Although several expansion packs and the pseudo-sequel Red Alert have been published over the last four years, the Command & Conquer series has never yet surpassed or even matched the level of excellence with which it began. And so there's a lot at stake with Tiberian Sun, Westwood's third major release in the series, especially because it draws directly from the original game for its inspiration by returning once again to the conflict between the Global Defense Initiative and the Brotherhood of Nod. But because Westwood has no intention of risking any more than necessary, Tiberian Sun predictably takes very few risks of its own, and feels and plays just like the original Command & Conquer.
Tiberian Sun will look immediately familiar to Command & Conquer players, although a closer inspection reveals that the game's terrain graphics are far more sophisticated than they used to be. Realistic topography and colored lighting effects make Tiberian Sun's terrain look great, and because explosive weapons leave craters or knock down bridges, the terrain provides an important new tactical consideration. You'll notice a few other additions to the battlefield, including a second, more valuable type of the mysterious resource Tiberium and even Tiberian mutants that will attack your forces on sight.
Although the game's landscape looks different from previous games in the series, its right-hand interface is identical to how it's always been - one scrolling column is devoted to units and the other is devoted to structures. You can designate hotkeys for faster scrolling, and you can queue up to five units for production from a single facility, though you'll need to build structures one at a time. The interface takes up a fairly large portion of the screen, but that isn't much of a problem because the units themselves are small. That's not to say all the various infantry and vehicles in Tiberian Sun look bland; if anything, a lot of them look bizarre, and it may take you a few hours to get accustomed to the game's new look.
While your infantry units are still little animated sprites that look much like the infantry units in every Command & Conquer game, your vehicles are drawn using voxels, which in practice lends them a rough-hewn three-dimensional look. It's not a bad effect, and you'll see its advantages no sooner than when your harvester lumbers up and over the nearest hill. Some of these voxel units do look pretty bad - the Devil's Tongue Flame Tank looks like a giant shoe box, a far cry from Nod's menacing original. Other units, like the GDI Titan, a gigantic walking tank, look fantastic. You'll also notice and appreciate the game's subtle special effects, like the Titan's red laser targeting pointer, damaged units billowing smoke and showering sparks, and Nod cyborgs ripped in half but still alive and shooting.
Tiberian Sun's units include a number of throwbacks to Westwood's classic Dune 2, including a Nod buggy, which is a spitting image of the heavy quad, and the GDI Disrupter, which may as well have been called a sonic tank. Likewise, the story involves a breed of mutants indigenous to Tiberium-infested regions, which closely parallel Dune's enigmatic Fremen. Dune 2 fans will enjoy such references; Command & Conquer fans may find them disconcerting. The fact is Tiberian Sun is a science fiction game. The original Command & Conquer, though it took its share of liberties with unit design, was still dominated by readily recognizable tanks and troops. Tiberian Sun, by comparison, offers not even a single mundane unit for either the GDI or the Brotherhood. Even the lowliest infantry are armed with pulse rifles.
This emphasis on science fiction wouldn't be so problematic were it not that Tiberian Sun rather shamelessly borrows unit designs from other science fiction real-time strategy games, including Dark Reign's burrowing APC and Starcraft's transforming siege tank. The consequence is that fans expecting trucks, tanks, and planes will be disappointed, while those already acclimated to science fiction real-time strategy will find that most of Tiberian Sun's units are unoriginal. It's also unfortunate that the game maintains the series' convention of sounding completely boring - while gunfire and explosions are right on, your units' spoken acknowledgements become repetitive and tedious within minutes. At least the game contains an excellent soundtrack whose wide variety of intense and catchy techno beats will bring back fond memories of the first game's great musical score.
And if the soundtrack doesn't bring back memories of playing Command & Conquer, then everything else about Tiberian Sun assuredly will. Tiberian Sun may look a little different, but it won't feel foreign at all if you're even remotely experienced with the series. Most of Tiberian Sun's construction costs, units, and tactics have counterparts in previous Command & Conquer games, which means veterans of the series will be experts again in no time. Though there are more units per side now, as well as important new tactical considerations like the GDI's ability to upgrade their facilities and the Nod's power to cloak their entire base, you will quickly learn how to compensate for these.
That's because the strengths and weaknesses of both sides are pronounced and well developed: The GDI is powerful enough to attack head-on but slow to do so, while the Brotherhood's potent defenses and subversive but vulnerable units make it better suited to sly tactics. But you'll notice that both the GDI and the Nod must rely heavily on particular units and that going for enemy Tiberium harvesters and cutting off his resources is just as simple, just as effective, and just as crucial as before. Engineer units, able to instantly convert enemy structures to your side, are also just as deadly as they were in the original Command & Conquer and are arguably more powerful than ever thanks to Nod's subterranean APC, which can dump five of them right in the heart of an enemy base. And just as in Command & Conquer, should you lose your construction yard, either to an engineer or to a concentrated attack, then chances are you've already lost.
But Command & Conquer has never been about long, drawn-out wars of attrition. By the time either the GDI or the Nod reach the top of their technology trees, they have not one but several means of smashing large chunks of their enemies' bases with a single blow. For that reason, Tiberian Sun, like its predecessors, demands that you strike before your opponent, and that necessity makes the game exciting to play. Unit queues, good pathfinding, and an excellently implemented waypoint system (which lets you set guard patrols and travel routes) all let you focus on coordinating complicated attacks instead of micromanaging simple ones.
The competent computer AI will keep you on your toes through the two single-player campaigns, whose missions are varied, often interesting, and usually demand that you accomplish not one but several objectives. A few too many missions for both GDI and Nod require trial and error before strategy, but at least the big-budget full-motion video sequences in between scenarios give you good incentive to press on, even if many of the actors' performances are halfhearted.
When you're finished with one or both campaigns, you can keep playing against the computer in skirmish mode, which stays interesting thanks to the game's random-map generator that can build a map to your specifications much faster than you ever could with your average map editor. Sooner or later you'll also want to pit your skills against human opponents, and you're guaranteed to find them in droves on Westwood's online multiplayer server, where Tiberian Sun is destined to enjoy a very long life whether you like it or not.
And whether you like Tiberian Sun is contingent upon how much you enjoyed the original, since Tiberian Sun is ultimately nothing more than a logical extension of that game. If by chance you didn't warm up to the first game back then, then there's no way you're going to warm up to it now. And even if you enjoyed the formula in its heyday, you may well find yourself enjoying it less so now than you did four years ago, on account of all the other great real-time strategy games that showed up during that time, including Dark Reign, Total Annihilation, and Starcraft. After all, Tiberian Sun is another real-time strategy game with a science fiction theme, just like the rest of them. It's by no means their clear-cut superior, though it's by all means a worthy competitor.