2018’s E3 conference was marked by many memorable moments but few stuck out as much as the announcement of Command and Conquer: Rivals, a Real Time Strategy experience for mobile. The reaction was clearly not what EA expected and I’m pretty sure some of their staff were relieved to escape there with their limbs intact.
As an avid fan of the Command and Conquer series I was distraught to see how EA drove this franchise into an early grave so the idea of one of my all-time favorite game series’ moving to mobile rang sacrilege in my mind. I was so enraged that I quickly sat behind my keyboard and released all my frustrations into my take on how EA is screwing the gaming world, you can read that lengthy but passionate article here.
However, I stand before you today embarrassed and humbled. As much as I’d like to keep bashing EA for this abomination, I am man enough to admit when I screwed the pooch. Let it be known that Command and Conquer: Rivals is an amazing mobile game and, dare I say it, quite possibly my favorite mobile game of all time.
Outside of the actual gameplay, Command and Conquer: Rivals adopts some familiar mechanics found in many popular mobile games like Clash Royale. In order to fill your army with new units, you need to unlock crates which provide you with in-game currency and unit cards. You’ll get these crates by playing matches, earning bounties and you’ll receive free crates every few hours. There’s also the option to join an alliance, similar to the clans of other games, where you and teammates can challenge each other, donate cards and talk some general smack.
The bounties I mentioned are a list of tasks which you can choose to complete or not. These include things like playing a game as one of the factions, playing a certain unit a number of times or killing a number of enemy harvesters. Complete the entire list and you receive a free crate. The bounties are updated every few hours and while you can replace a bounty with a new one if you’re not in the mood to finish it, it does provide some incentive for trying different units and not just sticking to a single build. One feature that does stand out is the ability to connect to C&C TV from the game’s menu which allows you to watch an unending list of games played by other players.
It's time to acknowledge the elephant in the room and call things as they are. “Crates” is just a euphemism for lootboxes, and yes, you can purchase them with real world currency, which unfortunately will give you an unfair advantage if you spend enough money. We all know this as a Pay-To-Win model and it’s very much present in Command and Conquer: Rivals. However, as much as we’d like to blame EA for this, and some might do so out of principle, this is the trend in most popular mobile games today and honestly, only a fool would have expected it to be any different here.
That said, the game does attempt to mitigate the effects of using real world currency by limiting the level of your units depending on the league you’re currently playing. You can, therefore, spend all the money you want but until you make it to the next league, which you can only do by winning matches, your unit strength can only grow to a certain point. Additionally, you receive better rewards for beating a player on a higher level and will suffer no penalties, should you lose that match. The cost of purchasing crates with real money is also rather expensive so players who want to progress through wealth will really have to cough up.
As a casual player, the Pay-To-Win model employed here doesn’t bother me that much. We all knew it was going to be present and the developers have made some attempts to not let paying players run away with the game. However, I feel that if you want to progress from casual to competitive, your wallet is going to suffer because at some point your own efforts are simply not going to be enough.
So, an RTS on mobile? The idea seems preposterous, insane even. How on earth are you supposed to command armies and manage your base in real time on a 5” screen, using your clumsy and imprecise thumbs instead of a mouse? Well, I can happily report that Redwood Studios captured the essence of a true RTS experience and translated it into a system that works incredibly well.
To achieve this, they had to limit the number of elements you can control while not taking away so much that you lose that competitive gameplay mechanics. Your base management has been reduced to a single command center with open spaces surrounding it where your buildings will automatically be deployed when you choose to create them. You can also build harvesters, which go on their merry way in search of Tiberium to increase the rate at which your resources generate.
Unit management is where I would have imagined things falling apart but once again, Redwood Studios have nailed it. You can only take 6 types of units into battle with you, each of which requires a specific building. Troops are trained at the barracks, vehicles emerge from the war factory, flying units from the helipad, and specialized units like the Titan and Zone Troopers require an expensive tech lab. The game also limits the number of units you can have on the field at any time by putting a timer on how often you can call a new unit into battle. The more units you have in play, the longer you wait before you’re able to summon another and as a result, it’s rare for someone to have more than 6 or 7 active units at any time.
The objective of the game is no surprise, destroy the enemy base. To do this you need to send your units to the various control points scattered across the map. If you occupy more control points than your opponent, you earn points toward launching a nuclear missile at the enemy base. It’s also possible to attack your opponent’s base directly but I suspect the majority of games will be won with the use of nukes.
Let’s dive into the awesome variety this game offers. I’ll start with the 2 factions, the Global Defense Initiative (GDI) and The Brotherhood of NOD. Each faction has a vast list of 23 units, all with different stats and abilities which will have you changing your unit compilation for weeks before you find the perfect team for you. The units work on a rock, paper, scissor type model with each unit being effective against either troops, vehicles or aircrafts. Furthermore, there are several commanders to unlock which provides you with a unique ability to be used in game such as deploying a defensive turret, sending out a medical chopper to heal your units or even firing the Ion Cannon.
For better matchmaking, the game provides 8 leagues ranging from Iron to Tiberium. Winning games lets you progress to higher leagues while losing games reverses your progress. As mentioned earlier, each league caps your unit progression to ensure you never encounter another player whose units are so highly advanced that you won’t stand a chance at winning. Leveling units is quick at the start and doesn’t require a lot of funds, but this increases exponentially as you progress so to reach those top levels you will have to do some serious grinding in this game.
The game also offers different maps in each league and I was blown away by how different a game can be depending on the map you’re playing. Your respective bases are still positioned on opposite ends of the screen but the placement of the control points, the missile launch facility and Tiberium can all be moved around to achieve some fantastic variety.
I can only imagine the amount of gameplay testing that had to be done to achieve this level of balance and functionality. Despite my initial hesitation regarding the translation of RTS onto mobile, this game works, it really does, and depending on the map and your unit composition, each match can be an entirely different experience. This is not just a case of, deploy a few units and hope for the best, you really have to strategize, and in doing so, you can easily beat another player with higher level units.
The visual and audio design in Rivals is nothing short of spectacular. Obviously, the longstanding Command and Conquer franchise provided the design team with a lot of existing content to inspire, and what they’ve done with all that is absolutely masterful.
Not only does the game look great, but the interface works beautifully. At no point did I feel that moving to a bigger screen would improve usability. In fact, while I have been playing on an Android Emulator on my computer, I actually prefer playing on my phone.
So far, I’ve only had one technical issue. Upon launching the game, I received an error message stating that my phone was not on the supported list which may translate to performance issues. To combat this, the graphics have been turned way down which greatly decreases the visual experience for me, hence my need to use an emulator. I have to add that I do have an entry level Samsung phone (Galaxy J5 Prime) so it’s highly probable that my phone just doesn’t meet the recommended technical requirements. On the other hand, a friend of mine who has a different phone, albeit with near identical specs, does not have the same issue. Please understand though, that I’m not blaming the developers for this. It’s simply not possible for them to run extensive tests on every single phone model out there. I firmly believe that there is some aspect of my phone’s specifications which is not working 100% with the game and given enough time I’m sure the developers will be able to extend the code to alleviate some, if not all these problems.
There is one feature I’d like to see added in a future patch, and that’s the ability to send simple messages in-game. We’ve become accustomed to being able to communicate with your opposition, whether it’s to mock them for their poor decisions or sending a simple GG when a victor has been crowned. Every time I finish a match, I find myself looking for that GG button and it feels unsportsmanlike when I can’t send those sentiments across the battlefield.
As an avid fan of the RTS genre and strategy games in general, I’m saddened to see this genre dying a slow but certain death. Hearing EA wanting to take one of my all-time favorite franchises onto mobile enraged me because I assumed it would be a mere shadow of the games I once loved.
I wanted to hate Command and Conquer: Rivals. I was ready to proclaim to the world how villainous these evil corporations are who break down our gaming experiences to fuel their greed. But for once, EA has done something right, they appointed the right developers and gave them the time to build something magnificent. After Tweeting about my uncertainty surrounding Rivals on launch day, I received a comment from one of the developers asking for any criticism, so they can try and improve the game. He even promised to look into the issue I was having with my phone and I’ve seen a string of updates being released almost daily since its launch.
Command and Conquer: Rivals isn’t just good for a mobile game, it’s a good game, period. My tiny mind couldn’t fathom how someone could possibly capture the spirit of RTS on a clunky mobile platform but somehow, they’ve done it, and done it well. This is what Command and Conquer 4: Tiberium Twilight should have been, and it gives me great hope for the upcoming Command and Conquer remastered games we’ve been promised.
I bow in respect to everyone at Redwood Studios, you guys have done a superb job. Well done and thank you!