Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun
It was supposedly going to be one of the biggest PC games of last Christmas, but once again it failed to materialise. "We just wanted to get everything right," explains Erik Yeo, the game's lead designer, almost apologetically. "We've been working on the game for almost two years now, and it's important that we get the balance just right. We'll be playtesting each level and tweaking things right up until they wrench it from our hands for duplication. In many ways it's the most difficult thing to get right with a game like C&C. You change just one variable and it could throw things out of balance considerably."
For those of you who have been in prison, or pot-holing in deepest, darkest Wales for the past two years, Tiberian Sun is the third instalment in the phenomenally successful Command & Conquer series of real-time strategy games. It's also the game with which the term 'keenly awaited' has now almost become synonymous. But it's here (almost), and things are looking good for C&C fans.
If It Ain't Broke...
So what's new? Well, from the outset it appears that Las Vegas-based developers Westwood adhere to the adage about not fixing things that aren't broken. In which case, presumably a few of them still watch movies on Betamax videos, drive to work in '66 Mustangs and wear the kind of clothes that would automatically qualify them as extras in the next Austin Powers movie. That aside, Tiberian Sun doesn't look a million miles away from Red Alert, or even the original Command & Conquer game that first saw the light of day almost four years ago. That is, it doesn't look that different at first glance. However, closer observation indicates that while every other developer has been busy working on their own C&C clone, and more recently getting lost within the intricacies of 3D and frame rates, Westwood have been beavering away refining and improving their own original concept and design. And they've done so to great effect. For starters, the easily manipulated isometric control interface of Tiberian Sun will be instantly familiar to fans of the previous games in the series. As will the storyline, which takes up the threads of the plot where Red Alert left off, albeit some 20 years later. But that's not to assume that Westwood have taken the step of presuming that every PC gamer on the globe has played and enjoyed C&C. Fair enough, most of them have, but for the novices a tutorial is included that takes you through the basics.
New Units For Old
Of course, there are plenty of new units and buildings to get to grips with, which will no doubt provide an even greater challenge for the armchair strategist who is now infinitely familiar with the personnel and weaponry available in the previous games. Most important of all. however, is that they're now in 3D.
Yeo explains how one of his particular favourites is the new Hunter-Seeker Droid, a 'clean-up' unit that automatically attaches itself to a random enemy unit, thereby enabling you to gather valuable intelligence regarding your opponent's strength and position before self-destructing. Then there's the new super-sexy Jump-Jet Infantry, Orca bombers, the mighty Mammoth Tank, which makes a welcome return, now bigger and stronger than ever, as well as supersneaky new burrowing and tunnelling weapons that have been designed to lay even the most heavily fortified base open to attack.
New buildings abound too. One of the more cleverly conceived, and of which Yeo is especially proud, is the Stealth Generator (also known as the David Copperfield Device), which turns every allied unit and structure within its considerable range invisible. However, as with almost every hi-tech unit in the game, this seemingly indomitable edifice does have a weakness, and can be rendered quite useless if an opponent manages to get close enough to use a Deployable Sensor Array, or if you happen to fall prey to an Ion storm, in which case all your units become completely visible again and therefore ripe for a damn good kicking. Even in the hi-tech, futuristic world of Tiberian Sun, it seems there's still a place for the humble foot soldier.
Evolution Not Revolution
For those fans hoping to put their shiny new Pentium and Voodoo2 cards to the test, Tiberian Sun will be something of a disappointment. Yeo is keen to point out that while the game does indeed boast new visual and technical elements that set it above k its predecessors, it runs quite I happily on a P133 with 32Mb of I RAM. And thanks to new, speedy ' Voxel technology, you don't need a 3D accelerator card to run it. In fact, if you've got one it won't even help matters at all; although those in possession of a machine that supports the mystery that is MMX might witness a slight spurt in performance.
That's not to say that Tiberian Sun doesn't look just a bit special. Westwood have come up with a new terrain type that actually changes during the course of play. Explosions, digging and even the weather can and will affect the terrain. Rivers can now freeze over, for example, which opens up no end of tactical nuances to each mission. You can also expect to see new coloured and dynamic lighting effects, and see units rock and tumble thanks to a new physics engine. "Everything now has a designated weight, elasticity and flammability," Yeo reveals. "You might shoot at a unit and it explodes, and a piece will land in a clump of trees which then in turn bursts into flames." Similarly, gun turrets now turn, debris from a blown bridge causes damage, smoke billows, and the 3D units now look more detailed than ever. And this is all running in software, don't forget.
It's not all just eye candy, however. Westwood have obviously thought long and hard about the implications of their new technology, and how best to implement it in terms of gameplay too. For example, Yeo points out there are now two subtly different types of light - soft and hard. 'Hard' light reveals everything, as is the norm, but the new 'soft' light that's used in certain areas is selective in what it picks up. It's an ingenious concept, and one that opens up a whole new world of stealth and guerrilla-based tactics that rely as much on the strength of enemy intelligence and use of terrain as they do firepower and speedy deployment.
One of the fundamental features new to Tiberian Sun that will no doubt get the juices flowing is the capacity for a unit to gain experience and actually improve itself according to the number of successful encounters it is involved in. The introduction of 'Veterancy', Yeo maintains, not only succeeds in creating a new emotional attachment to your units, but also means that, tactically at least, it may now be prudent to look at the bigger picture, and employ some kind of 'tour of duty5 management scheme that doesn't leave you with raw recruits when only seasoned units are up to completing the mission successfully.
Candid and personalised speech is also being used to give characters added personality and strengthen the player-unit bond. "They'll also tell you when they're being attacked, and might suggest what they're going to do about it," adds Yeo. "It's all very Saving Private Ryan." Like its predecessors, Tiberian Sun is essentially linear, in that it's necessary for the sake of plot and development of the C&C universe. However, Yeo is at pains to make it clear that you can play multiple missions in a region in a different order in an attempt to affect the overall outcome of the main objective within a given area. 'There is no best way to complete the game," he insists. "In fact there are many different ways to approach each objective within the game, and in testing it was pretty surprising to see the different ways people were tackling the same task. Obviously, there are set objectives that keep the storyline intact, but there's a lot for players to decide too. It's son of pseudo non-linear."
Double The Intelligence
How the missions are played out is not the only thing that is unpredictable in Tiberian Sun. There are now two separate types of artificial intelligence at work deep within the game. Yeo explains: "We've got one AI that directs the CPU to achieve certain objectives the best way it can in any given scenario, and then there's the other AI that kicks in when you attack the CPU's forces, that directs how it should defend itself and what it should repair first." How the units behave and their AI is undoubtedly most important when playing in single-player mode, and it's something that Yeo admits has been one of the most taxing aspects of the game in which to make any great strides. "We've worked hard to improve this area of the game," he says. "Now the AI prioritises things a lot more, and we've built in a kind of threat assessment. If you start attacking the CPU's base, for instance, it will react accordingly."
It's a similar case when it comes to going on the offensive: "Previously the enemy units had a habit of attacking, lemming-like, in a straight line. It's a lot more varied now, because the AI takes into account new factors, especially the lie of the terrain. It's actually pretty clued up now, and it still surprises us when the CPU comes up with new ways of attacking you."
The online community is obviously important to Westwood, and as a result they have also been busy making sure that Tiberian Sun is an even more enjoyable multiplayer experience than previous C&C games by adding cool new features and making it as simple as possible to indulge in a little mano-y-mano C&C. "It's gotta be easily accessible to ensure that as many people as I possible use it," Yeo explains. "We've incorporated a random map generator so players don't have to play the same scenarios again and again, and you can now form clans and ally sides together. There's also a preview mode that enables you to look at a map before you play it."
As before, up to four human players can compete over the Net, or up to eight over a LAN. You can now also play in a co op mode against the CPU as well as playing against each other, the overall aim being to encourage an even stronger Internet-based community to compete with the likes of Quake and MechWarrior.
Since the original Command & Conquer made its appearance back in 1995, rival developers have been frantically producing C&C clones of their own in an attempt to better Westwood's jewel in the RTS crown. Consequently, Tiberian Sun faces more competition than ever before as rival developers experiment with sophisticated 3D engines, cameras and ingenious new twists on the RTS genre. The pressure on the development team to produce the goods and live up to the massive expectations of the global gaming community is obviously immense.
Yeo, at least, remains unfazed, convinced that Tiberian Sun will be a worldwide success: "I think people will like it. We made a conscious decision to not become embroiled in a features war, and I think it's paid off. A lot of that stuff only serves to complicate matters - you seem to t lose sight of what wargames arc actually about. We've concentrated on making what we think is a great real-time strategy game, and we hope people are gonna like it. We do."
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Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode
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