Command & Conquer Rivals review: is it a good strategy game for phones or a disgrace to the C&C series?
Alright, let’s get this elephant out of the room. Command & Conquer — a highly popular real-time strategy series — has been dead for about 8 years now. The final major entry to the franchise was C&C 4, which concluded the saga's main story line rather poorly, and was universally panned by gamers and critics both on its campaign and its multiplayer. That kind of sealed the series' fate.
In June of 2018, EA took the stage at E3 to announce a new C&C game… a mobile game, developed exclusively for phones and tablets. This did not sit well with long-time fans of the franchise and is a controversial topic to this day. Mobile games are known to be comparatively more shallow than console or PC titles, and usually rely on in-app purchases for their monetization needs. Spending cash for units in a PvP game usually means that the gameplay will always be skewed in favor of those who spend more money, and it’s especially concerning when this type of game is developed with in-app purchases at their core.
But look, C&C: Rivals is about to be released on the 4th of December. Like it or not, it’s here and it’s happening. So, is it a good game? EA was kind enough to provide us with access to it a few days before the official launch, and here’s what we think about it:
Here’s a quick rundown of how a match in C&C: Rivals works — you and your opponent are dropped at opposite ends of a small map, controlling a small base each. There’s a neutral nuclear silo in the middle of said map and there is an odd number of control pads scattered around it. Whoever has one of their units stepping on a control pad owns it, and whoever controls the most pads owns the nuclear silo. Once the nuke is under somebody’s control, it begins an aiming process, which leads to a missile launch at the enemy’s base. To destroy a base, you need to hit it with two nukes. Or, if you are dominating a match and want to rub some salt in the opponent’s wound — just send your tanks straight to their base and have them tear it down.
Sounds simple and straightforward, right? We thought so, too, but we were pleasantly surprised to see a lot of C&C DNA injected in Rivals.
First of all, you get to choose between two factions before each match — these being GDI and NOD. Each side has its own unique set of units, all taken from previous C&C games and repurposed for the fast-paced gameplay mechanics.
This game does have fog of war, meaning you can’t see what your opponent is doing unless you scout them out with one of your units. While there is no base building per se, you still need to manually choose when to “build” addons, such as barracks, a tank factory, tech lab, or airport, each letting you build a different type of unit, so keeping your base hidden does give you a strategic edge.
It also has an economy, meaning you will need to build a “harvester” unit and send it off to collect “Tiberium”, otherwise you won’t have the cash to hire the really cool troops. This also opens up the possibility for rushes with cheap units, surprise tactics with a mixed army, and dirty tricks like destroying the opponent’s harvester.
Sounds a lot like classic C&C, doesn’t it? Well, it doesn’t end there. The game heavily relies on the “rock-paper-scissors” system that successful C&C titles of the past were using — riflemen beat infantry, rocketmen beat tanks, buggies beat riflemen, tanks beat anything with armor on it, et cetera. Unit strengths are shown in the UI to make it easier of new players via an element, which is easy to spot, but is not intrusive otherwise. Then, it gets deeper — some units can shoot while moving, some can not. This intricacy also plays a big role in how matches play out in higher levels of play.
One part that is sort of unique to C&C: Rivals is the commander card. Each faction — GDI and NOD — has 4 commanders you can pick from and each commander has a special power. These can be a powerful defense tower that you can place on the map, a healing bot to repair your units, or a super weapon that does instant damage to the opponent’s army.
The game is quick fun with a competitive edge
The developers of this game have been given a difficult task: to build a mobile game that can be played in quick spurs, but still feels like an actual strategy that carries the C&C spirit. And you know what? They kind of did it!
The small battlefield and the nuke mechanic mean that a match doesn’t last more than 10 minutes. Yet each fight is different thanks to a variety of maps with various forms of debris, layout of control pads, and Tiberium field locations. Strategy fans will be happy to know that micro-managing of units matters, kiting the opponent is possible, and micro does in fact win games at higher levels of play. Actually, if you hope to consistently win matches against competent opponents, you need quick fingers and sharp wits at all times, as the tide of a battle can turn very, very fast.
The animations are smooth, the sound effects are impactful and satisfying. Unit control is fluid and responsive, but needs some getting used to. See, the map is divided in small hexagonal tiles, and each unit can occupy a single tile at a time. Friendly units can pass through each other, opposing units can not — this plays a part in controlling zones and blocking off an opponent while securing that sweet, sweet nuke. But it can also get annoying as your units struggle to find their right pathing or happen to "forget" they were supposed to attack a specific target. Attentiveness at all times is needed.
And yes, as weird as it might sound, EA wants this to be a competitive game. This is evident by the fact that you can view pro replays straight from the in-game menus, by navigating to the C&C TV section. Players are placed in leagues, depending on their performance. These are Iron, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Master, and Tiberium League.
In other words, we find Rivals to be a great strategy game for mobile first and foremost. It happens to be a Command & Conquer title second. But, of course… there are the concerns:
Monetization and balance
We all knew it was coming — this game is monetized via in-app purchases. You’ve got your plethora of confusing in-game currencies like credits and gas — which you obtain by winning matches and leveling up —, and “crystals”, which are obtained by draining your real life credit card.
You use said currencies to collect unit cards and upgrade the ones you already own. Yes, this is a competitive game where you can upgrade your base units to deal more damage. However, not all is doom, gloom, and pay to win. See, your units' maximum level is capped by how well you are actually doing in-game. For example, someone who’s still in Iron League can’t go in battle with units above level 6. They can spend all the money in the world and max out their army well beyond that, but if they are matched against another Iron League player, their units will be downgraded to level 6 for that match. This system has been proactively developed specifically to combat "pay to win" and make skill a factor in the game.
Before the start of each battle, you need to select an "army" — choose only 6 cards of the ones you have to go in battle with. Unlike the big C&C games of the past, you don't have your full army and tech tree at your disposal. You need to carefully analyze your favorite units' strength and weeknesses and compose a 6-card deck that will give you a fighting chance no matter what the opponent throws at you. It's sort of like Heartstone or other collectible card games in that regard.
As per the development team, the game drops are being tweaked and balanced in such a way so that you can always have a set of Common, Rare, and Epic cards upgraded and on par with the competition, even if you don’t spend money on the game. Buying crystals will allow you to upgrade more cards faster and add variety to your choice in the pre-game stage, however, the dev team's goal is to make victory possible even if you don't spend a dime on the game.
So, is this game good? Well, it’s certainly better than Command & Conquer 4. In all seriousness, though, we are having a blast with Command & Conquer: Rivals. The game runs well and has a great variety of units and strategy types to choose from. The matches are getting tense as one progresses, with a lot of hair-splitting final moments, where we are seconds from defeat and manage to pull through, or where we have our victory stolen from us by a cunning opponent. As of right now, the developers are actively communicating with the community via the official forums and the in-game message board, which is always great and reassuring to see.
As for the future, we are being cautiously optimistic. EA has some past sins against gamers to atone for and it’s understandable why the community has a hard time trusting the company. The promises to balance the game for all players sound great on paper, and it seems to be working so far — we played the game without buying crates and we are currently in Gold League. We don't feel like we are being held back as of right now and, seeing how many hours of play time and actual fun we've gotten so far, we think it's fair to shell out for a crate package at this point. We’ve yet to see how it’ll play out once the game gets populated with all sorts of players, of course.
That said, we do believe that C&C: Rivals deserves a chance. Give it a go and you will notice the passion for C&C’s legacy that went into developing it, even as a mobile game.
Is it a proper replacement for a new C&C game? No. Is it a good time when you want to game on your phone? Absolutely!