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Command and Conquer: Rivals review - The perfect mobile RTS no one asked for
When EA first announced its revival of the classic Command and Conquer franchise with Command and Conquer: Rivals at E3 last year, fans were obviously upset. Given EA’s track record and the direction the industry is going, it would be easy to write this new title off as a pay-to-win cash grab without even playing the game.
Now that the game is out, it’s safe to say what fans expected couldn’t be further from the truth. Although it’s true the game does little to carry the torch of the more than two decade-old series, the newly-formed EA Redwood Studios has managed to warp the C&C universe into a fantastic competitive real-time strategy game for mobile devices.
A rose by any other name
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. Command and Conquer: Rivals is not the game you (or your parents) played in marathon LAN sessions years ago. If that’s all that matters to you, take solace in the fact that in a few months the C&C remastered versions developed by Petrogylph Games will come out.
Rivals is more like Clash Royale than classic Command and Conquer games
With that out of the way, let’s turn to what this game actually is. Instead of a character-driven campaign with ham-tastic live action cutscenes, all of the action beyond the first few training matches is against other players. This makes it more like Clash Royale and other competitive arena-style mobile games where the entire experience is PvP.
In each match you can send harvesters into nearby patches of Tiberium, create buildings to make units, and control those units once they’re on the field. It sounds similar to the PC titles, but gameplay has been cleverly adapted for mobile devices, which is what really sets this game apart from its competitors.
It seems obvious, but the ability to move your units after they’ve been placed is a key aspect of the game. This unlocks a wide variety of strategies and allows for micro play that makes each match unique and engaging. Usually mobile strategy games just let you pick where and when to place units.
Step into the arena
The goal of each battle is to destroy the enemy base, and there are several ways to go about it. The easiest is to control most of the zones in the middle of the map until a nuclear missile launches and takes out half of the enemy base HP. Do this twice and the match is over.
You can also attack the enemy base directly with troops, which takes longer but often surprises opponents. No matter which strategy you choose, matches are quick. By eliminating the slow early game that plagues all PC RTS games, the action is reduced to a mobile friendly five minutes or less.
The Brotherhood of Nod is unlocked at player level 9.
When you first start playing, only GDI forces are unlocked, with the Brotherhood of Nod available at player level 9. In case you’re wondering, no, you cannot pay money to unlock the Brotherhood of Nod or any other unit immediately. You’ll have to play the game actively for three to four days before you can unlock Kane’s cohorts, and much longer to unlock everything the game has to offer.
Thankfully, there is no stamina system, but progress is somewhat gated by bonus experience. Your first ten matches each day reward 1,000 bonus experience, and every match after gives negligible amounts (between 20 and 50), or even nothing after a certain point. You can also gain large amounts of experience by completing daily bounties, which are essentially quests, or from one time rewards as you move up the competitive ranks.
Intense, strategic gameplay
Although the goal of each match is simple, getting there takes quite a bit of strategy along the way. All of the traditional elements of real-time strategy (RTS) games are present, like tech switches, build orders, unit micro, and so on — all simplified to work on mobile without the high barrier of entry for most PC RTS titles.
That level of accessibility topped with the free-to-play model means Command and Conquer can now appeal to a much wider audience, perhaps at the expense of its existing fanbase. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not this is a good thing.
Like earlier games in the series, units work on a rock-paper-scissors basis. They are all strong against certain enemy types and weak or useless against others. Some units can also attack while moving, which introduces kiting as a powerful micro strategy. Units that can’t attack while moving can block enemy movement while they’re whittled down by adjacent units. Again, moving your units around the field strategically is key to coming out on top.
There’s also the classic strategy of crippling your opponent’s economy by destroying their Tiberium collectors, which instantly rewards you with a stash of Tiberium of your own. Tiberium income is critical to affording more powerful units, and it’s possible to overwhelm your opponent by building two collectors, provided you can actually defend them.
Exceptional care was taken to make the game as balanced and competitive as possible.
Matches are short and intense. Nothing compares to the feeling of squeezing out a victory from the jaws of defeat. Each match feels like it can turn on a dime, and if you lose focus you’re bound to find a nuke headed your way. Maps are simple but well-designed, and unit balance is great. Rarer units don’t even crush their more common counterparts, which is an easy trap to fall into for mobile games.
It’s clear exceptional care was put into making this the best multiplayer experience possible. It does not feel like something shoved out the door to cash in on gamers’ nostalgia. That alone puts Command and Conquer: Rivals leaps and bounds ahead of most mobile games released by big studios.
Rare restraint in monetization
Units in Command and Conquer: Rivals use a card system anyone who has played a few free-to-play mobile games will find familiar. Cards are upgraded by collecting copies from loot boxes and paying a certain amount of the in-game currency, just like Clash Royale. Unlike Clash Royale, card levels are capped at lower levels of play, so you don’t need to worry about getting smashed by a whale early on.
Spending money will get you upgrades faster, but it will not give you a massive advantage over f2p players.
In my experience so far, unit levels play less of a role in victory than good strategy. EA might not have the best track record, but it’s safe to say Command and Conquer: Rivals is far from pay-to-win. If you don’t believe me, go watch games at the highest ranks under C&C TV in the Network tab. No players are maxed out at this point, but the player with higher level cards doesn’t come have an insurmountable advantage.
To be honest, I was surprised by the restraint shown in monetizing this title. I’m not sure if it’s in response to the hugely negative reaction to its announcement or the influence of Combat Designer Greg Black, who was one of the multiplayer designers at Westwood Studios in the 2000s before moving on to work on Starcraft 2 at Blizzard. Either way, you have to commend the developers for not crossing that line (yet).
There are daily deals, but no aggressive pop-ups shoving them in your face each time you log in (I’m looking at you, Nexon). Yes, a real-money currency (diamonds) can speed up loot box unlocks, but there are few incentives to actually purchase them. They will speed up your progress slightly, but you won’t leapfrog past a huge percentage of the player base. Rewards, for the most part, must be earned in C&C Rivals.
Future in mobile esports?
As demonstrated by the success of the recent Clash Royale World Finals in Tokyo, the world of mobile esports is growing, and growing fast. Command and Conquer: Rivals is well positioned to get a piece of the pie as long as it attracts an audience.
Although the game was downloaded more than a million times from the Google Play Store in its first week after global release, it runs the risk of slipping into the abyss of obscure mobile games. Competitive games work best with a large player base. Given the lukewarm reaction to its release, that might be a tall order for C&C Rivals.
EA Redwood has taken advantage of the weight of its parent company by creating Commander Training videos and other content to pull players in. However, if it doesn’t work out EA could just pull the plug, like on previous Command and Conquer projects.
Command and Conquer: Rivals review – Conclusion
It might not be what fans wanted, but credit where it’s due, Command and Conquer: Rivals is a fantastic adaptation of competitive real-time strategy gameplay for mobile devices. It manages to stay true enough to its roots while changing radically to suit today’s mobile gaming environment.
Set aside your reservations for a few hours and try the game out with the link below. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, I promise.