Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun — Review

In two weeks we will be passing over the 11th year since the release of Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun – Firestorm. Leading the sales charts back in the day, and still maintaining a high ranking among EA’s best sellers, Tiberian Sun was undoubtedly the most anticipated title yet. Because it has been several years since its release, EA has taken the liberty of releasing the early C&C titles for free. Going by that same statement, it would be difficult to consider some of its features groundbreaking in this day and age. Before starting things off we will go through a brief history of Westwood in honor of their pioneering of the RTS genre.

Defining the modern RTS design with the release of Dune II in 1992, Westwood Studios has continually had a huge impact on the genre. They further defined the RTS landscape with the introduction of competitive multiplayer in the 1995 release of C&C Tiberian Dawn. The following year Westwood continued the innovation by introducing balance between both distinct factions present in Red Alert. In the following two years of development of Tiberian Sun, two new players arrived on the scene with their own new ideas for the RTS genre. The first was Total Annihilation with its technical prowess, introduced 3D polygonal units and physics on a massive scale of 1000+ units. The following year Blizzard released StarCraft and its expansion Brood War which to this day still has a massive following. Despite the parting direction these new players took, it did not stop Westwood from bringing innovation to the genre once again.

Following the great success from the previous C&C titles, Tiberian Sun may have been too anticipated from the beginning of its development. The sheer ambition to develop the best title yet had paid off, even after realizing that numerous features that had been cut due to scheduling. Like every good thing, you need to start with a solid foundation to work on. In Westwood’s case, they made their own game engine that used voxel graphics as opposed to typical polygonal based ones. A handful of games in the past have used volumetric pixels, or voxel based graphics, but none had come close to the detailed look found in Tiberian Sun. Being synonymous with innovation, this engine provided many subtle features that have created an impressive overall package. Things like destructible environments, terrain deformation that will affect unit movement, day/night cycles and huge ion storms were very impressive for the time. Considering that many features were cut because of scheduling delays, the feature-set was already impressive. Having now covered the pioneering work Westwood did to the RTS genre and the technology they used in Tiberian Sun, we can now dive into the gameplay mechanics.

There are two ways to look at C&C Tiberian Sun: from a nostalgic point of view and from a modern point of view. In either case, there is this feeling of familiarity that comes with the game, in the sense that so much of it is still present in the RTS market today. Things like unit balancing, a memorable soundtrack and an immersive campaign are all fundamental elements to any successful RTS game in the present. In order to be fair in the critique of this game, we will make note of any flaws while also taking into account the time in which it was made. On that note, let us begin with a look at faction balancing.

Westwood carried from its experience with Red Alert by implementing some very unique asymmetrical balancing between the GDI and Nod factions. That is to say, each faction has a different set of units and buildings, each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. In general, GDI tends to lean towards a direct offensive approach, with strong mech units that are fast and mobile. Nod, on the other hand, favors a more defensive approach, with more powerful defense structures and units designed for surprise attacks (e.g. Devil’s Tongues that burrow underground and emerge in the middle of a base, or Stealth Tanks that are cloaked). For the most part, basic units are matched up evenly, but higher level units are lacking in that respect. The general consensus is that Nod has a noticeable edge due to things like Stealth Generators, which cloak large portions of your base and make assaults very difficult. That is not to say that Nod is unbeatable, in fact, GDI in the hands of a skillful player can easily take down any decent Nod player. While this lack of balance in certain areas is somewhat of a letdown, it is by no means a deal breaker; most games today still cannot achieve a perfect balance ratio between teams. With that aside, we can now have a look at the game’s spectacular campaign.

While the multiplayer component to the game is certainly memorable, the campaign is unforgettable, almost engraved into any serious player’s mind. The campaign can be played on two fronts: GDI or Nod’s. Westwood did an excellent job of tying both stories together, with opposing mission objectives depending on which side you choose. One example of this is a mission where Nod is seeking to destroy a train. In that same mission as GDI, you would be defending it. While you will find that most of these missions rely on scripted events to play out, it’s the variety that is put into each one that makes them great. Instead of the typical base building wars that plague most RTS campaigns, Tiberian Sun combines several objective based scenarios with their new scripting engine to deliver a varied and entertaining campaign. In some instances, you must start with only a small group of units to establish a secure location. Once completed, you will need to secure the location by building a base to defend against incoming assaults of enemy forces. This makes it very desirable for players to go through both campaigns just to see how the story turns out for each side.

When the Firestorm expansion arrived a year after the game’s release, it brought with it another two-sided extension to the campaign. These missions are much tougher in general and will pose a challenge to even the most hardcore of Tiberian Sun fans. The Firestorm expansion is now included in the whole package EA offers for free, so it is encouraged for gamers to play through both.

Despite being one of those stories that sticks in your mind, the campaign is not free of its flaws. A recent playthough revealed that some of the scripted scenes contain bugs that can be very frustrating to players. These bugs don’t make the game unplayable, but definitely hinder the campaign’s smooth progress. One bug that comes to mind occurs in one of the later missions as Nod, where you must take over a GDI base and capture a particular unit. If you are playing on the game’s fastest speed, the unit will be essentially impossible to capture and you must turn down the game speed. Other scripting errors show up and create nuisances that can be terribly frustrating to overcome. If we can look beyond these small issues, the campaign is still solid and provides a very enjoyable experience.

One last thing regarding the campaign is its use of full motion video to provide the story between missions. When I first saw these videos as a kid, they reminded me of a 90’s sci-fi film – which is actually a compliment, if you consider this was at the beginning of the millennium. While the acting and special effects may not be superb, the use of real-life actors and props in a cutscene was something generally unseen at the time. This format continued through all of the succeeding C&C games and remains a trademark of the series.

Our Thoughts

Nick: My father bought me this game after I picked it out of a bargain bin at a Chapters book store when I was ten years old. To be honest, I was only drawn to it because of the awesome-looking cover. This was my first taste of the RTS genre and it is undoubtedly the reason I still play and enjoy RTS games today. I can remember playing multiplayer matches over my hopelessly unreliable dial-up connection and trying to beat the same campaign missions over and over again.

Today, I play it for the simple fact that it brings back those nostalgic feelings (and let’s face it: because it’s free and I lost my original game disks years ago). The multiplayer is still up and running, much to my surprise, yet it appears to be just as unreliable as I can remember it from the past. Nonetheless, it is still very fun to play and serves as a reminder for just how great some old games can be. If you haven’t played Tiberian Sun yet, I highly recommend downloading it and giving it a shot; you won’t regret it.

Mike: Starting games at a very young age, I did play Dune II to some extent but never really understood it. When Tiberian Dawn and Red Alert came around, the sheer impact of what I could do at the time was enough to have them occupy my mind for years to come. While Total Annihilation and StarCraft were quite enjoyable back in the day, they still didn’t compare to what I had seen in Tiberian Sun. Despite never having played any of these games online back in the day, Tiberian Sun was able to attract me and maintain interest for many years. Unfortunately, by the time I had started to play multiplayer games, I was deep into first-person shooters, and thus was never able to experience Tiberian Sun’s multiplayer in its glory days.

Tiberian Sun has obviously stood the test of time as it remains quite entertaining to play. The gameplay remains both a classic and very accessible to this day because after all, let’s not forget that Westwood pioneered the RTS genre. Like the gameplay, the impressive engine design in combination with the art style has also aged quite well giving it that appealing retro look. On the gameplay side, the brilliant use of scripting gives the campaign a nice variet despite the occasional crash. The online multiplayer may be somewhat of a hit-and-miss these days, but as a portable LAN game it remains quite fun. I can easily recommend any RTS fan to give C&C Tiberain Sun a try. After all, it is free!

Extra notes:

– The official release from EA can be found here.

– The resolution options are 640×480 or 800×600. You can edit the SUN.INI file to achieve higher resolutions or [download] this tool that will do it for you.

– If you want to play LAN matches, I highly recommend that you apply the LAN patch that can be found here. Alternatively you can configure IPX, which is less than ideal.

64-Bit users will have to extract the game in Program Files and not Program Files (x86). Alternatively install the XWIS [download] copy  first, and extract the EA copy in the same folder without overwriting its contents.

– We did mention that the game had some bugs. We want to make it clear that none of these prevent the game from being finished in our experience of both campaigns. While the occasional crash was annoying, saving mid mission usually saved us from re-doing them.

– There is no autosaving feature in the game, you must save before exiting the campaign to preserve your progress.