We four kings of RPS are,
Bearing words we traverse afar (online),
Guns and looting, tanks and questing,
Following yonder, um, PC gaming.
Yes, the hour is upon us - another door of our RPS-approved fairtrade advent calendar must be opened. What lurks beyond?
Crivens. More chocolate snacks for us. Thanks, Fairtrade. Om nom nom nom.
But for you?
C&C3 is critically indefensible. Playing it is the RTS equivalent of shovelling quarters into that X-Men arcade machine from 1992 that's still in the local chippy: there's no justifiable reason to do it except that you want to, because it's making you giggle despite yourself. There's certainly no justifiable reason I can seriously tell people to buy C&C3 instead of Company of Heroes or Supreme Commander. It'd be like inviting well-to-do friends around for a pillow fight instead of a dinner party. It's not big and it's not clever, but they'd surely smile so much more than they would during polite conversation about Proust while we pass the quiche around.
I think the main reason I enjoy Command & Conquer 3 (file under 'guilty pleasure') is that I can play it as I used to play Command & Conquer and Red Alert. Back when I was innocent, and mortifyingly dumb with it. I didn't know the right way to play RTS games – I just built and built and attacked and attacked until the AI stopped fighting back. I barely even knew what a pincer movement was. I just wanted to blow up tanks and watch silly cutscenes.
Back in 1994, there was none of the snooty RTT-not-RTS admonishment we reviewers have to endure whenever we casually refer to a harvest, build'n'kill game by the genre name most people will recognise; no furious cries of imba! upon the release of a new patch; no rolling my jaded eyes when I see yet another mini-map in the bottom left of the screen and a resource ticker along the top. There was just the commanding and the conquering. The collecting and the killing. The constructing and the cutscenes. Sometimes, I miss that. For a couple of weeks this year, C&C3 brought it back.
While it's been a slow year for RTS, the last 18 months have nevertheless seen this most PC of genres stand up from the corner it's been slumped in for a while now, puff out its chest and bay “Come on then! I'll show you! I AM THE STRONGEST ONE THERE IS!” I'd argue that, between Company of Heroes, Supreme Commander and Medieval II: Total War (and to a lesser extent Dawn of War), real-time strategy is currently the strongest it's ever been. There's less heavy hitters around than in previous years, but those that are are true titans of the form.
RTS, you are mighty. But you are hard work, a cruel and unforgiving master. And that's why I /needed/ C&C3. I wanted a counter to the debilitating demands of the indefatigable SupCom, and the tactical hyper-attentiveness of the manic Company of Heroes. For once, I just wanted – and I'm sorry to drag out this line yet again, but it expresses the game completely – to command by drawing a big box around the screen, and to conquer by right-clicking on the enemy. I just wanted a pillow fight.
While there's a slight visual fussiness to C&C3 that doesn't quite tick the cartoonish boxes I was hoping for (really, I want Red Alert 2's mind-controlled giant squids all over again), it was the lobotomy it needed to be. There's a thousand braindead RTSes that work as this does, but C&C3 is the champ because its boomsmashkill straightforwardness is a knowing reward, not a by-product of cheerless development. It makes a virtue of being completely implausible, of coquettishly behaving like Sun Tzu's nothing more than a good name for a takeaway.
I am aware that parts of the brain must be engaged for online play, where C&C3 is as frantic and furious an undertaking as any other, replete with intimate knowledge of build times and unit costs and rock, paper, scissors precision, but I'm flat-out not interested in that side of it. I'm in it only for the personal gratification of singleplayer, of beating a foe I know is robotic and stupid and leaves giant, obvious holes in its plans, for me to take cackling advantage of. I want it to be easy. And it is. Plus, things go boom. Really go boom. The units on the next level of the tech tree are just bigger and sillier enough that unlocking one during the campaign feels like an event and not just artificial withholding. And I never, not even once, think about pressing Escape during the between-mission cutscenes.
They're diabolical, of course – the dialogue, the plot, the performances, the props... Awful, awful, awful. But knowingly so (though a flabbergasting amount of fans somehow do invest themselves fully and entirely seriously in the ongoing fiction of the Tiberium universe), and thus they are fun. Crucially, they feel like a reward, not just tasteless meat-paste between the filling granary bread of the combat. In so many other RTSes, the cutscenes seem to be there purely to try and give character to a game that has none – Age of Empires III is a particularly guilty culprit. When they play it straight, it can serve to remind that the game's world isn't a terribly entertaining place to be in the first place, and so requires this sort of tedious, interruptive bolstering. By contrast, C&C3's cutscenes give you a nudge and a wink - “you thought that fight was ridiculous? Well, check this out.”
Command and Conquer 3, then. It's the cheeky pint after an hour in the gym, the brazen flirting with your bookish girlfriend's beautician flatmate, the watching of Predator after a night at the opera. Indefensible. But by God, it feels good.