Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

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Armored attack bears. Time traveling Russians. Sarcastic female commandos. Yes, the mirthfully bizarre and chronologically perplexing Command & Conquer: Red Alert series is back. Recently released for the Mac, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 is the latest installment in the satirical science fiction/alternative history real-time strategy series.

For those unfamiliar with the Command & Conquer series, the first Red Alert game explored what would have happened if Einstein went back in time and killed Hitler before he rose to power. While Germany never militarized, the Soviet Union became more aggressive and threatened world domination.

Going to the time travel well once again, Red Alert 3 has the Soviets, who seem to lose in every edition of the series, on the brink of defeat, and so they send a party of Soviet brass to kill off Einstein because he's the source of the Allies' technological advances--it's best not to question the plot holes and just run with the campy-ness. The Soviets dominate again, the Allies are retreating, and then all of a sudden the Japanese Empire of the Rising Sun attacks both sides and ignites another world war.

I've been a fan of the Command & Conquer series since I played the original Red Alert and got to see my little pixilated Tanya unit take out an entire enemy base. The game had everything--great story, intense wartime action, and clever real time strategy. Campaigns took days to complete and the difficulty level was particularly brutal on select missions of the highly successful expansion packs. I can't think of a game that got me more excited for serious real time strategy than the original Red Alert.

But that was before Red Alert 2, a game that took the series in a more comical direction with cartoonish graphics, over the top cut scenes, and colorful, kid-friendly, less gritty environments. Now, instead of resembling the History Channel, Red Alert 3 seems to draw more inspiration from the Power Rangers.

Tim Curry hams it up as the Soviet Premier, Jenny McCarthy plays special agent Tanya, and George Takei is the Emperor of Japan. There are also strong supporting roles from J.K. Simmons (of Juno fame), Jonathan Pryce ( Brazil ), and David Hasselhoff ( Baywatch ).

You know a game doesn't take itself too seriously when one of the actors remarks that the enemy's armies are "thrusting deeply into motherland's nether regions" or casts David Hasselhoff as the Vice President. And for some reason, every female on screen is wearing a mini-skirt as part of her military uniform.

This level of camp extends to the units as well. The series phases out standard units like tanks in favor of helicopters that transform into walkers, amphibious naval destroyers, and armored trained attack bears. Old favorites return, like spies (voiced with a Roger Moore-like Bond impersonation), Kirov airships, and Tesla troopers. A new feature to the series is the ability to build almost all of your structures on the water. Sea bases can be protected from most land-based attack units and provide a new dimension to strategic base building.

The special-forces units are always an iconic part of the series, and this time around are a mix of new and old with Tanya, Yuriko Omega (a Japanese school girl with devastating psychic abilities) and Natasha, your typical busty sniper assassin.

Each side has its strengths. The Allies have superior intelligence (like spies and cloaking abilities), powerful prism technology (Mirage Tanks, prism towers), and the time-altering affects of the Chronosphere. The Soviets prefer brute force (the Apocalypse tank and Kirov airship), electrical weapons (Tesla Troopers, Stingray boats) and the invulnerability granted by the Iron Curtain.

But the new Empire of the Rising Sun faction provides a different sort of advantage to its players. The Empire uses a lot of mech units that can transform from land to air, land to sea, or sea to air to provide a versatile attack force. Heavily influenced by anime and Japanese lore, the Empire commander has katana-wielding shinobi stealth units and Tengu Mechs that can become jet fighters or land based anti-infantry units. Their Yoriko Omega special-forces unit can toss tanks in the air or obliterate infantry with her mind--making her the single most potent unit in the game.

Unit micromanagement has never become more essential. Some units will turn to scrap metal against certain enemies unless you manually order them to utilize their secondary weapons. The enemy artificial intelligence (AI) is challenging, but hasn't improved much over the years. Fully supported cooperative single player is a welcome addition to the game, and on the whole your co-commanders are competent. You can order your AI ally around a bit, and since each commander you're paired with has a unique backstory, actor, and persona, the experience becomes that much richer. Or, if you'd prefer, you can complete the single player missions with a friend or challenge them to a traditional multiplayer match.

There are some drawbacks to the cooperative single player. The AI is decent, but not impressive, and pathfinding issues plague the gameplay-- often at key moments in combat. The micromanaging needs some better tools to wrestle with your different units and their abilities, and frankly, they went too far in creating outrageous units. Sometimes I just want my tank to be a tank. Is that so hard?

Finally, though the Blizzard series of real time strategy games made "turtling" impossible by ensuring you had to keep expanding your base to acquire new resources, the elimination of this strategy in the Red Alert series is a design choice that I don't agree with. Building an impenetrable base was always a favored strategy of Red Alert players, and throwing away what makes this series unique is a shame.

On my 2.66GHz Quad-Core Mac Pro, I unfortunately experienced some major slow down once the combat turned up. On the default settings for the game, the frame rate nosedived whenever intense conflict happened on the map and the screen would simply freeze if I tried to max out the graphical settings. I ended up settling for a lower graphics setting and didn't notice a real visual difference, save for a reduction in the quality of the water effects.

Macworld's buying advice

If you're looking for a serious real time strategy experience, then you'll find Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 handicapped by limited strategies, clumsy and too narrowly focused units, and an art style more reminiscent of Rollercoaster Tycoon than a war simulator. But if you're looking for an enriching, far-out and often humorous strategy game, anything in the Command & Conquer series is worth checking out. When many developers are foregoing storytelling, originality, and creativity in designing their games, the well-cast cut scenes, bizarre unit types, and the weird storyline of the Red Alert series offers the strategy world a refreshing change. Recommended for capitalist dogs and communist swine alike.

[Chris Holt is an assistant editor for Macworld.]

This story, "Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3" was originally published by Macworld.

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