Command & Conquer 3 Tiberium Wars Exclusive Hands-On - Multiplayer, Skirmish, and the Alien Faction Revealed

Join us for exclusive hands-on impressions of the next action-packed chapter in the classic Command & Conquer strategy series.

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They say Rome wasn't built in a day, but in just minutes, you can build a full-on military installation to crush your enemies in Command & Conquer 3 Tiberium Wars, the fast-paced strategy sequel in development at Electronic Arts Los Angeles. The game takes place on a near-future version of planet Earth that is polluted by a mysterious crystalline substance known as Tiberium, which is found to be a source of highly concentrated energy--and also a source of highly poisonous environmental toxins. The ecological damage caused by this substance fragments the world into different zones classified by their hostility to human life. It's also the catalyst that sets off an already-simmering conflict between the world's biggest superpowers, the humane Global Defense Initiative and the fanatical Brotherhood of Nod.

But before the war can begin in earnest, it's interrupted by an invasion of hostile aliens reminiscent of the nightmarish creations of artist H.R. Giger, whose works include the design for the Aliens motion-picture series. That's right, the third and final playable faction in Command & Conquer 3 will be a race of extraterrestrials that have an unknown connection to Tiberium--and if used correctly, they will be absolute beasts in the game's competitive multiplayer mode. Take our word for it--we've played the game and have hands-on impressions to report.

C&C 3 Tiberium Wars will offer close encounters of the explosive kind.
C&C 3 Tiberium Wars will offer close encounters of the explosive kind.

While the classic real-time strategy game usually begins with you building an initial home-base structure then locating nearby resources to harvest in order to create additional installations to advance your technology and eventually raise an army to crush your enemy, this process gets resolved in the few minutes of play in C&C 3. In pretty much all skirmish and multiplayer maps, you start off near a large-enough patch of crystals to build up your basic economy, starting with an initial central base structure that unlocks most of the other buildings you can create. Once your central base is constructed, your first order of business is generally to build support structures such as a power plant that provides electricity to all your structures, and a refinery to harvest Tiberium. There are no worker or builder units in C&C 3; like in recent games such as Dawn of War, you simply click on the next building in your queue to start construction, and when it's ready, you place it immediately on the ground.

This "build order" is a pretty solid opener for each of the three factions, which share some common ground: All three factions need to harvest Tiberium, which acts as their money supply; all three need enough power plants to keep their buildings running; all have commando units that are highly effective against infantry and enemy buildings; all three have engineer units that can commandeer enemy vehicles and structures; all have some kind of mobile command vehicle (MCV) that can be deployed to build up new bases around new Tiberium patches; and all three have infantry, vehicles, tanks, and top-level superunits, in addition to various external "powers" that are unlocked by building certain structures and act like magic spells or like the "general powers" of Command & Conquer Generals. Grasping the basic structure of how each faction develops seems easy enough for anyone who has played real-time strategy games, and it should also help beginners figure out the basics quickly.

Despite their common elements, each of the three factions does have its own personality that comes through once you put it through its paces. Specifically, EALA has purposely designed the three factions, GDI, Nod, and aliens, to be appropriate to players of varying play styles as well as varying skill levels. The GDI seems to make the most sense for beginner players, or for defensive players who prefer to hang back at their bases and gradually build up a huge army. The GDI probably has the strongest defenses in the game and the toughest units, though its buildings and higher-level units are among the most costly and time-consuming to build.

One thing you can say about the Global Defense Initiative: It usually brings enough tanks.
One thing you can say about the Global Defense Initiative: It usually brings enough tanks.

GDI has an intuitively obvious unit progression that starts with basic rifleman infantry, with grenadiers and missile squads to attack buildings and vehicles, along with a sniper team that is highly effective against basic infantry. While the faction does have the ability to scout out new territory with fast-moving units like the pitbull light ground vehicle and the orca scout flyer, the backbone of the GDI's offensive strength seems to be its tanks, specifically the lower-level predator tank (which can be upgraded to use powerful railguns) and the higher-level, costlier mammoth tanks, which can sustain heavy damage while dishing it out. The GDI's top-level unit is the juggernaut, a massive walker that's basically a set of high-caliber tank turrets on legs that can deliver big damage to enemies at a distance, but perhaps doesn't have the flexibility of the other factions' comparable units.

Building a better tomorrow, today. With tanks.

The Brotherhood of Nod, on the other hand, benefits from the hand of a more skillful player with a more aggressive, hit-and-run style of play. Nod's basic infantry barracks and vehicle yard can be placed almost instantly and let aggressive players start churning out low-level infantry almost immediately, such as militants (and the antivehicle rocket militants) and suicide-squad fanatics, though with some cursory upgrades, the faction can commission the much tougher black hand infantry and scorpion light tanks. With the right upgrades, and an aggressive search for more Tiberium nodes to fuel its economy, Nod players can choose to go the route of commissioning stealth tanks and shadow teams (a stealth infantry unit)--both of which can be used to sneak behind enemy lines and do serious hit-and-run damage while preparing the avatar warmech, the faction's top-level unit, which can be equipped with flamethrowers to devastate infantry as well as enemy structures.

How about a little fire, scarecrow?
How about a little fire, scarecrow?

The aliens (also known as "the invaders" to the GDI and "the visitors" to Nod) are perhaps most intriguing faction in the game for experienced strategy players, because with the right strategy and build order, they can mount a quick and continuous offense. However, this style of play will require some micromanagement--shuffling around individual units rather than simply commanding large groups--to work at its best. Because the aliens are most in tune with the extraterrestrial Tiberium, they actually harvest more funds from a same-size patch of the stuff than either of the other factions can, and later in the game, they can even unlock a power to reseed depleted resource patches. In addition, unlike the infantry of both GDI and Nod, the aliens can walk over Tiberium unscathed, while most human soldiers take damage as a result of walking though the toxic substance. Finally, the aliens don't have a hard cap on the amount of Tiberium they can possess at any one time--that is, unlike the other two factions, which must regularly build Tiberium silos to increase their storage capacity, the aliens can continuously harvest the stuff and focus on their military activities. This is presumably because according the story, the aliens' structures are actually interstellar portals that transport units onto Earth. For the most part, alien vehicles don't work well against infantry units, though the faction's base-level infantry unit, buzzers (a cloud of tiny, swarming critters that are effective against infantry) can be manually joined to vehicles to improve their antinfantry ability. While the aliens don't seem to quite have the ground speed that Nod's fastest units have, they can move surprisingly quickly and can eventually commission the annihilator tripod, which is perhaps the single most powerful unit in the game, since it can independently acquire three different targets with its tentacle-like cannons. As if this weren't enough, this faction will also be able to commission a powerful (but extremely slow) mothership unit with the ability to generate a localized black hole--a devastating ability if unleased near an enemy base.

Even though jumping into a game of C&C 3 takes only minutes and has what seems to be a fairly user-friendly interface including the "sidebar" command menu, the game seems to offer plenty of strategic depth for veteran players looking to hunker down and get their hands dirty. The sidebar, for instance, lets you issue just about every basic command you need to give without having to scroll through the map to find the base or units you're looking for. This handy interface includes a minimap on which you can give direct move and attack orders, as well as a full build queue that separates your next projects into general buildings, defensive structures, infantry, tanks, and aircraft. While you can't queue up long lines of individual buildings, you can build additional production centers that unlock separate production queues for more buildings or more armies. Each unit also has several different battle stances to go with their movement orders, including defensive movement (which causes units to move to a location without attacking anything), as well as other stances with varying degrees of aggressiveness. In some cases, you may just want to burn and pillage everything in your way; in others, you may want to destroy enemy units but leave their buildings or the discarded hulks of your enemies' most powerful units. In those cases, you can use engineer units to capture enemy buildings and repair discarded vehicle chassis under your control, which makes bringing your biggest guns to bear an even riskier tactic--will you be able to annihilate your enemy with your avatar warmech? Or, if you fail, will you be leaving him a Christmas present to repair and use against you?

In addition to building a story-based single-player campaign and a very competitive multiplayer component, EALA also plans to release a multiplayer spectator component for the game on launch day, which should make it possible for an unlimited number of players to view online multiplayer games in progress, and even provide commentary using a voice-over-IP headset, along with a "telestrator"--the kind of superimposed drawing board that sports commentators often use to sketch diagrams on top of player footage. The studio hopes that these features will see players gain notoriety not only as skilled players, but also as commentators throughout the fan community, encouraging players of all skill levels to watch multiplayer replays not only to learn from the tactics that other players use, but also to enjoy a competitive match in the same way sports fans enjoy watching their favorite teams play.

C&C 3 is almost here. Get those tanks ready.
C&C 3 is almost here. Get those tanks ready.

Development on Command & Conquer 3 Tiberium Wars is almost done, and the game looks great. The game's graphics engine does a good job of making each unit look unique and recognizable on the battlefield, and allows for plenty of detail on both units and structures as well as some good-looking special effects, like the heat shimmer on explosions and flamethrower attacks. It's clear that the game will have lots of stuff to offer--fast-paced multiplayer action, accessible but deep gameplay, great graphics, and some expanded community features that will hopefully give it some serious lasting value as a competitive tournament game. The PC version game of the game is scheduled to be on store shelves on March 28, while the Xbox 360 version of the game will ship later this year.

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