Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Red Alert 3: beta impressions

After playing the multiplayer beta of Red Alert 3, I can safely say that this is the weirdest, most complicated Command & Conquer game ever. It can be very hard to figure it out if you just jump into a game against other players (but of course, that's all you could do in the beta). There's still a lot I don't understand about it. Every unit seems very unique, and there are tons and tons of special abilities to go around. Reading the manual will be absolutely necessary unless you play the three single-player campaigns first, which I assume will train you on how to use all the units and abilities. The three sides are extremely different from each other. I can see this and C&C3 both retaining a large audience, because they are very different games.

Gone from C&C3 are squad-based infantry units and complete freedom with placing structures. The former is a matter of taste, and adds to the less military, more stylized feel of the game; the latter is probably a good idea, since structure placement in C&C3 was very confusing. No longer will you find yourself unable to place a structure on a gigantic, flat chunk of land that's well within your construction zone. In this game, structures are placed on a grid and can be rotated in only 4 directions (diagonally skewed in the default view, as has been the case with all C&C engines after the original).
Resources are also handled differently. Structures called Ore Mines are scattered across the map, and you build an Ore Refinery near one of them and let the ore collector start doing its thing. It most strongly resembles the Vespene Gas mechanic in Starcraft, with the ore mines becoming depleted after a while; the difference is that the ore mines are neutral structures and the refinery is built across from it. The ore collectors' turnaround time is quite fast assuming you place the refinery just a few blocks away from the mine, meaning there's really no need to build extra ore collectors unless the one that comes with the mine is destroyed. (Or for base expansion, in the case of the Allied ore collector.) The overall control scheme and interface of the game is basically the same as that of C&C3, although the graphics seem a little more advanced; I had to turn off anti-aliasing to get it running smoothly.

One of the most interesting changes across the board is the "special abilities" tree. Throughout the game -- I'm still not sure how, but it seems to have to do with construction -- you acquire experience points (I think they're called "defense points" or something) to spend on special abilities, which queue up on the left side of the screen the same way paratroopers, superweapons, etc. did in C&C3. There's a grid of abilities, with 3 columns and about 8 rows. When you spend points on one of them, it unlocks the one below it. For example, spending a point on an airstrike ability may unlock a bigger airstrike; however, they're a LOT more varied than that. Abilities range from basic things, like reinforcements, radar sweeps, and mild superweapons, to more advanced things, like a cash bounty that temporarily lets you get money from killing enemies. I'm told that this system is similar to something from Company of Heroes.
Compared to both C&C3 and Starcraft, there seems to be less focus on "upgrading" unit weapons and armor in the traditional sense. Any upgrading is done via this new ability tree system. The units more or less start off at full potential; however, almost all of them have a special ability that can be toggled on and off, or used after a cool-down period. Partially because of this, there seems to be a smaller, more focused set of units than in previous games, with some of the standard unit functions from previous games being combined into one unit.

There is a lot of focus on water combat. Obviously, every faction has a naval base that can build water vessels. But here's the biggest departure from tradition: many structures (if not all) can actually be built on the water, using a scaffolding/deck as visual justification. This includes turrets, as such base expansion necessitates defense expansion; so yes, you can build Tesla Coils in water. Quite a few units can cross water as well, including certain types of tanks, all engineers, and the Japanese Shinobi. All ore collectors are amphibious so that they can gain access to Ore Mines that are located in water. It appears that the only structures that can't be built on water are vehicle and infantry production structures; naturally, naval bases can't be built on land, but airfields can be built on either surface.

The soundtrack seems to largely follow the C&C3 mold in that it's dynamic ambient music rather than a tracklist of songs. When you get into battles it starts sounding more old-school, but I can't say anything for sure since I don't know how much of the soundtrack is available in this version. The main menu music is "Grinder", recycled from Red Alert 2, so I can only assume that will change.

With that said, I'll briefly go over the 3 factions.

The Allied Prospectors (ore collectors) double as C&C3's Surveyors: not only can they collect ore, but they can deploy into a base expansion area. Instead of building "tech" structures, Allies can purchase two levels of "clearance" to open up further construction tiers. I imagine this gives them the advantage of not being able to lose access to certain units until the construction building itself is destroyed. They have no grenade unit, just rifle and bazooka infantry; however, the rifle infantry can use "riot shields" which allow them to go into a garrisoned building and clear it out. Allies seem to favor units and structures where you can put infantry inside; their turret, their "hum-vee" type unit, and possibly one of the ships or aircraft allow this. (It's like C&C3's APC.) One of the Allies' coolest special abilities is Time Bomb, which lets you place a bomb anywhere not shrouded by "fog of war". I'm not sure how the enemy is supposed to diffuse it; possibly with an engineer? I didn't get much of a chance to experiment with their air and naval units, but they seemed pretty powerful. Tank-wise they have a relatively light tank and the Mirage tank from RA2, so the Soviets will outdo them in that department.

Rising Sun:
Definitely the oddball faction. Every single one of their structures is built as a deployable unit. So you don't just build a power plant; you build a power plant "core" and then you move it somewhere and deploy it. Even turrets are built like this. As confusing as this is, it has one obvious advantage: they can build absolutely anywhere. Hence, expect a Rising Sun player to claim all the ore mines near his base in no time. Whereas Allies need at least a refinery-collector combo and Soviets need at least a vehicle factory before expansion can happen, Rising Sun can deploy refineries wherever they want right off the bat. They can also send some deployable turrets along so the refinery won't be left vulnerable. They don't have an airfield, but most of their vehicles are actually "mecha" (giant robots), several of which can either fly around or turn into jets that fly around. They also have three types of flying infantry. One of the first types of infantry you can build with the Rising Sun is a flying scout unit that can sweep the map pretty quickly. The psychic schoolgirl is unbelievably effective against air and naval units, not to mention buildings. I was able to counter one pretty well with Shinobi (a ninja unit who basically looks like Sub-Zero with a sword), and I'd imagine anti-infantry turrets and other commando-level units would work pretty well too. The Rising Sun's standard infantry seem relatively weak, but they essentially have two types of "special" infantry (just below commando-level), both of which are good attackers.

The Soviets seem like the easiest faction to figure out. Their ore collector can't deploy into a base expansion area; that duty belongs to the Sputnik (who, incidentally, sounds like Borat). Hence, their biggest disadvantage is base expansion, especially compared to the Rising Sun; it can be hard to lay claim to all of the Ore Mines early on. Additionally, construction of Soviet structures requires that you place the structure first, before construction actually begins; Allies use the traditional C&C method of build-then-place, and of course the Rising Sun use something different entirely. Only the Soviets appear to have an advanced power plant. The Soviet Conscriptor doubles as a rifle infantry and grenade infantry -- you can switch them over to Molotov Cocktails, useful for de-garrisoning. They appear to have the best tanks, including one that's roughly equivalent to the Mammoth tank. They also have an air advantage, because only the MIGs need to dock at the airfield; their other aircraft can just hover around, so there's no limit to how many you can build. One Soviet special ability is Magnetic Lift, which can lift "certain" armored units into space, never to be seen again! I'm not sure yet what can and can't be lifted, but Rising Sun units seem most susceptible. I found this out the hard way when a Soviet enemy apparently figured out where my Mecha Bay was, and they sucked a bunch of my giant robots into space right after I built them. The commando unit, Natasha, can detonate buildings with a laser-guided bomb (so she doesn't have to touch the building), but she has to stand still for a few seconds.

This is going to be a very interesting game when it's released about a month from now (October 28th), and I'm looking forward to actually learning how to play it. With its complexity, innovation, and uniqueness, it should be able to hold its own against Starcraft II.

You can, of course, find more information about Red Alert 3 at the official website.

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