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MMObility: Command and Conquer's new twist on the MMORTS


I've had my fill of MMORTS games. I love them, and I mean love them, but after being asked to look at the 567,386th title from the genre, I am getting a wicked case of tunnel vision. Sometimes I wish I could hit a switch and see these games with the eyes of a brand-new player, to truly judge their quality without any preconceptions. That's not possible, unfortunately.

Luckily, once in a while there comes along a title that feels fresh or does enough with design to seem new and clever. Command and Conquer Tiberium Alliances stands out from the crowd with its interesting combat and a casual approach to hardcore gaming. I have to admit that, at first, I was a bit bummed at having to take a look at yet another epic strategy game that would probably not feel that epic, but my mind was changed after a solid week of playing.

Command and Conquer screenshot
I'm not going to hide the fact that there are many standard designs within Command and Conquer. I am not familiar with the standalone games, so a large chunk of the lore and setting is new to me, but even then it feels sort of standard. So much of game design, especially science fiction, is so overdone. How many tanks and space marine types do we need? How many flying craft that look the same? I'm so tired of sci-fi that feels slick rather than gritty. I'd rather have a dirty Blade Runner experience than a glossy Avatar field trip. Command and Conquer's art design is definitely not the surprising part of this title. You'll also find standard mechanics like stacking up a series of specialized buildings that are needed for other specialized buildings, hexagonal shield grids, typical color palettes, standard music... it's well-done, sure, but not exceedingly original.

What does feel fresh and original is the way the game allows players to play at their own pace. I sat down with the developers for a roundtable discussion about mechanics and gameplay but found myself mostly intrigued by the fact that the game allows for true casually hardcore players. Casuallyhardcore players think about the game, spend every break at work checking in with their alliances, and grab some time in the game when they can... which is not much. It must be very challenging to design a game that can be enjoyed in as little as a few minutes a day but that can also be played in marathon sessions of planning and conquering. How is it acheived in Command and Conquer? There are a few ways.

"Gone are the five-day wait times for completion. I can log into the game and upgrade a series of buildings -- as many as I want -- as long as I have the materials to do so."

The most immediate design element that helps achieve casual-hardcore gameplay is the fact that buildings are finished as soon as a button is clicked. Gone are the five-day wait times for completion. I can log into the game and upgrade a series of buildings -- as many as I want -- as long as I have the materials to do so. It felt liberating to be able to complete a building instantly without having to spend any real-life money. It made me feel like I was playing something more akin to a tabletop miniature game, laying out my armies and getting on with the business of battle.

Farming, the practice of attacking someone else over and over in order to gain goods and resources, is not really something you can do successfully in Command and Conquer. At least, not according to the developers. You can attack someone, and you will gain some goods, but generally fighting other players is reserved for taking over their territory. Territorial control is important in this game, so the developers have added a neat trick to allow casual players to avoid too much trouble. If a player is feeling the heat a bit too much, she can simply relocate her base. I was attacked recently, so I picked my base up and moved it to newer area. The heat was eliminated for the time being. This might sound like a bad idea, allowing players to run away and leave more aggressive players with nothing to do, but in the center of the map are certain server-wide goals that lure in the more hardcore players. As the tougher groups move inward, more casual players can stay on the outskirts of the whirlpool. If you've played EVE Online and ever spent any time between low-sec and hi-sec space, then you might be familiar with the design concept.

Command and Conquer screenshot
The server-wide goals will have "winners," but equal chance is given to all players. Sure, some particularly hardcore alliance might get to the goal first, but there can be a second, a third, and so on. Everyone could eventually obtain the goal with hard work, and servers will never start over or be wiped. So for those players who enjoy time-limited servers as in games like Travian, the server-wide goals and blackhole concept will provide plenty to do for as long as they want. Other more casual players can sit back and enjoy the game in between doctor's visits and trips to daycare. I enjoyed logging in, collecting my goods, attacking a few NPC bases and building up my town. I felt as though I achieved a lot even with the limited time I played, but I could tell that there was massive, bloody warfare going on not so far away.

The most refreshing twist in the game is how combat is literally played out. Players line up waves of units and send them to attack NPC or player cities. As the waves move up, they are met with the opposing defenses. Before combat goes on, a player can look at the defending city and place his units to meet walls, machine gun nests, or other defenses more efficiently. It's sort of like a game of tower defense, but in reverse. If I am a defending player, I need to set up my defenses to thwart any attack if possible. It's a simple yet very effective combat design that is fun to think on and fun to watch in instant replay mode.

I'm skimming over much of what the game has to offer, but the main thing I pulled away from my chat with the developers and the last week of gameplay was how the game successfully walks the line between hardcore strategy and casual clicking. It really does achieve this. (I'm as surprised as anyone.) Sure, in other MMORTS titles, I can play casually, but I do so by laying low -- very low -- and just hoping to survive. In Command and Conquer, I can survive by moving around and staying out of trouble, but if I felt like stepping up my game, I could join a more intense alliance and get to the real meat of the mechanics.

There is an issue with performance, however, especially in Google Chrome. A few patches after I chatted with the developers about the issue, it was mostly cleared up, but the game is made in HTML5, and the newness of the code seems to causing some difficulties. Still, performance is possibly one of the easiest issues to resolve, and I see it becoming smoother and smoother by the time the game is out of beta.

I enjoy Command and Conquer a lot mainly because it is allowing me to play how I want without ripping off those who want to play in a much more organized and hardcore way. The designers have struck a wonderful balance, so here's looking forward to a future of expansions, tweaks, and massive battles.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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