Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (PC)
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 may be one of the most unnecessary real-time strategy games ever created. It's little more than a sped-up and repurposed version of Command & Conquer 3: Kane's Wrath, which was already quite nice, thankyouverymuch. It's certainly not much of a follow-up to 2000's Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, which was fast, but never this fiddly. It's unlovely, unimaginative and creatively bereft, adding nothing to the genre that wasn't already there and improved in other games. And when it comes to embarrassingly bad cut scenes, they don't get much more expensive than this.
Need for speed?
The problem isn't necessarily that the game is too fast. Speed is a staple of action-RTSes. In fact, the last two games from the developers of Red Alert 3 were also fast: The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II and Command & Conquer 3, both from Electronic Arts' Los Angeles studio, were built to ramp up quickly, resolve dramatically, and leave you ready for a second round. With these games, the lunch-hour RTS was perfected to the point that you could get in a couple of matches and still have time for actual lunch. And the genius of EALA was that they didn't have to compromise the basic gameplay -- both titles were diverse and tactically rich.
But then there's the issue of pacing. In other words, how much does the player need to do in a given amount of time? In The Battle for Middle-earth II and Command & Conquer 3, there was always something happening, but they avoided overdoing it. Special abilities were rare enough, and armies fought long enough, that you could turn the tide of a battle with a Ring power or an air strike. These games were an excellent balance of action and interactivity. For similar examples of fast games with excellent pacing, see Multiwinia and Tom Clancy's EndWar, both of which prove that speed doesn't have to be a dirty word.
<insert scratching needle sound here>
But for its utter lack of pacing, Red Alert 3 is one of the worst real-time strategy games I've played in a long time. The speed of the game when coupled with the micromanagement demanded is hopelessly broken. If I had less to do, the speed wouldn't be a problem. If I had just as much to do, but more time to do it, the micromanagement wouldn't be a problem (which is why it's utterly mystifying that there's no option to change the game speed). But Red Alert 3 hurries forward while expecting you to manage special abilities on every single one of your units.
Let me reiterate: every single one of your units. There is no unit here without a button that does something, usually toggling how the unit works or activating a "spell power." Red Alert 2, which was also a very fast game, had no such special abilities, so it seems odd that its sequel was singled out for this super-fiddly feature creep. The idea seems to be that the base building and economy are streamlined so that you can manage your units. But even if Red Alert 3 had no bases (they're still the linchpin of the game) and no economy (here mostly a matter of map control), the pace would still be unmanageable.
A lot of the blame goes to the interface, which can't keep up. Although it has the same unit selection system as Command & Conquer 3, complete with the helpful "drill down" option, it does nothing new to help you manage units' special abilities. For instance, if you select a mess of rocket launcher troops, there is no way to see how many are set to manual targeting and how many are set to laser targeting. You can eyeball it by looking at the actual troops and checking which ones have little lasers extending from their weapons. But the unit info display -- which is where you'd think you should be able to check unit info -- has no indication of who's laser targeting and who's manually targeting. And short of carefully picking them out one-by-one on the map, there's no way to cull the laser targeters from the manual targeters.
À la mode
Now you might think this is a relatively minor issue, and in the case of the rocket launcher troops, you'd be right. One mode does more damage but fires more slowly. It's a power-user feature. But consider that Red Alert 3 bases an entire faction, the Japanese, on toggling units between two states. Many Japanese units play a very different role based on their current mode -- so if you've got a bunch of Tengu in their default anti-air mode and you're suddenly facing infantry, you'll want to quickly swap them to anti-infantry mode. But if they're not all in the same state, you have to manually select each of them. And you won't be able to use the unit selection system, because it doesn't have any information on which unit is set to which mode. Have fun hunting and pecking on the map.
Oh, wait, you're too late. Given the game's default and only speed, you cannot hunt and peck your Tengu during an attack. They're all dead now. Clearly, the game in general and the Japanese in particular were designed for forces to be divided into both modes, but the interface does nothing to help you manage this.
"I cast Magic Missile"
Then there are the units with special abilities, such as a dog barking to stun infantry, a submarine firing a powerful torpedo straight ahead, or a helicopter shooting a freeze beam at a single unit. Oh, wait, you're too late. Your units are either dead or you've already won the battle. And the more varied your army, the more special abilities you have to track. This is one of the only RTSes I've ever played that actually punishes you for combined arms: The more types of units you build, the more of the game's feature creep you'll have to manage. Call it "feature swarm."
In a more carefully built game, this could have worked. But here, where the design is subverted by the game's actual speed, it's a pacing problem -- for a wider audience, at any rate. This breakneck pace and emphasis on micromanagement might find an audience in the small world of competitive RTS gaming. Those guys will probably appreciate Red Alert 3 as a test of skill; they'll consider Tengu management a critical part of the gameplay. But for those of us who play real-time strategy games as a test of tactics instead of reflexes, as a challenge of unit management instead of interface management, as a victory for he who plays smartest rather than he who practices most, Red Alert 3 will be a colossal disappointment, especially considering the developer's track record. Here at last is fodder for the snotty strategy gamers who dismiss RTSes as twitch gaming. It's been a long time since they were so justified in that particular criticism.
Traveling in pairs
The single-player campaign is a collection of typical missions with no meaningful way of hanging together. The twist in Red Alert 3 is that every single mission can be played cooperatively (I guess EALA figured the usual "comp stomp" multiplayer matches weren't enough). Some of these are scripted so that one player might have to play a typical commando mission while another player plays a typical base building mission. Sometimes they'll mix it up, so the other player plays a typical base building mission and his companion plays a typical commando mission. Sometimes the typical base building missions are played using different factions. All the missions are built with brittle scripting that can be beaten by brute force or by figuring out the puzzle solution. In most of these situations, it hardly matters whether you can manage the units' special abilities -- so for dumb fun, you could do worse. A bad RTS alone is worse than a bad RTS cooperatively.
The live-action cut scenes between missions used to be a guilty pleasure, but the schtick is so played out. These aren't the 1990s anymore, when we were grateful for any C-level celebrity who deigned to appear in a videogame. It's such a terrible waste that EALA has absolutely nothing clever or entertaining for this handful of accomplished actors, who wear silly costumes and deliver dull mission briefings at the camera. They rarely interact, and almost without exception, they look uncomfortable. Only Peter Stormare and Tim Curry, veterans of C-grade schlock, seem to be enjoying themselves. Everyone else looks out of place and confused and mostly waiting for the cameras to stop shooting. And it's such transparent and shameless pandering when EA insists that all the women neglect to button up their blouses. Do they assume we all have the mentality of 14-year-old boys? Don't answer that question, by the way. It was strictly rhetorical.
And as for the game's graphics, there's pretty much nothing here. You get the typical tanks and soldiers in broad strokes, but with bright cartoon colors, like candy or toys. It just reinforces the idea that these units are throwaway bits, fragile and disposable. It's a sad state of affairs when the best graphics are used in the menu screens. There is almost nothing clever or creative in how the units work, either. I suppose a Terror Drone destroying a tank from within is still pretty entertaining, and it's gratifying to see Dolphins destroy an enemy navy, but 90 percent of the units feel uninspired. The same is true of many of the global powers you can use during a game. They're mostly too fiddly or too mild.
@@ There was hardly a time I was playing Red Alert 3 that I didn't wish I was back in Command & Conquer 3. These two games are a compelling study in contrasts. Taken together, they're an object lesson in speed and pacing; in the balance between base building and army management; in the interplay between economy and tactics; in the difference between demanding precision and demanding reflexes; in how to give units personality. It's a mystery to me that EALA felt the need to follow up on a game that got it all right with a game that got it all wrong.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.