Version tested: PC
Somebody needs to put a stop to the Red Alert games. Not because their quality is going downhill, mind. Red Alert 3's an awesome continuation of the series, and the decision to make all three of its campaigns co-operative affairs is the kind of game design that makes you pray whoever it was that came up with the idea got promoted and laid on the same day. It's just that with every new Red Alert game the series drops further into the gutter. The cheesy plot, the unbelievable national stereotypes, the comic book science, the cleavage, the animals that act as improbably effective military units, all of it is increasing at an exponential rate. I mean, they cannot keep this up. Unless someone stops them, Red Alert 4 is going to come out one day and it's going to be a DVD containing nothing but an hour-long video of William H. Macy dancing on a topless Steve Buscemi. One of them will probably have a Russian hat on or something.
For the moment though, Red Alert 3 is still just about holding it together. The plot begins with the Soviets using a prototype time machine to go back to the beginning of the 20th century to kill Einstein, thereby stopping him from developing powerful super-weapons for the Allies. The Soviet top brass return to a future where their nation is kicking ass and taking names, although for some reason the death of Einstein also means the Japanese, now known as the Empire of the Rising Sun, are a nanotechnology-equipped world power (and third playable side).
But we can talk about the Japanese in a bit. As a feature they're completely eclipsed by the new co-op nature of the game's three campaigns. This isn't just the option to play through each of the game's missions with a friend; all of the levels are designed from the ground up for two people, and if you're playing alone then a subservient AI general fills the gap and a simple order system opens up so you can boss him around.
But you really don't want to play alone. Unless you honestly vomit in your own mouth a little bit on contact with another human being, you want to play this game co-op. It just works, and that shouldn't surprise anyone who's ever tried teaming up with friends to take on hard AI in Dawn of War, Sins of a Solar Empire or... well, almost every RTS ever made, come to think of it. And RTS teamwork against the computer only gets more fun when you've got set-pieces and personal limitations thrown into the mix. Missions in RA3 might limit the ability to build base defences to one player, another might order you to capture a distant island when only one of you can build land units and the other's stuck with submarines and aerial transports. And throughout all of it the two of you get to experience the laugh-out-loud corny voice acting, seeing the cute animations of your troops for the first time and the advent calendar-like drip-feed of new abilities and units. Unless you load up skirmish mode first of course, in which case in traditional RTS fashion the tech tree's completely unlocked and you can see everything RA3 has to offer in under fifteen minutes. Your call.
As to the mechanics of the series, to its credit RA3 tries to act as more of an overhaul than an update. All buildings that don't produce ground units can now be built on water (including, weirdly, ore refineries, which then harvest from the occasional floating ore mines you'll find), and tons of vehicles are now amphibious and plenty of infantry can swim. But that's the most boring of the new tricks at your troops' disposal, as almost everything now has at least one special ability or weapon that you can activate. You've got you've got war cries, laser painters, power-draining missiles, tractor beams, freezing beams, shrinking beams, psychic levitation, first-aid tent deployment, black-hole armour... Even the most basic infantry on each side gets in on the action. The Soviet Conscripts can toggle between AK-47s and Molotov cocktails, the Allied Peacekeepers can take out cumbersome riot shields and the Empire of the Rising Sun's Imperial Warriors can whip out No More Heroes style beam katanas.
And then you've got your protocol weapons. As a map goes on you'll gradually earn points that can be spent in a simple faction-specific tech tree, unlocking unit upgrades and support attacks which can be used to cause havoc anywhere on the map every few minutes. And even the starting protocol weapons for each side are ludicrous. The Allies can use chronosphere technology to swap the location of any two units on the map, the Empire of the Rising Sun can automatically strap all their vehicles with explosives so they blow up when close to death and the Soviets get a satellite that uses a magnetic beam to suck enemy vehicles up into space.
If right now you're thinking that Red Alert 2 was chaotic enough already and that all this new stuff might be overkill, you're probably right. Fun as all the new toys are, a consequence of them is that the micromanagement is often demanding to the point of being frustrating. Red Alert was never a slow-paced RTS, and while RA3 softens the beginning of matches by giving every side immediate access to base-defence turrets that are way more powerful than any starting unit, this still a fast game. Once a map gets busy, the fact that all of your units have a special ability that you have to manually activate can seem like a cruel joke, not least because getting the timing right when using it often means just watching that unit and waiting for the right moment. Once you've factored in protocol weapons and the fact that buildings and units are no longer restricted to land or sea, well... The kind thing to do here is call matches of RA3 unpredictable, although you could just as easily be mean and call them confused and fiddly.
And yet you can't put this chaos down as an accident and call it feature-creep, getting in the way of the rock-paper-scissors system that made the original game work. EA seems to be doing this deliberately. So many of the new units are based around the idea of causing havoc, and boast rapid movement and surprise attacks. For example, the Japanese have mecha units that can transform from ground-pounding robots into jets and helicopters, and the buildings on their side all start as little flat-packed amphibious vehicles which can be deployed anywhere on the map with no regard for range or power. And the Soviets now have the Bullfrog and the Sickle, the former being an APC which unloads troops by firing them out of a cannon and the latter being a flea-like vehicle that can jump huge distances.
More than anything else it feels like the same giggly attitude you see in Red Alert 3's cut-scenes is leaking into the strategy. When an RTS is as unpredictable as this it becomes less about scheming and resource management and even more about simply reacting, and that's not going to be to everyone's taste. That said, everyone loves the sweet taste of co-op, so if you've got a friend who's a fan of either RTS games or cleavage (or both!), Red Alert 3 can and will show you a very good time indeed.
8 / 10