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Medal of Honor: The Verdict

Medal of Honor: The Verdict

Medal of Honor is a game that is unsure about what it wants to be. Before release we were treated to numerous interviews from EA where they stated their primary intention was to recreate an authentic soldiering experience. Well from any military perspective that is clearly nonsense. I’m hardly a military expert but I’d imagine that during a dangerous stealth operation a degree of silence might be required, perhaps employing hand signals to indicate patterns for attack and to indicate when to move. Here however a stealth mission is guided via the medium of breathy whispering and repeated commands. I don’t know about you, but if I were lying under a bridge during a stealth mission as a number of enemy soldiers suddenly homed into view, that last thing I’d need to do as a seasoned combat veteran would be to repeatedly grunt “Stay Down!” to my trusted team-mate.

Now to criticise a game for giving the player direction is churlish. Perhaps if I was forced to learn a series of hand signals to be able to play the game correctly I’d be sat here complaining about that instead. But Medal of Honor is not an authentic experience. It may feature facets of military operations that have some relation to reality, and it may be that the game is seeking to give us a facsimile of the modern soldiering experience in terms we as gamers will understand. But it still isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Let me give you an example. For much of the game, the interface is minimised, on-screen indicators for ammo and team-mate positioning, by default fade from your screen allowing you to immerse yourself in the action, only recalling those details if you require them. That’s fine by me. Except every time you perform a headshot, an icon pops up to congratulate you, accompanied with an exaggerated brain splattering sound effect. So on the one hand we have this minimal interface, well designed and immersive and on the other we have something so inherently ‘gamey’ that it undoes all of the good UI design in an instant. It’s as though at the last moment someone thought ‘this would be cool!’ and shoved the headshot indicator into the game without a thought for the hard work that had gone before it.

The above might seem like nitpicking but in the early parts of the game it can frustrate you that the game is trying it’s darnedest to pull you out of the action with it’s immersion killing ways, just when it should be sucking you in. The constant chopping and changing of the character we are controlling should be familiar by now to veterans of the Call Of Duty series, but early on in Medal of Honor, all it serves to do is frustrate as you move between scenarios. You never really get to know the team-mates who fight alongside you, no matter how epic their beards are. At one point your commanding officer saves the life of your character after a scripted sequence leaves you at the mercy of a Taliban soldier. On brutally killing the Taliban soldier he snarls at you “I just saved your ass”. As a gamer being shepherded through a scripted sequence, in order to make an AI character look heroic, it felt cheap and made me actively dislike ‘Mother’ (or was it Voodoo? I couldn’t tell them apart) for much of the game.

You may have noted that in the above paragraph, I repeatedly used the word ‘early’ which carries the implicit suggestion that things get better as the game progresses. And they sure do. The game can roughly be divided into three acts and the second act is where things start to come together. Instead of being whipped from one scenario to the next, plucked out from the action and displaced, things start to become seamless. The player will be controlling an under siege US Ranger one moment, then whipped into the cockpit of a helicopter in the gunners seat to offer said Ranger air support. Just as it looks as though things might go awry for the chopper, we’re called into action as a sniper saving the day before turning attention to an under-fire team of Navy SEALs. It’s at this point the games message finally starts to come through, it’s not about being a soldier from a technical perspective so much as it’s about being a soldier and supporting your fellows in trying circumstances. If Medal of Honor is anything, it’s a love letter to the armed forces in game form. While that might sound execrable to you, the sequence mentioned above features some truly thrilling moments. The stand-out moment of the game comes as a team of US Rangers tasked with flanking an enemy firing position gets into serious trouble, forced to use a small stone hut as protection against an underestimated Taliban force. RPG fire blows the hut apart as you desperately cling to what little cover remains, mowing down countless foes with your M249 SAW. But for each enemy you kill, it seems like another three appear and the situation quickly becomes unmanageable. It’s a truly tense moment and the game manages to keep up the tempo for the next hour or so. This is when the game is at it’s strongest, piling on the combat thick and fast and moving between different types of warfare in a way that helps you understand how the different battles being fought link together into a bigger picture.

The general gunplay in the game is meaty and satisfying with some excellent sound design. I like that when you’re close to an ally you hear both their actual voice as well as their radio voice from your earpiece, it’s a small thing but shows an attention to detail lacking in lesser titles. The main problem with the single player experience is simply that it’s too short. Five or so hours and you’re done. Longevity could potentially have come in the form of the Tier One mode, which challenges you to repeat the story missions against the clock, with the clock pausing for head-shots and melee kills. This is probably supposed to provoke you into doing your best Rambo impersonation, and diving around corners popping enemies in the face with your pistol is all well and good, but unfortunately the mode doesn’t work. Due to the fact the single player campaign is heavily scripted and relies on the NPC actors being in the right place at the right time to trigger the next sequence, it all too often falls apart. In my first two attempts at Tier 1 mode, all was going well until a scripted event failed to fire (due to me leaving team-mates behind in my frenzied search for blood!), leaving me no choice but to start again or just quit in frustration. I chose the latter.

Nowadays every FPS needs to have a multi-player mode worthy of it’s single player and for MOH’s multi-player Battlefield supremo’s DICE were called in to assist. Considering DICE are respected as some of the best craftsmen of thrilling large-scale online violence, it’s understandable that expectations were pretty high for the multi-player portion of the game. On first glance it seems as though all boxes are ticked. Graphically, particle effects and gunfire are spot on, with the dusty Afghan environments brought to life expertly. Sound, as with the single-player is excellent, with each gunshot and explosion carrying real weight, the game does a great job of making the player feel as though they are in amongst the blood and bullets. However, from the half dozen or so hours I’ve spent in the multi-player it has become evident that there are a few flaws. For one, many of the maps are very narrow, meaning you’re forced down some pretty tight corridors of fire, often ruled by snipers. In fact I’ve seen whole games turn into one massive sniper battle, as players give up on taking the actual objectives and instead content themselves with the occasional headshot. Smoke grenades are your friend if you’re brave enough to try and play as anything else than a sniper. The spawn system too can be annoying, especially on the Combat Mission game types, where you can try and spawn on the frontlines of battle next to a team-mate. However, unlike the squad based spawning of the Battlefield games, which relies on a clever team-mate staying alive behind enemy lines and in cover, about 70% of the time here, you’ll conveniently spawn right in front of a snipers cross-hair. My main lament is that if they’d carried over the destructible terrain and cover of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, the sniper issue wouldn’t be so bad. You could simply destroy enemy cover, forcing the opposition to fall back or try to re-base themselves, giving you the chance to advance. As it is, the Multi-player is quite slow-paced and relies on rare feats of individual excellence, or even rarer moments of tactical cohesion amongst team-mates to get past the sniper slog.

Medal of Honor overall is a package containing both excellence and mediocrity. The single-player takes a while to get going, but when it does you won’t want it to stop. It’s perhaps unfortunate then that it’s such a short experience with little replay value. Multi-player has a lot of potential, but map design and weapon balance can turn it into a real chore. With regular DLC being released it could yet become a classic, but the multi-player FPS arena is a tightly contested battlezone, show any signs of weakness and your various opponents will pounce. With Black Ops just being released, Brink coming next year and Battlefield 3 announced, Medal of Honor may struggle to survive as a serious competitor, at least in its current form.

An honourable attempt.

The Sims 3: Ambitions – The Verdict

The Sims 3: Ambitions – The Verdict

There are a few things that any Sims expansion needs to be a success, firstly it shouldn’t be a ‘stuff pack’ which are ridiculous wastes of money. Any self respecting Sims expansion must include plenty of new things and Ambitions does just that.

The focus of the expansion is on new professions, these are like jobs but instead of just sending your Sim to work, you actually do the job yourself. No longer do you feel the disconnect between you and your Sim when they are at work, with one of the new professions you can stay with them all day long. For a Stylist this means you can just wait for people to get in touch with you asking for a makeover which lets you delve into the Sim editor and give them a new hairstyle or new clothes. Similarly the Architectural Desinger gets to alter other houses.

If you want more action you can become a Fireman or a Ghost Hunter, but one of my favourite new professions is the Private Investigator. Don your Columbo coat and find out what devious crimes people are getting up to. Digging through garbage and reading mail are the basics of the job, but more adventurous investigators can hack other Sims’ computers and even take part in a stakeout. It helps to have a van for these, my PI resorted to hiding behind his very own fake tree, needless to say this got him some strange looks from passing Sims.

For those gardeners and fishers out there some good news, you haven’t been ignored. Your Sim can now register as self-employed at City Hall so your hobby can now really take over your life. Inventing is also now on the cards, buy yourself a workbench, get some scrap from the Junkyard and get hammering away, you can sell your creations at the new Consignment Store or just keep them lying around your home.

The new work arrangements may be the focus of Ambitions, and they work very well adding a great deal to what was a sometimes lacking part of the game, but there is more to the expansion than just some new jobs. You can now get tattoos for your Sim at the Salon which doubles up as a makeover haven. The Fire Station houses any wannabe Fire Fighters and is complete with a firemans pole. There is also a Laundromat, if you haven’t bought yourself a new washing machine, dryer or a line you can take your clothes here to get them smelling as fresh as ever.

To go with all the other new features there are new traits and lifetime wishes and perhaps more important, there are new hairstyles to chose from. There still aren’t enough styles for my liking, but any new ones are better than nothing at all. The list RRP of £24.99 is a bit high really despite all the great new things you get with Ambitions, however you should be able to pick it up for under £20 which is a tad more reasonable.

If you want to expand your Sims 3 experience, I must strongly recommend you get Ambitions.

Note: My own screenshots didn’t work, screens in the review are from EA

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – The Verdict

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – The Verdict

As a concept, it shouldn’t work. A sequel to a game which was both a console exclusive and a single player focused iteration of a popular series gets a release on PC and turns out to be a serious competitor for Modern Warfare 2’s multiplayer crown? It certainly helps that the pedigree of the larger series is that of course of one of the best loved multiplayer franchises for the PC in Battlefield, and DICE certainly remember their roots this time around.


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Need for Speed Shift – The Verdict

Need for Speed Shift – The Verdict

shift 2009-09-17 10-33-13-41

Need for Speed Shift is the first game in the reborn Need for Speed franchise, gone are the days of playing cops ‘n robbers and street racing, this time with developers Slightly Mad Studios (of GTR2 and GT Legends fame) the series is entering the same territory as Codemasters’ highly impressive GRID. While Shift is a very strong entry into the racing game genre, it falls short of what it could have achieved.

The main failing of the game lies in the career mode and the confusing array of ways in which your progress through the game is tracked. You have driver points which progress your character level, stars to unlock new races and plain old cash for all the car related purchasing you could ever dream of.

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The ultimate goal of the game is to progress to the World Tour, to get there you will need to compete in several other tiers of events, if you win an event you earn stars and you are able to earn bonus stars by completing tasks such as earning 600 driver profile points or causing five cars to spin out. Your in-race actions, such as barging people off the road or following the racing line around a corner with some speed earn you driver profile points.

As you accumulate points in either aggressive or precision categories you will rise through the ranks of the game, each rank rewards you with something, be it more room in your garage or invitational events which give you the chance to earn some more stars. Of course you also earn money from each race in you finish in a good position and you can even earn badges once you have performed x amount of perfect starts or dirty overtakes.

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All of this just comes across as clutter that is designed to appeal to those gamers who spend all day trying to get every last achievement in a game. It is just too much here though, the game would be much better and more streamlined if Slightly Mad Studios just did away with the badges totally and use either profile points or stars to track career progressions, not both.

One of the big features of the game is the driver profile points, and yes they are a novel feature, but for the large part they just get in the way. In a race you have a bar at the top of the screen constantly telling you where you are earning points, this clogs up a race interface which isn’t the best even without this. One of the easiest ways to accumulate points is through following the racing line, the trouble is that if, like me, you aren’t one to use pre-defined racing lines you will find yourself missing out on loads of points simply by taking the line that you think is best through the corners.

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I have been critical yes, but that is just because these are the features which drag the game down, well them and drifting, but that is more personal dislike than a poor feature. The heart of the game, the racing is immense and really gives GRID a run for its money. There are plenty of ways in which you can tune the realism to your preference, turning the settings to Pro present a real challenge, especially compared to Normal. Simulation enthusiasts will find room to complain, but for most people the different levels provide a good learning curve.

The racing itself is physical, rival drivers are just that rivals, they will jostle with you and others for position and are certainly susceptible to sliding off the track without any interference from your fender and they are certainly willing to give you a nudge here and there. You will find that highlighted drivers in different series’ will seemingly run away with the lead, but you come to expect that from racing games, however annoying it can be. Another positive part of the racing is that you don’t have an annoying mechanic constantly shouting down the radio to you, you may get a short pre-race message talking about those aforementioned drivers, but once in the race you are free to put the pedal to the metal and let your engine roar.

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Shift shines when it comes to its’ excellent drivers eye view. While you are stuck behind the steering wheel, you are able to turn your view in the cockpit to look out of the side windows, though that isn’t something you will want to do when you are driving at top speed when your view of the outside world and your dashboard blurs as you concentrate on the road. This effect can take a while to get used to, but it certainly adds something extra to the game and makes the speed feel more real, something which you lose when driving with the third-person camera.

A racing game wouldn’t be complete without some great racing tracks, and following the current trend of racing games you can drive the Green Hell of the original Nurburgring circuit along with several variations on the track. This is one of the most spectacular tracks in the racing world and it is an awesome experience to drive around it in Shift. There are a host of other great real world tracks such as Spa, Silverstone and Laguna Seca, these monuments of racing stand out from the crowd which is rather poor. Yes you can race around the streets of London, but sadly it feels a hollow experience, a problem you will find with other tracks built for the game.

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Shift is visually impressive and the cars are extremely well modelled and when you use a pre-set sponsorship pain scheme they come to life as real racing machines. It is a shame then that they don’t suffer the impressive kind of visual damage you find in GRID, smashing into a wall at 150mph should do more than just disorientate you, your car should look like it has received some punishment with wheels hanging off and missing windows. However you have to really beat up your car in order for it to really look like it has been in battle.

Shift has problems, the driver points and stars system are too much for one, but one a whole the issues don’t ruin the game, but they do detract from the amazing driving experience that lies at the heart of Shift. This is a fine racer let down by other elements, a sign that mixing arcade and simulation styles doesn’t always pay off.

Far from perfect, but not that bad at the end of the day.
Far from perfect, but not that bad at the end of the day.

Games on Facebook

Games on Facebook

Tick Tock

Facebook is one of the most popular websites on the web, it brings together a diverse group of people, young and old, male and female, it is an ideal site for companies that want to get their name out to a massive audience. It should come as no surprise then that game developers are starting to move onto Facebook with Ubisoft being the latest company to do so. It is not just Ubisoft who are moving onto Facebook, PopCap have long had a presence on the social networking site with Bejeweled Blitz becoming a firm favourite amongst my friends. You can also find the EA/Positech mashup, SimSocial on the site.


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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Verdict

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Verdict

Harry-Potter1

Oh God, I’m such a pervert.

Everyone who has read a Harry Potter book will naturally gravitate towards a specific character. Unfortunately, I started with the films before I read the books, which solidified the characters into the film versions. This has made Emma Watson/Hermione rather appealing. Or she was until I played this game.

For as long as the films have been going on, EA has been churning out Harry Potter games to varying degrees of success. It was quite easy at the start, the intended audience being of the age where the merits of the game aren’t too important so long as their favourite characters are present. As the audience matured so did the source material, however, and likewise the games have been forced to keep up.

Half-Blood Prince takes an unusual road into Harry Potter this time. The old games, to the best of my recollection, were centred around Harry wandering around Hogwarts and throwing magic at magical creatures while collecting cards and frogs and things, with the odd bit of Quidditch chucked in for good measure. Half-Blood Prince takes the essence of this and fragments it into three repeating minigames and an exploration section.

The first minigame is duelling. With wizard-on-wizard action (NO, bad me!) being rather central to this entry in the series, the game has attempted to emulate this by introducing an interesting take on combat. Doing away with the magical creatures, fights are now locked into a sort of face-off situation. It’s one-on-one and face-to-face like you would expect of a duel, and you’re tasked with dodging or deflecting your opponent’s spells, all while battering them into submission with ones of your own. It’s remarkably entertaining for something so fundamentally simple, and reasonably well animated. I was actually pleased, for instance, to find that the dodge move looks hilariously clumsy rather than a heroic dive, and knocking an opponent on their rear has the same realistic quality to the animation.

Unfortunately, the clever will soon realise that duelling is far too easy. Putting aside the fact that you will invariably have a lot more health than your opponent (if you’ve been doing the exploration sections like a good little fanboy/girl) there is a certain spell in your arsenal that will cock up everything. Expelliarmus is your knock-down spell and, while perfectly dodgeable, will send your opponent into a splayed heap on the ground, from which they will take a good while to extricate themselves. All the while you can continue to pound them with Stupefy, or charge it up for massive damage, and the fight will probably be over before they find their feet again. You don’t have to do it, but why wouldn’t you?

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Minigame two is potions, and I hate it. I don’t hate it because it’s a bad minigame, it is in fact probably the best one. You follow instructions on the screen, adding various wizardly ingredients to your broth, heating it, stirring it and whatnot until it goes the right colour. It’s a nice little balance of accuracy and speed. The reason I hate it, however, is because of the lack of perspective. Until I played this game I never realised how hard it must be to have one eye. The depth perception in the game is preposterous, and I was constantly missing the pot over and over again, which led to many explosive failures and utterances of ‘I swear this has never happened to me before’ (stop it!). The only flaw in that specific minigame, and it more or less killed it for me.

Thirdly, we have Quidditch. This is a very simple obstacle course really, flying through star-shaped gates that pop up as the game ushers you around the pitch. Occasionally you will have to dodge the grandstands or smash into some young upstart who’s tickling your snitch, but it’s mostly about accuracy. It works well enough, decent enough controls, but it does sometimes feel as if the sections are a little too long.

And, really, that’s the whole game. You follow the story of the film, I suppose, but you always manage to stumble into these three games, sometimes even taking up the optional challenges scattered around the castle. They are all stuck together back the aforementioned exploration bit, which rewards you with upgrades for scouring the castle in search of shields. It would be a nice distraction from the main quest if the castle weren’t so hard to navigate. Thankfully, Nearly-headless Nick is always on hand to direct you back to your story node at a simple key press, a node that will always be too far away for my liking.

There is, however, a rather large issue that underlies the game and, while not actually game breaking, is really rather annoying. Half-Blood prince is just a Wii game with a higher resolution. This is immediately apparent, for example, in the controls. With the exception of walking, everything is done with the mouse. That’s not too bad for the most part, it works well with the Quidditch for instance, but there are moments where it is very obviously designed for a pointy-wand-thing with an accelerometer. Potions is the main offender, but duelling gets a smattering too. Pouring various ingredients into the pot is done via the WASD keys, whereas in the Wii this is done by making a pouring motion with the remote. This allows for a more precise way of adding ingredients that you just don’t get with the PC controls.

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The graphics are noticeably Wii-ish too. Although I dare say they would be good on Nintendo’s little white plinth, on the PC the characters look like strange plastic sex dolls (oh now, honestly!) brought to life by some magic darker than even Voldemort possesses. The eyes are lifeless, the hair strangely cemented and the whole school seems to be staffed by pubescent robots in wax skin. The characters look like their real-world counterparts in the same way the exhibits at Madam Tussauds do: technically identical but utterly lifeless.

If you’re a Potter fan, however, you won’t care. If you can identify which character is which, that will probably be all that matters. The minigames, while repetitive and a little frustrating at times, are genuinely fun at first, although the more hardcore gamers will get bored quick. However, ultimately, this game cannot be held to the same level as more polished titles like The Sims or Call of Duty or anything remotely along those lines. What this is, plain and simple, is a cash-in.

Does it work? Yes, actually. For a Harry Potter game it is well put together and fun, just don’t expect that fun to last forever. Of course, you’ll only buy the game if you’re a big fan of the series anyway, so you won’t care. It doesn’t break the characters, it doesn’t fly in the face of established canon, it’ll fill the hole it has been designed to fill. It’s not going to win over fence-sitters, but the die-hard fan will find something to keep them occupied.

Good enough for fans.
Good enough for fans.

(Screenshots have had to be borrowed, my bloody sister thieved the game disc before I could take my own.  Sorry!)

EA Come Clean & Conquer

EA Come Clean & Conquer

C&C4 Logo

It appears EA have finally come clean after yesterday’s news about C&C4, announcing it to the world today. Promising class-based action, all new objective based multiplayer mode and persistent player progression, C&C4 is set to see the light of day in 2010. Joe Kucan is confirmed to be returning to his role as Kane, and perhaps most interestingly, the title is being touted as the ‘Final Chapter of the Tiberium Saga’. Here’s the press release:

EA Los Angeles Announces the Development of Command & Conquer 4

Next Game in the Best-Selling Real-Time-Strategy Series Will Reveal the Epic Conclusion of the Tiberium Saga

LOS ANGELES–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Behold disciples of Nod, the end is soon upon us. Electronic Arts Inc. (NASDAQ:ERTS) today announced that, after almost 15 years and 30 million games sold, EALA is bringing the award-winning Tiberium series to an epic conclusion with Command & Conquer™ 4. Shipping in 2010, Command & Conquer 4 will introduce a multitude of innovations to the to the classic fast and fluid Command & Conquer gameplay while retaining the core compulsions that fans have come to love over the series’ history. Introducing new class-based gameplay, mobile bases and persistent player progression throughout all game modes, Command & Conquer 4 offers players new, innovative and compelling strategic depth.

“Command & Conquer is a powerful franchise with an amazing 15-year legacy. We are thrilled to bring the dramatic Tiberium saga to a conclusion in Command & Conquer 4. This game is designed to give fans all the answers they’ve been looking for,” said Mike Glosecki, Lead Producer of Command & Conquer 4 at EA Los Angeles. “With its objective-based multiplayer mode, persistent player progression and all-in-one mobile base, players will experience Command & Conquer like never before.”

The story of Command & Conquer 4 takes place after the events of the critically acclaimed Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars™. The year is 2062 and humanity is at the brink of extinction. With only six years left until the mysterious crystalline structure Tiberium renders the earth entirely uninhabitable, the two opposing factions – Global Defense Initiative (GDI) and the Brotherhood of Nod – inevitably find themselves in desperation for the same cause: to stop Tiberium from extinguishing mankind. The unthinkable becomes reality and Nod’s enigmatic leader Kane takes off for GDI headquarters. What is Kane planning in the heart of his enemies’ base? Command & Conquer 4 draws the epic conclusion to the beloved Tiberium universe, where fans will learn the fate of Earth, Nod, Tiberium, GDI and most importantly, Kane’s motivations behind his decade-long plan.

In addition to the two campaigns on the epic battles of GDI and Nod, which players will get to conquer alone or in a cooperative mode, Command & Conquer 4 will also feature a new 5v5 objective-based multiplayer mode, promoting teamwork and cooperation and delivering a social real-time-strategy experience never seen before in a Command & Conquer game.

Command & Conquer 4 is being developed at EA Los Angeles and will ship to retailers in 2010 for the PC. The game has not yet been rated by the ESRB or PEGI. For more information about the game, please visit www.commandandconquer.com or follow the community and development team on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ea_apoc. The July 24th episode of BattleCast™ PrimeTime will give fans the latest news and exclusive information on Command & Conquer 4. Additionally, Gametrailers TV will exclusively reveal the first cinematic trailer for Command & Conquer 4 in its July 23rd episode on SPIKE TV.

More information can be found on the Command & Conquer website, and rest assured we’ll be keeping one hand (of NOD) on this one.

Kane 4 Ever?

Kane 4 Ever?

Command & Conquer 4 mockup logo

Usually the C&C news would fall to Chris, but as he doesn’t seem to be around right now it falls to me to tell you that Joystiq are reporting on a Twiccup (I’m totally coining that phrase) from the EA UK PR Twitter account. In the mistaken tweet, whomever was responsible accidentally let slip a link to a confirmation of Command And Conquer 4 development being underway at EA LA. Unfortunately the press release is not there yet and the tweet itself has been removed. No other information has yet been forthcoming from EA, but it being called C&C4 points towards the latest title being a return to the Tiberium soaked fields of the GDI Vs Nod conflict. Rest assured Chris will have more as soon as he hears it. (Because passing responsibility is fun.)

Feel free to add your own naming guesses/subtitles/naming puns in the comments below.