Let me just start out by saying...I really, really, really want Red Alert 3 to be a smash hit that leaves Red Alert 2 in the dust; however, call it cynicism, call it intuition, call it whatever you want...I'm skeptical. Here's why:
I don't know what it is, but post-Red Alert (RA) 2 there has been this morbid fascination with three factions (I don’t know honestly, I guess our attention span has shrunk to the size of a peanut), every Electronic Arts (EA) RTS game I've come across has had this feature (Dune, Generals, Tiberium Wars (TW)) and even non-EA creations such as Supreme Commander implement the tri-factionation (yeah I know that's not a word). Honestly, I think it is unnecessary and certainly doesn't make for better game play, which is why we are all here. I know I don't play games because they look good, but rather because the game play was awesome. All this takes us back to RA2 which as has been said ad nauseam, was brilliant game play. Let's now examine some of the reasons that three sided games fail:
- Balance. This issue reared its ugly head the moment Yuri's Revenge rolled out onto the market...yes I am referring to the Boomer (which to this day I still despise). Three sided games are obviously much, much more difficult to balance than two sided games and leads to stark imbalances that can take time (and many, many patches) to sort out and if you have a less than supportive company implementing those patches they might never get it right. Some might argue that TW (and even Generals, Yuri’s revenge) do a decent job of balancing the sides, but my response is simply, why? I mean why take something, which is proven to be great (1vs1) and attempt to get more playability by adding unnecessary elements to it? It's like the perfect masterpiece ruined because artist added that final brushstroke that wasn't necessary to the painting. I understand that people might get 'bored' playing the same two sides, but that's what was great about RA2, each side had five sub sides to allow for different styles of play. This element, in my humble opinion, allowed RA2 to survive as long as it did (heck they're still holding tournaments for it today, some eight years later...which is true definition of replay value if you ask me).
- Sides that really aren't different. This was the notable feature tri-factioned games such as Supreme Commander. Basically you had three sides whose units and structures were almost (if not completely) identical to one another, so while you were playing a 'different' side you weren't really playing a different side. EA has seemed to do a decent job of avoiding this, but it is still something to look out for.
This is an often overlooked feature of video games and when I say this I mean storyline as a combination of acting/dialogue and storyline. Now this feature is tricky, a great storyline can make a good game, great. For example, RA1, which in my opinion has one of the best storylines of any PC game I've played. It was just so realistic and believable that you actually thought and felt what was taking place in the game (heck...I want to go find a copy and play right now). On the other hand you have RA2, which despite its amazing game play had a weak, cheesy, unbelievable storyline (granted maybe due to the nature of the story it had to be somewhat unbelievable), but was able to make up for it with terrific play (storyline is irrelevant in online play). Tiberium wars actually had some well known actors in the cut scenes, but still I came away with less than riveted feel (honestly I think they were just trying to dazzle us with star power and CGI, but I won't be fooled), although I will say it was a bit of an improvement over RA2. My advice, dig up the genius from Westwood that made the RA1 storyline/cut scenes and let him run the show. Sadly, my fears have been confirmed in recent Q&A sessions with EA have confirmed the "humorous" nature of the Red Alert 3 storyline...shame on you EA.
Stalin and co. make Yuri and Romanov look like little catholic school girls
Okay this is the biggie. Due to the decline of the PC (which I'll discuss more completely in a future article) PC game producers have been in a mad rush to keep up, but cranking up the graphics to make it 'look better' than PS3, XBOX 360, and the Wii. However, they forgot the cardinal rule of capitalism: No matter how good your product looks, if it sucks no one will buy it. This is lynchpin of the PC/console struggle (in which consoles have a ridiculous advantage). Initial shots look promising, but if EA tries to make Red Alert 3 another eye candy game, it will fail miserably to dethrone RA2 as the king of RTS (which should be its goal). Here are some pointers that EA would be wise to listen to:
- ENOUGH WITH SUPERFLOUS 3D GRAPHICS! I cannot emphasize this enough. Sure it might not look as nice as Crysis, but that is not the point, which is to create a game that is playable to a wide variety of computers not those that have been recently purchased. Sure the price of higher end computers has come down, but it needs to be playable on lower end CPUs as well in order to maximize the amount of people who can play it without having to go out and drop a $1000 (or more) on a machine that may or may not be able to play it. Think about it, there are hundreds of games available for the XBOX 360; each of which has a requirement equal but not greater than the 360 (PS3, Wii, whatever), so you only have to spend the $300-500 once, whereas you can spend $1000 on a computer which is not guaranteed to play it if you don’t have the right hardware and besides who in their right mind is going to spend that kind of money to play one game, regardless of how nice it looks. Another issue relating to this is the ability to rotate buildings (while nice for the obsessive compulsive) is a totally unnecessary feature (with rally points) that consumes needless system resources.
- Online play. This is quite possibly the single most important feature (minus game play itself, but the two are somewhat related). Westwood created an amazing platform to allow mass number of people to play online. I know EA will be tempted to go the route of Blizzard and charge for online play, this will be a fatal error. The reason Blizzard has to charge for WOW access is because it is extremely content heavy thus requiring massive servers to house the millions of WOW faithful. Now admittedly if EA can recruit millions of players for Red Alert 3, then some nominal fee (i.e. $5 or so) would be acceptable, however, we would expect an amazing experience completely void of cheaters and other malicious elements. If EA doesn't step to the plate, then we must rely on some third part (such as XWIS for RA2) to step forward and fill the gap, otherwise this game is headed to a permanent spot on the dust rack.
Forced game play.
For those of you who know me personally you will probably be shocked at what I am about to write. I am totally against, what I call forced game play. That is frankly, EA is telling us that we must use naval. I disagree with this greatly. Make the game, make the units (for all facets of combat: land, sea and air) and let the customer decide how they want to play the game. If they want to play tank battles, let them play tank battles. If they want to play naval war, let them play naval war, usw. In addition, recent comments from the EA goons in regards to play time have left me with a funny feeling in my stomach. Says EA henchman, APOC (will someone please do a VH1 “Where are they now" on Delphi?)
"With Red Alert 3 we’re designing the game play to be a lot more deliberate and measured. We’re shooting for average matches of 20-30 minutes and want to make sure that a lot of the unit spamming tactics, particularly the early game rushes of C&C3, are less viable. Games between experienced Red Alert 3 players will tend to go to the player who makes good use of force composition and unit micro, not the guy who can build the biggest scrum of tanks."
Honestly, this shows great ignorance on EA’s behalf. I doubt many of the developers played or appreciated the way that many of the great RA2 players did (if at all). To shoot for a 20-30 minute game is, great (sometimes), but honestly those games get boring, fast. It definitely seems they want to bring the lower players up to par with the better players, but honestly this won’t happen, because the bad players will still be bad and the good players will find a way around it, hopefully.
In conclusion, EA has tall order ahead of itself. It must prove that it has what it takes to produce a classic RTS game; so far its track record has been less than stellar. For now we can only speculate and guess what kind of game Red Alert 3 will be. Screenshots only tell us so much; September 15 will reveal volumes on whether this will be a great game or just another average game. I hope that four years of waiting hasn't been in vain and let's all hope that there's enough of Westwood left in EA to churn out one last epic RTS experience.