Review: Command & Conquer: Rivals04 Dec 2018 3
Review: Command & Conquer: Rivals
Released 04 Dec 2018
A lot has happened since the debut of the Command and Conquer: Rivals teaser a couple of months ago. EA released a blog for the game. There have been tons of videos, both on the merits of the game itself and showing gameplay to the prospective players. Remasters for the original Command and Conquer and Red Alert have been announced. There’s been a lot of movement in Command and Conquer circles over the past couple months.
And now, it’s out in the wild. The whole world can, for better or worse, go out to Google Play or the Apple Store and try out Rivals if they want. To decide if it’s a pay-to-win cash grab (we wrote a bit about the game’s pay model back in November), or if, maybe, something interesting has been created here. Let’s dive in and take a look.
First off, what is Command and Conquer: Rivals? There’s been a lot of hot air blown about the internet on the topic of this game, but it still feels right to cover the basics before digging into the details.
Command and Conquer: Rivals is a Real Time Strategy game designed from the ground up to be played on mobile devices: phones, and laptops. It seeks to stand out from the innumerable Clash Royale clones that exist in a couple of key ways. Unlike virtually every game of this genre, Rivals lets players directly control all of their units in real time – most games like this strip gameplay down to just placing units onto a game map and watching their interactions play out. Rivals brings real RTS sensibilities of controlling your own army along to bear.
Another way that Rivals seeks to differentiate itself from other mobile strategy games is actual strategically different map selection. Instead of just re-skinning a single pre-existing arena design, Rivals is again taking a nod from traditional RTS gaming in having a variety of different maps with slightly different Point of Interest configurations that change how the map is approached tactically and strategically.
Players load into one of these game maps, and train units and harvest resources as they attempt to hold more capture points than their enemy in order to be the first to destroy their opponent’s base. You can do this indirectly, by holding the capture points and using them to direct the missile on the map to shoot at the base, or directly, by attacking their base with units.
That should be enough to get started with. Let’s get down to details.
As hilarious as it might be to leave this section blank, it wouldn’t be true. If you can leave out the “Command and Conquer” part, and just evaluate it based on the gameplay, you find a surprisingly fun strategy game that’s well-suited to mobile formats.
The game’s actual in-match, minute-to-minute gameplay is surprisingly engaging. There’s kind of a modified rock-paper-scissors going on, where the 2 players in the match are jockeying their units around trying to put the units, they’ve trained next to targets they’re good at hurting, while avoiding enemy units that are designed to kill them. As a for-instance: early in a match, you might have fielded a squad of Nod Militants, and a Laser Trooper squad. You’d want to put those Militants next to an enemy GDI Rocket squad, as Militants are an anti-infantry unit, and the Rocket squad is designed to fight vehicles and aircraft.
Likewise, you want to get your tanks firing on enemy vehicles, and your anti-vehicle Orcas to attack tanks, while keeping them away from anti-vehicle and anti-air unit attacks, respectively.
It’s a simple formula that’s made far more interesting with the advent of unit abilities and unique attributes. Hard-hitting GDI units often have ‘ammunition’ – they fire a volley of shells, then can’t attack until the shells reload. Some Nod units have a laser that ramps up damage after they remain focused on one target for a while: their Giga cannon unit’s laser actually splits to multiple targets if allowed to attack one enemy for long enough.
Some units can attack 2 tiles away, like the GDI sniper. Some can attack multiple tiles in a line, or an area. Some leave persistent pools of fire or chemical gas that persist on the battlefield, damaging any units that move across them.
There are units that have to set up to fire. Units that move more quickly after attacking, to be able to get away from enemies. With a simple, easy to grok damage/counter system and movement rules, they’ve still managed to put in a lot of variety and, yeah, combat depth.
It might not be “real” Command and Conquer, but Redwood studios did a good job of paring the RTS down to an experience that’s incredibly rewarding and interesting on mobile. Kudos to them on that.
This is, well. This is the stuff that’s a little harder to accept on the palette, as it were. The stuff outside of the match is what might give more players pause than the actual moment-by-moment gameplay.
Like most free to play games these days, units are acquired in random ‘packs’ like cards. Additionally, you acquire multiple ‘cards’ and spend them (along with in-game currency, which of course can be purchased in the game’s store via another currency that’s mostly generated via real money transactions).
So, units can ‘level up’ when you have enough cards. Each unit has 3 ‘sub levels’ that are accessed purely by in-game cash, which means that if you’re waiting to level up one troop type you like using while waiting for more cards, you can improve its performance incrementally.
I don’t think any game has been objectively improved with the addition of the grind of unit unlocks and card collecting or any of that. This isn’t an ideal pay model. It can get annoying. It can be frustrating and feel unfair and grindy and like it’s asking you to pay into the game in exchange for filthy, pay-to-win rewards. But, I’m a realist about this stuff. You need to monetize your game to be successful, and similar models are widely used all over the mobile space.
The real question, as I see it, is: How and how much does it impact the actual game experience? The answer, of course, is ‘it’s complicated’.
It’s possible to win with lower level units, due to the counter system. An air unit that deals damage to tanks is always going to beat a tank (that can’t shoot back). However, a higher level GDI Jump Trooper squad is going to do higher proportional damage to an enemy harvester, whose level and HP is determined by the level commander the player’s chosen. So, there’s a definite, if often marginal and difficult to notice, benefit to having higher level units. But the counter system is just enough to tip things in favor of a ‘mostly fair’ verdict.
As new units come out, bundles are released that let players ‘catch up’ with the unit. And the pricing of these, as well as the pay-only random crates, is excessive. $20 for a new unit is a lot, and one had sold briefly for $50 USD. That sometimes hurts to see in the game store.
It’s always pricing that hurts these games. But it’s entirely possible to spend little if anything on the game and enjoy it, up to a point.
Also, regarding balance: there’s always a counter, but some of these heavy hitters can feel overwhelming the first time you see them. The Brotherhood of Nod’s Inferno bomber is *murder* on ground units, for instance, and the GDI’s Sandstorm is a damage machine against air and enemy vehicles. They’re able to be countered, but some ‘death combos’ may exist if allowed to come out on the field.
The game has some decent player reward systems. The Bounty system gives you bonus (in game) cash for playing a certain number of matches a day, or for training certain unit types, killing harvesters, and the suchlike. Do 5 of these Bounties, and you get a loot crate. It’s a Skinner box, but for all that it can serve as an adequate incentive.
There’s a decent clan system with the requisite card sharing with clan members. There’s a truly excellent public replays system (though I keep hoping for improvements to the replay UI, I’ll be honest). Competitive, esports style content is apparently on the way. It’s got a good supporting feature set, everything you’d kind of expect from a game of this type.
I like the core gameplay with its depth in simplicity. I love the control you have over your units, and the way that EA has managed to preserve the idea of resource gathering and base building. Many of the units are fun. But Fairplay might be the big clincher for me.
At its core, Fairplay is a band-aid. The card collecting, unit leveling system introduces inherent imbalances: pour enough cash into the system, and you’re going to eventually end up with better stuff than other players. And you’ll eventually go up against players that haven’t done that, and whose stuff is way lower level than you.
Also, the way of the world is, matchmaking systems can make mistakes. They can have a bad match-up where the only person available to play against you is in a higher MMR bracket than you are. Like, by a lot.
The Fairplay system attempts to address this, and it’s a gesture that I really appreciate (being a realist about the need to monetize this game, and the observation that loot box driven card leveling has worked for a number of games). How does it work? I’m glad you asked.
if you’re put up against a player with units that are significantly higher level than yours, or who have a large MMR gap against, you won’t be able to lose MMR. You’re exempt from that penalty. But, if you win, you gain bonus MMR for the challenge.
It’s not a perfect system. It’s a band aid on top of the game’s monetization system. But it’s also a heck of a lot more than many other mobile games with similar pay models do to make the game less frustrating for free players with less time.
How you feel about C&C Rivals will probably, ultimately, come down to how you feel about mobile gaming in general. If the idea of free-play models with loot boxes or card levels is a turn off, this is one of many games you’ll want to avoid, even though EA is actually taking steps to mitigate the impact of the system on the gameplay.
How you feel about C&C Rivals will probably also come down to how you feel about RTS games. If you’re looking for a deep campaign with FMV cutscenes and Joe Kucan in a black robe, with an extensive tech tree and huge maps covered with Tiberium, this is also probably not a game that’s going to fit your needs.
But if you’re looking for a satisfying RTS you can play on the toilet at work or getting your kids to sleep (I do this almost every night) and still feel like you’re executing some goddamn tactics and actual strategy, Rivals is definitely worth a look.
But I've made my case. All I can do now is ask that you give it a try. It might just surprise you.