Eight years on from its predecessor, Red Alert 3, if nothing else, shows just how difficult it is to innovate in the real-time-strategy genre. Essentially the RTS has remained the same for nearly 20 years, developers not daring to deviate from the tried and trusted RTS fundamentals pioneered by the likes of the original Command & Conquer developer Westwood Studios back in the early to mid 90s.
And so, what we have here, despite the length of time EA Los Angeles has had to think about it, is a game that's more of the same. Sure, the graphical overhaul impresses, with perhaps the best-looking water ever seen in an RTS, the campaign, built from the ground up to be played co-operatively, is loads of fun with a friend, and the implementation of a third race, the Empire of the Rising Sun, perhaps the most stereotypical Western representation of the Japanese ever seen in a video game, is a cool move, but, essentially, Red Alert 3 is Red Alert 2 with bells, whistles, and extra cleavage.
Even if you're not a fan of the Red Alert franchise you'll probably be aware of its core philosophies. Traditional RTS action is broken up by live action clips where actors talk to the camera as if talking to you, the player, a commander in one of the three race's armies. Rather disappointingly, these clips steal the show somewhat from the gameplay, and that's despite the fact that they are utterly, utterly crap.
Which fits perfectly with the camp, over the top, tits and bum obsessed Red Alert world. In one clip, Tim Curry, who plays an ambitious Russian general in the Soviet army, stares at his female assistant's arse as she walks away from his table, then turns to the camera with an eyebrow raised and an adolescent smirk on his face. Glamour model Gemma Atkinson, of Hollyoaks and I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! fame, plays an English rose Allied commander with an accent that switches mid-sentence between Keira Knightley and North-Western chav. She's got a crush on you throughout the whole Allied campaign, and offers smiles and shy blushes in every scene. Mr. Sulu (aka George Takei), plays perhaps the most stereotypical Japanese Emperor ever seen, not only in a video game, but in film, TV and everything.
The alternative history plot is equally hilarious. The Soviets, nearing defeat, develop a time travelling machine and go back and assassinate Albert Einstein, believed to be the chief architect behind Allied technology, before he's able to make his mark. Back in the present, the Soviets discover that Einstein's assassination has lead to the emergence of a third military power - the Empire of the Rising Sun, which proceeds to take out all of its samurai skills on Tim Curry's astonishing goatee.
The Red Alert ridiculousness spills from the live action and into the gameplay like a bucket of water chucked outside a first floor window onto the face of a cheating boyfriend. One of the Empire of the Rising Sun's 'Top-Secret Protocols' - special powers players are able to put points into via a tech tree of sorts - is a bunch of World War II-style planes that fly into an enemy target kamikaze style. The Soviet Union has armoured bears as scout units. It's so ridiculous that you can't take the whiff of racism seriously, but it does leave an odd, uncomfortable taste in the mouth at times.
Strip all that fluff away and what you're left with is a complicated, hardcore RTS experience that's good fun, extremely polished and, at its best, a blast. Every mission in the three campaigns has been designed to be played with a friend. Do this and you're going to have a good time. Play with an AI co-commander and the fun factor is diminished somewhat - you can boss about your computer controlled mate via four general commands, but it's nowhere near as good as actually talking to a human being.
Cleverly, you're given the option of logging into GameSpy and inviting a player from the lobby system before every chapter of all three campaigns, but unless you've got an actual, real-life friend to play with who's online at the same time as you, you'll struggle to get anybody to play with. Where you won't struggle to get a game is in competitive play, but, as with most PC RTS games, you're going to get your ass handed to you on a virtual plate, very quickly, if you don't have some serious skills.
The three factions play differently enough to keep things varied. The Soviets and their tanks are great for heavy handed players, the Allies have solid defence, but it's The Empire that catch they eye. They skew more sci-fi and have a much more nuanced play style. The Empire is the only faction that can build anywhere on the map at any time. Nano Cores, which are produced by the command centre, need to be driven to a point on the map and unfurled into the Empire's main structures, like refineries for mining ore. While it takes longer to build structures, the ability to expand your base quickly and start generating cash from refineries in the blink of an eye gives the Empire a great advantage, but you're going to need more RTS skill to make the most of them than the Allies or the Soviets.
While genre veterans won't have a problem with Red Alert 3, it's not an RTS that will feel particularly welcoming to newcomers. That the tutorial, divided up into a number of sections, feels like a slog gives you an idea of how Red Alert 3 plays. Every single unit has a secondary form, triggered by clicking on a small box on the bottom right of the screen or by pressing F. So, for example, the Empire's Striker-VX can transform Transformers style from a ground-based anti-air unit into an air-based anti-ground unit. In this way, micro-management is massively important in Red Alert 3. Effectively it doubles the number of units every race has at its disposal, and doubles the complication factor. That's cool, we can just about handle it - but often it can be one hell of a struggle trying to remember every unit's alternative mode, and what it's good for.
Where as Relic Entertainment is taking the excellent Dawn of War series in a more small-scale direction, with less emphasis on resource gathering and almost no base-building at all, EA LA has continued the Red Alert series' focus on ore gathering, masses of units and overrunning your opponent with big armies. In many cases, a decent sized force of tanks and ships, with a basic knowledge of units' secondary abilities, will be good enough to deal with the computer-controlled enemy. It's completely different in the online competitive environment, of course, but, on the whole, brute force is the name of the game, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's nothing we haven't seen before in countless RTS games before.
What does feel fresh is the emphasis on naval warfare, which most RTS games shy away from. Most structures can now be built off shore, and most units have some kind of amphibious mode, which trigger automatically as they move from land to sea. But a sound sea strategy can be a tad overpowered at times. By building a Naval Yard (Soviets), Seaport (Allies) or Imperial Docks (Empire of the Rising Sun), you're able to pump out some of the most effective units in the game. The Soviet Dreadnought, for example, can level bases in the blink of an eye from miles away, as can the other races' equivalent units. If you build up a sizeable fleet you're going to be able to beat much of the campaign chapters in a 'sledgehammer to crack a nut' style.
The graphics are great, with amazing water, fantastic explosions and excellent unit and structure animations. It's incredibly stylised, in opposition to the Tiberium series' focus on gritty realism, which has the added benefit of not requiring a monster of a PC to run well. Overall Red Alert 3 is an incredibly polished product. You might laugh at the quality of acting in the cut scenes and the dialogue, but the actual RTS gameplay just works. We'll point out that the pathfinding can be troublesome, with Engineers especially prone to uncontrollable fits, but on the whole you won't find yourself battling against the game and your opponent.
It's a quality game, that can't be denied. Play it with a mate and it's a lot of fun. The live action clips are so bad you can't not want to watch them, and the whole experience has that addictive quality that makes you want to play it when you're not, but it's a hugely conservative effort. The co-operative campaign is a nice addition, but we've been playing RTS games with friends on the same side for years in skirmishes, so this is more evolution than revolution. We were hoping for some genuine innovation with Red Alert 3. Perhaps, given the genre, this was an unreasonable hope. This is one for the series' army of fans.