Back when I lived in Bath, serving out my days on PC Format magazine, my lunch hour was everything to me. Trouble was, to get to anything I wanted to get to - a sandwich shop, a record shop, the comics shop or delightfully tiny ale pub The Old Green Tree I'd have to run The Gauntlet. A narrow, pedestrianised street stretching up from Future Publishing HQ to the city centre (this was before a brand new and enormous faux-Georgian shopping centre was built in that location), it was always guarded by charity workers seeking donations, by clipboard-wielding people conducting spurious marketing surveys, by men with fast food leaflets, by men trying to flog mobile phone contracts, and occasionally by a crazy old codger trying to tell me I was going to hell unless I abandoned booze and sex and commerce. He was the exception - the others impeded me because they saw me as an opportunity to make money.
Every few steps I took, I was stopped. I tried to look grumpy and unapproachable, I pretended to be doing something important on my phone, I refused to make eye contact, I tried to adopt a weary expression that somehow conveyed 'look, you see me every single day, I'm not a gullible tourist, you must know by now that I'm not easy prey for you.' I tried, even, too look like I was perfectly mad. It didn't work. Nothing worked. My journey was a staccato one, frustration and impediment my constant companions. After I while, I gave up and just stayed in the office over lunch.
Tiberium Alliances, the free to play Command & Conquer game, takes me right back to that narrow, pedestrianised street. This awkward 2D strategy/MMO hybrid is not prepared to let me go about my business, and it most certainly is not prepared to let me play a Command & Conquer game. I've played it for a few hours across a few days, and will not be returning to it unless I hear it has been substantially altered. Everywhere I turned, it threw up a hand - 'no sir, I'm afraid I can't let you do that.' Not until you've upgraded this, but to do that you need to have upgraded this and this, and to do that you need to have gathered enough of this and earned enough of this. Not until it had done its damnedest to take away my time and money. Simply recruiting a unit of infantry felt like a Sisyphean nightmare - population caps, budgetary requirements, the need to build a Command Center and then a Barracks and then upgrade them both...
And all to make one squad of tiny men that rumbled up a vertical-scrolling screen shooting at whatever appeared directly in front of them, before being collected and whisked away by a drop ship after a fixed number of seconds had passed, regardless of what had been achieved in the battle.
Before I could return to that battle, and attempt to wipe out whatever I hadn't caught in my first, second, third, fourth, fifth pass, I had to wait. And even then, I'd likely to discover that I'd run out of the additional, nebulous and arbitrary resource requirement that dictated whether I could launch an attack or not. Even had I not, I would likely need to repair any damage my units had suffered during the last fight, but with a finite amount of 'repair time' allocated to my base on top of the actual cost, this was not a given either.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. There is no flow or dynamism to Tiberium Alliances. It's a stop-start exercise in ever-delayed gratification, doing everything it possibly can to impede progress. It is a Command & Conquer game only in name, in theme and in unit titles and appearances. That's not the point, though - the point is that in my time with it I found it to be utterly joyless as a strategy game.
It is not about construction and planning, but about eking out a meagre degree of progress around all the many and entirely artificial barriers it throws up. Were I to stick with it, there is a meta-game that involves the invasion of other players' bases and the defence of your own - that latter requiring, unsurprisingly, yet another type of hard to obtain resource.
That seems so impossibly distant, so far up a deathly long pass of building up my forces and upgrading my structures at a glacial pace, free from adrenaline and exhilaration. If I wait long enough or snap and cough up real money, I can probably build one more ATV. After a week of play, I can probably stage an invasion with 10 units, which will direct themselves across the battlefield in straight vertical line and engage in tedious, sterile plip-plip-plip combat with anything that happens to be waiting in their path. What joy.
I understand how free to play games work, and I understand that they are not necessarily evil. But the good ones exist as games first and foremost, then layer the microtransactions on top. This, to me, seems as though it's a cynical business model with a game draped around it. It doesn't offer reward, and then the promise of greater reward if you are willing to spend money to speed things up. It offers only obstacles to progress, and oh so very many of them. At least FarmVille only has about three types of resource, but this has a mountain of numbers to constantly replenish. Spending real money would speed me past some of these obstacles - but on the other side, only more obstacles await. I understand, too, that social network-style games are designed to be dipped in and out of throughout a day or week, not played intensively, but this one just doesn't seem to offer enough gratification to make that worthwhile. When I log out of it, it vanishes from my mind immediately - incremental stat upgrades aren't enough to leave me wanting more.
Numbers! Everywhere, numbers! Numbers running out, numbers that depend on each other, numbers forever running out. Action? Strategy? No, only numbers.
I simply cannot see the point of this game. It will not give Command & Conquer fans what they want, and it seems too convoluted and dry to realistically attract a more casual audience. Every time I've played it, it's made me angry, and besieged by a sense of utter futility. Perhaps better, more fulfilling things would await me were I prepared to stick with it and grind on to the point where I could wage ongoing war against other players and rival guilds. I don't want to - and that's because the game so far hasn't offered me any reason to, any excitement, any fulfilment. It's just stopped me in the street and wasted my time.
Tiberium Alliances is in open beta now.