Is Red Alert 3 on PS3 the "ultimate console RTS experience", as EA has claimed? Does it have better graphics and improved performance compared with the PC and Xbox 360 versions? Does it take "full advantage" of Blu-ray? Now that the game's out, some six months after it was released on the PC and Xbox 360, it's time to put those lofty claims to the test.
But first a refresher: RA3 is the sequel to the much-loved PC RTS RA2, released eight years ago. It's a game that stays true not only to the series' camp, B-movie style but also to 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 developer EA Los Angeles has had to think about it, is a game that's more of the same. Sure, the graphical overhaul impresses in parts, 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.
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, but it rarely frustrates, and you can boss about your computer controlled mate via four general commands.
On PS3, as with all console real-time strategy games, the most important thing is how intuitive RA3 is to play given you're fiddling about with a joypad and not a mouse and keyboard. Here, EALA has further iterated on the radial Command Stick interface it's been honing for a few years now in the Xbox 360 versions of Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, expansion Kane's Wrath and Red Alert 3. It works like this: by pressing and holding R2 a radial menu appears in the centre of the screen. You're able to use the left thumb stick to navigate the menu, selecting structures and units to build with a press of the X button. You're able to do this from any point on the map, so you don't have to manually move the camera to your base, position the targeting reticule over it, select it with the X button then go from there. You can be monitoring a scrap in the corner of the map and order reinforcements without shifting an inch.
It's a clever idea, one that you might say Ensemble riffed with the Xbox 360 exclusive RTS Halo Wars. Base and army building, which has the potential to be hugely frustrating in console RTS games, is manageable here because of it. It's nowhere near as intuitive or as quick as in the PC version of course, but no-one really expected it to be, did they?
Where RA3 falters somewhat is in the micro-management of troops. The paintbrush unit selection tool (again reminiscent of Halo Wars) is difficult to use accurately. More often than not you select troops you don't want to select, or fail to select the ones you want. Actually selecting a unit or structure individually is nigh on impossible because the targeting reticule is so small and camera movement is so loose. Yes, you'll snap to units and the Sixaxis pad will rumble when you move over units and buildings, but that's not enough to make it work in the heat of battle.
Using units' special abilities is a convoluted process. You need to have the unit selected, hold R1 then press Square to activate it. Quickly switching between special abilities is key to how RA3 plays - pretty much every unit, including your structures, has one - and they're imperative for quickly adapting to enemy attacks. 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. Because of the complexity in triggering secondary abilities, you feel like you're trying to micro-manage your troops with your feet instead of your hands. So while Command Stick is largely successful, it doesn't prevent you feeling that the game would be better played on PC. This isn't a vicious dig at EALA: no developer has created a console RTS that has achieved this. It's doubtful one ever will.
Beyond the control revamp the game remains largely the same as the one PC and Xbox 360 owners enjoyed last November. There are five brand new multiplayer maps, and the skirmish online mode translates well from the PC version. The co-op campaign, however, isn't as successful. You have to manually check co-op campaign game invites sent from PSN friends from within the game menu, which is an unnecessary barrier. Because of this you need to set-up gaming sessions with friends - there's no option to search for randoms to play the campaign with. This is a huge problem - why have a co-op campaign at all if there's no matchmaking to support it?
Hardcore fans will be delighted by the extras, though. There's an hour of PS3 exclusive behind the scenes videos and trailers, including a genuinely funny bloopers and outtakes film, a useful Command School tactics and strategy video, a clip that goes in depth on every single unit and the official Red Alert 3 soundtrack. There's also a PS3-dedicated BattleCast PrimeTime film, which is likely to annoy as many people as it will please.
PS3 owners will be pleased to learn that the crippling slowdown that afflicted the 360 version has been sorted for the Ultimate Edition. Of more concern are the shoddy graphics - the game has a stylised, almost cartoon look, which is fine and even works well in places (the water's great and the explosions are impressive), but up close the game betrays its rough graphical foundations. On occasion it even looks ugly, with pixels too prominent and textures bland.
Essentially the Ultimate Edition isn't that much different to what's gone before. It's better than the 360 version on account of the improved technical performance, but, as with so many console RTS', it's got nothing on the PC version. If you're a PS3 owner looking for a solid RTS with good controls, this is the best the console has to offer. If you've got both "next-gen" consoles, Halo Wars is still the daddy.