Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun is the high water mark of the Westwood RTS franchise for serious storytelling. The 1999 game was the third title in the Command & Conquer series, released when Westwood Studios was at the peak of its creativity. The Command & Conquer series was one of the lords of the real-time strategy genre. The gameplay cycle of building bases, gathering armies, and smashing enemy forces made for a gripping top-down military action experience.
But Tiberian Sun was a break from the previous titles in the series. Though the earlier games had elements of sci-fi, they were relatively grounded in modern warfare technology. The first Command & Conquer was based on the Gulf War with the ever-watchful eye of world news television following the high-tech forces. Red Alert was an alternative future WWII involving the Soviet Union invading Europe instead of Nazi Germany. In contrast, Tiberian Sun was set in the (then) unimaginably distant future of 2030 where mechs and walkers replaced tanks, cyborgs replaced commandos and flying saucers replaced helicopters.
The most fascinating element of Tiberian Sun is how it pulled off an impressively bleak tone. Most people remember Command & Conquer storylines for their use of hammy FMVs. After this game, the series would turn into more and more of a cartoon. But Tiberian Sun was ambitious in its story in ways future games would not be. 2030 is a world in chaos, seemingly uninhabitable for humans, yet the characters hardly seem to notice. This disturbing aspect makes Tiberian Sun a fascinating and mature title in the series.
Our Tiberium Future
Tiberian Sun is the second game in the main Command & Conquer series, the Tiberian series. The GDI, a UN-backed military, battles the terrorist cult known as the Brotherhood of Nod. GDI and Nod fight for control of an alien element called ‘Tiberium. Tiberium is a crystalline parasite that can extract minerals from the soil. This substance is both the central plot point of the Tiberian series and also a key component of gameplay. An army can fund itself on the go by harvesting Tiberium, which creates the economy of these games (see the spice mechanic from Westwood’s groundbreaking RTS, Dune II.)
In the first Command & Conquer, Tiberium’s appearance in third world nations allows the Brotherhood of Nod to fight GDI. But during the game, it becomes apparent that Tiberium, which is at first hailed as a wonder element, is actually highly dangerous. In-game it will slowly poison and kill any unit left on a Tiberium field. This is the first hint of Tiberium’s real nature. Nod scientists discover that millions of people will die of Tiberium poisoning. By the end of the game, you see that the substance will cause untold ecological damage.
By Tiberian Sun, the full scope of that damage has arrived. What cities remain are already in ruins, abandoned decades ago. Both sides seem to have surrendered the surface to Tiberium mutants and monsters. GDI has taken to space, monitoring the world from their space station, the Philadelphia. Nod hides in underground tunnels, worshiping their fallen leader, Kane (“Kane lives in death.”)
The most disturbing element of Tiberian Sun is how nobody ever really comments on this post-apocalypse. The plot opens with the return of Kane and Joseph D. Kucan‘s legendary braggadocio performance. With a second GDI and Nod war underway, events are too busy for the characters to spend time on what has happened to the Earth. The crawling blob monsters, destructive ion storms, and stark ruins of civilization are normal to them. We barely see life outside the two armies. One gets the chilling implication that everybody else is already gone.
The main struggle of Tiberian Sun involves stopping Kane from further spreading Tiberium. His messianic vision is to use Tiberium to evolve humanity. While GDI fights to stop their enemy, they also seem fine with the status quo. Yet that status quo is a world we cannot recognize.
Players do not get a sense of how much the world has changed since the first Command & Conquer until the first mission of the GDI or Nod campaigns. The opening cutscenes do not address the changes at all. Once the missions start, players first see that the game is set on a depressingly stark gray and brown barren earth. The music is a moody and slow production from composer, Frank Klepacki rather than his typical thumping techno tracks. The levels are full of subtle world building details. Your soldiers can march past the rusting remains of gas stations and skyscrapers. Weird colorful plant life sprouts around the corner of the base, having replaced the standard green of the Earth.
Tiberian Sun also uses lighting to great effect. At night Tiberium isn’t just a sickly neon green, it actually glows. Even when you fully harvest the field, the Tiberium leaves behind a green stain on the map.
Westwood attempted something different with the FMVs in Tiberian Sun. Games in the series before and after featured the characters talking into the camera. They are addressing you directly as the nameless hero “commander.” In Tiberian Sun, Westwood wanted to turn the game into almost a full movie. They hired two named actors, James Earl Jones and Michael Biehn. You play as either the icy Nod warlord Anton Slavik (Frank Zagarino) or as the Hollywood action star Michael McNeil (Biehn). The characters have love interests, get caught in danger, and solve mysteries as the plot unfolds. It was a weird departure from the typical Command & Conquer style. But this method gave the game at least a pretension of having a real plot, rather than just frame story around the missions.
Tiberian Sun will never rank with the great stories of video games. But perhaps because the story was so busy with its many characters, it only added to the unspoken mystique of the tone. McNeil can be the blustering star all he wants, but his small victory is overshadowed by the world around him. He might win the war against Kane, but it seems the war for the planet is already lost. Tiberian Sun leaves you with a lingering impression that your victory is short-lived. If the world has been changed this much in just a few decades, what will happen next?
By Tiberian Sun‘s expansion pack, Firestorm, you were once again playing a fourth wall commander. Cost probably decided this more than anything else — there’s a reason Westwood could get Frank Zagarino back but not Darth Vader or Lt. Hicks. But by this point, Westwood’s owners, Electronic Arts, were calling the shots. They had already forced the early release of Tiberian Sun. Their next decade of management would eventually kill Westwood and their franchise.
Command & Conquer as a franchise was going to pull in a much more campy direction. Red Alert actually features a horrifyingly accurate portrayal of Joseph Stalin. Red Alert 2, as great as the game was, has a fat buffoon as Soviet Premier backed by a bald psychic played by Udo Kier. Later games never pretended to be anything other than pure self-satire. Generals was 2003-era War on Terror jingoism on cocaine. (Imagine a developer making a game so boldly neo-con today.)
The later Tiberian series games never seemed to capture Tiberian Sun‘s tone again. In Command & Conquer 3, Michael Ironside and Billy Dee Williams do more damage by chewing the scenery than all the tanks and bombs combined. The 3D graphics in that game are clean and pop out brightly, killing the gritty effect of Tiberian Sun‘s sprite work. It’s an alright release, but a sloppy sequel. Then the last entry, Tiberian Twilight, was an unmitigated disaster. Forced online DRM and terrible storytelling have left the series all but dead until the present day.
But Tiberian Sun remains special to fans. It was the game that felt confident in its ability to tell a dark twist in the Command & Conquer saga. Even now, more than a decade later, Tiberian Sun is worthy of fond remembrance.