When they first appeared on the scene, real-time strategy games started off with the basics of harvesting resources, building your base, and eventually churning out an army of toy soldiers to beat up your opponents before they did the same to you. Times have changed. These games have become faster-paced and more streamlined, with better control layouts, prettier graphics, and in the case of EALA's upcoming sequel, they have scout dogs and parachuting bears. Yes, Red Alert 3 may look like Command & Conquer 3's wackier cousin, but as we saw from our exclusive hands-on time with the game, there's also a finely-tuned and deep strategy game within. We had a chance to see and play the game, as well as get an exclusive first look at the all-new Empire of the Rising Sun as well.
Red Alert 3 takes place in an alternate reality in which the Cold War never ended, and all the fantastical scientific research and speculative weaponry of the 20th century actually became a reality. The series previously covered the conflict between the Soviets and the Western forces, but the third game adds a new playable faction, the Empire of the Rising Sun (powered by the fanatical armies of the Japanese).
This intriguing new faction apparently came about as a combination of the development team's plans to create a faction for skilled players who enjoy carefully micromanaging their armies, as well as from the team's favorite video games and pop culture from the Far East. For starters, basically all of Red Alert 3's units in all three factions have a secondary ability (which may either be toggled on or off, have an instantaneous effect, or require some sort of timed "cooldown" until it can be used again), and three of the Rising Sun's most powerful and flexible midlevel units possess the ability to sprout jet engines and take to the air.
This makes these versatile units exceptionally tricky to deal with in groups that are being managed by skillful players, since the game also features a rock-paper-scissors balance of units that travel by land, sea, and/or air, as well as by whether they're infantry or vehicles. Some units are very effective counter-units against ground-based and seafaring enemies and can tear through the Rising Sun's ground-based Mecha Tengu walkers (half-jet, half-robot-walker mechs bear a passing resemblance to the transforming jet/robots from the classic Japanese anime Super Dimensional Fortress Macross) and the swift Seawing submarines (which seem a bit like the transforming light/dark ship from the satisfyingly challenging arcade shooter Ikaruga) like tissue paper. However, both the Mecha Tengu and the Seawing possess the secondary ability of instantly becoming flying units--which can instantly render anti-ground or anti-naval attacks useless, as they become untouchable flyers that can be damaged only by anti-air weapons.
In addition, the Rising Sun is the only faction in the game that isn't shackled with the traditional "build radius"--the requirement of building your structures close to your base. Instead, the faction builds moving cores--small, vulnerable, amphibious wheeled units that can be deployed as buildings (after a delay of several seconds) pretty much anywhere on the map you can move them to, though amphibious units may only cross between land and sea along flat beaches, not off of cliffs.
Still, this feature of the Rising Sun's buildings definitely has its risks and rewards. Skilled micromanagers who can jump between many sites at once can scout aggressively to discover resource nodes and sending along mobile cores to build refineries nearby, supercharging their economies. Building up forward bases of unit-building structures is also a great way to keep the pressure on your opponents and tighten the noose quickly--however, having remote and poorly-defended installations scattered across the map can be a recipe for painful, expensive losses if your opponents also have the presence of mind to scout aggressively, and tear down your remote installations before you can hustle out a defense force.
All three of the game's factions seem like they can get a good, fast start, and can build fast scout units (such as the Allies' scout dog) to quickly search for resources, as well as to take a look at what your opponents are up to. You'll need to do this in competitive play to get a sense of what type of armies your opponent is producing, so that you can figure out how to counter them with proper anti-personnel, anti-vehicle, anti-air, or anti-naval forces.
According to the team, scouting not only encourages players to be more aggressive about staking out territory early on, but it also helps give skirmish matches a more-even pacing as players build a mix of forces that can successfully explore and conquer land and sea areas and sniff out other resource nodes as well as other random structures (such as oil refineries and radio towers that can grant resource and line-of-sight bonuses), without being so limited as to be easily countered themselves. The team's previous game, Command & Conquer 3, had a very competitive multiplayer game in which matches often lasted less than 10 minutes as players frantically rushed their way to victory. According to the team, by having to think about naval and anti-air aspects a bit more carefully, testers have instead been averaging something closer to 15-20 minutes for head-to-head multiplayer matches, which gives them more of an opportunity to research higher-level, more-powerful units, as well as superweapon powers.
We didn't have much of a chance to play with the Rising Sun's superweapon powers, but like in EALA's other recent strategy games, they'll come in unlockable tiers that you can purchase with points that you accrue during play. Though each faction will have five tiers of three different powers each, in our run-through with the game, we went straight for the highest-level of "balloon bombs," a rain of comically oversized explosive shells that parachute lazily down on any painted target area. Interestingly, your opponents can choose to shoot at the shells in the hopes of prematurely setting them off before they deal their damage, but the anti-air fire can also simply cut out the bombs' parachutes, causing the shells to drop instantly and hit their targets. While this power was relatively straightforward to use (and extremely effective when unlocked at the highest level, we might add), we were told by a rising star producer by the name of Greg Kasavin that several of the powers will be much more tactical in nature, and will support specific strategies.
In our skirmish sessions, we found ourselves building up a base from our mobile construction vehicle (MCV) unit and quickly building power plants and refineries by deploying the Rising Sun's mobile core units, then scrambling up the technology tree to churn out infantry and vehicles. The Rising Sun's foot soldiers include standard infantry units, "tankbuster" anti-vehicle soldiers that can bury themselves underground and lie in wait, devastating shinobi ninjas, engineers that can commandeer buildings, and Yuriko, the insanely powerful Japanese commando unit, who dresses like a Japanese schoolgirl, but has enough telekinetic power to levitate and capsize a naval destroyer.
However, the Rising Sun's vehicles seem much more interesting, especially the faction's transformable flying vehicles. However, the factions also possesses powerful top-level units, such as a battleship unit that can bombard its targets back to the stone age, and the dreaded King Oni mech, which makes short work of just about any enemy vehicle. Interestingly, both the King Oni and the Rising Sun's battleship may also attempt to ram into their enemies--the King Oni as a spectacular feat of robotic agility, and the battleship as a noble form of self-sacrifice. Both attacks deal great damage to their targets.
The Rising Sun faction seems well-balanced and will definitely be a threat in the hands of a fast-fingered player who's good at sweating the small stuff. Considering how diverse the faction's units and abilities are, we can only imagine how challenging it must be to carefully balance them against the game's other two highly distinctive factions, not just in competitive head-to-head play, but also in cooperative play, which we unfortunately did not get a chance to see in action. Each time we've seen it, Red Alert 3 has seemed closer and closer to realizing its goal of offering fast-paced, over-the-top blockbuster-movie action in a real-time strategy game. It's scheduled for release later this year.