There’s just something about the Red Alert Hell March songs that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.
Perhaps the memories of the first Red Alert, on my PII 266 and 14” CRT screen, complete with ball mouse and wonky cord. I remember playing late into the night, trying to sneak Tanya past those dirty commies. Making rude words out of Tesla coils in multiplayer games, so when my LAN mates rolled in to my base they were greeted by an electrified, insulting defensive line.
When it comes to RTS games, I’ve played just about all of them, and clocked nearly every one I’ve played. However, very few were memorable, and even fewer are as well known as Red Alert. EA has brought (or arguably bought) all its talent to the table to bring us number three. Is it worthy? Maybe it’s just the Command & Conquer 3 engine with a few new models and maps? Maybe it’s the best RTS this year? Well, that would be telling….
A few months ago, I was lucky enough to get into the Red Alert 3 multiplayer beta, courtesy of Electronic Arts New Zealand. You can read my early impressions here. It was a nice experience, giving insight into the art direction, the multiplayer gaming, and the new units and factions, however there were still a lot of unknowns. Who were the Japanese faction? Why was the guy from Muppet Treasure Island pretending to be a Russian premier? (sorry Tim Curry, but that’s the first movie I think of when I see your face). Was the single player going to be as good as the earlier games?
The arrival of the DVD on my doorstep (I mean, umm, secure post office box) was almost the end of the review. The courier had put it nicely under my doormat, so no one could see it. This is why I stood on it. Not off to a good start, I took the game inside and began the install process. Still slightly shaken after my Mercenaries 2 install experience, I am relieved to report that this time, things went smoothly. Enter the CD-key (Why don’t they call it a DVD key?) and go make a cuppa. Come back and all is well.
I have read that some people have found the DRM online check to be a painful experience, but I had no such trouble. The game loads to the menu in under thirty seconds. The only slight annoyance was that I had to reinstall the game in Windows Vista to play it. Which, since it’s not a DirectX 10 game as far as I can tell, was a complete waste of time. But I tried it for you, and at least I can report it runs fine in 64bit Vista.
And thus began my Red Alert 3 experience. It may have been the shiny new 22” widescreen monitor, or the Logitech THX speakers I had just bought, but my first few hours of Red Alert 3 were nothing short of awesome. The cut scenes and the B-Grade acting set the not-so-serious tone. Lots of well known, but not super famous actors are here, including Jenny McCarthy, Tim Curry and George Takai. Awful Russian accents, exaggerated egos, and ridiculously good looking assistants have all made their way back to the game. Electronic Arts have added extra cheese this time around, but it still makes for a good gaming pizza.
The single player campaign follows the usual RTS philosophy. Each faction has its own story which involves the overall story arc, but from that particular factions perspective. The biggest change here is the addition of the new faction, the Empire of the Rising Sun. About halfway through the Russian and Allied campaign, you’ll be interrupted by the Emperor, declaring the empire as the new super power. This of course leads to conflict. And being the megalomaniacs they are, the leaders of each faction solve conflict with tanks, bombs, and super weapons.
Each mission normally starts out with a single objective, then just when you’ve completed it, another objective is needed. Your contact for each faction will appear in a live video feed in the corner, and give you the run down on what to do next. This element can get a little predictable, but at the same time you can deliberately stall completing an objective in order to build up your forces. Of course, the one time you remember to do it is the one time the new objective takes you to another part of the map and gives you a commando.
Each single player campaign is played with a co commander, an AI you can issue limited orders to, and who mirrors your objectives. Generally this works quite well, the AI usually did what I told it to. However when you expand your base, the AI co-commander will often rush to capture structures that give credits, and to build refineries at spare ore deposits. It’s pretty quick too, so you need to fire those engineers out immediately to stop your ally thieving off with all the extra resources. Unfortunately there’s no way of telling your ally not to do something. Once an MCV unit missed its script trigger on a map, and I had to restart, but that’s probably a one off.
Oddly, in some missions, where you are using allied units, the interface for your co commander is missing. At first glance this seems to be a bug. However after restarting the level several times, I realised that the interface for issuing co commander orders was swapped with a system where you click on a structure and click an execute button to give your allied units the orders to infiltrate. It seems like an unnecessary and odd change to make halfway through a game, for one mission.
The biggest change, both as a positive, and as the biggest gripe for the internet forums, is the addition of online co-op. In the single player campaign, you can replace your co-commander with a human ally, from the outset of the mission. But you can only do this online, and not via. LAN.
Supposedly this was due to piracy concerns. Point sorely missed I feel, as those who would pirate surely would anyway, regardless of one small feature. And as a result those of us with legit copies are left without a potentially great feature. Especially since with online co-op the other player could be anyone, and there’s nothing more annoying than ending up with an ally who isn’t actually helping.
The single or co-op campaign is a lot of fun, if nothing new. The usual varieties of missions are provided. One mission you build a base, the next you guide a small handful of units past behind enemy lines, the next you defend a town or object for a predetermined amount of time from waves of enemies. Then there’s the last "build a mega-base, obliterate the enemy one final time" mission. There really isn’t anything new here, but the execution is very good, and the game plays well enough that you don’t mind. You do get to complete these missions with a different set of units than you would have had in the last Red Alert title.
Units aren’t really new this time either. Mainly traditional units, dogs or bears, tanks, planes, Tesla coils or prism towers. The Empire’s units are visually different but function in much the same way. Some units are new, such as a man cannon armed amphibious transport for the Soviets, freeze choppers for the allies, and the Empires unique buildings that are built then manoeuvred like vehicles till unpacked. Units do seem pretty balanced, certainly in single player. However unit balance only really becomes obvious after several rounds of multiplayer action. More on that later.
One curiosity is that each faction climbs the tech tree slightly differently. The Soviets have the traditional C&C system, build the tech lab, and the super power plant, and you have full tech. The allies have two clearance levels that you buy within their structure building list. The empire has a tech level you purchase, one level in the structure list, and one level in the vehicle list. I found this a little confusing at first, and couldn’t quite figure out what the point was. It wasn’t different enough to be worthwhile, but was different enough to make you have to hunt for it.
Multiplayer is here of course, and as good as always. Games are usually very fast, and favour rushing rather than base building. Defences are never quite enough and buildings only take three determined rocket soldiers to destroy. As such it prevents the game becoming a resource race, as battles are normally over quickly. On the bigger maps this changes, and securing your ore early is vital as by mid-game the player with the most cash is probably going to win. Lag has improved, though the match making interface is still slightly awkward to use.
Graphically, the game is loud. Very colourful, and almost cartoony in design. The units are well animated, and entertaining to watch. It would be nice to be able to zoom out just a little more, but I can say that about 99% of the RTS games out there. The only issue with graphics I have is that when zoomed right in, the shadows are a little blocky.
So far I’ve made it through the Russian and Allied campaign. Both were plenty of fun, if not perhaps a tad predictable. You can play the campaign for each faction in any order, so if you want to see what the new Empire faction is like, you can jump right in without having to finish the other campaigns, as was initially rumoured.
I would say that if you have Command & Conquer 3, this game doesn’t really offer you anything new. But when i think about it, everyone I know who has C&C 3 has been eagerly awaiting this game. So I guess there is probably room for both in your games library, if not on your hard drive.
The game is bright, fun, fast, and runs on modest systems surprisingly well. And surprisingly bug-free for something out of the EA stable. Have things really improved in the Quality Control Dept at EA? Lets hope so, because with most EA titles, it’s the bugs that hold them back, not the gameplay.
However the biggest danger to sales with this title is the fact that there will probably be an expansion pack, and that the best value is always to buy the combo pack that inevitably comes out.