GAMES: Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight – CommandCom 2009 Trip Report

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commandcom2009_report

August 21st – August 23rd 2009

DAY 0 – Trip to CommandCOM

On Thursday, I went from Amsterdam to Cologne (Germany) by the ICE International Train. At the Cologne Hauptbahnhoff, I was welcomed by Mark, a former Generals world champion. I dropped my luggage off at the hostel, and headed for GamesCOM together with Stephen (Eurogamer contest winner), Ram and Dave (from Team Dignitas). We took some pictures of the C&C4 booth on the convention floor, and I snapped some more pictures of other stands. There were also booth babes in some places who were quite happy to have their picture taken. At night we went to a beer tent in a park. However, just when I’d gotten my food, the weather changed from a warm, sunny 35 degrees Celsius to strong winds and ominous sky. Getting tree leaves and sand blown into your food was not very pleasant, so we quickly moved to a Cuban bar. During this day and the whole of CommandCOM, I met many great C&C community leaders. You will find many of their pictures with nicknames in the CommandCOM gallery.

CommandCom Group Photo

CommandCom Group Photo

Day 1 – The History of Command & Conquer

During the first real day of CommandCOM, we all gathered in the special EA Community Lounge. This lounge was very relaxing and had restricted access, so it was not anywhere near as busy as the convention floor. After opening words by Aaron “Apoc” Kaufman, Louis Castle talked about the history of Command & Conquer. Such a presentation has to start with Dune 2, one of the first RTS games. This game had to be renamed to Dune 2 a few months prior to release, because Virgin, the publisher at the time, had another studio working on a completely different Dune game as well. That game shipped two months before Dune 2, so all the artwork and logos for the game quickly had to be updated. He had the inside story on how they had to develop their own video codec for Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn, because no existing codec could do full-screen videos, how Tiberian Sun faced many challenges with the deformable terrain and much more. Filming during this presentation was allowed, and I did just that. You can watch this video right here.

Unveiling the Command & Conquer 4 Subtitle

In the presentation room where we listened to all talks by the developers, there was a very big C&C4 poster hanging in the back. However, there were some pieces of paper glued over the subtitle… without proper warning that this was coming, Apoc suddenly announced that we should rip off the paper and unveil the C&C4 subtitle! I was just in time to snap a brief video of it. It was the name many hardcore fans were rooting for: Tiberian Twilight.

The Tiberian Twilight Story

The C&C4 story begins in 2062, with humanity on the brink of extinction. Due to the liquid Tiberium explosion from C&C3, the spread of Tiberium rapidly expanded. Projections show that Earth would become completely uninhabitable by 2068. Kane, long presumed dead, has spent the preceding years deeply immersed in the Tacitus. He designed a Tiberium Control Network to control the global spread of Tiberium, but needs GDIs resources to build it. The C&C4 trailer released last month shows a movie of how Kane goes to visit the GDI counsel. The campaign starts 15 years later, as the Tiberium Control Network nears completion. Despite agitation from extremists, the alliance between GDI and Nod has held for those 15 years. But, it is an uneasy alliance, as many things remain unclear. What drove Kane to turn his back on Tiberium, on his core beliefs? Why would he help GDI? And what does he want in return?

The GDI campaign name currently is “To Kill Kane” with the main character being a woman. So, the previous title of “The Man Who Killed Kane” was no longer accurate. The focus is on the danger of obsessive fanaticism. The GDI campaign is the most accessible of the two C&C4 campaigns to newcomers.

The Nod campaign “All Things Must End” reveals the truth behind Kane’s plan: who is he, what does he want and why? You should get to know Kane a lot better. It has been written with the goal of providing a satisfying conclusion for the long-time C&C fans. For the first three missions, you will have to play the GDI campaign, after which you can choose sides and both campaigns continue in parallel. This is done so the basis of the story only needs to be explained once.

Story facts

  • C&C4 = The epic conclusion of the Tiberium Saga
  • The universe will not end, but the Kane-Nod-GDI saga will come to a close.
  • Active story development started in the middle of 2008.
  • Cinematics have a darker style.
  • The camera is a mobile point-of-view walking around in the environment. No more static camera viewpoints!
  • Fewer monologues than in C&C3 and Kane’s Wrath.
  • The Global Stratospheric Transport is one of the sets for the cinematics.
  • The seats on the Global Stratospheric Transport are really uncomfortable.
  • Tiberium flora and fauna and the Forgotten are in the game.
  • Never turn your back on Kane (this is a personal observation, not a real fact).

Command & Conquer 4 Campaign Mission

We got to play a single-player mission from the GDI campaign where a Global Stratospheric Transport (a huge GDI transport ship, 10 times bigger than crawlers) went down behind enemy lines and had to be protected. We first had to rescue engineers from the escape pods, and encountered lots of Forgotten Visceroids, Mutated Gorillas and Reinforced School Buses along the way. The engineers could be used to capture the several Mastodon hulks. The Mastodon the epic unit of the GDI offensive class. After the rescue, nodes of the Tiberium Control Network needed to be captured. Finally, the transport needed to be defended for 2-3 minutes from Nod assaults until the transport was repaired. We did not get to take pictures of the C&C4 gameplay, which is understandable given that the game is pre-alpha: the art is nowhere near final yet and in-game menus are mainly place holders. Still, screen shots have been released in other previews, and that is what the game looks like at this point.

For me, the gameplay in this campaign mission felt surprisingly familiar to the missions in other C&C games. Sure, I didn’t have a base to build, but I have something just as good: the crawler, which feels a lot like a mobile war factory. In case you haven’t read this anywhere else yet: C&C4 will not have traditional bases. Instead, you have a crawler which acts like a mobile construction vehicle. For your crawler, you can pick one of three classes: offense, defense or support. Offense can built tanks when the crawler is deployed, defense (not playable at CommandCOM) can build defensive structures and infantry, and support can build aircraft. Special for the support class is that the crawler can fly, so it has no problems with cliffs. Another major change is that you do not lose the mission when your crawler is destroyed. Instead, you get to re-spawn your crawler in specific zones on the map after a 1-minute wait.

In traditional campaign design, missions tend to be heavily scripted. The are very rigid in which goals you have to achieve and how to achieve them. In C&C4, game-wide player progression means that the tech tree available to the player is unknown during a campaign mission. The crawler and the respawn zones ensure that the AI and player locations aren’t fixed. So, the missions need to be designed differently. During the mission we played, the lack of scripting was noticeable: because I did not eliminate all of the Forgotten on the map, when the Nod assault came, the Forgotten were acting as a buffer between me and Nod. Basically, they were fighting amongst themselves. If I hadn’t come in and stopped the fighting by killing both Nod and the Forgotten, they would have kept fighting for much, much longer. So, the Forgotten AI is really independent from the Nod AI and will attack both GDI and Nod. In a scripted mission, the Forgotten would only have attacked me.

Mission Facts

  • Mission objectives are simple and clearly defined, with no “do this, then this” instructions which holds your hand every step of the way.
  • The AI respects fog-of-war and line-of-sight: it needs to locate your crawler like ordinary players.
  • The traditional single-unit, commando-style missions will not be in C&C4.
  • The missions will still see many iterations and improvements before the final game.
  • The single-player mission played during CommandCOM was called “Transport Down”.
  • C&C3 had 38 missions (GDI/Nod/Scrin), C&C4 will have fewer (but only for GDI/Nod).
  • Main filming of the FMVs has finished a few weeks ago. There will be so-called pick-up shots from September onwards to re-shoot material which is not good enough yet or still missing.
  • Intel database (like there was in C&C3) is currently planned to be on the website.

Career Progression

Every game you play in both single-player and multiplayer gives you experience. As you gain levels, new units and abilities become available. Once you reach the highest level, everything is available for purchase. However, you still need to play the game to collect “battle merits” (a sort of currency besides experience?). When you play as GDI, you only get GDI experience. And lets face it: when you play GDI, you do not expect to ever get access to the Nod weapons, right? Even when you fail a mission in the game, you will still gain some experience. The same applies to multiplayer: it is now worthwhile to ‘sit out’ a match you are losing, instead of disconnecting.

Joe Kucan on a Boat

At the end of the first day, we had a mystery guest visiting us. It was none other than Joe Kucan, Kane or “The Messiah” if you’re Nod. He told us how he got the role of Kane: he won it in a poker game. But then, he told the truth about how he got it. Basically, Westwood was looking for someone to do the video compression for Tiberian Dawn, and they hired Joe Kucan. Of course, Joe didn’t know anything about this because he’s an actor and a director. So, when the filming finally started, he had to hire actors, having gotten the director job. And at the end of the day, they were short on cash, he was in the room, he was available, he auditioned well and that is how he got the role of Kane. Check out the movie fragment below for additional details.

Joe Kucan then autographed photos for us. I requested a special inscription “The Messiah never dies”. Unfortunately, Joe plays professional poker in Las Vegas 2 to 3 hours a day, so he didn’t even blink on my inquiries on whether Kane survives Tiberian Twilight. So, instead, I asked him whether he has a brother, and then he basically denied that, instead insisting he was his mother with a mask in every game since Tiberian Sun. That’s the kind of humour you can expect from Joe! At night, we went for a boat trip on the Rhine, and all the developers and Joe Kucan went with us. On the picture below, you can see how Joe Kucan takes over an interview by Maria from a German videoblog. Very funny! Never let go of your microphone if you are a reporter.

Autographed Joe Kucan (Kane) Photo

Autographed Joe Kucan (Kane) Photo

DAY 2 – Game Design

On the second day, we got a presentation by Sam Bass on the C&C storyline and by Jason “Blackthorne” Bender on the game design. No pictures or video was allowed during this session. All the information I got from Sam Bass can be found in the Tiberian Twilight Story section above. The presentation by producer “Big Mike” Glosecki from the first day has also been integrated into the story above. One of the questions I asked him was whether I could use an engineer to capture an enemy crawler. Mike Glosecki liked the idea, but it is not possible, as the user interface is completely linked to a single crawler. So, no capturing enemy crawlers and starting a crawler army (until someone makes a mod for this after the game is out). For mod support, Aaron “Apoc” Kaufman is pushing hard for us, but at this point, it is too early to start working on it. Because the game does not have the final menus yet, there is no point in writing the mod browser at this time, etc. When the game gets closer to release, they can start planning mod support. Below, you will find several bullet points from the presentation by Jason Bender.

Factions: GDI versus Nod

  • Weapon types: machine gun, cannon, rocket, laser, blaster (=a sonic/fire weapon)
  • Armour types: light, medium, heavy, reinforced
  • Tech levels: tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3
  • Only tier 1 is playable at CommandCOM
  • Dozens of upgrades: to the crawler, to the units
  • Where are the Scrin? The developers want to do the Scrin justice when we would put them in (in terms of units). But we can’t talk about it. A mysterious answer… basically the Scrin will not be a playable faction in C&C4. My interpretation: after C&C4, anything can happen.
  • The very early design plans had five classes: Assault, Support, Heavy, Defense and Raider

Classes

  • Offense class: uber micro, aggressive, tank rush
  • Defense class: builder, holds terrain, infantry
  • Support class: take less damage, rapid response, aircraft, team helper

DOMINATION MODE: 5 VERSUS 5 MULTIPLAYER

Domination Mode is the 5 versus 5 multiplayer mode. It allows you to play with your friends, even when they have different skill, as the stronger player can help out others in the team. Before giving my impressions, let’s go over the rules first.

Domination Mode Rules

  • Each team starts with 1000 points
  • The team that holds the most goal structures causes the other team to lose points
  • Goals change hands as you move units to hold them
  • 0 points on one team = Game Over
  • Respawning crawlers: everyone gets to play the entire time
  • Experience: if you stay in the game until the end, you will collect experience
  • Goal structures are typically Tiberium Control Network nodes

In the afternoon, we got to play Command & Conquer 4 multiplayer. After some technical issues with the internet connection (basically the internet was down and we could not connect to the matchmaking service), I got to play my first game. I was in the same team as the well-known C&C player Apollo, and I am glad to say we won that game. Playing 5 versus 5 really is different from the current game. Also, the lack of bases is very noticeable here: you do not have to worry about building power plants or refineries. All you have to worry about is which units you are going to build and which point on the map you’re going to conquer next. The gameplay was still a bit unbalanced in this first game, people found out that you could SPAM Orcas as GDI, and Nod had no real counter to that. Until we found the light-armored rocket aircraft of Nod, that is. Then the game turned around. Control nodes on the map switched hands often, but we kept one node in our possession throughout the rest of the match. In my other games, the rocket aircraft was less effective, as most of the GDI offensive class units have anti-air. Still, against the GDI support class it is very effective.

My impression after playing domination mode is that you can spend all your time focussed on the battle and building units, instead of having to divide your attention between harvesting, base building, defense and combat. When you can only have 10-15 units (population cap, I would like to see this increased to 30), you basically only need to keep track of your crawler and one or two groups of units. I have never spent this much time in combat in a C&C multiplayer game! That is caused by the respawning: losing a battle and therefore all your tanks is no longer fatal in a match. Instead, you can respawn after a one minute time-out and rebuild your forces. Right now, you still keep your forces if your crawler is destroyed, but that might change due to our feedback: we wanted to see more severe consequences when losing your crawler.

In the feedback session after multiplayer, there were some heavy complaints about the lack of base-building. As you have been able to read in the previous section, I personally think the new gameplay could be a fun game. The main response to people missing base-building should be: the defense class was not in the build we played. This class can build tower defenses and super-weapons. So, you will be able to get your base-building fix in a different way, just don’t expect having to build refineries or power plants. And please, keep an open mind on this until you have played the beta coming sometime before the game is released. I am not 100% convinced yet myself, but I do see the need for Command & Conquer gameplay to evolve beyond what we’ve been playing for the past 15 years.

EA SPORTS BAR: LADDER SEASON FINALE AND PARTY

The day ended with a great party at the EA Sports Bar in Cologne. This bar is located inside the EA Headquarters in Cologne, and it is a pretty cool spot. The ladder season finales of Kane’s Wrath and Red Alert 3 were played, both between Technique and Dynamic. Technique won both titles, and I think all games lasted under 5 minutes. Having watched these matches, I feel that what they’re doing has nothing to do with C&C. They are not building a base – they are building a barracks only to build one squad, sell it off, and take the extra squad that you get from that into battle. If you do this a few seconds before the other, then you have a decisive advantage. Also, selling off your MCV is very popular to get an engineer. If they didn’t sell off all their stuff as ‘stupidly’ as that, I feel we might have seen something interesting instead. I think in only one of the Red Alert 3 rounds, a tier-2 unit was built… Now excuse me, I am sure this is an art, but this has nothing to do with base building, harvesting or Command and Conquer. It is all about self-destructing your forces on top of the other guy and hoping you come out on top by micro-management. As you might have noticed, I am not into Command and Conquer as an E-Sport. So, I whole-heartedly agree with Jason Bender on “having a good first time online (don’t get served)” as one of the design goals for C&C4.

During the party, many people (including TheGunRun, Jim Vassella, Raj Joshi and Aaron Kaufman) played Rock Band. Video material of this might make it onto the web sometime in the future. For now, I will end this report with a picture of Jason Bender literally cornered by C&C fans during the party. We definitely had ourselves heard, and hopefully our feedback will help C&C 4 reach its full potential.

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