The Good: Innovative Co-op Mode. Snazzy new graphics.
The Bad: Unit balance issues. Special faction powers also seem out of whack. Bland missions.
The Ugly: Really awful pathfinding at times.
I recall mentioning during my review of C&C3 that I felt that the entire Command and Conquer franchise was coming dangerously close to what I called the Wing Commander tipping point that point at which the movies in the game become more important and more fun than the game itself. I’d like to announce with Red Alert 3 that the tipping point has arrived. Oh, don’t get me wrong RA3 is an OK game. It is in many ways a sort of mildly improved RA2 with better graphics and some gameplay modifications, but from a players’ perspective it feels like a whole lot more time and effort was put into polishing the movies and storyline than went into the game itself.
The movies are, without a doubt, first rate. They’re chock full of B-listers such as Jenny McCarthy, George Takei, Tim Curry, Kelly Hu, that guy who plays Mikhail in Lost, and a slew of other character actors that I could recognize without being able to actually put a name on them. Sets are lavish and special effects are high-end (though for the most part obviously CGI). The plot
well, that’s pretty good too, though has some obvious flaws. The Russians, up against certain defeat at the hands of the Americans, travel to the past to eliminate Einstein and end America’s nuclear superiority. Returning to the present they find that they are now at war with both America and a third superpower Japan’s Empire of the Rising Sun. Oh, and apparently without Einstein no one invented nuclear weapons, ever. How does this new world order play out and will the timeline be restored to normal? The story is told through three campaigns, one for each faction, for a total of 27 missions. Everyone’s acting is gloriously over the top, Tim Curry being a particular standout. The women are all relegated to fetish roles either demure secretaries and assistants dressed as strippers or hyper dominatrix assassins dressed as strippers. There’s even a poster included in the box The Women of Red Alert 3 or something of that nature. There are no doubt those who be offended by such things. Live and let live I say, especially when cleavage is involved.
By far the most innovative thing in RA3 is the new cooperative mode. Every single-player mission has a second army acting as your ally. You can have the computer play that role, giving them simple instructions such as attack this target or defend that area. On the whole they do an OK job, though they sometimes seem to ignore your commands, or perhaps it would be better to say that they do eventually get around to your command but it’s not high on their list of priorities. Alternately, you can go online and find an actual person to play that role through the matchmaking service. The service is a little kludgey, but the concept is first-rate and so natural that I’m surprised that I’ve never seen an RTS do that before. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of that in the future.
The rest of the RA3 improvements are a hodgepodge of things we’ve seen in other RTS games. For destroying enemies or doing other good things in combat you are awarded “generals points” (as in C&C Generals) which may be used to purchase special faction powers. The Russians get to drop space junk on their enemies, and they have a magnet that can drag a unit up into orbit while the Americans get a surgical bombing run or an antimatter blast. Continuing the theme of RA2, the units are split into air, land, and sea groups, though there are air units that land for combat (kind of like mechs) and sea units that are amphibious. Most units have two attack modes or special attacks (several of the Japanese units actually look sort of like Transformers). Warcraft 3 had special unit attacks the Transformers thing could be seen a little bit in Starcraft where the tanks could also be artillery units, but otherwise seems pretty fresh.
My real complaints begin as you start to actually play with all these units and powers. The Russian powers, at least in the single-player missions, come across as far too powerful. The space junk destroys units and buildings over a fair area, while the surgical strike only does a little bit of damage. The magnetic thing that flings a unit into orbit is so easy just click on a unit and it’s gone (fast units can be a little tricky to catch) while the Americans have a freeze ray thing that only slows units down temporarily and doesn’t destroy anything. There are many, many types of units, some of them familiar like Tanya (now played by McCarthy), the attack dogs, and the Kirov bomber. Some of them new, but several of them seem so weak and pointless as to be almost useless unless the mission specifically contains a puzzle that uses that power. The best approach I found is to determine the one or two units that really dominate on the battlefield and build nothing but those. There’s very little of the rock-paper-scissors thing going on here, and swarming the enemy is the best strategy you can find. That’s sort of disheartening after the better unit balance present in C&C3. I also found that controlling a force with many diverse units made it almost impossible to use the units’ special attacks, and some of those are quite powerful.
One other thing that I’ve got to add here is that the pathfinding is some of the worst that I’ve seen in recent years. Units moving through a narrow passage get all bunched up, some of them simply giving up if they find the way temporarily blocked by another unit. Moving big groups of units across anything but open water can be like herding cats. Considering that pathfinding in C&C3 was for the most part pretty good, the performance of RA3 was aggravating, giving a pair of units a command and coming back to them later to find that they somehow banged into each other and gave up, only a short distance from where they started.
The missions are for the most part uninspired. They’re spoon fed, coming to you in little steps, leading you down a very specific path to the conclusion. Later missions are more open, but the enemy base frequently has a very specific weakness (pointed out to you during the mission briefing or during in-mission updates) and you’d be a fool not to attack them. The computer AI seems almost unresponsive to many attacks, standing by passively while you destroy key defensive outpost as you march your way to its heart. Online matches are more interesting as people do some astonishing and peculiar things with weird combinations of units.
The graphics have gotten a complete overhaul, and yet at the same time maintain a great deal of RA2 retro flavor. Special attacks have some good effects as well. I’m impressed that the graphical presentation is every bit as intricate and detailed as C&C3 and yet comes across, with neon colors and funky architecture, as a completely different experience. Sound effects are fine, though I think a little more bass in the boom of a satellite landing on your enemy would have been nice.
As I said in my intro, the movies seem to be where all the care was taken. I recall several C&C3 missions that I’ve replayed to see how different strategies would work out. As fast as I played through a RA3 mission it was in the rearview mirror, never to be played again. I will say that it is worth playing through once, if only to see the movies, and the multiplayer adds some more mileage to it. But as an entry into the C&C universe, it demonstrates a series well past its peak.