There was plenty of scepticism when EA announced that the C&C RTS franchise was getting a mobile revival this year, and understandably so. Free-to-play mobile games have to walk a fine line, one that balances fairness with the financial realities of development. Too often games veer on the wrong side of that divide, funnelling players through systems that either tacitly or openly encourage them to spend money to stay on the right side of the power curve.
Have a guess how C&C Rivals turned out.
While Rivals isn't available in Australia just yet, a closed beta has been running for a while internationally. So when press and influencers stepped up to give Rivals a go at EA's business lounge in Gamescom this year - because the game wasn't being shown to the public yet - people were being randomly matched with those in the closed beta. There were no tutorials or devs shepherding players in advance: it was just you, two pre-built NOD and GDI decks, and whoever else you could find on the internet.
The main screen upon launching the game.
Upon firing up the main screen, you're immediately presented with meters and currencies. The two large icons in the middle are essentially your "find match" buttons, launching you into the deck screen for either GDI or NOD and the customisations available therein. Beyond that, you've got three in-game currencies on display: credits, for buying and upgrading cards or commanders; diamonds, which are used to purchase rare and epic "crates" (read: loot boxes), large amounts of credits, and also for fast completing a timer that awards you with more crates; and fuel, another currency required for collecting in-game rewards.
Not one, or two, but three separate mechanics lie between you and this mere loot box.
You're presented with options to spend money at so many points. You can level up your commanders and units, buffing their damage and HP. But before you can fully level up a card, you'll also need duplicates - which, naturally, you get through loot crates.
On the front page, there's a supply truck that brings you a fresh loot crate every several hours. It costs fuel to order the truck in, and if you want to rush up the process, you'll also need diamonds.
The fuel is only obtained through completing matches, but of course, you can buy everything else.
It's worth noting that all of this has been implemented before Rivals Fairplay. Among other things, Fairplay is supposed to combat people dumping hundreds of dollars into excessively overpowering their cards by introducing level caps.
"For example, let’s say you’re in Bronze tier where the unit level cap is 6. All your units are level 5 and level 6, so you’re good to go. However, your opponent has a Titan that’s been pumped up to level 12 already. When the match starts, that Titan will be brought down to level 6, which is the highest level allowed."
Not all units at the same level have equal stats, mind you. There are three stages of upgrades within a particular level - at least with the cards I had access to, and the bump is enough that a unit on the verge of being upgraded will be able to survive an extra hit or two.
Consider that for a second. Rivals is a hex-based game where units move to a tile, occupy that position, and then fire at an adjacent target. Getting to that position first is an immense advantage, particularly given the main method of victory comes from holding the missile platforms that launch nukes at your opponent's base.
Having a buffer of one or two hits can help a unit survive from a tactical error or a cooldown-enforced delay. Being able to cancel out a unit can be the difference between stopping a snowball and being pushed off the cliff, depending on the scenario. So really, even though a system is coming in place to prevent the most egregious of pay-to-win behaviour, that seedier undercurrent of tacit encouragement remains.
I feel sorry for the developers, in that much of the anger directed towards Rivals stems from decisions made well before their time. For one, C&C fans haven't forgotten the butchery that was C&C 4, a game originally targeted at the Asian market, and Command & Conquer: Generals 2 that was converted into a free-to-play game before being cancelled after fan backlash.
Some of those lessons have been learned. As Ethan noted in his E3 preview, there's no timers or gauges preventing you from gameplay. You can jump in and out of matches as much as you like. There's also a neat system for watching matches from other players, which is handy for seeing how others are responding to the meta.
And the general principle of an RTS through cards isn't a bad spin on the genre. Halo Wars 2 tried something similar, and you can still incorporate classic strategy elements - positioning, rock-paper-scissors unit counters, cheese-vs-economy focused strategies and more - into a mobile format. There are also lots of small opportunities for clever micro, dancing units on and off platforms, juking aircraft away from anti-air vehicles, moving infantry around to delay the nuclear launch.
There's a core idea at play that can absolutely work. Clash Royale showed that the principle of an RTS can be ported to mobiles just fine, and the spirit of the genre does shine through in Rivals.
But the overall experience just ends up being too frustrating. Take the base mechanic by which games are decided: nuking your opponent through holding control points. A meter illustrates the nuke's impending launch and a player only has to control the platforms at the very end to land a hit on the enemy.
It leads to standoff-ish type scenarios where you're really just waiting to see what your enemy deploys. There's no advantage for holding all of the platforms, just the most, so once you've got a small lead, you might as well sit back and work out what other units your opponent has access to.
It's a weird dynamic for an RTS game. The second annoyance stems from the fact that you never really know whether the playing field is level or not. I noticed in a few instances where my infantry would end up trading blows with an opposing unit early on, despite having the positional advantage and getting an early shot in.
At the core of it, that's not even a flaw of the pay-to-win or free-to-play models. It's an inherent flaw that stems from introducing RPG elements into an RTS, particularly a multiplayer one where there is no guarantee that all players will be on the same level. Throwing loot boxes into the mix makes that worse. Even if you don't spend any actual cash, you've got no guarantee that you'll be able to pull the more powerful rares and epic units - which, naturally, are more powerful out of the gate.
Putting that to one side, Rivals is pretty overt when it comes to spending something. There are three currencies and a timer visible on the main screen. You can always spend coins to be just a little bit better, survive just a little bit longer. It fosters an environment where losses never feel fair, even if they really are, because the game constantly reminds you of all these other plausible factors out of your control that could have affected the result.
It's a reminder of all the things people hate about mobile games and the worst elements of the free-to-play model. It's what people feared when C&C Rivals was announced, even though the end result isn't that egregious. And it's a shame because RTS games can work on mobiles just fine.
But not like this.