C&C Rivals is A Great Mobile RTS with a Monkey on its Back

By Brandon Casteel 13 Nov 2018 6

Players first thought EA had killed the Command & Conquer franchise in 2010, when they discovered Command & Conquer 4 had made radical departures from the series’ standards and that the campaign was something of a dumpster fire. Players then thought EA had killed C&C in 2012, when Tiberium Alliances took the franchise into the world of the then-popular browser-based grind of 'MMORTS'.

They for sure thought EA had killed C&C in 2013 when the company announced, then canned, Command & Conquer Generals 2.

But then, in the year of our Lord 2018, we saw Uncanny Valley Kane in the ad for a new… mobile C&C title called ‘Rivals’, and we knew it had finally jumped the shark. This was the end, we were in the darkest timeline.

Only Command & Conquer Rivals is a surprisingly good game. It’s been in beta since August, and, well, it’s impressed many. The gameplay is deep and responsive, the unit designs are fun; the dev studio has managed to create an accessible and enjoyable strategy game that just so happens to be Command & Conquer flavored.

It’s due to release on December 4th as a Free-to-Play game although mobile developers (especially attached to big publishers) struggle to find pay models that make everyone happy. So far, EA have done admirable work at minimizing the impact of freemium mechanics on the game, but that’s unlikely to convince anyone who fundamentally dislikes loot box economics.

Core Gameplay Experience

Before we look at how EA is hoping to get people to pay for things, let’s look at what it is people are paying for. What is Command & Conquer Rivals and how does it work? When evaluating this title, let’s first leave out the “Command & Conquer” part, and just evaluate it on the game’s own merits.

When you look at the game this way, you find Rivals actually a really solid mobile strategy game. Far from being the 0-dimensional money grab that people often fear (or assume) that mobile games often are, Rivals has a well-considered and solid gameplay structure. It starts with the player choosing one of the game’s factions (either GDI or Nod) and building a ‘deck’ of units to bring into battle.

02 coreexperience

Battle itself starts with the player and their opponent loading into the battlefield. Unlike the vast majority of PC RTS, C&C: Rivals shows you the whole map at once; no panning or zooming is allowed or even necessary. While this might seem off-putting to the PC RTS enthusiast, it works really well on mobile. The reality of panning around while trying to direct your army by tapping on the game space is less than ideal, and plenty other games have fallen fowl of this.

You’ll quickly find that the watchword for Rivals’ design is ‘focus’. Base-building sort-of exists in the game, but it serves more as a mechanism for gating access to certain unit types behind the cost of the structure that unlocks the unit. So, pay 40 Tiberium for the War Factory, and you can instantly access any units any units in your deck that require that structure. The systems are pared down to the most straightforward implementation, with substantial care taken to preserve depth.

Ultimately players are fighting for control over 2 or 3 control points on the map. Own more of them than your opponent and you’ll start working on building up the missile launch timer. Whoever owns the missile when it finally launches, gets a hit on their opponent’s base structure. Two such hits, the base is down and you win.

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So far, I’ve been truly impressed with the unit design and the nuance and control you can get out of the game. Unlike popular mobile RTS-likes Clash Royale and clones, you have full control of your units, which is a wonderful breath of fresh air in the mobile competitive strategy space.

About That Monkey…

Yeah, now it’s time to talk about the ugly bugbear of mobile games: The freemium economy. Clash Royale fans will have a good idea of how this all breaks down. If not, allow me to illuminate you.

You earn loot boxes by playing the game. Some of them come from winning, and some come on a Pavlovian schedule: every 12 hours, you have a new crate of goodies to open. Inside of crates are a couple of things: cash to upgrade your units, Diamonds (sometimes) to do so more cost efficiently.

Diamonds, of course, are mostly acquired via real currency. That is, your hard-earned money.

04 monkey

You can spend Diamonds to acquire better loot boxes that contain better stuff: more cards, more rare card types, and all of that jazz. Cards themselves, of course, are used in conjunction with cash to upgrade units. There are some differences from the standard system, as there is in every mobile game that’s trying to feel original, but they don’t have a lot of oomph to them.

Cards are the lifeblood of the economy of games like this. You need them to unlock new unit types, which in Rivals are also locked behind your player level. You don’t get access to more complex unit types until you’ve stuck around for a while to prove yourself. That’s not to say that you’re screwed unless you’ve put tons of hours into the game: the most-used units, even in the higher leagues, are quite often the starter units you acquire early. These units, like Nod attack bikes or Flame Troopers, GDI Talon and Titan, the Nod Rockworm… a lot of the starter units are really consistent and well performing.

But, there’s always an exception that proves the rule. There are some really high-impact units that can feel downright unfair to not have. One of the best examples of this is Nod’s Inferno bomber, and the GDI Disruptor vehicle. While not in every deck, these are such high impact units that it can REALLY feel nasty to fight against them without having used them yourself.

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It’s probably intentional, right? You put enough time into the game to see these units, but not enough to earn them. You lose to one and think it’s so unfair that you don’t have it yet. Maybe, you’re tempted to plop some cash down to acquire some of those units, or to level up a unit that is under performing. This stuff probably happens a bit.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Full disclosure here, I’ve personally spent $30 on the game myself. Not all at once mind: I was in the beta for quite some time before they introduced the store at all, but my purchases can be broken down as follows:

  • I bought a $10 pack when the store launched, mostly just out of gratitude and appreciation for the gameplay experience.
  • I later bought another $10 bundle when the Shockwave Trooper infantry was released, and I really wanted to level mine up after unlocking them. They’re one of my favorite units in the game and having a GDI answer to the Nod flame trooper was a good feeling to me. $10 worth of feelings, apparently.
  • The other $10 I spent on the game was on Diamonds, the game’s premium currency.

Another one of my favorite units is the Nod Tick Tank, which burrows into the ground when it stops moving and takes 50% less damage when burrowed. It had a $40 or $50 USD bundle when it launched, and I flatly refused to purchase the unit cards for that price. Likewise, the $20 bundle for the Nod Chemical Buggy unit when it released. I can’t bring myself to spend more than $10 at a time on a mobile game, and so far, I’ve spent about the equivalent of a full-priced PC game.

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Regarding the Diamonds – I’ve earned a decent amount of them for free, which was then boosted by the $10 exchange I purchased. I spent them on, mostly, the game’s free coin currency, which you spend to level up units. One of the more vaguely frustrating (though well meaning) design choices is the fact that you level up units 3 times with coins for every one time you spend cards to level them. This makes sense to me, as far as it goes: you can still make your units more powerful without having to have acquired the 350 cards or whatever it’d take to level them all the way up to the next big power bracket. 350 cards is the bracket to take a Common type unit to level 9, if you’re wondering.

Skinner’s Box

I will admit I’m probably close to being an ideal customer for this kind of game. I have the liquid funds to spend, so $5 or $10 isn’t that big of a deal if the urge strikes me. Saying that, I don’t obsess over unit level or unlocking absolutely everything. I happily ignored the Nod Stealth Tank, for instance, until I unlocked it naturally, and I’m not sure I’ve ever used it in combat. Ditto the GDI Sniper (though this does seem like a fun unit to play with) or GDI Mammoth Tank. There’s actually a decent percentage of units I don’t bother leveling up or messing with, because they don’t really support how I want to play.

I can be induced into spending $5 here or there on coins to lessen the frustration of earning coins by playing. And that adds up over time. $30 looks like a lot when you see it all at once and is a bit disconcerting when it’s staring me in the face like that. You can spend $20 on AirMech on PC, for instance, and get the core experience. In Rivals, you can just happily shell out $5 or $10 a month as long as you play the game, if you’re not careful.

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And what, after all, did that $30 get me? Perhaps a slight bump to the power level of some of my units? It’s perhaps had a cumulative effect on my ability to win games; being able to get that Shockwave Trooper, which is a really solid choice for combating both early and late game infantry, might’ve won me a match or two. But I haven’t touched the new Drone unit that’s been popular in the game lately: I don’t really care about keeping up with the meta that way. I win about 55-65% of my games, and have won matches against players with higher, and lower, level units than myself. The game has a very strong counter system, so if you’re pointing your units at the right targets and keeping your enemy on the back foot, it can be really hard to pin any particular victory or loss to what the player might’ve spent.

There are outliers of course: I’ve faced people who have probably paid a lot more into the game than I have: maxed out units while I’m running around with some under levelled cards. Some have turned my way, some haven’t.

Something that is both interesting and frustrating about the loot box pay mode is, since it’s random and many of the individual loot items mean so little, it’s really tricky to pinpoint what progress or success can be specifically tied to money spent. There is a measurable impact of course, but it’s obfuscated through randomness and mitigated by the aforementioned counter system.

That being said, I do greatly enjoy the game. I don’t mind tipping a nod to the developers every now and again, if their prices suit my spending requirements.

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But even though C&C Rivals is a surprisingly good game, it doesn’t really excuse the pay model. The loot box system popularized by Clash Royale is still one of the friendlier ones out there, but it can definitely put a bad taste in the mouth of even someone who doesn’t have a conceptual problem with free to play systems.

Like everything else with the game, the pay model has been trending in the right direction. The developers are learning and seem to really care about keeping their players happy. Hopefully they’ll continue to move in that direction and launch and beyond will see them able to iterate their way to a point where non-paying players are happy.

We’ll be back with our official thoughts when Command & Conquer Rivals launches worldwide (for iOS and Android) on December 4th.

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