You may think you know about the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, but you don't. In Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3's alternate history, it's the Allies launching a surprise attack on Hawaii, a longtime stronghold of the Empire of the Rising Sun, and that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Red Alert 3 puts tongue firmly in cheek and dreams up a bizarre world where armored bears parachute from the sky, transformable Japanese mecha wreak havoc, and Mount Rushmore is actually a secret military facility where Honest Abe's head shoots deadly laser beams out of his eyes.
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Red Alert has always been the more "colorful" of the Command & Conquer franchises. Its premise of time travel messing up the space-time continuum allows it to come up with some silly scenarios that are conveyed by scenery-chewing performances by actors in live-action video sequences. So with the Soviet Union facing defeat at the hands of the Allies, a trio of Russia's finest (played by Peter Stormare, Andrew Divoff, and Tim Curry) travel back in time to whack Einstein. This is a tip of the hat to the original Red Alert, where Einstein travelled back in time to whack Hitler. Job done, the Soviets return home only to discover that, like Eckels stomping on a butterfly in A Sound of Thunder, messing with time has unforeseen repercussions.
What results is three campaigns that let you play from the perspective of the Allies, the Soviet Union, and the new Empire of the Rising Sun, basically a Japan that's led by Sulu from Star Trek and armed to the teeth with almost every notable Japanese cliché turned into a unit. There's the aforementioned transformable mecha as well as non-transformable samurai robots, high-tech ninjas, suit-clad engineers, and, yes, even a skirt-wearing schoolgirl armed with Akira-like psychic powers. Not to worry, because the Allies and Soviets can play silly too, with helicopters that shrink opponents to pint size, tuxedo-clad spies, armored zeppelins, and leggy female commandos.
The big new addition in Red Alert 3 is that the entire single-player game has been designed with co-op in mind. You can either play with another human being or with the computer, but basically you each control your own base and forces. If you're playing with a human, there's built in voice-chat and an ability to drop markers on the map to get their attention. If playing with a computer, you can issue orders for them to seize a location, or strike a certain target. It's a good dynamic because it can make what are traditionally long slogs shorter; you effectively have double the forces that you would normally have in a traditional RTS. Quite often, I let my computer partner tackle half the map while I tackled the other.
There's also a naval element in Red Alert 3, as many maps incorporate bodies of water. You can build submarines, dolphins, carriers, and battleships, though the line between naval and land warfare isn't exactly cut and dry due to the amphibious nature of many units. Vessels can sprout legs or treads and roll up to dry land, and some land units can float. It does an extra dimension that was lacking in previous C&C games, and it also lets the developers show off the gorgeous water tech.
Aside from that, though, the gameplay formula hasn't changed very much from both ancient and recent Command & Conquer games. The economies have been gated a bit better in Red Alert 3, but aside from that you're in the mad race to gather resources, erect a variety of structures, research upgrades, and churn out armies, navies, and air forces. What's more, the missions have the same puzzle-feel; the campaign gradually unlocks the units and special abilities at your command. It's not until the final mission that you get everything unlocked. That, along with the design of the various missions, reinforces the feeling that you're not so much as thinking for yourself as you are doing exactly what the level designer wants you to do. Plus, it's also annoying that you can't pull the camera back to see more; you're limited to the same sized slice of the battlefield as before.
Multiplayer and skirmish play is as cutthroat as ever, even more so in fact due to economy being gated better. In last year's Command & Conquer 3, it was possible to accelerate an economy by building multiple collectors per refinery, but in Red Alert 3 you can only assign one collector and one refinery per resource deposit, which helps to prevent an early game knock out. Still, you're going to need a lot of cunning and aggressiveness to keep the other guy off balance and to seize and maintain the initiative.
The balance between the three sides feels good at first, but if there's one glaring weakness it's the Empire's dire lack of sea-based antiaircraft early in the campaign, when the Allies hurl wave after wave of aircraft at you. What antiair units the Empire does have require some micromanaging since they're transformable. That's rectified a bit later on, but it's a major headache until then.
The cast looks like they had a lot of fun for the most part. The great J.K. Simmons plays a gung-ho US president, Stormare basically echoes his role as the crazed Russian cosmonaut in Armageddon, and Curry's Russian accent just drips on the floor. Then there's no complaint about the bevy of beauties skimping about in cleavage-showcasing blouses and short skirts, though some of the "flirting" by British bombshell Gemma Atkinson is more than a bit awkward if you're anything other than a 14-year old boy.
Musically, the game has a driving soundtrack that helps fill in the lulls in missions. It works to the game's advantage that composer Frank Klepacki returned to help out with the soundtrack. Klepacki was responsible for Red Alert's iconic and memorable Hell March, and Red Alert 3's soundtrack feels like a fitting successor to that, with a modernized version of the Soviet anthem along with plenty of guitar-riffing background pieces.
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