There probably aren’t many supposedly "objective" gaming journalists who’ll admit to being sucked in by the hype surrounding upcoming videogames. However, as inevitable as Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3’s hype was, my own anticipation was more so. Command and Conquer 3 rekindled a love for a franchise I’d last felt excited about over ten years ago, and back in the day it wasn’t the original Command and Conquer that held my attraction, but its younger, sexier sibling, Red Alert. I adored its faux-historical, time traveling plotline, its wacky units, and the self-aware humor found in the then-impressive full-motion video cut scenes. For me, it had the same excellent gameplay of Command and Conquer but sans the serious tone.
Therefore personally, even though C&C3 was something of a triumph, it’s always been about Red Alert 3. That feeling was only perpetuated by Electronc Arts LA’s strong marketing campaign; one not centred around the gameplay – likely considered to be a point proven by C&C3 – but instead focusing on the all-star acting talent performing in the trademark FMVs. OK, so big-name Hollywood talent is not new to videogames – see Liam Neeson and Malcolm McDowell in Fallout 3 for a recent example. However, EALA have been particularly savvy with their casting. The inclusion of cult heroes like George Takei, JK Simmons and Tim Curry as the three faction leaders will win a knowledgeable gaming audience without saying a word. On the fairer side you have Jenny McCarthy and Gemma Atkinson in short skirted, low cut military uniforms, undoubtedly winning over the hearts (and other things) of fans too. They’re not huge names, and yet Red Alert 3’s trailers have cultivated a large interest outside of the usual fan base. That’s savvy marketing.
EA probably think, like many publishers, that the real-time strategy genre is just waiting to make the move from PC to consoles, and they’re backing Red Alert 3 to be the breakout title in the West. That may sound unbelievable, but when you consider that Red Alert 3 is coming out not only on 360 but on PS3, that C&C3 had reasonably critical and commercial success on the 360, and the huge marketing campaign behind it, it starts to sound more plausible. The questions are, then, if Red Alert 3 does have enough to force RTS games outside of their niche audience, and whether it proves the RTS genre still has legs in a time when PC gaming is supposedly on the way out.
It’s somewhat ironic that the one given in this question, the core gameplay, appears initially to have taken a knock since Command and Conquer 3. When I say a knock, what I really mean is a light pat – after all it’s hard to go too wrong with a tried and tested formula like Command and Conquer’s drag and click gameplay. However, compared to C&C3, Red Alert 3’s units and factions don’t have quite as much depth, with the rock-paper-scissors issue commonly associated with RTS games proving to be more prevalent than expected. The mandatory co-commander in every mission will feel like a hindrance to seasoned control-freaks. The graphics have technically dropped in quality, with the infantry units in particular looking more like toy soldiers than badass dudes with guns. The campaigns, usually a strong point in Red Alert games, feel a little too short, and the true skirmish chaos of an all-out battle is restricted for the last couple of battles in each one. It’s arguably harsh, but at times they can feel like glorified tutorials. If Command and Conquer 3 fans were expecting bigger and better than they may feel a little disappointed.
However, if you turn all those criticisms on their head and approach Red Alert 3 from the standpoint of a new player, previously put-off by the complexity of RTS games, they actually become positives. The shorter, more explanatory campaigns will appeal to console owners looking to get into online multiplayer with their friends as soon as possible. Besides, the campaigns remain highly enjoyable thanks to the excellent work of the aforementioned Hollywood(ish) talent – Tim Curry shines especially with his eccentricity avec ridiculous Russian accent. Red Alert 3’s graphics may not be stellar technically, but everything is so much brighter and more colorful in comparison to the dreary, grey hues on offer in the majority of Command and Conquer 3, and in most RTS games for that matter. The co-commander may feel intrusive for old-timers but newcomers will likely appreciate a helping hand that’s easily guided with the four simple-to-understand commands. In fact, this old-timer has to admit to said co-commander bailing him out a couple of times in some of the more challenging missions. What’s been taken away from the experience contributes to Red Alert 3’s accessibility, and that’s always been the greatest barrier for the RTS genre.
Red Alert 3 has the feel of a ‘My First RTS’ to it, but it doesn’t play like that. It’s still a sophisticated game with plenty to offer. When you add in the online multiplayer, and in particular the addition of very solid cooperative play in the campaigns, a feature that keeps growing in importance for console owners and one that feels like it always should’ve been a part of the Command and Conquer franchise, Red Alert 3 starts to look like it could be exactly what EALA want it to be. After all, how many games let you and a buddy assume total control of two powerful Soviet armies taking down a heavily-guarded Statue of Liberty? Don’t get me wrong – Red Alert 3 is not a classic, but what appears to have been sacrificed has been done with the right intentions.
So we’re back to those original two questions. Firstly, can Red Alert 3 help RTS games break out of their niche audience? The answer is a cautious yes. It’s vibrant, it’s accessible, it’s a joy to play with friends and yet it still feels like a true C&C game, an achievement EALA must be commended for. Its all-star cast, sexy presentation and online proficiency should entice console players who’ve been wary of the PC-based genre before. That’s why the ’yes’ is a cautious one – I’ve been playing with the PC version, and I can’t speak with certainty for the quality of the PS3 and 360 versions, nor can I comment on how much EALA will try to push their releases. If the 360 version of Command and Conquer 3 is anything to go by then there won’t be any issue with the keyboard-and-mouse mechanics transferring over the controllers of the two systems.
Still, can Red Alert 3 really help the RTS genre make the move to consoles? People were wondering the same thing about first-person shooters before a little game called Goldeneye arrived, and look at things now. It’s true, Red Alert 3 doesn’t reach the heights of Rare’s wonderful FPS for the N64, but Red Alert 3 may yet carry the same significance for its genre. One thing it proves, thanks to successfully marrying accessibility with gameplay, is that the RTS genre still has legs, and I’m not talking about the ones belonging to Ms. Atkinson. Not publicly anyway.