"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 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."

This is the first Red Alert game in 7 years. But is it still relevant?

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."

Economy and micro-management has been streamlined

The upshot of this is that building more refineries and spamming more harvesters won't generate any extra income from a single ore node. The harvesters will line up and wait for the ore node to reset. In this way, players will be forced to expand quickly out of their starting base and seek out ore nodes (shown as grey boxes on the map). "Obviously the ones that are closer to your enemy are the ones that you're going to contest and fight back and forth for. This is really to push the player out of their base, and try to expand their economy, defend their economy and then counter the player out in the battlefield," Amer says.

All three factions have completely different build systems. The Allies build units in a traditional RTS fashion, not unlike the GDI and Nod from C&C3. You queue up a building in your menu and when it's ready you place it down in the game world and it springs forth instantly. The Soviets differ by allowing you to place a building instantly, however you have to wait for it to construct and it's vulnerable to enemy attack while it's doing so. As before both the Allies and Soviets have to build within the radius of their MCV, which is represented by a faint red line on the game map.

The Empire of the Rising Sun, however, can build 'eggs' which can be moved anywhere on the map and used to expand your base. As a result they can expand and take control of a map in the blink of an eye. The problem though, is that the 'egg cores' are lightly armoured, and so will need an escort wherever they go. Either that, or risk running into a rival scout party and lose all that cash you invested.

The biggest tweak, however, is that every single unit in the game now has one primary and one secondary ability. "That's to keep things very simple and make it clear to the player where their units and forces fit within the overall tech tree." The biggest button in the UI, in the lower right corner, can be clicked on to switch. Take for instance, the Ally anti-infantry unit the Peacekeeper. He carries a devastating close-range shotgun but is weak from a distance. Basic rifle infantry, which do the same damage from any range, will cut him down like cannon fodder from a distance, for example. To combat this the Peacekeeper's secondary mode gives him a riot shield. He'll take a strong hit to his speed, but he'll be able to withstand a lot of damage as he closes the gap just enough to devastate with the shotgun.

We can't wait to get our hands dirty with the cooperative only campaign

So far we've concentrated on RA3 as a multiplayer skirmish experience, which we know will be the way many fans will play, especially online (six players max on PC, four on 360) but we know that not everyone will play that way. Each faction's campaign (nine levels each, 27 total) forces you to play cooperatively - there is no choice in the matter. Expect hands-on impressions from the campaign at Games Convention next month. Until then, Amer is remaining tight lipped - "We'll be demoing the campaign and showing off the cast at Leipzig. I wish, I really wish I could tell you. I'll leave it at that. We even have a British celeb in the game."

What we do know about the game's story, a typically barmy tale, is that it once again focuses on time travel. Fans will know that the first Red Alert began with scientist Albert Einstein going back in time to try and avert WWII by killing Hitler, which he does. Back in the present (the 50s) he finds his efforts didn't stop the war, with the Soviets running unchecked as a result of a weak Germany. In RA2 the time travel theme continued, with the war heading to US soil and the Soviets ultimately defeated. In RA3 it's the turn of the Soviets to try their hand and time travel. They go back and try to take out the one person responsible for their two heavy defeats - Albert Einstein. They are successful and return to the present full of themselves. But all is not well. The Soviets find the Allies power weakened, but, because Japan was allowed to rise to power unchecked, they now have a third faction to worry about. You have to think, after three games full of botched time travel, when will these guys learn their lesson? Haven't they seen Back to the Future?

As our time with Red Alert 3 comes to an end we're left in two minds. Yes we thoroughly enjoyed our time with RA3, but was it because we played it through rose-tinted nostalgia goggles or was it with genuine enthusiasm? We've seen little that revolutionises, but then you could say the RTS genre as a whole is one of the hardest video game genres in the business to innovate in. RA3 looks like more of the same, prettier, bigger and streamlined, which is certainly a good thing. But for those of you who haven't been bothered by the series in the past, we doubt there will be anything here when the game is finally released to change your mind.

What we're certain of is that we love the Empire of the Rising Sun, and we can't wait to go even more in depth with their units, tech tree and transforming ability so we can sniff out every single otaku culture reference packed into the game. This, we have decided, is going to be a hell of a lot of fun.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 is due out for PC and Xbox 360 this November.