The Command & Conquer series still holds an esteemed rank within the real time strategy genre, that will most likely never change. While never having the same fanbase or cachet as games like Starcraft or Warcraft, C&C has put in enough iterations and made enough innovations in the genre to deserve a place on the medal stand. But that’s of little concern to Xbox 360 gamers. Reputation only goes so far in legitimizing the RTS genre on consoles; what really matters are things like control. This is tantamount to the genre making any inroads onto consoles, and the game that gets that right, along with every other necessity any game needs to deem it good, is the one that will represent the watershed moment.
And if Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 doesn’t quite achieve what’s necessary to be that game, the one that proves RTS fans can find a new home on consoles, we won’t be quite ready to give up hope. There is still Halo Wars, but if that game fails we wash our hands of the whole affair.
So does Red Alert 3 finally turn the corner? Is this the game RTS fans can point out to the people on their Xbox Live friends list and say, “this is a real RTS, go play it and see why we like them”? In a word, no. But not for the reasons you might think. Control-wise, Red Alert 3 gets it mostly right. It’s simple and intuitive, but allows for more complex commands if you’re willing to invest the time. The problem here is everything else. Those necessities of good game design and presentation are left out in the Siberian cold, leaving us with a game that works, and holds some enjoyment for RTS fans. But is a little too poorly made and a little too weirdly balanced to truly breakthrough the lowered expectations.
Red Alert 3’s biggest blunders don’t come through its porting from the PC to the Xbox 360, though there is something to be said about the technology having a hard time making the game look like anything more than a comic book viewed through a waterfall that might be somewhat telling. But beyond technical difficulties, there seems to be something really wrong with the gameplay at it was originally conceived.
I will freely admit that I have not played the PC version of this game, though I do expect that it must be better, much like the earlier Red Alert games on PC were… which I can confirm since I actually did play those on PC. But I’ve seen some videos and screens, and Red Alert 3’s graphics definitely look cleaner on a computer monitor than they do on an obviously inferior 50” HDTV. But it shouldn’t look this bad. It’s downright difficult to tell what units you’re looking at a times, considering how grainy and blurry the graphics are, and only having access to two zoom settings in the view doesn’t help. The “close-up angle is still too far away.
Imagining for a second that we can see it clearly, the artistic look seems to be trying for a cartoony style, though not going so far as to cell shade it. The overall game seems to be keeping with an irreverent retro style, but the figures and vehicles and even the buildings are too small to give off any level of detail sufficient enough to show what the artists had in mind. Not being able to see what I think is there to see (though I’m still not sure if it’s really there) kind of throws the whole color palette off as well. Everything is so bright and colorful, yet completely lacking in definition. It’s like the opposite of Gears of War.
But graphics are not everything, and sometimes their not even the secondary thing. But in this case, function seems to suffer out. A lack of function is more rare in the controller scheme, which does a pretty good job of simplifying the action, and making it relatively easy for you to get around the map quickly and build your base or vehicles or whatever you need in the most painless way possible. There are some places where it’s not so smooth. I cant tell you how many times I tried to click on a unit but just barely missed his bounding box and told some other unit to come over and stand next to him. Then I wondered why the first guy wasn’t moving and my dudes in the middle of a firefight were suddenly losing. Not cool. But for the most part Red Alert 3’s controls worked fairly well. Nothing revolutionary but relatively solid.
Jumping in and playing is easy, and I highly recommend the skirmish modes for some good old fashioned RTS gameplay. Building your base, setting up defenses, upgrading your tech tree – these are all things that are fundamental to an RTS, and Red Alert 3 presents you with a solid experience in that sense. There is definitely some fun to be had if you like these kind of games, and that enjoyment of the pure form flows nicely into multiplayer which performed well in our experience.
The single player campaign, on the other hand, just confirms all those things that are stupid about big RTS releases that I think help keep people away. I’m not talking about story or cut scenes (oh, I’ll get to those in a minute) but rather mission structures. I’m sorry, but if I ever have to waste my time with a bunch of escort or stealth missions in a game that’s built around the concept of leading large forces against each other and waging grand war, I’m going to puke. Dear RTS makers: no one likes these missions. No one. It’s understandable that you want to ease people in, and introduce them to the vast functionality of your game a little bit at a time. But how about designing some early missions that are fun? How about making us not want to give up before the game reaches its full potential in the late levels?
This problem is not unique to Red Alert, or any C&C games for that matter. They all do it. But it still feels like high time for someone to do something different. The other cliché that needs some fixing is the three faction system, where each team has just enough differences to separate it from the others and make the game unique in their hands. Red Alert 3 has three such sides; the Soviets, the Allies and the Rising Sun.
Soviets – the more powerful, more damage taking yet slower force, they are strong like bear, who like to drink wodka or some nonsense. The portrayal of the Red Army is about as monotone as one couple imagine, and that one single tone is of course “commie red”. It is classic cold-war propaganda with a sexy, social realist edge; filled with enough cliché’s and gross generalizations to make you miss the edgy political humor of Yakov Smirnov. You have a unit called War Bears for crying out loud.
The Soviet cut scenes may be the dumbest ones in the entire game, though any time Jenny McCarthy is on screen trying to act like a tough as nails American commando she seems to be competing for the “worst acting job ever done by a person who considers themselves a professional actor” award, which I believe is given out at a luncheon event the Tuesday before E3. Like all of the underproduced and excrutiatingly awkward to watch, the Soviet FMV’s are full of horrible accents and costumes seemingly bought at one of those fly-by-night Halloween stores that pop up in empty storefronts only during the month of October. Badly lit, barely written, the scenes are unbelievably bad, and not in a campy or corny way, but rather in a rank amateur way. I would say there’s a fine line between the two, but there really isn’t. Camp is funny and ridiculous, with the naiveté of the amateur voice. This stuff is worse than naïve, it’s incredibly bland acting in front of green screens that wastes the talents of scenery chewers like Tim Curry and Peter Stormare. With no writing to work with and high school A/V Club production values, I can’t imagine what they were expected to do.
The Allies – The, um, middle team. The balanced one? How come the faction with the balanced attack is always the Americans or their proxies? That seems a little arrogant if you ask me, why can’t we be the tough guys, or the stealthy ones? Anyway, the biggest difference between the Allies and the Soviets seems to be in the way they build. One selects building in the command center’s radial menu, waits for them to be built and then goes back into the menu to select and place them. The other selects buildings in their command center’s radial menu, but then places them and waits for them to be built. The relative advantages and disadvantages of these systems (in addition to Japan’s, er I mean, The Rising Sun’s vehicle based building system) is lost on me personally. But it all seems balanced, so who am I to complain?
I already mentioned the voluptuous horror of Jenny McCarthy, but the real heartbreaker in the Allies cut scenes is Jonathan Pryce. I know he’s lowered himself in recent years with movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, but he just looks embarrassed to be taking part in this. Who can blame him?
The Rising Sun – Not to needlessly raise controversy, or be “that guy” who is the defender of all political correctness, but the whole tone of the Japa- I mean, Rising Sun’s campaign cut scenes made me feel kind of icky. No hate towards the awesome George Takei, who like Time Curry is a criminally under-utilized hambone, but everything about this campaign has that “inscrutable Asian” feel to it. They’re so honorbound and mysterious. I know it’s based on real elements of Japanese feudal culture, but does their complex culture always have to be told in Samurai terms? Wouldn’t it be silly if every portrayal of Americans in Japanese games involved cowboys?
Oh, I forgot, there are also giant robots in the Rising Sun’s arsenal too. Glad to see them breaking the stereotype mold once again. It’s like they took a bunch of things they thought of as Japanese and threw it in a blender. We should consider ourselves lucky there’s no Hello Kitty tank to deal with.
In the big picture, if they would have attempted to make any of this outright funny, it might of worked. But watching the cutscenes and following the story, you’ll be repeatedly confronted with one really uncomfortable fact: they’re being serious. Maybe if the gameplay was really over the top and amazing, it would be worth sitting through the cut scenes. Or maybe of the cut scenes were just a little better done, the game’s inherent flaws would have become less important. It’s impossible to say.