The Apocalypse has begun...
In life, there are some things that are simply inevitable. The sun will rise, water will evaporate, the human race will eventually wipe itself out the face of the Earth, and after every mainline installment of Command & Conquer, a Red Alert title is sure to follow. With the warm reception that Tiberium Wars received in 2007, history was all but sure to repeat itself. There hadn’t been a new entry in the Red Alert side of the family since 2001, so the world was fairly excited, and by the world, I mean me. I still remember spending hours on the promotional website learning everything about the new units and plot, waiting literal minutes for a gif to load cause my internet was that shitty back then. In other words, I was the hype, and how could I not? My favorite RTS of all time was getting a sequel! All aboard the wacky train, no refunds allowed!
So in 2008, EA Los Angeles unleashed upon the world Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3. It reviewed well enough with the critics and it sold decently. It also made a number of substantial changes to the series, and with more than ten years of hindsight behind me, I’m not so sure how well they hold up. I remember losing interest in it back in 2008, but I’m a very different person from back then, one with Internet access and an (admittedly flawed) understanding of history. So buckle up and grab a snack, cause this one might get personal.
Oh, and Welcome Back, Commander.
Red Alert 3 begins with the Soviets about to lose yet another conflict with the Allies when Colonel Antony Cherdenko (played by the one Tim Curry) suggests a plan. A plan so bold, it will change the course of this war! And every other war! Yes, it’s another goddamn time machine, what did you expect? Why do the Soviets have a time machine if this is a sequel to Yuri’s Revenge? You see, that is actually explained in the (and I need you to pay attention now) iOS tie-in game called simply Red Alert, cause that isn’t confusing at all. Oh, you want to know what the explanation is? Hell if I know and fuck if I care! I ain’t buying a mobile RTS for a system I don’t even own! But from what I can gather from an hour of YouTube videos, the basic gist is that the Soviets stole an incomplete time machine project from the Allies, and at the end of the game, the Allies have launched an all-out attack against the Soviets right as their top dog science man Dr. Gregor Zelinsky is on the verge of completing their own version of the device.
So the Soviets go back in time and pull an Einstein on Albert Einstein, removing him from the timeline before the events of either Red Alert game ever took place. Neat. Unfortunately for everyone, without Einstein, there are no nukes, and without nukes, instead of retaliating with bad isekai and doujins of tentacular content, Japan instead applied all of their ideas in their military department. Yes, by eliminating Albert they have inadvertently unleashed the Empire of The Rising Sun upon the world, and they’re out to get their divine destiny. Dammit, Tim, you doomed us all! Thus begins the third great war in the Red Alert universe! Or fourth? It’s unclear what exactly changed since the previous two games aren’t canon anymore and yes I am actually discussing the lore of Red Alert and you better believe that's far from the dumbest thing I'll write today. With a premise such as this, it’s no surprise Red Alert 3 is so different from its older brother. It's a new game from a different team, for a new generation.
Tim, Peter, and Andrew.
I think this setup is very indicative of a serious problem not with the game itself, but rather with the development team. When EA Los Angeles was developing Tiberium Wars, they did so by mostly following the blueprint of a project left behind by Westwood Studios—the canceled Tiberium Incursion. It’s obviously not the game Westwood would’ve made, but many of its ideas found their way into Tiberium Wars, so the project did have a great influence on the final product. Problem is, there was no such blueprint for what the next Red Alert should’ve been. So if Tib Wars was the result of a team following a trail of faded but still mostly readable signs, Red Alert 3 feels like they got lost in a forest without a compass or map, and the whole game suffered because of that.
I obviously can’t prove any of that, and I know speculation doesn’t make for good critique, but that’s the conclusion ten years of hindsight have afforded me. Both games are an attempt at modernizing their predecessors to a new generation of gaming, and in the process, a change in tone was all but expected. But where Tib Wars takes the right road but doesn’t quite reach its destination, RA3 took a wrong turn at Albuquerque straight into stupid town. That said, let me make it clear that this is a good RTS. Not perfect, but not terrible either. Every part of it works the way the developers intended to. The problem starts when you put these parts in the context of a Command & Conquer title, and only becomes more evident as you shift that context to Red Alert itself: some of these parts continue to work, some break beyond belief, and some simply don’t belong.
But enough foreplay! Let’s dive right in and see what makes Red Alert 3 tick, and why I think it was actually a time bomb all along.
Right off the bat, I wanna say that Red Alert 3 was a breath of fresh air back then. Between the epicness of Supreme Commander and the gritty reality of war in Company of Heroes, it was heartwarming to see Red Alert continue to not take itself seriously, and offer a wacky experience completely of its own. Booting up the game and being greeted with that FMV immediately conjured a sense of security, and made me feel like everything was right again. Also true to its roots, RA 3 boasts an all-star cast featuring some of my favorite people in the industry. I already mentioned how Tim Curry plays the role of Soviet premier, but joining him are George Takei himself as the Emperor of the Empire, J.K Simmons as the president of the US of A, with David Hasselhoff as Vice President! The supporting cast is just as great too: Peter Stormare is just delightful as Dr. Zelinsky, Ron Yuan is excellent as Prince Tatsu, and Andrew Divoff as Krukov just makes me laugh every time.
The seas belong to us, comrade!
That said, it’s not all roses. The female cast confuses me greatly, and I don’t say that just because they turned Tanya from a brunette to a blond. They’re not bad, far from it, but something tells me they were chosen more for their looks than anything else. I don’t know why, but every woman in this game dresses like this was a porno parody from the ‘90s. It’s pretty tame but the sex appeal is there, and it honestly didn’t need to. Compared to the perfectly balanced campy tone of Red Alert 2, this installment tends heavily to the cheesy side of things, and they know that! Tim Curry looks like he’s constantly holding back his laughter every time he’s on camera, it’s amazing. Especially the “SBASSSS” cutscene. But that’s all there is to it. Red Alert always had a ridiculous setting, but part of the charm was how straight that setting was played, and here, I can’t feel that.
Now that was a very subjective complaint, so let’s talk about something even more subjective instead. The rest of this game’s presentation is also a mixed bag. The unit design is still what you'd expect from Red Alert. Without nukes, the Soviets seem to have fully embraced tesla technology, giving us stuff like an amphibious spider boat with a pair of tesla coils as a weapon, and a secret protocol (more on that in a second) that's basically a space magnet. Alongside these new additions, some fan favorites return, like the mighty Kirov and the ever-glorious Apocalypse tank. Strangely, the Allies arsenal hasn't changed that much. We're still using Chronospheres and prism technology somehow (is this a plot hole?). Granted, the scale is much smaller (no Chrono Miners or Chrono Legionaries) and we did lose the Prism Tank. Or rather, the Mirage and Prism tanks became the same unit. Not sure what's up with that.
Lastly, newcomer Japan brings in an arsenal chock-full of stereotypes. I don't want to say it is the "anime" faction because that feels simplistic, but I struggle to think of a more accurate description. Their commando is a schoolgirl with some crazy psychic powers, their units have a focus on changing between modes Transformers-style, and their arsenal has enough lasers and beams to fuel every rave party in the world at the same time. It's a fun concept even if I have some serious issues with its gameplay.
Allied air superiority.
Visually this is all a treat, even if sometimes the art style can make the units look more like toys than war machines. I love how the Soviet designs were modernized to this almost steampunk style since they rely on Tesla energy now that nukes are no longer an option. The allies kept their sleek and angular units, and the Japanese design is a modernized medieval Japan if that makes sense. That said, the voice acting is (go figure) also a mixed bag for me. Usually, I would refrain from commenting on this, but Yuri’s Revenge (and to a slightly less relevant degree, Generals) set this bar pretty freaking high for the series, and yet again this game doesn’t totally clear it. The new units are mostly fine if a bit on the forgettable side: the gratuitous Japanese and occasional “engrish” from the Empire units is entertaining but some lines are badly delivered; the Soviets are obviously full of that sweet Russian accent that we came to love (the Twinblade’s VA is killer, love his delivery), and the Allies continue to be this European force with a variety of accents.
My biggest gripe when it comes to the voice is with the returning units. Some, like Kirovs and Apocalypse Tanks, made a good transition and whether you prefer their Red Alert 2 counterpart is purely up to taste—shout outs to the team for getting the same VA for the Allied Engineer—but I don’t think anyone will argue with me when I say that we miss the old Tanya and her happy-go-fuck-yourself attitude, or the Mirage tank with its iconic “mean, green and unseen”. Oh, and hearing any other unit besides the Grizzly Tank say “high speed, low drag” just feels wrong. I know this sounds like extreme nitpick for some of you, but I’ve been playing Red Alert 2 for more than a decade now. These voices are burned into my brain, and playing its direct sequel I expected the same level of quality, which you can argue was my first mistake cause EA.
Vote for him, if you wanna live.
Now let me end this section with an honest compliment for once: the water effects in Red Alert 3 are fucking beautiful. More than a decade later and it still looks better than most triple-A games. The reflections of the units, the way subs get blurred, the fact every missile, movement, and explosion produces a visible reaction, the natural wave movement, it’s just a treat for the eyes. And they better be: this game has a great emphasis on naval combat, going so far as to allow entire bases to be built on water—something that reminds me of the late Total Annihilation—and that’s only the first of many gameplay changes.
2000 words into this blog and we can finally talk about some actual gameplay, so rejoice! The tonal shift that permeates the presentation also makes itself present here. On a surface level, RA3 looks similar to previous titles in the franchise, but one needs but 10 minutes to realize this is a very different experience. The increased focus on naval combat has brought an expanded arsenal to all sides involved and feels like a natural evolution from the previous installment. Joining the expected anti-ship/anti-air/siege units are an abundance of amphibious units for every faction: the Allied Assault Destroyer can go on land to provide front-line support, the Soviet’s dedicated anti-air Bullfrog can be built from both the Naval Yard and the War Factory, and almost every unit in the Empire’s roster is either amphibious or can take it to the air. I think the idea was to make dynamic maps with lots of strategic freedom, but the result ends up being that the amphibious units end up being far more valuable than the rest. Something reinforced by the lack of traditional transport units. They still exist but are now limited to carrying infantry only. The only way to transport vehicles is with a Chronosphere or a Twinblade chopper. This can make for a seriously infuriating experience when trying to assault bases not reachable by land and too far to be bombarded by naval units. I think the intent was to make the player feel the consequences of committing to a ground army, but this goes against the spirit of Red Alert so hard that it hurts.
That is a giant mecha with three torsos, legs, and giant energy swords. Yes, this is the Japanese campaign, how’d you know?
Speaking of going against the tide, the interface in this game is also a step back from Tib Wars. The sidebar is still fine and aside from the addition of a naval tab, it’s pretty much intact. The downgrade comes from the decision to give every single unit either an alternate fire-mode or some sort of special ability. For some godforsaken reason, instead of using the same command card from the previous game, RA3’s command card only has a single button, and everything revolves around that fucker. For some units like MCVs (whose only ability is to (un)pack) it works, but you quickly hit a few annoying bumps when it comes to some transports or half the Empire’s arsenal. If you’re using the Soviet or Japanese transport, you can’t unload units without using its special ability in the case of the Bullfrog, and the Sudden Transport loses its disguise when evacuating its passengers. At least the game is sensible enough to treat different forms as separate units when you select them in a group, but for anything with alternating fire modes, what happens when you press the button is a coin toss. Take the Conscripts for example. They can switch to a Molotov cocktail that can clear garrisons, but the Molotov variant isn’t treated as a separate unit. Good luck flipping that coin in the heat of combat!
The additional depth that comes from these unique abilities came at the sacrifice of the old economy. We've already seen how EA changed the economy in Kane’s Wrath to encourage micro aspects of gameplay, but here in RA3, that limitation is baked in. Gone are the Ore Fields along with their Rich variant, replaced by static and identical Ore Mines. Think of them as Refineries in Starcraft 1: they have a limited amount of resources and when depleted, offer significantly less wield per trip. Now here’s the kicker: only a single collector can use the Mine. This completely changes the eco aspect of the game: expansions become predictable and mandatory, long-distance mining is not viable, the amount of money per trip is fixed across all three factions (250 or 1500 per minute), and there’s no need to build extra collectors aside from replacing the ones you lost. The economy is simple and removes any player optimization from the equation: just build a refinery at the designated spot and forget about it.
There are a slew of other changes that if I were to discuss here would take the entire piece, but the point is that Red Alert 3 has a wildly different philosophy from its predecessors, and to me, it boils down to this: I can’t feel the fun. Red Alert 3 seems far too concerned with its competitive balance to even risk mention of these “broken” concepts. The previous game wasn’t balanced, far from it, but since everything was broken in some way, it all balanced out. This game moved away from the wacky stuff that made RA2 so memorable: no teleporting units, no bomb trucks, no giant squids, no mind control, nothing. It’s a trend that is, unfortunately, also reflected in the campaign.
The campaign mode for Red Alert 3 is weird. For the first time in the series, we have a campaign fully designed to be played in co-op, whether you want it or not. Every mission has you tackling some objective with either a friend or an AI that you have limited control over. Sometimes, you and your co-commander will have access to different parts of a tech tree, or control different sets of units if it’s a micro mission. Each mission will give you a different co-commander, each with a (supposedly) different personality and play style, but from what I read in interviews, the original plan was to allow the player to select which one they wanted to bring along, but somewhere in development, that got canned. That, alongside the option to switch places with the AI, would’ve added some much-needed replay value.
It’s highly recommended you bring a friend along for the ride if you intend to tackle this. Your AI partner will be adequate at best and completely fucking useless at worst, and changing the mission difficulty doesn’t seem to have an effect on its intelligence. On one mission towards the end of the Allied campaign, my co-commander was in change of a sea base, while I had one on the ground. We were supposed to stop Kirovs from escaping to the edges of the map, so the AI naturally decided to build anti-air ships. And nothing else. Ten minutes later and his base was obliterated by Dreadnoughts, leaving me to finish the mission by myself. Good job Giles.
Thankfully, the AI responsible for the enemy isn’t the brightest either. I found that the majority of maps have defined scripts that you can predict 9 out of 10 times, so more often than not, if I got myself in a tight spot, all I needed to do was restart and prepare for that. When they do decide to do something novel it’s often done in a very incompetent manner, and by that I mean it does things like not disguising their spies or sending engineers without escorts. Really, the AI is only hard when it’s spawning shit in the fog of war. Oh yeah, RA 3 uses a traditional fog of war system this time, instead of the always revealed style of RA 2. Since you can’t use the majority of your support powers without vision, this quickly becomes a giant nuisance. Speaking of those, support powers are back, and they’re called secret protocols this time. They work similar to how they did in Generals, but instead of unlocking tiers and having a limited amount of points to spend, in RA 3, you gain points that you can then spend on three different and linear paths. So rather than helping to shape your play style as they did in Generals, or serving as extra tactical options like in Tiberium Wars, in this game you’re merely choosing what to unlock first.
On one hand, the support powers are generally useful, and I only really found a couple I was consistently ignoring. On the other, it greatly bothers me that perks like Free Trade or Mass Production only exist here. Let me explain. In RA 2, these were basically the Ore Purifier and the Industrial Plant buildings respectively, and their purpose was to serve as economic support: the former increases the income from all sources, and the latter reduces the cost of all vehicles. So what was once a building that you had to worry about constructing and protecting from the enemy, became a late-game passive buff. It’s yet another layer of depth that didn’t need removing.
MOUNT RUSHMORE LASER!!!!
The missions themselves are… fine. They usually have set pieces that progress the map, like starting in a small area and then having the map expand, or having a third side join the conflict halfway through, but they’re rarely something interactive like, the mission “City of Lights” in Red Alert 2 for example. I guess that one mission where you have to deactivate the face lasers firing from Mount Rushmore would probably count. There’s also a distinct lack of secrets here: no more using cows as scouts, no more alternative ways to complete objectives, no more hidden reinforcements, no more upgrade crates, no more heroes no more fun. The maps also feel incredibly lifeless: there aren’t any civilians or cars roaming around the maps this time, garrisoned buildings only get a plastic-looking barricade that looks straight out of an Army Men toy set, and enemy taunts are so weak this time (if they happen at all). Once you played a mission there’s little reason to go back, except maybe trying a higher difficulty. The final Soviet mission was a neat call back to the start of the last game, and being the bitch that I am that made me way happier than it had any right to. It was probably the Hell March jingle that got to me. Speaking of jingles...
Much like what happened with Tiberium Wars, the music in RA3 takes a different approach to the series tradition, favoring an orchestral sound for a more tense and cinematic feel, but not completely embracing it this time. It can be best summarized like this: there’s a track for quiet “build your base and eco” time, and as soon as the game detects you’re in combat it will transition to combat music with all the subtlety of a nuclear bomb. For the campaign, the quiet music varies in style depending on the location or mission: smooth jazz for NY, tense strings punctuated by an accordion for the European theater, a classic guitar accompanies a spy infiltration segment, and so on. To their credit, these are very good songs, a far cry from the unremarkable stuff present in Tiberium Wars.
The combat music is very Generals-like in the sense that each faction has a distinct musical style: the Allies are rocking that Murican punk rock full of wailing guitars, the Soviets are (unsurprisingly) chanting Russian every chance they get while heavily distorted heavy metal guitars fill in the background, and the Japanese fuse classic techno-rock with a very Oriental style that sounds straight outta Ghost In The Shell, and there go my attempts to avoid comparisons to anime. Unfortunately, our musical savior Frank Klepacki is but a guest artist yet again, being only credited for “Hell March 3”, “Grinder 2”, and “The Red Menace”. Trust me, you’d recognize his work even if I hadn’t told you, cause these songs are easily the highlight of the soundtrack. It’s understandable why this happened: Frank’s an employee of Petroglyph Studios, so it’s difficult to ask him to compose an entire soundtrack, and this again comes back to my main point: I don’t think EA LA was ready to tackle a Red Alert title. But to give credit where it is due, the main composers James Hannigan and Timothy Michael did a great job! In any other RTS, this OST would’ve been outstanding: “Soviet March” sounds mighty like motherland, some tracks like “Shock and Awe” and “Battleground of the Bear” absolutely get the heart rate going, and I’d be lying if I said that the synths in “Mecha Storm” weren’t stuck in my head for a whole day. It’s all great stuff, it just doesn’t quite belong here.
Some five months after its release, RA3 would get an expansion pack titled Uprising, and I think out of all the things this game does, this is the one that confuses me the most. In a lot of ways, Uprising is similar to Firestorm: it’s a direct continuation that probably didn’t have the necessary budget to make something on par with the base game. Many of the actors don’t return, and the campaign mode is much shorter. But this is as far as you can compare the two. Where Firestorm is the definitive way of experiencing Tib Sun’s multiplayer, and an excellent companion piece to its base game (even with all its flaws), Uprising is a confusing, standalone mess.
For starters, there’s no multiplayer component for Uprising, a first in the series. This just baffles me considering this is C&C we’re talking about. I don’t know why this is, but my gut tells me it has to do with the new units. My gut also tells me that wasn’t always the plan. Let me explain. The Soviet additions aren’t nearly as strong as the rest. In fact, they’re fairly tame and work pretty well with the existing arsenal: Mortar Bikes provide a good mixture of scouting and harassment, the Grinder Tank provides some much-needed heavy amphibious armor, the returning Desolator makes for excellent anti-infantry and the Reaper walker offers a decent (if fragile) anti-air vehicle.
Firing ma lazer!
The Empire’s new tools are also spot-on: Archer Maidens fill the anti-air role they’ve been lacking so far, and Steel Ronins offers front-line armor so the rest of your units won’t just die front merely spotting the enemy. So far so good right? Then we get to the Giga Fortress, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. This giant battleship is the most expensive unit in the game: it’s tanky as fuck, has both excellent anti-air and anti-ship capabilities, and (get this) it can transform into a flying death star. Have you ever seen a kid smiting ants with a magnifying glass? It’s basically that. I think this was the moment they said “fuck it”, cause the Allies arsenal is just ridiculous all around. The Harbinger Gunship is effectively a mobile Proton Collider—it even costs more than the damn thing—the Future Tank has the resilience of an Apocalypse Tank and the firepower of a mini Psionic Decimator, the Cryo Legionnaire is the Cryo Shot support power on legs and steroids, and the Pacifier is an amphibious siege tank that out-ranges everything in this game.
I know what you’re thinking. I just said that Red Alert needs OP units, and now I’m complaining that I got them? Yes, I greatly appreciate how ridiculous the new units are. The problem lies with the fact that the rest of the roster isn’t OP, so the new additions don’t balance it out, making them stick out more than intended. So yeah, I think this started as a traditional expansion pack, but it was repurposed sometime into production. Something that I think also shows in the campaigns. Or rather, the mini-campaigns. This time we have four stories to tell, one for each faction and a bonus story focusing on Yuriko, the Empire’s commando unit. These are short as fuck, with the longest being the Soviets with four missions, and I think the intended order of events is: Soviets, Empire, Allies, and then Yuriko’s. It’s really not that clear. You can probably finish the whole thing in about three hours. I really don’t have much to say about the first three: it’s more Red Alert 3 except harder. I will say, however, that they came so close to capturing the spirit of the series in the final Soviet mission. That mission puts you against an enemy that can literally go “ZA WARUDO!” on your ass (it means they can stop time, for those of you not versed in the ways of anime). Each time the effect gets progressively stronger, although I’m not sure if you can lose the mission by taking too long. I loved this! Along with Frank’s new combat theme (yes, singular), this mission made me go “fuck yeah, we’re finally injecting some life into this bitch! Gimme more, and what do you mean it’s over?!” Disappointed doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The Yuriko campaign deserves a quick mention, cause it plays nothing like the others. Instead of controlling an army, you just control Yuriko in a MOBA-ish kind of way, finding secret documents that give you points to improve your abilities. It’s slow, weird, a bit awkward (Yuriko won’t even attack if you don’t tell her to) and just overall… bland? Yeah, I think that’s the word. Last and, maybe not least, Uprising also brings back the Commander’s Challenge from Generals, and these are actually pretty neat. There are around 50 missions that all present a different scenario, like an island map that has a constant downpour of satellites in the middle, or one enemy Commander that just loves to teleport explosive barrels all over the place because… reasons? It’s not the sort of mode I invest a lot of time in, but I can recognize the effort that went into making it.
Red Alert 3 was a confusing entry in the C&C franchise, one that I have to admit I didn’t enjoy revisiting that much. The writing dances too close to parody territory, the new units aren’t that interesting, the increased focus on micro feels particularly contrary to what defines C&C, I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. Regardless, I want to say it again: this isn’t a bad game, there’s value in what it offers as long as you’re in the right mindset, but it is a bad “Command & Conquer”.
But as I’m sure you know, there exists a game that truly deserves the moniker of a bad Command & Conquer. A plight in the franchise’s history, an irredeemable failure, and for the longest time, the bullet that killed the series. A game that was supposed to end the Tiberium saga, but it ended so much more than that. Next time, we delve into the twilight of Command & Conquer.
May Kane have mercy on us...