If it does nothing else, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 will at least provide conclusive proof that, were it not for the Second World War, the Soviet Union would have developed the technology to make their own hotpants by the 1950s. If you're worried that the success of Company of Heroes may have tempted Red Alert to take itself a bit more seriously this time around, the sight of Russian troops marching into battle decked out in military-themed club-wear confirms that the series has lost none of its sense of humour.
This remains a world of cleverly crafted silliness, then, where Einstein has laid a smackdown on Hitler before being clotheslined by the Russians himself, and the battlefields are flush with combat-hardened dolphins and armoured bears. More than any other RTS, Red Alert's chunky units and vivid designs conjure memories of playing with Matchbox cars on the carpet, and a quick glance at one of the new game's maps reveals familiar landscapes filled with colour and sprightly detail. Everywhere you look there are Green Hill Zone-styled palm trees to be flattened under your tank treads, and glossy tin-toy cruisers to be torn up with missiles. This is far removed from the mud and sweat of most war games - even the campy pseudo-seriousness of Command & Conquer itself - and the cartoony playfulness permeates every level.
Red Alert 3 is due out on PC and 360 this October (the PS3 version has been shelved due to technical problems, but EA aren't ruling out a later appearance), and while a recent hands on demo had us working with mouse and keyboard, the developers were more than happy to take time out to explain how the game will eventually map to a console controller.
Given that we've landed robots on Mars, found proof for Fermat's last theorem, and even managed to develop a product called Pizzaghetti, it seems safe to assume that it's a question of 'how' rather than 'if' the human race will manage to successfully get RTS games to work on consoles. Nobody's cracked it just yet, but everyone's working on their own solution: EndWar's betting on voice commands, Halo Wars has a famous brand and a great deal of friendly purple metal, and Red Alert 3 chooses to build on the experience of a development team who have already done this three times before. This time out, they've settled on a radial wheel for single-stop item selection, and an expandable paintbrush-style tool for highlighting multiple units (a more conventional drag and drop box is used for the latter on PC). It's a system they've tested out in rougher form on the recent C&C expansion, Kane's Wrath, and the results seemed promising - a few last tweaks as Red Alert 3 heads towards release may turn it into a classic.
A chance to play about on Kabana Republic, a smallish Caribbean map from early in the game, reveals that, controls aside, the presence of the 360 hasn't given the series much of an identity crisis. Seasoned players will be immediately at home: as ever, vehicles move with real character, individual fights are explosive and quick, and there's always a chance to make good on defeat with your next unit selection. Even the pace of the battles is the same, with the right unit at the right time capable of crazy glory runs as it cuts a swathe across the map inflicting kill after kill before abruptly coming to a sticky end. And, most promisingly, the ridiculous storyline and crazy designs are still placed on top of maps which have been exhaustively fine-tuned to create fiendish tactical puzzles.
But EA Los Angeles isn't playing it entirely safe. For the first time in a Red Alert title, there's a fully realised third faction available, turning the game into a messy struggle between the Soviets, the Allies, and the new Empire of the Rising Sun.
Rising Sun's chief differentiator is that they're not constrained by build radiuses, and can therefore create structures anywhere on the map, no matter how far they are from their base. Even with Red Alert's mobile construction vehicles, this is a huge gamble in terms of design. While we haven't had time yet to get a real sense of how this change affects the overall balance, the Rising Sun didn't immediately seem dangerously over-powered. Success or failure, this new freedom will certainly make for some interesting new tactics, as the new faction are far more adaptable than the Soviets or the Allies, as well as being considerably easier to micro-manage.
True to decades of anime clichs, Rising Sun also has transformable vehicles, such as the Tengu, which looks to be the faction's workhorse, that starts as a mecha, but is able to transform into a jet. On foot, it's ideal for ground-to-ground infantry harassment, whereas in the skies it has more powerful weapons at its disposal, but is limited to targeting only other air units. All the transforming units come equipped with brilliantly nerdy transition animations - the Tengu does a smart little back-flip and sprouts wings as it heads for the clouds - and all have the same trade-off between strengths and weaknesses that lies at the heart of every RTS.
And, visually, Rising Sun are a highlight. "Our dirty little secret is it's the art team's opportunity to pay homage to a lot of Japanese culture and anime and manga and those games we grew up playing," laughs producer Amer Ajami, and the units we saw invoked everything from Gundam to Bubblegum Crisis to Treasure's Ikaruga. Given the light-hearted approach of the rest of the game, these eclectic styles fit into the existing art design with little fuss; more problematic has been making sure that the adaptability offered by the transformable units doesn't provide quick-fingered Rising Sun players with too much of an advantage. "Originally we had it so that you could switch back and forth between the different unit modes as fast as you could press the button," sighs Ajami. "But we found that advanced players were just murdering everybody. In the end we just introduced a cool-down period after transforming, and that pretty much solved the problem."
While the Rising Sun have the monopoly on transformers, secondary functions are a core component of almost all of the game's units, due, mainly to the new focus on water. Red Alert hasn't enlisted in the navy for good, but it's certainly found its sea legs, and the huge oceans on most maps require vehicles which work on both earth and water, and can switch terrain types seamlessly. You can even take your MCV out onto the open sea and construct buildings there, but once again, a power trade-off means the situation requires a lot of tactical forethought if you want to defend yourself. "You have to think a lot more about where you are in order to get the best out of your units," explains Ajami, showing how a Riptide APC sacrifices its torpedoes and has to make do with just a machine gun as it crawls onto land. "If you're strong on land, your enemy can simply build at base at sea, and then you're in trouble."
Other adjustments include changes to resource-gathering. "In the previous games, ore was scattered all around the map, and that allowed players to place an arbitrary amount of harvesters around the landscape and ramp up the money too quickly," says Ajami. "You got a lot of inflation, allowing people to build a lot of units early on and just throwing them at other people. We wanted to gate that with Red Alert 3." This time around, ore is located in specific node points, which release a set amount of resource regardless of how many refineries and harvesters are built nearby - you can add more mining structures to a node if you want to, but you won't be getting the ore out any quicker.
And finally, for the first time, the entire single-player campaign has been designed with online co-op in mind, with a permanent second character that's AI-controlled when you're playing on your own. It's a welcome addition to regular multiplayer, but you'll need to play with people you can rely on, as the AI can't leap back in at a moment's notice, and a player dropping-out mid-level means you'll have to restart the map.
From what we've seen, Red Alert 3 seems likely to make the transition to 360 with some poise, but this remains a PC game at heart. Camp and throwaway as the narrative and presentation is, deep down, it's still a world of build queues and multi-front fighting that may intimidate many new players. Existing fans can probably rejoice, however, as, new faction and gameplay tweaks aside, this looks like the Red Alert you've been waiting for. Within seconds of sitting down at the demo, we were building, exploring, and causing the same old havoc in the new levels as we had in the old.
Familiarity like this can't be faked; sometimes, not even the presence of hotpants can change that.