I’m going to do something slightly more long-form here, both because I have insomnia and because the Red Alert series is something I remember through a rose-tinged nostalgic fog. I’ve mentioned before how watching Joe Kucan ham things up in Command and Conquer is as inseparable from my childhood as scraped knees in the playground are for normal kids. I was eleven years old at the time and had no disposable income, so my experience of it was via the highly convoluted method of the GDI disc being borrowed from one of my brother’s friends and played on a Risc PC - which my parents had bought in the charmingly deluded belief that it would be used for educational purposes – that could only emulate an IBM PC operating environment and consequently had no sound. I didn’t care. For somebody whose previous gaming experiences consisted of some pirated Atari ST games (the Atari ST was the poor man’s Amiga, although I didn’t know that at the time) and some stuff for the Archimedes that was coded by one guy working out of his bedroom, watching full-motion video featuring actual live actors intercut with primitive CGI was a damn-near religious experience, even if the actors were curiously mute.
It helped that the game was pretty good too, of course.
Anyway, one year after Command and Conquer and my parents finally get a Windows 95-capable machine. Three months of constant nagging later and I find Red Alert sitting under the Christmas tree. Red Alert is the first PC game I actually owned myself and I probably invested more time into it than I ever did into Left 4 Dead, a game with 200+ hours on the clock and counting. The missions were very long-form; it was very rare you’d get one that could be completed in less than half an hour, and some of the end-game tussles took upwards of two. That Red Alert managed to remain entertaining even during these marathon slogs is not a misapprehension brought on by youthful naivete because I revisited the game many years later, older and wiser, and found that while the glacial build times were getting very dated the way the missions and campaigns had been put together was damn near timeless. The cutscenes were played completely straight; this meant they were completely awesome to my twelve year-old self, and now that I’m all growed up I can see the knowing hamminess in the performances that gives them a whole new charm. And then of course there was this amazing advert that showed on TV at the time:
Fast-forward four years and Red Alert 2 came along. I didn’t like it very much, because it eschewed the straight-faced nature of the original’s cutscenes for high levels of camp. I didn’t “get” Red Alert 2 until Yuri’s Revenge was released a year later in 2001 (a vintage year for expansion packs, what with Throne of Bhaal and Lord of Destruction) at which point everything clicked: Yuri’s Revenge featured a plot, missions and units so utterly insane that I couldn’t help but love everything in it, from the mission where you go around Hollywood recruiting action heroes to fight for you to the final cutscene where Yuri gets eaten by a dinosaur. It lacked the oomph of the original, but with the expansion pack thrown into the mix it was a perfectly worthy game.
Unlike the first game, and maybe even the second game, Red Alert 3 isn’t going to be creating any fond childhood memories for anyone any time soon. In fact as far as childhood memories go, Red Alert 3 is like that one time I tried to open a gate with my face and gained some highly attractive facial scars. The psychological wounds incurred in the course of battering my way through the Soviet campaign will never heal.
This piece of shit needs to be assessed in two parts as with all Red Alert games: the cutscenes and general ambience of the thing, and the actual game. First, cutscenes. Red Alert 1 was almost completely straight-faced. Red Alert 2 set phasers to “Camp”. Red Alert 3 tries to do camp as well, except it misses by several dimensions and ends up in this strange sort of cartoonish realm where I really don’t give a fuck. The truly bizarre thing is that there are more than a few bona-fide B-list actors[1.It pains me that I have to call Jonathan Pryce B-list but his choice of films when he’s not working with Gilliam has been absolutely fucking abysmal, so B-list he is.] in it yet they are too good for this material. RA 2 had plenty of B-listers – Udo Kier, that guy that played the President – and they looked completely at home with what they were doing. This on the other hand is material that Tim Curry cannot ham into interesting-ness1, which is an excellent indicator of just how bloody terrible it is. Even George Takei – a man I saw doing panto last year and who showed every indication that he was having an absolute blast – looks totally and utterly bored to death. It’s not even a question of dialogue. I don’t go into Red alert games expecting gripping dialogue, but I do expect something that is fun to watch. This is why RA 2 gets a pass from me, because while I was annoyed at the change in tone at the time it is irresistably entertaining in its own way. RA 3 doesn’t even manage that. The main problem, I think, is that instead of amusing over-acting interspersed with action-packed CGI cutscenes – which are the hallmark of every C&C game ever except maybe the third one which I’ve completely blocked from my memory – whoever made Red Alert 3 thought it would be an excellent idea not to bother with the action-packed CGI this time around and instead make every single cutscene into two people sitting behind desks talking at the player. I honestly don’t know why the developers thought this would be engaging at a-
Oh yes. Did you really think I was going to let this pass without comment? It’s not like you can possibly avoid it in the promotional material for the game (the above image comes as a poster in the box copy so that thirteen year-old boys can furtively hide it under their mattresses) and I actually feel kind of embarassed I spent money on something so shamelessly sexist no matter how cheap the game or how good the word of mouth. And no, I don’t care that it’s all done with a knowing nod and a wink; the only way this would be even remotely acceptable is if it was somehow satirical, and that it very definitely ain’t.
So the cutscenes are deathly boring and an insult to an entire gender to boot. What else does this “game” have to offer us. Well, one area in which it has departed from series tradition is in its jettisoning of any sort of coherent story, and this is something that leaves me scratching my head because for an RTS a series of missions that have a structured progression that adheres to a storyline is a very, very hard thing to fuck up. You start off small with some basic units and structures, you gradually drip-feed more to the player as the campaign progresses, you make the bases they have to crush gradually more elaborate, you spice things up with the odd non-base-crushing mission, and then you finally culminate the campaign with the most sprawling base yet to provide some sense of epic denouement. If you’re going to deviate from that formula you’d better be doing something genuinely groundbreaking like SC2 or DoW2. But no, RA3 doesn’t bother with any of that stuff; my first base-crushing mission was functionally identical to my last base-crushing mission, and by the end of the Soviet campaign I had yet to play a mission that did not require me to crush a base. This is half of the reason why the gameplay is deathly boring as well as the cutscenes. The other half is the gameplay mechanics themselves.
Yes, unfortunately the C&C 3 mechanics I loathed so much are alive and well and living in Red Alert 3: every unit moves at roughly 200mph and the rock-paper-scissors dynamic is so pronounced that everything dies to its counter in about two seconds. At first this makes progressing in a mission a soul-destroying journey because your attack forces are getting trashed every couple of minutes by a computer that just spams stuff at you willy-nilly; in this situation the winner is the person who gets bored last, and since the CPU is an unfeeling machine it has a decided advantage in this scenario. Then, then you get Kirov airships, which are basically just a big “I WIN” button when enough of them are massed together since they’re the first unit that can actually soak up some punishment from the units that are designed to destroy them. The sad thing is, it’s not even like you can send in other units with the Kirovs to take down some of the anti-air threats since they’ll die almost immediately, thus making Red Alert 3 a strategy game that is almost completely devoid of strategy.
My experience of the Red Alert 3 campaign was therefore a series of uninspiring missions preceded by bland cutscenes performed by bored actors, and I was completely unsurprised when the damn thing booted me straight back to the main menu upon completion as a final insult. I was actually getting a bit worried that every game I wrote an opinion on ended up provoking a reaction of fair-to-middling enjoyment – even accounting for selection bias – so playing Red Alert 3 was wondrously affirming in a way: there are shit games out there. I just don’t often play them, is all.
- Which is really saying something considering he was literally the only good thing about that godawful adaptation of the Three Musketeers that they made in the mid-90s. ↩