There has been a steady progression of the RTS genre on consoles, thanks mostly in part to EA and their determination to make them work without the aid of a mouse and keyboard. As someone who grew up playing these types of games on a PC it has been fun watching developers refine the controls year in and year out with more success each time. Red Alert 3 continues this trend with a set of new enhancements that make the experience feel less and less divorced from its PC counterpart. If you are a fan of the genre and simply don’t own a PC capable of handling EA’s latest effort the Xbox 360 iteration is the best playing RTS game for a console to date.
One of the biggest draws of the series has always been the story and the way it is presented. The game uses a series of FMV sequences featuring top Hollywood talent and quirky, but well-written dialogue. The story begins with the invention of a time machine by the Russians, who plot to go back and eliminate Einstein to gain the upper hand in the war. Upon their return to the present they discover that they are now on top in the war, but much to their surprise a new enemy has risen in the form of the Japanese and needless to say things get very interesting. There are several laugh-out-loud funny moments thanks to the talent present (Tim Curry, George Takei and Jenny McCarthy to name a few) and of course the excellent writing.
The campaign game focuses around the three factions and you are able to take control of each one individually for nine levels focused on the war from their perspective. Needless to say there is a large chunk of game to be played that will keep you occupied for quite some time. There is also a large focus on co-op this time around with each battle giving you a co-commander that can be AI-driven or taken control of by another player. For anyone who enjoys this type of game this adds a whole new layer of gameplay as opposed to simply setting up skirmishes and allying together. Each co-commander has specific roles as well as a different placement on the map requiring more strategy among both players to succeed.
Another large change to the formula is the addition and focus on naval-based units. There are several hybrid units that can cross both land and water as well as buildings that can either be placed on either for a tactical advantage. This also means that every map contains some form of water forcing you to learn how to move land-based troops from one side to the other. While other games have certainly used the idea of sea-based units none of them have implemented it quite as well as RA3 does and taking this into both the multi-player and single-player campaigns adds new levels of strategy to the game.
With so much strategy under the hood there is one problem that arises when playing RA3 that veterans of the series (and genre) will either love or hate. Rushes seem to be the way to play the game which means holding your ground and building up a giant army to dominate the map happens far too infrequently. Instead massing small armies and attacking in small bursts will lead to victory more often than not making some of the more impressive units useless in some games. However, if you can find some regular players who enjoy the longer, drawn out games there are some very cool units and tactics that can make playing the game more enjoyable the more you learn its intricacies.
The control setup is similar to Kane’s Wrath with a command wheel that allows you to build and queue units from anywhere on the battlefield. The developers have also added the ability to quickly scroll across the map using the mini-map to get to the action faster by pulling a trigger to zoom in on the desired location and simply tapping a button. You can use the analog stick to zoom in and out on the battlefield but even at the furthest distance out it still feels too close. Overall the controls feel smooth and responsive making this the best playing RTS on a console to date, but the PC is still the ideal platform because of the quick pace these games require.
This is more evident because there is a lot of focus on units’ special abilities in RA3 that require multiple button presses to activate. This also requires you to select that unit individually and then hold down multiple buttons simultaneously, which can be cumbersome when the action gets intense. Taking the time to play through the tutorial will help dividends. We have come a long way with the controls on a console and there is no doubt that RA3 is entirely playable and easily the best control scheme for the genre on a console to date, but it is still not friendly to those unfamiliar with the style of play.
While the campaign mode is the heart of the experience there is a multi-player offering that will provide plenty of entertainment as well. There is only skirmish mode and it can be played with up to four players across the twenty available maps. The biggest complaint about skirmish for me personally is that your unit count is limited to fifty due to the memory limitations of the console. Each race is equally balanced so skirmishes can provide plenty of fun, as long as you prefer the quick rush-mentality.
On the presentation front the game does look nice considering how much is going on and how many things are on the screen at a time. There are some frame rate issues the pop up from time to time, but most of them are manageable and do not detract from the gameplay. The explosions add some visual flare and some of the animations are truly impressive making this the best looking RTS I have seen on a console so far. The FMV cut scenes are presented in crystal clear HD and really do add the personality of the game overall. The sound effects are standard fare but the exceptional voiceovers really do engulf you into the game as does the cheesy 80s butt rock soundtrack.
The struggle to perfect the RTS genre on a console continues and EA remains at the front of the pack when it comes to refinement. This is easily their best effort yet and if you are a fan of the style then there is simply no reason for you not to pick up this game (unless you have it on PC of course). Being a huge fan of RTS games it is nice to see their evolution and I hope they continue to become more of a staple on consoles. Red Alert 3 is chock full of charm and deserves to be experienced by anyone who enjoys a good strategy game.