Command & Conquer and RTS Background:
C&C was one of the first video games I loved. It was the game that got me into RTS, which was my favorite genre for years. I only played the C&C series through Generals though. When Starcraft II came out I played a lot and towards the end was a top ranked Master (which is their leveling system and comprised at the time the top 2%, the only higher level was Grand Master which was the top 200 players in a geographic region). This isn't intended to be bragging but to give a general idea of the weight to give my other thoughts (whether that should be more because I am generally fairly good at RTS games or less because my RTS experience by definition is therefore not the same experience that most players have, is up to you).
I've been playing for the last two weeks. A little every day. I just became level 10. I have all GDI commanders and troops for that level unlocked except for Zone Troops and the Disrupter. For NOD I'm missing Oxanna, flame tanks, chem troops, and artillery.
EA in General
Yes, I'm aware of the backlash against EA for Rivals (which after playing Rivals I think is completely unjustified at the moment) and for things like Battlefront (which was justified).
I love this game. It's everything I didn't know I wanted in Command & Conquer (and a few things I did). The art for some reason seems right and reminds me more of the first C&C than any other. The sounds do as well. So far I think the only SFX I miss was the GDI gun turret from the original C&C. The music is also very reminiscent. They picked the right units to include. Virtually the iconic units are all there. And the gameplay is good too. Plenty of both tactical and strategic options. There is a surprising amount of depth into overall unit composition, both selection before and during match, I think the counter system feels very true to the original. And there is a level of micro-management as well. There are several drastic departures: point control, base/unit building, no single player, and upgrading units.
Point control doesn't really feel like C&C, but part of why I stopped playing RTS games in general is the time commitment was too great. These short matches, forced to an end by the nuclear missile, solve that and have let me get back into a game I love. Additionally, control of the platforms adds another level depth to the game. Do you just give up the first missile? Can you take a missile back through clever spam and unit manipulation despite being otherwise behind? Is it worth sacrificing a harvester to hold a point? And you have to be able to respond to those same tactics from the other side.
Base building is gone pretty much completely. This is sad, but again, probably necessary to get these short matches. The switch from individual unit production, with different timings, to global unit production which a single timing that increases the more units you have (which harvesters count towards) is another change which adds a surprising amount of depth. Is a second harvester worth the delayed unit production? Will you block yourself from getting the best units on the field by having too many good units?
No single player. Again, sad, but understandable. Still, I actually think that a single player C&C, perhaps even a single player only C&C on Mobile could be a great addition to the series after playing Rivals.
Unit leveling up. Okay, this one I pretty much don't like. It's moderately interesting and fun in the abstract - the sense of progression and leveling up in the meta game is good. But in practice, it is one of the few things that has actually made me want to stop playing. Maybe this is another unavoidable necessity of the mobile genre (I would gladly have paid $20+ for this game to just have the full thing but I know many people wouldn't) but this is the biggest flaw. It doesn't break the game, but what it adds (a fun meta game level) is fully counteracted by what it takes away (a general less fun gameplay experience).
Overall, I think this game is great, I would have put money into it if I could (and I'll put money into it as a thanks once I can even if I'm no longer playing it when it comes out), I've recommended it to everyone I've spoken too about it, and I hope it succeeds. I would not at all be opposed to a series of mobile C&C games if they retain this level of quality.
Other Thoughts (mostly on how I personally feel about the balance)
As above, I generally the gameplay is great. The strategy and tactical decisions are all there. It's not a PC level of depth, but the games are only a couple minutes as well. I'm still learning and trying new tactics on a daily basis. Since overall, I think everything is working, this will mostly be about things that aren't working for me.
The Unit Level Locking: I'm not opposed to this in general. I actually think it is a pretty good idea. It removes some of the complexity when you start and makes the game more accessible. So overall, I like it. However, there are a few specific things I do not like about it. First, it does seem likely that there are some units (such as the level 14 and possibly level 12) that I will never get because I'm not good enough. I don't know this for sure, but doing the math it looks like I'd have to have about 4,000+ combined medals to be level 14, which would put me in the top 25. This seems unlikely. Even level 12 looks like it will require about 3200+ which could put me in the top 100. Even if I could get to either or both of these levels, there are obviously a lot of people (the vast majority in fact) who cannot. So a lot of people just won't be able to experience the full game, including myself. Given that at least one of the units behind these levels is the Mammoth Tank, that makes me sad.
However the bigger problem for me with level locking is that there seems to be necessary counters that just aren't available. Especially, for GDI dealing with anti-vehicle and air infantry. The Zone Troopers and Cyborgs are the biggest offenders. These guys are nightmares to deal with as GDI. Zone Troopers, as far as I can tell, straight up beat every single GDI unit below level 10 in a one on one fight. The exception is the rifle men. But here something that I otherwise like works against you. While rifle men do counter Zone Troopers, its only by a little bit. And on one level that is fine because Zone Troopers are many times the cost of riflemen. But the problem is that the global unit production limitation means it can be difficult to spam them. And if the other side has two harvesters running they can almost pump out as many Zone Troopers as you can riflemen. Cyborgs suffer from the same problem when you're GDI. There have been other times I've felt this way (dealing with the Titans was difficult for awhile as well until I got Jumpjet Troops and the Kodiak. But because it is easy to progress through the early levels, I didn't notice it as much.
I don't have a specific fix for this problem though a couple ideas come to mind. Don't introduce super counter units (units that can hard counter around half the units in the game) unless their super hard counter exists. For example, either move up the level lock for zone troops or move down the level lock disrupters. Or, make it so that the medal system continues to reward you with many more medals for winning than it punishes you for losing for longer, so that getting to higher levels is essentially guaranteed with enough play (the win loss ratio seems to start leveling out around 9 or so). Final thought, and I suppose it is possible this is already the case or could lead to other balancing issues, make the global production time dependent upon more than the number of units available. Make it dependent upon that and the value of the units on the field.
Unit Leveling: Again, perhaps this is a necessary evil. But it isn't fun in game. It isn't game breaking, but it is my primary source of frustration and compounds other problems. I've been reviewing my games and in general, over 90% of them match me with people who have, in general, commanders and units that are one to two levels higher than me. A lot of my units are level 5 now without any sub levels. A number of my commanders were still 4 until yesterday. I think I only have a few level 6 units. I am routinely matched against people who have six or seven and maybe sublevels up as well. I still win about 50% of my games so I'm not complaining too much, but it does feel bad.
Along with feeling bad, it compounds the other problems. Sometimes, it just means an outright loss. If you are running against a mirror, or near mirror, image line up and all their units are one or two levels higher. I almost always lose. Not always, sometimes through really good play on my part (or really bad on theirs) you can pull ahead but sending your level 5 humvees and rocketeers against level 7 humvees just doesn't get you anywhere. Additionally, it makes the counter system worse sometimes, such as with the super counter units. A high level zone trooper or cyborg can easily beat a riflemen squad for example.
Since this system isn't going to be removed, I would suggest a couple things. One, make sure hard counters exist even with significant level disparity. So at least only mirror match ups are likely losses. Two, compensate players when match making puts them up against over leveled opponents. I assume the matching system already considers this at some level in the matching up, rewards, and punishments, but perhaps adding something (e.g. cards, gems, coins) for unfair match ups or maybe just making some of the behind the scenes stuff visible (so players know they aren't being punished as much for losing a match against higher leveled players) would be a good idea.
This is going to be much more important once you can spend real money. If the game truly is pay to win, that's going to turn a lot of people off if they care about balance (even if they're willing to spend money). And since you've made a game that actual is a real RTS that requires actual skill that might be a significant portion of the people who will play the game.
Very well detailed review of Rivals. As a very long-time fan of Command & Conquer, though, I disagree with you regarding ideas for the mobile RTS game. It has finally evolved onto the dreaded mobile RTS genre, but at a cost of negativity from others like me. Simply speaking, they can either continue down this path, or return to what they seemly wished for years.
I'm not sure how much time I've put in so far, but I've been playing every day since around the start of the month, at least enough to get all the daily rewards. I did make it to level 12 and the top 100. At some point, I will stop playing (though I'll come back for the full launch and I'm glad my progress isn't being wiped) but currently I'm still playing every day, but a little less and there are some new games coming out that I'll probably be putting time into soon.
I've continued to enjoy this game. I think it is great. The depth and strategy is, and has continued to be, really good. While I'm nervous about what introducing real money into it will do, I continue to recommend this game and think it is awesome. I haven't enjoyed playing a real time strategy game this much since SC2.
Specific Unit Locks. This continues from my first review, so I won't repeat it. But at higher level's I'm noticing a new problem. Even though I can now unlock units all but two units, they are so low level when they are unlocked, that they are basically unplayable until I get more cards for them. Again not a big problem, but it is sad to unlock a unit and then still not be able to use it (because my snipers are level 3 and they're facing infantry at level 6-8). Being able to spend money could fix this though I suppose.
I do like the level locks in general. I think it is interesting, increases accessibility (even for experienced RTS players) and is something that forces an extra level of strategy.
Cards and Leveling Units: The meta level this provides is interesting. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to level units and looking forward to being able to do so. However, it is still almost always unfun in gameplay. Especially at higher levels where a lot of people run very similar strategies, mirror match ups are becoming more frequent and, I'm not joking about this, in the last 100 games or so all but one or two players have had an average unit level higher than mine, often by one or two levels. I don't mind this as much as some people, and I still win approximately 50% of my games (give or take) so the system is working. But it's depressing sometimes, and makes me wonder what will happen when you can spend actual money?
BIGGEST NEW COMPLAINT
Losing sucks a lot in this game. This has only become more obvious as I've hit my skill cap and really started to lose 50% of my games. Of course losing in most games is less fun than winning, but in Rivals it is really, really bad. Here's why: The cost of losing in Rivals is punishing because each loss wipes out a win's worth of meta progress and meta progress is actually necessary to keep winning.
Take Star Craft 2 as a counter example. In SC2 you have a match making rank which is hidden but represented by a visible rank which approximates the MMR Rank. If you're at you're level you win about 50% of games. Win more than 50% you'll move up, lose more than 50% you'll move down (generally speaking). This is roughly the same system that Rivals uses, but it works in SC2 and does not work in Rivals because in SC2 you MMR doesn't matter for anything except match making. In SC2 the field is completely fair and level. You aren't limited by units availability or unit level. Everyone gets the same units (side dependent) at the same level. This is not true in Rivals. In Rivals, units are locked behind levels, which you only reach by winning, and units can themselves be leveled up which are locked behind winning (or money). So losing in Rivals means more than just your rank. It means minus progression towards new units (you have to win a match just to be in the same place as you were before you lost) and no progression towards money and cards.
Additionally, Rivals has nothing but match making (or alliance skirmishes which require an active alliance and don't contribute towards overall progress). SC2 has a single player campaign, it has ranked and unranked match making, it has multiplayer player team matches and free for alls, it has the ability to team up against a computer player. So not only does losing a ranked game in SC2 mean nothing more than your rank goes down, if you don't like that you have plenty of other options. None of which exist in Rivals. You play ranked and every time you click that button you risk losing progress towards that unit unlock. This compounds the feeling of unfairness when you get matched against people with higher ranked units or units you don't even have access to.
FEATURES I WOULD LIKE:
Very good review, I'm having pretty much the exact same issues. On top of that, I'm having some seriously bad luck with card drops which is making the game just about unplayable.