Version tested: Xbox 360
Watching the RTS genre attempting to break the console market is a lot like watching a very persistent pigeon repeatedly smashing into a window. Of all the genres spawned on the PC, real-time strategy is the one most tied to the mouse and keyboard control system, since it revolves around pointing and clicking rather than moving and shooting. The Command & Conquer series has fared better than most, however, and Red Alert 3 continues to refine the successful "command wheel" interface that's helped achieve this.
The command wheel allows you to call up a circle of icons with the right trigger to manage all your production and construction options from anywhere on the map. The wheel becomes more specific should you call it up with a particular building type selected, but you can access most features simply by drilling down into the different options from the default menu.
Flexibility is key to making the controls work, so however you prefer to do your armchair strategising the game finds a way to accommodate you. Selecting units, for instance, can be a question of simply highlighting one with your cursor and hitting the A button. Clicking on additional units with the left bumper held down adds them to your selection. Alternatively, a double-tap of the A button automatically selects every unit of that type. Or, if that doesn't suit, a double-tap of the X button puts every unit on-screen under your control. The d-pad can be used to shuttle between available units, and the stickiness of the cursor can be tweaked to find the right balance between speedy selection and smooth scrolling.
The downside to this wealth of control options is a rather steep learning curve. With over thirty different control options cluttering up the command list - all modified with varying uses of the two shoulder bumpers, plus single and double taps and holding buttons down - it can be a bit overwhelming trying to remember the exact combination you need under pressure. Thankfully a lot of these options, such as forcing units to retreat in reverse under fire, are only really necessary playing on the higher difficulty settings. But it doesn't say much for the accessibility of RTS games on a joypad that this daunting set-up is probably the most intuitive option right now.
At the basic end of the scale, however, the system proves more than adequate and soon allows you to stop worrying about control and start mucking around with the new toys that Red Alert 3 has to offer. Both the Allied and Soviet factions have new units, but the big addition is the Empire of the Rising Sun - a new Japanese faction accidentally created when the Soviets travel back in time to kill Einstein, thus preventing the creation of atomic weapons. (If you've never played a Red Alert game, by the way, this is about as sensible as it gets).
The Japanese army does an entertaining job of mixing up the traditional RTS framework. Based on nanotechnology, structures are no longer plonked in an increasingly hectic cluster around your base, but instead emerge as roving pods, which can be guided to anywhere you want before generating the required building. Maintaining and defending this military sprawl offers a unique tactical challenge, but the payoff is the ability to expand your quest for resources far beyond the dotted line that marks the boundary of your base camp.
Empire units are equally inventive, and draw heavily on geek-friendly science-fiction motifs. Giant stomping mecha called King Oni announce their arrival by demanding to know who has woken them from their technological slumber, while Transformer-styled vehicles free you up from the rigid land/sea/air approach of old. The Allies and Soviets get to taste some of this freedom as well; there are amphibious vehicles on all sides, as well as the option to build bases and power stations on the water.
All are realised in wonderful dinky detail and, unlike some of its rivals, Red Alert 3 holds a steady frame-rate even when your unit cap is maxed out with 50 soldiers and vehicles trampling all over the map. It dips occasionally - most noticeably in rendering the shadows of parachutists, for some reason - but the overall graphical sheen makes up for these small wobbles. The water effects are especially lovely, as are the countless little animations for each of your tiny warriors.
And, of course, there are the cut-scenes, and they're deliriously cheesy even by the outrageous standards set in previous Red Alerts. It's hard to dislike a game where Jonathan Price, Peter Stormare and JK Simmons rub virtual shoulders with cult hams like George Takei, Andrew Divoff and Tim Curry (who seems to be turning into Jeremy Beadle). Round it out with the expected bevy of cheesecake starlets, glamour models, the UFC's Randy Couture and David bloody Hasselhoff and you've got the sort of experience that keeps you hooked through sheer incredulity.
It's just a shame that getting to the next scenery-chewing movie clip is sometimes your prime motivation for persisting. All too often in the campaign the only route to success is to follow orders, using rigidly defined resources, which leaves you little room to tackle any deeper strategy than which direction to spam the enemy from. There's also an often depressing focus on guiding solitary female commandos around miniature map areas, sections which abandon strategy for a rather odd point-and-click version of Gauntlet. There are some decent scenarios sprinkled throughout the game, but only a few really allow you to really dig down into the full spread of tactical options.
The campaign mode in the PC version, of course, was rescued by the quite brilliant decision to make every level a co-op experience, with an AI co-commander joining you if you weren't playing with a human friend. The same is true on Xbox 360, but slightly borked by the decision to only allow co-op play with someone on your Friends list. There doesn't seem to be any logical reason for this restriction, and it rather cuts the legs off a potentially fun feature. Elsewhere there's the traditional skirmish multiplayer where you'll get the option of playing against random human foes, as well as freedom to actually formulate real strategy, free from the linearity of mission objectives.
Overall, between the inconsistent campaigns and the botched co-op feature, there's enough here to nibble away at what is an otherwise enjoyable RTS game, and you can add the finer points of control to that list of grumbles as well if you're an impatient sort. These issues notwithstanding, however, Red Alert 3 still represents an impressive leap forward for RTS on consoles in control if not content. It's not quite up to must-play status, but open-minded strategy fans will find much to enjoy regardless.
7 / 10