January 05, 2009
Command and Conquer used to have a vice like grip on the real time strategy genre, or so it seemed at the time to a younger (more naïve) version of myself. No RTS title up until this point in time can claim to have made the successful leap to consoles. The genre as a whole just seems more suited to the speedy reflexes that a keyboard and mouse offer, and trying to translate that sense of control to a pad with a limited number of buttons has failed time and again. That’s not to say that all RTS games on consoles are bad as such, just that they never seem to be as satisfying or intuitive. Here’s hoping that we’ve at last found the solution to all those years of longing – is Red Alert 3 the console RTS to beat them all?
This is EA’s third instalment of the series on the 360 and hopefully the gradual curve of improvement will continue. While it may be a simple matter for them to port over the general game mechanics and graphics, the real crux of the matter will come in how the controls translate down to a mere control pad. The other games in the series all fared reasonably well but did little to draw in new players, as they still came across as unforgiving and difficult to just pick up and play. EA have gone for a far more user friendly approach this time around and it seems to have paid off.
First things first; the controls. If you’ve played any of the previous titles on the 360 then you may know what to expect, but even newcomers can soon get into the swing of things. The game also has a very helpful tutorial to make things even easier on anyone that has any misgivings about their first foray into the genre. Basically by holding down the triggers you can bring up menus that control building, unit orders and special abilities; releasing the button instantly dismisses the menu and frees up the screen again. It may never be as fast or responsive as a mouse but it certainly does the job. If I had one quibble it would be that special attacks and orders aren’t as easy to issue in the heat of battle as they should be. In the time it takes to find the right menu you could have lost a unit or part of your base. You can work around this somewhat and the menus soon become second nature – but it’s an issue that never really goes away. It’s safe to say that the PC control scheme will always offer more variety and shortcuts but as it stands the 360 scheme does a solid job.
The plot, such as it is, soon devolves into lunacy but I’ll try to stay sane long enough to explain it. Basically the Soviets have travelled back in time to reverse their defeat in the previous game, this results in the rise of a deranged new leader for their forces along with the Empire of the Rising Sun entering the fray. Each campaign has its own share of double crosses and plot twists, some of which have to be seen to be believed. To put it simply: there are three factions all vying for world supremacy and they have to fight through nine missions to get it. EA have quite deliberately made everyone into colossal stereotypes and the entire game obviously doesn’t take itself too seriously. People who like a serious plot are going to be frankly horrified as the joke may quickly start to wear thin, but if you approach the game expecting a B-movie feel then you won’t be disappointed. In fact the whole game has a cartoon like feel, but it’s hard not to like it. The graphics in general look pretty damn good even when you’ve got a screen full of action, and the cut-scenes, while cheesy, do add to the game's spectacle.
In fact EA seemed to have drafted in a whole lot of talent to spruce up the series, although no-one seems to be taking things too seriously. Serious actors like Tim Curry, JK Simmons and Jonathan Pryce all ham it up spectacularly and play up to their indivudual stereotypes to a tee. Each faction also has some female 'talent' on board too just in case any hormonally active teenagers need more of a reason to play the game. In fairness, despite the obviously dodgy script, cardboard/blue screen backgrounds and plastic outfits (or maybe because of them), they all seem to be having a tremendous amount of fun and that sense of humour carries across to the player.
The game itself is instantly accessible to both novices and series veterans, in fact it may be a bit TOO dumbed down for some. The basic premise remains the same, as you are forced to search out resources to expand your base or fund new troops. Buying certain structures often opens up new abilities and additional forces to build, so it’s wise to plan ahead if you’re after specific units. The need to harvest ore fields has been removed, although you’ll still need to head to the nearest mine to grab your resources, making things rather less complex, as once you’ve found one mine you never need to search for another as they never run out. Surely though the fight for that last scrap of ore was part of what made the old games so compelling? It’s a strange change and one that seems to have done away with much of the tactical aspect that you’d come to expect. The age old issue of path-finding also rears its ugly head again. I remember units on my PS1 version of the game getting stuck because they couldn’t POSSIBLY find a way around that one foot soldier stood in front of them, so why has this issue still not been fixed? It’s frustrating and kind of laughable too.
The units on offer range from the ridiculous to the sublime, as you’ll have to choose between churning out a shiny new armoured bear or a sparkly tesla boat - choices, choices. It’s worth choosing the Empire army just so you can deploy giant mechs and psychically powered schoolgirls. Most of the units have their own particular strengths and weaknesses, so it’s up to you to outthink your opponent and deploy appropriate measures to counter their every move. A lot of emphasis has also been placed on naval and multifunctional units. The ability to build part of your base on the ocean means you need the means to defend yourself too, but as a lot of the single player maps are mainly land based, it seems like a missed opportunity. The multifunctional units are fun to mess about with too; with infantry able to perform a number of roles and tanks changing their style of attack depending on who is manning them or what weapon they’ve managed to swipe from the enemy. The main problem here is that, while all of the units are fun, you’ll often find yourself falling back on the same few, time and again. It’s all very well having an eclectic army but why bother when you can just build twenty of the same tank to crush the enemy.
A neat twist is that every single map is a co-op experience, even if you are playing alone. Without an online buddy you’ll have an A.I team mate to help you out and you can give them a few cursory orders to ensure that things run smoothly. Find a proper partner though and the game becomes a lot more fun, as you co-ordinate tactics and build up an all conquering arsenal; it wasn’t a necessary addition but it sure is a good one. You can also go head to head on the skirmish maps, either with the computer as your nemesis or against someone over Live (obviously an upstart in need of a good RTS schooling). The maps are fairly limited in number, which is a shame, but there is nothing more satisfying than dropping a super-weapon on your best friends base. Be sure to practice your maniacal laugh for when the time comes.
Most of the achievements that are on offer could, theoretically, be picked up in one play-through. However, that would require you to complete the game on the hardest difficulty setting, with a co-op partner while doing all of the bonus objectives. Not an easy task. So the likelihood is that you’ll be playing through the game a couple of times to get it all done. The rest of the tasks can be boosted online or require you to emerge victorious on the skirmish mode. It’s all a bit generic and uninspiring really and a bit of originality wouldn’t have gone astray.
This game is quite easily one of the better RTS games on the 360, it’s a moot point whether it can match up to the PC version as the 360 is a completely different kettle of fish. The controls are as good as they are ever going to get and if you play the game enough (kind of a pre-requisite of any RTS) then you’ll soon find that they become second nature. The ridiculous story and cut-scenes will bring a smile to your face while the game-play is a lot more fun than you might expect. The online modes in particular are very welcome especially with a like minded friend along for the ride. I don’t think this game is likely to drag people away from Gears of War or Call of Duty any time soon but if you let it sink its claws into you, then you won’t be disappointed.
The soundtrack is typically over the top stuff but it’s the acting that deserves top marks here – EA have thrown the script out of the window and what is left is comedy genius with everyone hamming it up spectacularly.
The visuals are slightly rough around the edges, but they do a job and all of the units are interesting to look at and quite distinct. Everything clips along quite smoothly and there isn’t much slowdown even when the carnage is at its height.
The controls are the best they could be and newcomers are gently eased into the action, the variety of missions and units ensure things are kept fun all the way through and the opportunity to play in co-op or skirmish online is an added bonus.
A superb RTS and one of the best you’re likely to find on the 360; it doesn’t offer too many fundamental changes to the tried and tested formula but you’ll have a blast regardless.
A pretty dull list really with most of the points available for just playing through the game, then do it again with a co-op partner and again on the hardest difficulty. You can squeeze all three into one playthrough but, a few fun skirmish tasks aside, this is uninspiring stuff.
A splendid RTS and one that provides plenty of enjoyment, especially if you can find a co-op partner to take along for the ride. This version is not quite as good as the PC equivalent but you won’t find many better on the 360.