Like most of the rest of the internet, I was taken aback, to say the least, by the teaser EA released 5 months ago. The bright, cartoony-looking graphics and Uncanny Valley version of Kane put the execrable Tiberium Alliances in my head. I was really worried about what EA was unearthing the sullied corpse of Command and Conquer for this time.
As it turns out, that fear was more than a little misplaced. While Command and Conquer: Rivals doesn’t fit the venerable Command and Conquer formula, it’s a remarkably, even surprisingly good strategy game that works perfectly on tablets and phones. It’s not without its issues, but the tight design and interaction depth has me returning to the meat grinder at odd times during the day to get another fix. EA and Redwood (the development studio) have created something really interesting here. Let’s take a look at the details.
Boot Camp: The Basics of C&C Rivals
Let’s begin, as my grandfather might have said, at the beginning. What is C&C: Rivals?
At its core, Rivals is a deckbuilding strategy game. You pick the 6 unit types you’d like to have available for you in combat, and you load into one-on-one brawls with opponents to fight what are often three-to-five minute battles. There’s no timer, so matches can technically go on longer, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Once you’re loaded into a match, you’re getting right into the action. There’s no protracted build-up phase in Rivals: you’re immediately building a production structure to unlock its associated units, or a harvester to ramp up your income, and you need to start contesting the map right away. And yet, your opening strategy does have an impact: are you going to play defensively, setting up a large economy and hoping to hold on until you can bring out heavy hitters? Are you going to not build a harvester and instead train some harassment units, hoping to make up your early economic deficit by sniping the enemy harvester, or keeping your opponent on the back foot and off balance?
Essentially, the gameplay itself comes down to a kind of Rock/Paper/Scissors, with units being either Infantry, Vehicles, Aircraft, or Buildings, and other units having damage bonuses against one or more of these types. You’re trying to get counter-units in place next to the units they’re designed to deal with, while keeping your own units away from the counters your opponent is producing, while fighting over control of 2 or 3 launch pads on the game map.
At the beginning of a match, each player’s MCV crawls into position and unpacks into their base structure. Within a match of Rivals, each player is building units, harvesting resources, and unlocking tech structures in order to either own the launch pads and hit their enemy with a missile, or to straight-up destroy their base structure. The base structure can take 2 hits with a missile – typically, this is how matches are resolved. But some units do a lot of damage to the base structure, and it’s definitely possible to win by whittling that down, too.
This might sound simplistic, but in practice it’s not at all. Knowing when to expand from 0 harvesters to 1 is a strategic choice with immediate consequences, and moving from 1 to 2 can be a risky decision (many high level players rely on 1 harvester unless they’re playing greedily or are confident in their ability to harass effectively in the early game). Additionally, many units have special abilities or attributes that bring a surprising amount of depth to their use. Whether you’re looking at units like the Orca, that have limited ammunition that has to reload after it’s been spent, or units like the Stealth Tank that are untargetable unless detected by infantry or until they fire, there’s a lot of tactical depth in this game.
It doesn’t really feel like Command and Conquer, though there are some obvious overtones and nods to the classic RTS. But if you look at it not as the heir to the franchise, but on its own merits, it stands up surprisingly well. The game isn’t likely to attract users who are looking for a new iteration on classic C&C, but for those who approach the game with an open mind, its gameplay is remarkably solid.
Cash Money: Progression and Monetization
While the gameplay itself is phenomenal, especially for a mobile strategy game, the monetization and leveling are more likely to leave players in the cold.
Similar to Clash Royale and, honestly, a significant portion of mobile games out there today, C&C: Rivals uses “cards” in conjunction with 2 currency types as a metaphor for progressing in the game. Playing matches nets you ‘fuel’ you can use to order loot boxes and speed up their progress. You can also buy these loot boxes with real currency.
Loot boxes net you random assortments of ‘cards’ that represent the different units and characters you can use to build loadouts. Units become available based on your character level – not your MMR rating, as many similar games do it. This is good, as players aren’t locked out of content based on how good they are at the game. Eventually, you’ll be able to earn and unlock everything, even if you aren’t a pro.
The order and rate at which content becomes unlocked has been controversial, especially since it’s possible to be matched up against players who have unlocked units or commanders you might not have come up against yet and aren’t sure how to deal with.
To help minimize the feeling of the game being ‘pay to win’ EA has introduced a system called Fairplay. If you go up against an opponent with significantly higher level units than you, or a higher ladder/MMR rating, you can’t lose your own ladder rank by losing to them, and will gain bonus ladder points for beating them. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a nod in the right direction.
It’s easy to criticize monetization models like this – even being inured to the pay model thanks to seeing about a thousand (note: hyperbole) other mobile games that use it, it can feel unfair if you’re up against a player who’s got units 2 or 3 levels higher than your own. But, given that this is the way they’ve decided to go with monetization, at least they’re trying to buff off the worst of its sharp edges with systems like Fairplay.
Note: Our copy was reviewed on a Samsung Galaxy S9; the reviewer was a part of EA’s Game Changers Network beta test.
COMPARE TO: Castle Burn, Clash Royale, Star Wars Force Arena