Real Time Strategy is a genre of video games that’s rarely seen on consoles. RTS enthusiasts argue that a game controller simply doesn’t have enough buttons to allow quick movement to build units and structures during fast paced battles that epitomize the genre. After little success in previous attempts, EA’s goal is to make the lucrative and popular RTS genre work on consoles. Although the initial efforts showed promise, the same doubts that fettered earlier creations are still among the largest criticisms. Determined to address these problems, developer EA Los Angeles resurrected the popular series to create Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, the first installment developed for consoles in addition to the PC.
Before we discuss anything else, the verdict on the controls must be delivered as it is the biggest deterrent for gamers. Simply put, Red Alert 3 has the best controls of any console RTS. While not completely perfect, it’s easy to use and works extraordinarily well. The new controls coupled with the series’ signature, superbly acted live action cut scenes and imaginative units and storylines, create a core experience that is very good. Despite these strengths, some of the game’s shortcomings such as uninspired missions, poor graphics and a lack of options for online play overshadow momentous gains in the control scheme.
Red Alert’s universe is based off an alternate history of sorts—one in which the collapsing Soviet Union discovered time travel. This allowed them to assassinate Albert Einstein, the source of their ideological enemy’s invincibility, before he was able to make his breakthrough discoveries. The deed caused drastic effects on the space time continuum. In this alternate universe, the Allies (Western Europe and the United States), the Soviet Union, and the previously non-existent Empire of the Rising Sun (Japan) are all vying for a world power monopoly. As any historian will tell you, it is quite obvious that this one act would not have altered history to the extent to which it does in Red Alert’s universe. However, Red Alert’s story is not meant to be a hardcore, authentic simulation, but rather a source of pure entertainment.
As this game is not meant to be realistic, some of the most satisfying elements are the outlandish unit types available. The Soviets scour the battlefield with war bears, the Allies control the sea with laser-dolphins, and the Rising Sun utilize anime-inspired robots including the behemoth that is the Samurai Executioner. However, the main source of entertainment in the game is the superbly funny dialogue found in the live action cut scenes courtesy of great work by experienced actors including Tim Curry (Premier Cherdenko), George Takei (Emperor Yoshiro), and J.K. Simmons (President Ackerman). The accents and stereotypes are exaggerated, which further embellish the ironic storylines. More importantly, they make the game funny, something very rare in video games.
The single player experience includes the distinct campaigns of the three factions. Each campaign is made up of nine missions of varying length, composed of drastically different experiences to be had with each of the factions. The Soviet campaign proves to be the most enjoyable as the locations and structures of the missions blend well with the faction’s specific units. The Allied and Empire of the Rising Sun’s campaigns are less inventive, particularly due to increased restrictions on building units. The Allied campaign should be specifically noted as having the weakest of the three. These missions take the player away from building units and resource management and put them in charge of only a small group of units or their specific hero, Tanya.
The core gameplay is based around ‘rock-paper-scissors’ like strategy using the game’s ground, naval, and air units. This basic formula is improved with the addition of secondary attacks and forms. Oftentimes specific units will be able to counter their biggest weaknesses with this new gameplay element. An example of this is the Empire’s helicopter robot unit which can convert between a powerful air unit and a fierce anti-air ground unit. Whereas these helicopters would traditionally be helpless against fighter jets, in Red Alert 3 they can morph into their secondary form and completely change the balance of the battle.
The biggest differences between the factions are their modes of production. The Soviets build their structures through traditional means by choosing the spot and watching it being built. The Allies build their structures in a queue and then begin forming in the selected spot. This is an obvious advantage to the Allies as they do not have their structures in the weak “building” status for as long. However, the Empire also has an advantage in that it isn’t necessary to build in close proximity to the base. This element does have its disadvantages however. Playing as the Empire requires a closer eye on the building process due to the fact that they must engineer a drone-type-unit which has to move to position and is prone to being attacked.
Another important aspect of many of the missions is the addition of the co-commander. This is another commander from your faction that builds their own base while trying to aid you in your objectives. The player has some limited controls over the co-commander’s actions. Using the left bumper and a direction on the directional pad, the player can direct the co-commander to hold position or attack a specific target. This co-commander can be helpful, but its inclusion has large consequences as the difficulty setting has an astronomical effect on their performance. On the medium or high difficulty the co-commander is usually eviscerated quickly leaving the player in a very weak position. Furthermore, the co-commander often finishes mission objectives before the player has the chance to complete secondary objectives. This can be very frustrating as a restart is the only way to finish the other objectives.
The real reason for the co-commander mechanic is because of the revolutionary cooperative campaign play. Red Alert 3 is the first RTS to include a cooperative online campaign and playing with a friend definitely ensures a more compelling experience. The large scale battles are obviously more fun with the help of a friend as a human partner eradicates balancing problems with the difficulty. However, in an inexcusable design flaw, the game has no matchmaking process. This will prohibit a large amount of gamers to join the new online campaign as it is impossible to play if no one on their friends list has the game.
As mentioned before, the revamped control scheme is the largest differentiator between Red Alert 3 and any other console RTS game. Using a selection wheel (that is accessed by pulling the right trigger) the player has a way to control all aspects of the battlefield with relative ease. This fast reaction time is due to the easier selection of units with a highlighting selection process and the ability to view the entire map in greater detail thanks to the ability to enlarge the mini-map. That being said, the ease of controls does not make them fully accessible to non-gamers. Even experienced players will find that the tutorial is a necessity to obtain knowledge of all the commands.
Whereas the game is technically advanced in the control scheme, the graphics are lackluster. Red Alert 3 has a larger array of colors compared to other games of similar themes, yet individual units lack almost any graphical detail and there are some severe clipping issues associated with their movement. The low detail does mean that the frame rate is steady throughout the game, even during the most hectic battles, but this is no substitute for mundane graphics. Interestingly enough, where the graphics are bland, the sound in the game is invigorating. The effects of weapons and the voice acting create an immersive experience. Furthermore, the soundtrack is memorable as it includes many guitar riffs while implementing sounds from each faction’s specific music styles.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 includes many elements that can make real time strategy games successful on consoles. The creation of an adequate control scheme and an online campaign are breakthroughs that when combined with the humorous and entertaining story should equal a superb package. However, it is because of the shortcomings specifically in mission design, graphics and online options that do not allow Red Alert 3 to be recommended outright unless you are a fan of the genre.