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January 14, 2021

Command and Conquer 3

C&C3

Command & Conquer 3 is a fast-paced RTS that manages to distill many RTS mechanics into their essence. It's one of my favorite games, and there are things to learn from it. I don't claim to have deep knowledge of this game, but I enjoy to occasionally replay its campaigns and watch competitive streams. This is less of a review and more a look on various game elements and how they affect the game.

I recommend trying the game out, it often goes for $5 base game (Tiberium Wars) and $5 expansion (Kane's Wrath) on Steam or Origin. In my opinion that's worth just for campaigns.

Setting & art

The game is set in a near future with advanced weapons such as lasers or railguns available as upgrades. The visual style is more gritty and grounded, especially when compared to later released Red Alert 3 which is a lot more cartoony and silly. The style and graphics stood the test of time considering the game was released in 2007. There are a lot of shader effects that look great even now.

Visual clarity in combat could be better. Unit models change when damaged, and when destroyed they leave a temporary wreck that looks quite similar to damaged units. This makes it harder to gauge how many units are alive on the field. But otherwise units are easily distinguishable.

I can't complain about in-game UI, only menus are a bit dated and excessively use delays on transitions which is very annoying.

Nod vs GDI skirmish

Gameplay Style

The gameplay is fast-paced due to:

  • High lethality
  • Fast units
  • Strong counters
  • Strong support powers
  • Quick production
  • Quick economy boom and fall-off
  • Low barrier to tech switches (lacking incremental upgrades, structures can be sold, power system, quick production). This enables quick and frequent tech switches which is encouraged by strong counters.

I will go more into details, but it's good to see that everything supports this type of gameplay.

★ ★ ★

I would say there is a higher likelihood of comebacks due to these effects as well. Support powers can be a level equalizer if used right. Strong counters mean that if you are rebuilding an army, it will contain a lot of strong counters against the previous enemy army – reducing the main source of snowballing. Although there is no equivalent of the supply mechanic, which would reduce snowballing even further.

Economy

C&C3 manages to do with only one resource (credits). Harvesters are the primary way of income. They harvest Tiberium fields and store the harvested Tiberium in Refineries.

Tiberium fields are exhausted quicker than StarCraft II's bases and there are fewer of them. While the fields do slowly regenerate, players will harvest most of the Tiberium on the map relatively quickly. This makes the whole game faster and leads to an economy curve unlike to that of other popular RTS. Together with tech progression this makes each phase of the game feel unique.

Harvesters and Refineries are the primary source of income

The starting Tiberium field is big enough to allow aggression before expanding, but players are generally pushed to expand and move to the middle of the map. This supports the fast and aggressive gameplay. The degree to which a player commits to economy depends on how aggressively the player expands, and how many Refineries and additional Harvesters he makes.

Apart from common green Tiberium, there is also blue Tiberium which is rarer, valuable and typically found in more exposed locations. It can be an interesting map feature – providing high risk-reward option, and rewarding map control.

★ ★ ★

Additional income can be gained from capturing Tiberium spikes with Engineers. These create new points of interest on maps, encourage early conflict and build diversification. They provide a steady and unlimited income but can be captured or destroyed by the enemy.

Another nice thing about Tiberium spikes is that the economy situation can be more easily evaluated counting them. A player controlling two spikes more has a significant long-term advantage – information like this is easy to digest. That's likely the same reason why Tiberium field sizes have been standardized. In previous games fields came in various shapes and sizes. In C&C3 they are of fixed sizes – making it easier to evaluate the game state.

Tiberium spikes provide additional income when captured

base building

Compared to games like Age of Empires or StarCraft the base building is simpler and isn't such APM sink. However, it's still very satisfying, enables player expression and has a decently high skill ceiling. All but the important choices were removed.

Things that increase skill ceiling:

  • Blocking pathing or line-of-fire with structures
  • Selling structures
  • Manually unpowering and repowering structures to conserve power
  • Manual repair
  • Moving MCV to expand
  • Aggressively pushing with structures in contested areas

★ ★ ★

The whole tech tree can be reached relatively quickly which makes switching compositions easier. This is further supported by the option to sell structures.

Structures require power to function at full capacity. Without it static defenses are disabled and production slowed. Power mechanic has few roles:

  • Power plants are often a target of harassment to cause power outage or force building new ones
  • Off-loading some cost to power plants makes replacing static defense cheaper, and make big tech switches easier (you already have power).
  • Power management adds depth to build orders and provides some micro potential when manually unpowering buildings

New structures can be built around Construction Yard or other structures that provide build radius. This is a simple solution and plays a role when expanding or aggressively pushing with MCV.

Tech trees in Tiberium Wars

Production

Both unit and structure production is quite fast, that supports fast-paced gameplay and enables to switch compositions quickly. The omnipresent sidebar makes managing production easy from anywhere. It can be fully controlled with hotkeys, reduces the need to set up control groups for production and APM spent on it. The player has to go back to the base only to build new buildings, sell old ones, purchase upgrades or set rally points.

Production sidebar with minimap

Upgrades

There are no incremental upgrades (+1/+2/+3) and that suits the game. The game is less about economy management, and more about fast-pace gameplay and choosing the right composition against the enemy. Incremental upgrades would only get in the way to this. Most of the available upgrades have significant impact on the gameplay, and many come with visual changes to affected units (bigger guns, glowing models, shields, lasers or railguns).

Railguns in action

Maps

The map pool is diverse and showcasing various environments. The main defining parameters of the map are terrain, Tiberium fields and Tiberium spikes. The game is nowhere as asymmetric as StarCraft II, and how much maps are open isn't as restricted. Some maps are essentially flat, but they can have other points of interest:

  • Defensive Tower – provides defense (after being captured by Engineers)
  • EMP control center – unlocks EMP support power (after being captured by Engineers)
  • Garrison-able structures – infantry can fire from them
  • Subway entrance – lets infantry move quickly around the map
  • Mutant hovel – enables players to recruit Mutant Marauders (after being captured by Engineers)
  • Expansion Point – provides build radius (after being captured by Engineers)
EMP control center provides a support power after being captured
Defensive Towers (usually not quite this conveniently positioned)

Combat

The skill ceiling isn't as high and visually flashy as in StarCraft games, but there are still plenty of opportunities for micro-management, and deciding when to push or retreat.

There are more hard-counters than in StarCraft games, for example infantry machine guns will only tickle tanks, and tank shells aren't very good against infantry. This leads to mixing composition or often switching them in competitive matches. In single-player it makes choosing the right units for the job even more rewarding.

Turtling is discouraged by hard counters, strong support powers and economy limited by Tiberium fields.

There are no traditional spellcasters, however, many units have one ability. Abilities are limited by cooldowns, and some consume credits or other allied units. Overall, this is nicely simplified and works quite well. I imagine the limit of one ability per unit was done in order to make it work well on consoles, but the game is no worse for it. A lot of micro is about movement and focus-firing. Vehicles take more damage from sides and rear.

T3 units like Juggernauts, Tripods or Avatars leave a wreck when destroyed. The wreck can be captured by Engineers to restore the unit albeit damaged, or it can be target-fired and destroyed. This adds more depth to lategame fights. It doesn't have a strictly snowball or anti-snowball effect as it depends on the situation.

Veterancy

Combat units can gain veterancy through kills and damage. Promoted units have increased damage, speed, armor and rate of fire. Heroic units self-heal, have increased weapon damage and range, and their attack visually changes. It's hard to get to the heroic rank due to very lethal combat and frequent composition switching. However, if you reach heroic rank with a unit, the unit becomes much more useful and easier to keep alive.

I believe that while veterancy doesn't play a significant role here, it spices ups the gameplay and encourages unit retention without causing snowballing.

Support powers

C&C3 is an interesting example of an RTS game where relatively strong support powers work well in a competitive setting – something that's not easy to do right.

Support powers are unlocked by building prerequisite structures. They are limited by cooldowns and cost credits to use. In combat players often expect support powers, try to bait them and counteract them with their own support powers. Strong support powers discourage deathballs as some can be quite effective against clumped enemies.

There are many types of support powers in C&C3. Few examples: spawn permanent units, deal damage or slow all units in selected area, structure fortification, scan area, spawn Tiberium, cloak units in area or create illusions, jam enemy radar, drop mines, temporal invulnerability, teleport, and more.

★ ★ ★

Super-weapons are a special type of support powers. They require a specific expensive building to charge. They have a long coolup and cooldown and deal massive area damage. There is a small ramp-up to build up tension and provide a small opportunity to save a few units.

The existence of super-weapons is visible to all players which provides an option for counterplay by pushing or destroying the controlling structure.

Ion Cannon firing
In the top left icon and timer are visible to all players

Closing

C&C3 is very unlike popular RTS like StarCraft of Age of Empires. It leaves out all the finicky parts in economy, upgrades and base building and leaves only the important parts. The game manages to reduce mechanical requirements to reasonable levels while having a high skill ceiling. It works quite well even on consoles.

There are plenty of interesting mechanics and unit designs, and the visuals are pretty even today. The game itself did well, but it could have done even better if it received support it needed – especially balance patches.

Another issue was the split playerbase of C&C games – between Red Alert 2, Generals and C&C3. Plus releasing Red Alert 3 the same year as C&C3's expansion Kane's Wrath undermined the game's longevity:

  • 2007 - Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars
  • 2008 - Command & Conquer 3: Kane's Wrath
  • 2008 - Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
  • 2009 - Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 – Uprising


Thank you for reading. And as the last thing, here are few recommended channels with C&C3 content:

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