Real-time strategy games are supposed to be about slowly building up an economy by harvesting resources, then gradually constructing buildings, then gradually churning out an army. They're also supposed to focus on head-to-head competitive play. If they have naval units, the naval gameplay is supposed to be tedious and annoying because you have to build separate naval structures and march infantry into teeny, tiny boats and wait for them to cross the ocean to get to the other side. And most of the time, they're not supposed to have parachuting robo-bears. So you could say that Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 is very much about not doing what real-time strategy games are supposed to do.
The game not only runs at a quicker clip than your typical strategy game, but it also has fully amphibious gameplay that makes both naval and ground tactics equally effective. It features armored bears, scout dogs, battle dolphins. It also offers perhaps the most outlandish feature of all: full cooperative play for both one-off skirmishes and for the game's entire single-player campaign. And now, we're ready to report on our experience after trying out a few different campaign maps in cooperative mode alongside the steady hand of an up-and-coming Electronic Arts producer by the name of Greg Kasavin.
Our hands-on session with the game was only on the PC version, which uses a third-party application for matchmaking but has the handy ability to let you send invites to your friends. This is not just when you're in the multiplayer lobby, but also when you're between levels in the single-player campaign. Once you've loaded up your level and watched the pre-mission setup--which includes both a full-motion video sequence acted out by the game's star studded cast of Tim Curry, George Takei, and Jenny McCarthy, as well as a full mission briefing that outlines your objectives--you can send along an invite message to any friends who happen to be online. Should your friends accept, you'll be whisked away to a multiplayer launch screen from which you can all dive into the game.
Our brief session included play-throughs of two different campaign missions, one from the Allied Forces campaign and one from the Soviet campaign. Both missions started very quickly, and we were able to get a good sense of how the Red Alert 3 team intends for players to fight the good fight together. In fact, as we saw, there are barriers between you and your co-op allies. All players on the same side share line-of-sight, so any areas you've uncovered will be visible to all your allies.
What's more, you can build structures near any friendly installment--not just your own--so you'll be able to build out barracks, motor yards, and airfields next to your allies' bases and even reap the benefits of any technology advances they've researched from their home base. You'll even be able to garrison your infantry inside your buddies' troop transports.
In co-op, you'll also fully share all your harvested resources, which can not only help keep you funded and in the game longer if you suffer a severe defeat and lose an installation, but it can also add more options in terms of how you and your teammates develop because a well-coordinated team will find itself less constrained by tight purse strings. Of course, this can also mean that your opponents may use these amenities against you, so you'll need to make sure you and your buddies are on the same page. The game will apparently support voice-over-IP chat, as well as global text chat and hotkey-linked quick chat.
Both of our matches were fast and furious. With the ground and air support, we were also able to get a jump start on our opponents. In our first mission, we played a two-player co-op mission, with both players controlling Allied Forces armies. With good economic support, we were able to hang back at our base and construct some defenses to ward off any raiding parties from the enemy before we upgraded our base and started churning out the tanks to pummel our campaign enemies, the Soviet armies, in this case, into submission. In our second mission, we changed sides to play through an early Soviet campaign mission against the allied forces, though in an intriguing change of pace, because we played this as a co-op mission, we started our mission with a partially developed naval base, while our comrade started his mission on land. In this case, we spent much of our time in the water, fending off enemy dolphin raiders and bombarding land targets while our partner churned out tanks to squash the land-bound opposition.
Red Alert 3's cooperative gameplay seems to work just fine and definitely opens up new avenues for strategy. It should also add replay value to a game that already has plenty of crazy, over-the-top armies that already warrant lots of experimentation and messing around. It continues to look more and more promising as a game that will offer fast, smooth gameplay; over-the-top action; the playful sensibilities of a popcorn flick; and yes, even online co-op. Red Alert 3 is scheduled to ship later this year.