Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA LA
Release Date: October 28, 2008
The Red Alert series asks "What if?" when Einstein develops a working time machine and changes history by erasing Hitler. The Third Reich never came to be, WWII never happened, but the Soviet Union quickly filled in to threaten the world with the Red Tide. Two Red Alerts and a series of expansion packs later, the Soviet Union is now on the ropes with the Allies approaching Moscow as Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 begins. But the Soviets play one last ace: their own time machine. Going back to assassinate Einstein before he could develop the technology that would give the Allies their insurmountable advantage, they change history in their favor, restoring the Soviet Union to greatness but introducing an unexpected new superpower on the world stage: the Empire of the Rising Sun.
The Red Alert series had never taken itself too seriously, embracing plenty of sci-fi fantasy along with a healthy dose of would-be propaganda made as real as American apple pie. RA3 pushes this concept even further with some of the weirdest weapons and insane scenarios yet. The game will throw everything from trained Soviet bears, transforming fighters, giant robots, vacuum superweapons, and psychic schoolgirls into the mix, and the story lines pack on even more craziness to make sense out of everything. It's entertaining stuff as long as you aren't expecting something as serious or as complex as a Harry Turtledove novel, so be sure to leave any political revolutions at the door unless you want to see them turned into secret faction powers.
When you starting the Solo campaign, you're asked which side you want to play as, and all three have their own stories that unravel to an individual ending. None of them are intertwined like in other RTS titles, where it starts you off as one faction and you play through them in succession to get the whole picture. Instead, each campaign is set up as a self-contained batch of nine missions that are often filled with unique twists and secrets, such as what's really inside Mount Rushmore (and no, it's not a City of Gold) along with a special visitor to the White House.
Of the three campaign sets, I thought that the Empire of the Rising Sun had the more entertaining story line, if only because it feels as if it had just stepped out of a fansub. If you've watched any big robot anime, especially ones involving adolescent heroes with psychic powers, that's what George Takei is in charge of now, and when you see a three-legged, three-bodied robot that looks like it came from Bandai stomping its way across buildings and crushing tanks beneath its cyber-Godzilla feet, that's when you realize that RA3 has as much fun poking at its conventions as it does in pummeling your forces.
C&C alum Frank Klepacki returns with a new set of sounds, such as an updated Hell March for fans to savor. The heavy metal riffs and rockin' beats that had defined the series are back for every battle, and James Hannigan's inspired Soviet March that randomly plays during the menu is the kind of Red patriotism needed to kick soldiers out of the trenches, flags in hand, and into battle as they storm the capitalist beaches. It's mostly good, but some of the electricity can come off as a little too repetitive in drawn-out battles, when the same tracks repeatedly beat your eardrums. The unique tunes created for the Empire of the Rising Sun have also benefited from the strong talent behind the game, creating soft themes and Asian strings that easily accompany troops, such as transforming Tengu fighters.
Tiberium Wars marked a return to live video for the Command & Conquer series, and that continues here. The dialogue spoken by battlefield units and the living, breathing actors is smothered in plenty of intentional cheese. The impressive list of actors who will laugh, insult and compliment players on a regular basis includes Tim Curry ("Legend", "The Hunt for Red October"), Jonathan Pryce ("Brazil", "Tomorrow Never Dies") and George Takei ("Star Trek"), who have become the key leaders in its new world order. With Gemma Atkinson, Kelly Hu ("Scorpion King","X-Men 2") and Ivana Milicevic ("Casino Royale") acting as communications officers, it's obvious what demographic the designers were aiming for. Vanessa Branch and Greg Ellis also perform as two of the co-commanders.
No longer working alone, co-commanders are AI-driven partners in each battle that can help keep the enemy off balance, fulfill objectives, or build up forces for a final strike. They'll follow orders as best as they can, but they'll queue up weapons and troops based on their own approaches, so forget about asking a Soviet partner to build up a legion of Apocalypse Tanks for a final push into enemy territory at their expense. The AI does a competent job on its own, but at the higher levels of difficulty, it can easily get into trouble fending off a much more ruthless counterpart. The good news is that you won't have to rely on the AI to help run the show, as it's really only a placeholder for someone with an actual brain to step in, since friends can co-op through each of the campaign missions.
The campaigns introduce the nuances of each faction through nine missions apiece; there's a tutorial that outlines the basic operations across all three, such as base building, troop construction, garrisoning of buildings, and resource collection. Resource collection, in particular, has changed from fields of ore growing out of the ground to ore stations that need a refinery to process bins of the stuff, and veterans may notice other changes with the unit trees. A number of units from RA2 are missing or have been moved to another faction in a different form, and the timeline shift can be used as a convenient excuse. The changes will be more jarring to longtime fans, but to newcomers, it might not matter as much.
One of RA3's strengths is in this diversity, and each faction manages to show off what makes it unique without feeling like a generic knockoff of the other side, right down to how each one builds its structures. While the Soviets set up construction plots and the Allies are able to build pre-packaged buildings that they can place nearby, the Empire can build anywhere they want without being limited by their base, thanks to core units that go off and build wherever they can. The differences create a diverse playing field that caters to particular strategies, such as fast rushes, negotiation through superior firepower, or suddenly showing up in the middle of someone's base thanks to teleporting technology.
Soviet firepower is embodied by the powerful tesla coil defenses, tesla-powered soldiers, super reactors, and their armored units. Allies have a field day in the skies above, with impressive air power and fast build queues, and the Empire of the Rising Sun strikes a decent balance between both factions with the versatility of their high tech mecha. Each also has a variety of weaknesses that can be exploited, such as Allied armor vulnerability, obnoxiously powerful Soviet units forced to crawl across the battlefield, and the Empire's ability to build anywhere, which is checked by attacking their egg shell-armored vehicles killing entire structures before they're able to hatch. Learning to use a combination of units within each faction becomes even more important as a result, since the AI will adapt as well as it can. Tank rushes might be met by unexpected air power, or you might find a Kirov flying toward a pitifully defended base, so it's a good idea to keep a mix available at all times.
As the battle rages on, units earn experience that can turn them into increasingly powerful assets that can be devastating on the battlefield, especially with their secondary attack options. Security points are also earned, which can be used to purchase what RA3 calls "Top Secret Protocols," special abilities that, when readied, can surprise opponents with a variety of effects that can change the course of a particular battle in seconds. Each side has a specialty tree of protocols that they can use and upgrade, all geared toward showing off what makes them unique. Among some of the more fun powers to use are Empire's kamikaze fighters, a devastating time bomb ability for the Allies, and decommissioning satellites ? and anything else pulled into orbit ? to come crashing down as makeshift weapons, thanks to Soviet ingenuity.
Many of the campaign missions are split into several story and optional bonus objectives and will often grow in scope. Starting off with only a small part of the much larger map to work with is typical of each mission, especially when certain milestones are met that reveal an even worse situation than what the briefing had prepared anyone for. This can easily catch forces unprepared when the bulk of the enemy's strength is suddenly revealed at the worst moment, making in-game saves valuable.
As much fun as it was to fight for Tim Curry and the Motherland, RA3 has several cracks in its armored plating. For one thing, pathfinding was less than impressive, especially when I'd occasionally catch a missing unit doing the "dance" as it spun in place until I had to move it myself, along with performance issues that would mysteriously slow down the game (and even the menu) on occasion, even with the latest patch and reduced settings. On the other hand, I didn't encounter any problems with the title's use of SecuROM copy protection, but it's understandable that there are players upset about it. An Internet connection is also needed for the SecuROM protection to verify your copy when you start it up so that you can actually play the game. The good news is that once it's done that, you won't need to keep the disk in the drive anymore.
It's too bad that EA has decided, yet again, to try and perform the functions of an all-in-one online solution with their multiplayer component, which is buggier than a flea-infested Soviet bear. If you don't have an EA account, you will need to make one because you need it to play an online game through the GameSpy service. This also ties your copy of the game to your EA account. It probably might not be so bad if it didn't often drop connection with the authentication server, kicking me off the network. But when I can play a hot seat, four-way match on Massgate with World in Conflict, there's something to be said about what EA is exactly trying to accomplish with so many restrictions. You can't even surf matches to find open campaign co-op slots unless you get an invite, but at least the chat room works.
With titles such as World in Conflict and Company of Heroes raising the bar, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 can come across as fan service made for players who fondly remember when Westwood Studios was still around. Red Alert 3 doesn't falter from the formula that had made its predecessors legend, and it delivers a polished return to its roots that can still be fun, especially with a faction amusingly based on big robot anime and "Akira." RTS players have something new to play with, even if it pretends to be a time machine taking them back eight years to the past, while delivering more of the explosive, over-the-top insanity that the series brings to the genre.
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