New Command & Conquer game a reminder of how mobile games are both a boon and a bane

Screenshot showing off gameplay from Command & Conquer: Rivals announced by game publisher Electronic Arts on Saturday (June 9) ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. PHOTO: ELECTRONIC ARTS
Screenshot showing off gameplay from Command & Conquer: Rivals announced by game publisher Electronic Arts on Saturday (June 9) ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. PHOTO: ELECTRONIC ARTS
Gameplay screenshot of Command & Conquer: Rivals mobile game. PHOTO: ELECTRONIC ARTS
Gameplay screenshot of Command & Conquer: Rivals mobile game. PHOTO: ELECTRONIC ARTS
Gameplay screenshot of Command & Conquer: Rivals mobile game. PHOTO: ELECTRONIC ARTS
Gameplay screenshot of Command & Conquer: Rivals mobile game. PHOTO: ELECTRONIC ARTS

LOS ANGELES - Gamers can be a very tricky bunch of people to please - myself included. Nostalgia for the old games clouds our vision with fond memories of the "good ol' days". And anything that substantially changes our rose-tinted recollections is often deemed as blasphemous.

This is the case with the reveal of a new Command & Conquer (C&C) game for iOS and Android mobile devices, called C&C: Rivals yesterday. The trailer for the game, released on the same day, has amassed 17,000 dislikes compared with over 900 likes as of early Sunday.

The adverse reaction to the game is an understandable one. And hopefully, the powers that be pay heed to the backlash. Still, there is something about my early impressions of C&C: Rivals that indicates that not all is bad.

When game publisher Electronic Arts announced the new C&C game ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), one of the largest annual gatherings for the video games industry, I was pretty intrigued.

I never did finish the original real-time strategy (RTS) computer game from 1995, set in an alternate reality with futuristic military gear aplenty; but I liked what I played of C&C. For one thing, it is very hard not to fall in love with the game's powerful ion cannon that can blow much of your opponent's units and structures to smithereens.

In these RTS games, you are in charge of building a base - which can be expanded and upgraded - to train and recruit a small army of troops to destroy your opponent's base. This happens on a fairly large battlefield with limited resources, and battles with opponents' forces play out in real time.

When I realised the new C&C game was a mobile title that was also free-to-play, I was not as disgusted as many other gamers online. But my enthusiasm did dip.

If this happened to the Dune franchise of games - 1992's Dune II is one of my favourite games of all time - I might be livid, too. This is because there has not been a new official Dune RTS game since 2001. And the last C&C game was 2012's free-to-play browser based multiplayer online title, C&C: Tiberium Alliances.

Many gamers tend to think less of a mobile game, as such titles come across as more casual and dumbed down for a wider and more mainstream audience.

And when players have been waiting for a long time for a new game in a venerable game series, or have very fond memories of the old games, releasing something quite different from what they know and love will inevitably hit a raw nerve.

When I got the chance to fiddle with C&C: Rivals, I was skeptical about the game too. The objective, like many RTS games, is to destroy your opponent's base which, in the hands-on I had, was controlled by another person. You can choose to play as one of two factions: the Global Defense Initiative (GDI) or the Brotherhood of Nod.

The game's controls are very simple. Just tap to build structures, which will allow you to recruit troops, build weapons and vehicles to battle your foe. You cannot select multiple troops to command like before. Building things still requires resources but these now accumulate automatically over time. In a nod to the old games, you can get more resources by harvesting for them on the game's battlefield.

The battlefield is much smaller than old time C&C fans will remember and is lined with hexagonal tiles your troops traverse in real-time.

A nuclear missile that sits between you and your rival serves an important role - whoever controls the missile can deal damage to the opponent's base. Get two hits from the missile and it is game over.

Controlling the missile is not rocket science. Just position your units on three nearby nodes and whoever has the most number of nodes captured in this way controls the missile. Whoever controls the missile when a counter fills up over time will have the weapon fire automatically at his foe.

Sounds easy? After all, it's a mobile game and comes across like the popular Clash Royale mobile title.

Well, it is not that simple. C&C: Rivals looks easy to play and pick-up but there is quite a bit to delve into and deal with.

Certain units are strong against other types of units, so battling other troops becomes a rock-paper-scissors affair. I had to juggle building different types of units to counter various enemy types, quickly sending troops that can be hired for less resources to take over nodes for the nuclear missile, and saving up to build more expensive but powerful weapons.

Then, there is a fog of war to contend with which obscures half the map and makes it more difficult to figure out what your opponent is doing, unless you send a unit over to scout and temporarily lift part of the fog.

The result is a pretty frantic and hectic game that somehow resolves within several minutes.

I must say my short time with the game was not terrible and actually quite fun, to a certain extent. In fact, the game almost seems to distill some aspects of RTS titles, such as resource management and overwhelming the enemy quickly, although in an arguably more diluted experience. For instance, the smaller battlefield and faster pace limits the number of tactics that can be devised to win.

C&C: Rivals reminds me of other mobile titles which also streamline specific features of traditional video games. For example, the mobile role-playing game (RPG) Brave Frontier has a mechanic that rewards players with combat bonuses for well-timed taps to initiate attacks, something seen in many action RPGs. There are also character statistics and special powers to pour into to deal with different situations.

The thing with many mobile games is that as simple as many of them initially appear to be, they are often not easy to master and can be pretty involved.

I used to have a disdain for many mobile games. But over the years, I have come to realise that these titles are legitimate games in their own right and dismissing them outright might not be fair.

Further more, growing older has also meant my play time with games has dwindled substantially. So, mobile games, with their short play times, give me opportunities to game without worrying about sitting in front of my computer for hours to complete a mission or quest because I can now do so in minutes.

It also means I can play the games in many places easily - like on the commute home - as long as I have a mobile device with me (and perhaps an Internet connection).

But that doesn't mean I think mobile games can replace traditional video games or are necessarily better. Computer and console video games that are more drawn out can be much more fulfilling experiences than the short spins I have with mobile games. Traditional titles tend to be more involved affairs in many departments, such as in their gameplay systems and storylines, and figuring those out and experiencing them can be more satisfying.

Another issue is that mobile games that are free give players the option to get a leg-up in the game through in-game purchases that can cost real-world money.

Some of these monetisation methods can end up making such games more expensive than paying for a game once with an upfront cost. Free-to-play games can entice players to spend such as by having barriers to slowdown how fast players can progress unless they cough up cash.

And of course, many free mobile games have loot boxes with random prizes that can offer benefits in the game or make players' game characters look cooler. These boxes can often be bought with real money and they have been accused of having gambling-like elements, which tar the gaming experience for many gamers.

How C&C: Rivals will make money from players is still not clear, although it has been reported that players will be able to buy more powerful units.

The game is available for players to test in a pre-alpha state but no firm release date has been announced.

While I think there is a space for mobile games, like C&C: Rivals, to offer quick fun on the go, I imagine many players still want a full-fledged game with the depth and scope of the titles of old. There is demand for new games in old franchises, especially if they are done in a similar spirit and style of those past titles - what many gamers call the "old school" way now.

Another thing that companies will have to watch carefully is how games like C&C: Rivals get players to open their wallets. If the free game is very egregious in its monetisation methods, expect gamers to bay at the company's door for blood.

Because, as I have said, gamers like me can be difficult to please, and the new C&C: Rivals is a keen reminder of how mobile games can be both a boon and a bane.

kennyc@sph.com.sg