'Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3' PC Review

February 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 is the third game in the Red Alert universe and the seventh game in the Command & Conquer series as a whole – excluding the expansions and the digital atrocity named Renegade. As such, if you’ve played any of the previous titles in the series, then you’ll know roughly what to expect here but with a few notable differences. First off though, the story…

Red Alert 3 follows the fall of the Soviet Union at the hands of the Allies once again. On the precipice of total defeat, Colonel Cherdenko along with General Krukov go back in time to assassinate Albert Einstein: creator of the ‘Chronosphere’ device, and the very instrument of the Soviet Union’s demise. The assassination is a success, and Krukov returns to the present to find Cherdenko as Premier (much to his disdain), while the Soviet war machine is on the cusp of conquering Europe. All seems to be going well for the ruskies, that is, until the Japanease stage a surprise attack against the Soviets. As the war in Europe was raging, the Empire of the Rising Sun had been all the while secretly developing and constructing a technologically advanced army, something of which the world has never seen before. Unable to manage a war on two fronts, and without their nuclear capabilities (they assassinated Einstein, remember?), the Soviets are forced into a temporary alliance with the Allies in order to quell the threat emanating from the pacific, the Empire of the Rising Sun.

The story acts as a kind of ‘reset button’ for the series; so now, instead of Red Alert 3 being set in alternate universe, it is set in an alternate, alternate universe. Confusing? Well, yes – it is – but it doesn’t really matter because the story is mostly nonsense anyway and isn’t really supposed to be taken seriously. The whole point of the Red Alert universe was to provide C&C fans with a welcome break from the bleak setting of the Tiberium universe, and so, of course, the plot is going to be totally absurd. The characters of the story accordingly follow suit and are the best source of humour to be found in the game. In between the missions are FMV cutscenes featuring such notables among others: George Takei, J.K. Simmons, Jenny McCarthy, Tim Curry and er…Gemma Atkinson – best known for flexing her acting muscles on UK TV soap Hollyoaks, or flexing something at least (usually her breasts for the camera). Despite her low acting credentials, she actually plays the part well and does everything which is required of her and that is, in a word: to look pretty, smile and convey enthusiasm. Everyone is a stereotype here, either hamming it up big time or flirting with the camera – usually both. Tim Curry is a riot as the lecherous, power-mad Premier; J.K. Simmons shows a good turn as the apple-pie lovin’, commie hatin’, god-fearing President and Peter Stormare’s performance as the Soviet scientist Dr. Gregor Zelinsky, a bundle of nervous sticks and stutters, frequently steals the scene wherever he is.

With all the money that seems to have be put into getting these ‘A-list’ actors, you could be forgiven for wondering if they forgot about the gameplay in all of this. Fortunately, they haven’t. Red Alert 3 follows the same general gameplay mechanics laid down by its predecessors – in other words: build up a base, build up an army and annihilate your opponent. The rock-paper-scissors approach to gameplay is still here and each side is well balanced against each other. The Russians tend to favour an aggressive ‘brute force’ approach, while the Allies are more technology focused. The Empire of the Rising Sun on the other hand is the wild card out of the three, emphasising flexibility and adaptability. Taking its influence from Japanease anime and manga, this faction sports a whole new style of base building and several units often have two forms they can take. For instance, the ‘Striker VX’ is reminiscent of the AT-ST from Star Wars in its primary form but with AA capabilities, while in its secondary form, transforms into a helicopter which can target ground troops.

The classic C&C sidebar is still present and correct from previous games; however, each faction, while unique in the units and buildings it has access too, also possesses different base building methods. While playing the Soviets, to build: you must place the building on the battlefield first before it begins to constructs itself over time until its complete. This is opposed to the Allied faction where you click the ‘build’ button, wait for the building to become ready, and then place the building on the battlefield. These changes sound may sound trivial and cosmetic, but they do make a difference in the heat of the battle and in how you plan your strategy. As mentioned before, the Rising Sun faction has a very different approach to base-building, where the individual buildings and base defenses are produced inside the MCV as compact mobile units, which the player can then order to move and unpack wherever.

A considerable amount of effort has been put into naval warfare this time around, as most buildings can now be built on the water as well as on land. Further changes have been made to encourage naval expansion in the game as a legitimate strategy. There are now goldmine outposts scattered across the water in most campaign and skirmish maps, and they can all be mined from. Many missions require that you dominate the sea with a vast naval force, and in some skirmish and multiplayer maps it may be considered unwise to do otherwise.

Superweapons, a staple of the C&C universe, remain intact here under various guises. The Russians have their trusty Iron Curtain and Vacuum Imploder, the Allies have the Chronosphere and Proton Collider and the Rising Sun possess the Psionic detonator and Nanoswarm Hive technologies. Also remaining the same are the unusual unit designs. While there are conventional weapons to be used like infantry, tanks, fighters, submarines, bombers etc… there is also now the Soviet bear, the Allied dolphin (making it a reappearance from the second game) and the Yuriko Omega commando unit – think a psychic version of Kill Bill‘s GoGo Yubari. The humour of Red Alert 3 also crosses over from the FMVs to the gameplay as the Soviet Bullfrog, a mobile AA battery and a troop carrier, literally fires its occupants out of a cannon. In the same vein, the Allied time bomb can be chrono-dropped anywhere in the map, ticking down its clock to zero and then detonating, but not before displaying a smiley face and ‘have a nice day’ on its LED screen.

Apart from the change in focus to sea battles, there is also a more fundamental transformation at work. Resource gathering is more or less completely automated as you are now limited to one refinery and one harvester per goldmine, so there is little micro’ing in this area to be done. At as result, there is no early ‘economy boom’ to be had – a typical strategy used in Command & Conquer 3 to get a leg up on the opponent. On the flip side, almost ALL units have an important secondary function and to get the most out of your units you will need to swap between the two at points given the situation. Because of this change, battles are often won and lost on the player’s ability to get the most out of his units rather than just spamming the enemy with a giant army. I personally really like this change, but I’ve heard others say that it makes the game too fiddly, that there is too much micromanagement and hand holding required now in individual skirmishes. I have also heard people say that the game is too simple and lacks complexity. I think both camps are wrong. It’s true that it takes a while to get to know which units work best in what situation, what each units’ secondary function is, but this comes fairly easily after a while and without this introduction of a secondary function, Red Alert 3 would lose an aspect of its depth that makes multiplayer games and skirmishes so exciting (more on that later).

Along with these new alterations comes the experience led ‘protocols’ tech tree, something that has been revived from Generals. Units gain veterancy points by destroying the enemy and in turn become more effective. Along with these vet promotions, the commander gains XP for every kill carried out, allowing him/her to level up and choose from a selection of special abilities which can be used and then recharge until they are ready to be used again. This is a nice addition that can make a difference in the battle at the later stages of the tech tree. It should be noted however that the tech tree in singleplayer is vastly different from that in multiplayer; in general, the protocols have been toned down and made less powerful, very probably to balance the game and prevent it from becoming too focused on that one aspect.

The campaign missions are generally interesting and a good introduction to each side’s’ units and buildings, and are entertaining in their own right because of the FMVs which follow. All missions now feature a co-commander to help you complete your objectives and this second army can either be left to the AI or a human player. The co-op does make completing the missions far more enjoyable, and as long as you are playing over the internet there is a good deal of satisfaction to be had. The co-op AI is sufficient in holding its own, but on the later levels and on the ‘hard’ difficulty it just doesn’t cut the mustard. The co-op AI will never do the mission for you; although, you can give it some simple instructions if you want to co-ordinate some kind of movement action or attack. I eventually came to regard the AI as a decoy for the enemy to attack and, sometimes, a bit of an annoyance. Having said this, the AI also could have been a lot worse so I can’t be too unappreciative.

There are certain parts in the missions I could do without, and they revolve around the points where you are given a small tactical force, and are told to destroy a given target while hiding from the enemy’s main force. These ‘stealth’ missions are tedious and boring – they always have been, they always will be – and RTSs should stop doing them. The average RTS player will probably breeze through most missions but, for an extra challenge, the ‘hard’ mode can provide the AI with a little extra kick.

The single player is only really half the game though. The long-term enjoyment and appeal of this game rests and dies on its multiplayer. Skirmish is fun when teaming up with human players to beat the AI on the ‘brutal’ difficulty setting (SO hard), and even when it’s just one-on-one – you versus the computer – the AI is sophisticated enough to emulate certain rudimentary play strategies such as hassling, rushing and scouting. The co-op – again – is fun, but lacks longevity as there are only a few missions you’d want to replay and, as is expected, they get easier and more repetitive each time you go through them.

So, as I said earlier, a good bulk of this game’s value is in multiplayer, but more specifically: competitive play. The co-op mode is actually very good for easing people into the online arena, but whether you’ll take online skirmishing to your heart really depends on the player, as it is quite impenetrable to anybody new to RTSs or even someone who’s just average at them. Competitive play is a brave new world of rushing, harassing, tech’ing, scouting, massing, kiting etc… and it can be overwhelming. Also, if you haven’t played online against human players before then be prepared to lose – a lot.

If you can, on the other hand, come through the other side of this high barrier to entry, then you will be rewarded with a game experience where every match can go off in an infinite variety of ways. There are dozens of strategies and tactics between all the factions and the player community is discovering more and more as days go by, some of which are ingenious. As people are discovering new ways to play the game the game is itself evolving, becoming a much deeper and complex gameplay experience. Fundamentally, it’s just a game of rock-paper-scissors, but there is so much too it than that, so many nuances and tricks that can be used. It’s like chess, a very simple game but staggering in its depth because it’s not the amount of pieces you have on the board necessarily, but how you use them. This is why I think moving to a more micro’ing angle to battles is a great idea; it allows more options in varying the gameplay and allows for games to play out differently every time.

I know I haven’t mentioned the graphics up to now but I should say that they are fantastic after a bit of getting used to. The animations and unit designs are unique to each faction and lovingly crafted with character; the special effects, water effects and shadow detail all add to what is colourful, pretty looking game. I found the ‘Fisher Price’ style graphics initially irksome but grew to love them in the end, and it works to the service of the gameplay, giving each unit and building a distinct look, making it easier to figure out which is which. The only thing is that the game is quite a bit more demanding than C&C 3, so if your computer barely ran that game then this one is just going to be one long slideshow.

The last detail worthy of mention is the online system: my only real strong objection to the game. I think I have been spoiled by the likes of Battle.net and The Orange Box, but while the online lobby system in Red Alert 3 is functional, it is still fairly inadequate. The online mode really needs a co-op matchmaking function and a method of browsing your opponent’s profile in-game. There are also small annoyances and technical issues such as being unable to add people to your friends list while they’re offline, not being able to sign into the online service, gameplay lag or not even being able to connect to a game at all. The lag can be crippling to online matches, since the game will stutter, stop, and start every two seconds until you disconnect or the game ends naturally. Lag has always been an issue in RTSs because, in general, the individual games are hosted on players’ machines, not on dedicated servers. A side effect is that the game will often slow everyone else’s game down to accommodate the person with the weakest hardware set-up.

Apart from these technical issues, this is a game which RTS fans can either regard as very good or excellent depending if they really get into the multiplayer. If you let the game grow on you and if you invest yourself into it, then you will find that there is a lot of value to be had here. I would strongly advise any fan of fast-paced RTSs to buy this game; for fans of C&C it is a no brainer and a recommended purchase.

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