Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 is a real-time strategy game developed and produced by Electronic Arts, released in late 2008. EA had finally gone back to a longtime staple of the RTS genre, eight years after the release of the previous title in the series, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, and five years after closing down Westwood Studios, the original developer of the Command & Conquer franchise. EA had already released Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars in 2007 to great success and was wisely pursuing its foray into RTS with a revival of the other half of Westwood’s RTS legacy.
Red Alert 3 follows roughly the same formula of its predecessors. Players construct their chosen faction’s base around a central building alongside such requirements as power and proximity between structures, as well as requirements for unlocking higher level structures and units. Units are produced from their respective production facilities and Red Alert 3 features land, air, and naval combat, with many units capable of transitioning between these battle spaces. Resources take the form of ore, which in previous Red Alert titles was represented by fields of golden nuggets, but in Red Alert 3 has been boiled down to a neutral mine structure, reminiscent of Warcraft style gold mines, that harvesters automatically collect from.
Three factions are playable in Red Alert 3. The Allies and Soviets return with many familiar units as well as completely new developments, and the Japanese Empire of the Rising Sun is introduced combining tactical and strategic elements of both sides. The Soviet faction focuses on overwhelming numbers and powerful tanks and warships. The Allied faction features more heavy combat units than in previous Red Alert titles but still emphasizes defense and long ranged, powerful attacks. The Empire of the Rising Sun strikes a balance between the two with large numbers of adaptable, hard hitting units.
Three story campaigns allows players to fully utilize each faction as they play through the faction’s path to eventual victory in the three-way war that dominates the main plot. Here is where Red Alert 3’s innovative failures start to show. Instead of picking up where the series last left off, the current story begins by erasing everything that occurred in the previous games. The campaigns commence with a three-way brawl that plays out as a series of loosely connected missions chosen more for their memorable locales than for their relevance in the strategy of global war.
Red Alert 3 is the first Command & Conquer title to introduce campaign co-operative play, allowing two players to proceed through the missions against the AI. In single player mode a friendly AI represented by one of the faction’s characters takes the place of the second human player. This marks one of the first RTS titles to take the step into co-operative story modes and the missions are well balanced around them.
Unfortunately they are a bit too well balanced and suffer when a co-op player is not present. The AI replacement for a second player tends to lack the strategic finesse and resilience of a human player. While the player is still fully capable of handling the mission alone the imbalance of proficiency makes many of the challenges, especially timed missions, frustrating and stressful. Additionally the co-op feature was hosted through GamepSpy servers which were shutdown in 2013, rending the feature useless without a third party server hosting.
EA didn’t spare any expense when adding its own innovations to the Command & Conquer formula. The shift to mine based resource harvesting, the addition of unique abilities and modes for each unit, and the emphasis on rapid, high cost battles are all new to Command & Conquer’s style of play; and they don’t necessarily mix well. Strategic management and defensive tactics take a backseat to rapid key-binding skills and fast paced reactions. Units are, on average, lightly armored and heavily armed making battles costly and quick. The one-dimensional resource system also prevents the player from increasing or otherwise modifying their income without simply capturing more mines, a situation compounded by the fact that the limited income is rarely able to supply enough forces to hold off enemy attacks and secure a new location simultaneously.
Red Alert 3’s graphics introduce another of EA’s innovations, the Sage 2.0 graphics engine. The engine provides bright and somewhat cartoonish effects, which given the game’s camp portrayal is actually appropriate. The graphics moved easily even on modern machines of the time and most devices should have no trouble operating it. Sadly multiplayer for Red Alert 3 is officially non-existent, although third party servers provided by C&C Online support multiplayer and co-op.
As far as strategy games go Red Alert 3 is a fair presentation. One of EA’s traditional failings is to take familiar titles and re-brand them with what it believes to be market selling points, usually patterned off of Blizzard games. This is effectively what has been done here and many Starcraft players would recognize familiar traits and tropes in Red Alert 3’s gaming style. The game itself is entertaining although the story-line sacrifices immersion for comedic presentation. Yet as it is Red Alert 3 falls from a continuation of a legendary RTS series to just one more title among many in the strategy gaming market.