abilities, and a small force of stealth tanks and viper bombers can cripple an enemy's economy. But playing as the Scrin is Tiberium Wars' greatest delight and challenge, since the alien faction is so different from the others. Your first encounters with the Scrin in the campaign are breathtaking, since even low-level units like buzzers look interesting and intimidating. In fact, the most threatening sight within the game is a fleet of Scrin assault carriers and their accompanying fighters. Yet while the Scrin have some potent units and other advantages, such as the ability to collect endless tiberium without building silos, they require a lot of micromanagement and intimate knowledge of each unit and structure.
With all of these aspects of the gameplay remaining intact from the PC version, it's hard to imagine handling all of the units and commands without the benefit of a keyboard and mouse. Yet there's very little awkward about the controls in the 360 version. The side bar of the PC edition has been moved to the bottom left of the screen, and you can access your build queues and special powers by pulling the right trigger and scrolling through the options with the D pad. Movement and attack orders are as simple as pressing the A button, and even tasks like creating control groups or performing special moves are easy and instinctive to pull off. It is definitely a compromise, and selecting smaller groups of units on the fly isn't particularly easy, but overall the controls work just fine. Placing structures is often a pain, too, since the game is picky about where you can put them. Positioning something as simple as a turret or a power plant can take multiple tries, and it's never clear exactly why you can't put certain buildings in certain places, particularly when the terrain is smooth and the area is totally free of nearby obstructions.
C&C3 is also home to an impressive set of multiplayer options. You've got the standard versus option, which lets you skirmish against other players or the CPU. There are also king-of-the-hill and capture-and-hold modes, which require you to hold certain spots on the map to attain victory. These options are the best of the bunch, not only because of the added strategic dimension, but also because the action is focused and intense as players struggle to maintain control. There is also a siege mode, which keeps you and your opponent from attacking until the timer is up. It's interesting to play, given the game's rush-friendly design, but it also allows players to pit high-level units against each other without worry of early bombardments. The final mode is capture the flag, which functions much like it does in first-person shooters. There are a good number of maps for up to four players, and with so many ways of playing, you're bound to get a good deal of mileage from the multiplayer. You can even connect your Xbox Live Vision Cam should you wish to make rude gestures at your opponent.
In many ways, Tiberium Wars looks really good, particularly the unit designs. Scrin annihilator tripods lumber about with a commanding attitude, GDI orca bombers circle in believable formations, and Nod avatar warmechs advance with heft. Their stature and fantastical nature fit perfectly with the over-the-top nature of the action, as do the titanic nuclear explosions and lightning strikes. In the most extreme battles, your screen will fill with mighty blasts and streams of lasers, as if you were the main player in a sci-fi action film. The visuals look washed out, though, so many of the effects aren't as vibrant as they could be. More noticeably, the frame rate suffers from regular and frustrating slowdown, particularly when there are a lot of units onscreen.
Bad unit voice-overs are a common annoyance in strategy games, but they're all done well in Tiberium Wars. EA pinpointed just the right amount of extravagance to lavish on the sound design, from mission voice-overs to the eclectic soundtrack, which is alternately tinged with orchestral fanfare and heavy metal grinding. While many of the sound effects are what you would expect from standard artillery and tanks, others, particularly those of the Scrin units, are ominous and appropriately alien.
There's a good set of achievements to unlock, including a few zero-point ones that pop up should you lose a few too many multiplayer games in a row or bypass the tutorial mission. But it's all just icing on the proverbial cake, since playing Tiberium Wars is a reward unto itself. Not only is it a great game, but it's a great example of a console RTS done right. If you've never played a Command & Conquer game before, there's no better time than the present.