IGN Review of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Electronic Arts is determined to make the classic real-time strategy genre work on the home console. The company's plan is to forget the naysayers who think this style of game belongs on the PC with its proper mouse and keyboard support. With enough creative thinking, the commands can work on an Xbox 360 controller. It's a nice thought, and one that EA has worked admirably towards making a reality. With Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, the company has further refined the controls to make one of the most workable systems yet. At the same time, Red Alert 3 is one of the weakest RTS games the company has released on the console.
If you've played any of the classic PC real-time strategy games like Starcraft or Age of Empires, you'll know what to expect out of Red Alert 3. You take the role of a commander that is in charge of directing units, building bustling economies, and amassing armies to take control of an area. Each unit has its own strengths, weaknesses, costs, and build times. How quickly you can grab the map's resources and amass an army that can assault your enemy's base will determine your success. Red Alert sets itself apart from the pack with some wacky units and the classic Command & Conquer over-the-top sci-fi presentation.
Like most of you, I've often sat up at night and wondered what would have happened had Soviet scientists created a time machine and then used it to go back in time and shake hands with Albert Einstein, thereby altering the entire time-space continuum. The answer, according to EA, is that all women in the armed forces would wear clothes to show off as much cleavage as possible; world war between the Allies, Soviets, and Japanese Imperials would continue to rage; and attack bears and dolphins would play an integral part in conflicts. It's a very tongue-in-cheek alternate history told through live action cutscenes and mid-battle updates that will entertain you in the way b-movies on the Sci-Fi channel do.
Each of the three factions has a 10-stage campaign to play through. The kicker is that every single mission can be played co-operatively. If you don't have any friends, or just prefer to not have them mess up your game, Red Alert 3 provides an AI co-commander that will take their place. You can deliver basic directives to your AI partner and they'll listen with some degree of intelligence, or you can just let them do their own thing. I found the AI often had trouble deciding which units were fit for a job. For example, if I asked the AI commander to attack a barracks, they would often send in planes that could only attack other air units. Other times the objective would be to attack a naval base and my co-commander would be busy building up an army of infantry. That's rather useless and wasteful. It's also annoying because you share resources with them.
This mediocrity is indicative of the entire campaign which didn't impress me. In fact, if it weren't for the goofy and fun cutscenes and wacky units on the field, I wouldn't have found any reason to keep playing. The mission design very often kills the fun. Too often, Red Alert 3 relies on mission objectives that simply involve following orders to jump through hoops or directing one small group of units around the battlefield to attack specific targets. These segments just aren't fun. Rather than adding variety to the gameplay, they add dull and boring sections. And there are far too many of them.
And while I enjoy the live-action cutscenes that made me laugh more than once, Red Alert 3 sometimes takes this idea a bit too far. Faces often pop up mid-game to threaten or praise you. The trouble is that Red Alert 3 doesn't pause the action and the face takes the place of your mini-map. This puts you at a sore disadvantage at worst. At best it's just annoying to lose full control.
It's a shame that the campaign often ranged from dull to annoying in terms of gameplay. The cutscenes and overall presentation are a lot of fun and the units and powers each faction sport are so wacky they're great. The Imperials can call in kamikaze planes, the Soviets have a power called the Iron Curtain that offers an indestructible shield for a brief period of time, and the allies have Jenny McCarthy as the commando Tanya. It's a lighthearted and interesting mix of units and each faction has its own distinct strengths that make them worth using.
For most people, the online play will be where they find the best of what Red Alert 3 has to offer. You can play through the campaign alone or skirmish against up to three AI opponents offline, but the most fun comes when playing online with a friend through the campaign or in four player skirmishes. I've found the AI to be a bit lacking and the easiest way around that is to play with humans.
Playing the campaign cooperatively is a lot more fun than having to rely on a sometimes iffy AI companion, but it does have its limitations. For some reason, you can only invite friends to play with you. There's no option to search for other random players, so if you don't have friends with Red Alert 3 this feature will be closed off to you.
The versus modes are less restrictive, but don't offer the different types of game objectives that past C&C games on the Xbox 360 have. There's just a straight skirmish, playable by up to four players. You can play a free-for-all or with teams with various starting conditions for money across over 20 maps, but that's it as far as customizing your game goes.
Thankfully, each of the three factions appears to be balanced well and each is interesting and unique enough that the skirmishes can be a nice, quick and intense RTS clash. Provided a sizeable community builds behind Red Alert 3, you could easily find a lot of replayablity in the online multiplayer games.
Of course, none of this matters if you can't control the game easily, a problem that has plagued the RTS on the console for some time. With each successive real-time strategy release from Electronic Arts, the developers find a few new ways to better adapt the genre to an Xbox 360 controller. The last C&C game, Kane's Wrath, replaced the bar menus with a command wheel that made it easier to make selections and offered the option to manage build queues from anywhere on the battlefield. That sleek system returns for Red Alert 3, now aided further by the ability to pull down a trigger and zoom in on the mini-map. From there you can see where action is and can quickly scroll across the map. This alleviates the problem of being able to quickly scroll across the battlefield, an issue that has plagued RTS games on consoles for some time. It's not as slick as the strategic zoom that Supreme Commander introduced -- the low flying camera in Red Alert 3 can often be too close to the ground -- but it's still a step in the right direction.
All of these improvements make for a far more manageable setup than what we first saw with RTS games at the birth of Xbox 360, but they still don't do enough to make the console the premiere place to play these games. Red Alert 3 is entirely playable and the controls are the best I've seen for this style of game, but it still hasn't hit the sweet spot where anybody can just hop in and play. You'll want to play the tutorial before going online or playing the campaign. Even then, you'll find a few sore spots.
Selecting and commanding individual units, or grouping specific sets, can be a chore and the design of Red Alert 3 only aggravates the issue. Like other C&C games, the action here is fast paced and the person who wins will likely be the one who can act and react the quickest. In Red Alert 3, though, the individual unit can be extremely important. Each has an alternate attack or function that is awkwardly activated by pushing the right bumper and X button in tandem… which can only be done after selecting that unit or group of units. When you're trying to do something like switch your Mecha Tengu between ground and aerial modes (necessary for them to fight certain foes) and you begin fumbling over the controls while taking damage, things can quickly get aggravating.
Memory limitations of the Xbox 360 also rear their ugly head with Red Alert 3. Even with a unit cap that sits down at 50, the game suffers from slowdown in intense battles. There's also a drop in detail and general visual quality from the PC, which is a shame because the vibrant art style and unique units are creative and have a lot to offer. That offering falls a bit short here.
While playing Red Alert 3, I found myself repeatedly torn between muting the game entirely and turning the volume up. The rocking tunes fit the over-the-top style perfectly and the cheesy accents are always good fun. The problem comes with the voices that offer "help" in the midst of a fight. The only way to describe them is repetitive. If you're low on resources, you'll hear it every few seconds. If you want to make a bunch of basic infantry units, be prepared to hear them announce their arrival with the same audio clip ad nausea. These may offer audio queues as to what you should be paying attention to, but they're about the most grating aspect of the game. I think I may have driven my co-workers nuts by playing through the campaign in the IGN offices.
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