"Our dirty little secret on the dev team," whispers Amer Ajami, Red Alert 3 producer, "is that the Empire of the Rising Sun is the tool with which we pay homage to a lot of Japanese pop culture and Japanese games. We are, to put it bluntly, a bunch of nerds on the team. We watch a lot of anime and read a lot of manga, play a lot of hardcore Japanese games."
Amer has just summed up everything you need to know about Red Alert 3's brand new faction, a force that takes everything we know and love about Japanese culture, condenses it and injects it with Red Alert RTS juice. Take the Tengu unit, for example. Essentially the Veritech fighter from anime Macross, it can transform from a ground-based unit into an air fighter unit with a simple press of the secondary attack button, or the F hot key. On the ground the Tengu is anti-ground. In the air, it's strictly anti-air.
Think Robotech meets RTS. The Shogun Battleship is a nod to the real-life WWII naval unit the Yamato. Bubblegum Crisis makes an appearance, too. The Scionic Schoolgirl, like Gogo from Kill Bill spliced with Tetsuo from Akira in some mad Japanese lab, can lift up any vehicle, even an aircraft carrier, with her mind and crush it in one hit. And then there's hardcore 2D shooter Ikaruga, which has directly influenced the Seawing unit. It has two modes, black and white, and can flip between the two. Normally white on top and anti-air, it can flip upside down revealing its black underside and go anti-ground, following the Ikaruga formula of switching colours depending on enemy fire.
"If you can pay attention to your battle and can quickly transform your units you can really manage your forces very well," Amer explains. "If those Tengus in air mode run into a bunch of anti-aircraft fire you can trigger them into their ground mode and now the anti-air can't touch you and you can take them out. If you pay attention you can really do a lot of damage."
Red Alert 3 is in fact the first Red Alert game in seven years (the last being the 2001 expansion Command & Conquer: Yuri's Revenge). So it's been a while. The question on our mind, as we sat down with Amer for an extensive hands-on of the PC version of the game, is what has EA's LA studio come up with to make the C&C spin-off series relevant after all these years?
The answer, either reassuringly or disappointingly, depending on your point of view, is not much. Red Alert 3 feels very Red Alert 2. The trademark tongue in cheek tone remains (infantry units will get down and give you 50 if you leave them alone for a bit), the vibrant, saturated "not quite cel-shaded" look is intact and expanding out from your base quickly, scouting the enemy and reacting to your opponent's force is still the focus.
Changes are more about providing better graphics and streamlining the Red Alert 3 experience, making things quicker, easier and smoother. Naval gameplay, a Red Alert trademark, is expanded upon. "Naval gameplay is a very important part of RA3," says Amer. "That doesn't mean just make more naval units. That means making units that can transition from water to land. It also means amphibious structures." Move amphibious units from land into water and they will automatically change form, with no input from the player. Power stations can be built in the sea, as well as other structures. In RA3, unlike most other RTS', you'll need to keep one eye on the land and an even keener eye on the sea.
In-game economy has also been simplified. In previous C&C games resource, whether it be Tiberium or Ore, was strewn about the land and players were able to move an arbitrary number of harvesters into a resource field and generate an incredible amount of money very quickly, which would invariably be used to build as many tanks as possible to spam the enemy with. EALA has tried to combat this by employing 'resource gating'. Amer explains: "When I went to place down my refinery I was presented with a ghosted image of the ideal location. As this harvester travels back and forth between my refinery and this ore node that time is the exact amount of time it takes for this ore node to reset and be ready to dump a new node from its little shovel. It has to go back, pick up more ore, bring that ore up to the front of this line and as soon as it does that the harvester is ready. It's running as efficiently as it possibly can."