In February 2006, EA released Command & Conquer: The First Decade. Rarely, if ever, have more important and worthwhile games been put together in one boxed release. On one DVD, EA had assembled every Command & Conquer game released up to that point. From the original 1995 game which popularised the real-time strategy genre to 2003’s Generals, the set was a remarkable document of what Westwood Studios had achieved. EA had owned Westwood since 1998, and the developer was one of their most prized assets - a proven money-maker with a share of around 5% of the whole PC games market. By using the phrase “the first decade”, EA seemed confident that much more success was still to come.
It didn’t quite work out like that. Today, EA are usually vilified for their actions towards Westwood and the C&C series following the release of The First Decade. The usual line is that the Las Vegas-based developers were “destroyed” by their corporate overlords, in the years after they were absorbed into EA Los Angeles in 2003. The games released in the series’ second decade have very little of the iconic status enjoyed by the products of the early years. Eventually, the series became a shadow of its former self, with EA overseeing a mixture of catastrophic failures like Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (2010) and a string of misbegotten, cancelled projects. A series that had spearheaded the explosion of RTS popularity in the 1990s now consisted of dumbed-down browser and mobile games, when projects were completed at all.
Looking back, though, there are things to be unearthed from the wreckage of C&C’s mostly inauspicious second decade. Chief amongst these hidden gems is what may be one of the best games in the whole series to play today - the gloriously tongue-in-cheek RTS experience with real lasting appeal that is Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3.
The history of the Red Alert sub-series stretches almost to the very start of the C&C franchise, with the first game having been released in November 1996. This first followup to the original game ditches the GDI and Nod factions in favour of an alternate World War II, with the upstanding Allies trying to fend off an invasion of Europe by the malevolent Soviet Union. Ultimately, the original Red Alert was to a large extent a reskin of Command & Conquer, using the same engine and many of the same units.
It was with Red Alert 2, released in 2000, that the sub-series really took on a life of its own. In contrast to the straitlaced tone of the main series, this game launched into a wonderfully over-the-top and camp approach to its story, full motion video (FMV) cutscenes, units, and mission design. It also brought in recurring technologies like the toxin-spewing desolator, the formdable apocalypse tank, and the mighty Kirov airship.
Interestingly, RA3 actually entered production twice. The first time was in 2004, when the community were told by email that development had begun. EA demanded an incredibly tight schedule, which prompted executive producer Mark Skaggs to leave the company - this resulted in the project being shelved until 2007. This wasn’t the only chance - upon resuming development, EA LA would have to recapture both the gameplay and the tone of the previous game.
“I’m escaping to the one place that has not been corrupted by capitalism - space!” This immortal line delivered by the inimitable Tim Curry has been doing the rounds on Twitter for years, but not everyone who uses this eleven seconds of gold is aware that it comes from the final mission of the Allied campaign in Red Alert 3.
It’s a great example of how EA Los Angeles managed to recapture and expand upon the absurd, camp tone of Red Alert 2. In its own way, the story to the third game is every bit as wild and unhinged as that of the second. In this timeline, the Soviets are on the verge of being defeated by the Allies. At the eleventh hour, they deploy their own time machine to travel back into the past to assassinate Albert Einstein - thereby denying the Allies access to much of their best technology. Unfortunately, this prompts the rise of a new, third faction - the ultra high-tech Empire of the Rising Sun.
Each of the three factions has their own, nine-mission campaign. As in RA2, the campaigns are punctuated by elaborate live-action cutscenes with an impressive celebrity cast. While playing as Allies, players will be guided by Gemma Atkinson, Jonathan Pryce, J.K. Simmons, and even David Hasselhoff. The Soviet campaign features Ivana Miličević, Andrew Divoff, Peter Stormare, and of course Tim Curry. Finally, the Empire is blessed with fewer big names but does have access to George Takei, Kelly Hu, and Ron Yuan. These briefings are gloriously absurd and a big part of the campaigns’ appeal - expect ludicrous uniforms, inter-faction bickering, and enough ham to sink a shogun battleship.
Notably, RA3 is the first RTS game to feature campaigns which are fully playable in, and designed around, co-op. Two commanders can take on all of the missions online, and they often have novel twists such as one player constructing a base on land, and another constructing theirs at sea. While the need for close cooperation varies, every mission is an excellent co-op experience. True to the wild tone of the game, commanders will find themselves destroying the Statue of Liberty, trying to assassinate an emperor with one conscript and a dog, and discovering laser weapons in Mount Rushmore. These incidents are often spectacular, thanks to the game’s excellent graphics and sound.
Remasters are all the rage these days, including for RTS games. Red Alert 3 won’t need one any time soon, however - and not just because it’s comparatively recent. EA LA did a superb job on the game’s aesthetic. Cranked up to max settings, the game looks and sounds consistently excellent - better than expected for a game released in 2008. The campaign missions and maps are set around the world, and while hardly realistic they take in details from the varied locations, from Heidelberg and Mount Rushmore to Vladivostok and Mykonos. Effects were a highlight of Command & Conquer 3, but the developers took these to the next level in RA3. In particular, it’s a pleasure to see the destruction wrought by the units, from jet planes crashing into cliffsides to infantry being frozen and shattered by the freezing beam of the Allied cryocopter.
While the legendary Frank Klepacki only made a minimal return to the series with this game, the soundtrack is capably rounded out by composers James Hannigan and Timothy Michael Wynn. But the single most impressive aesthetic element of Red Alert 3 is something that is hardly noticeable in other strategy games - the water. Few, if any, games have had water which looks as good. Seeing missiles reflected in this shifting azure surface while submarines lurk below it just doesn’t get old.
Water just doesn’t look pretty in RA3. In contrast with the vast majority of strategy games, this C&C entry has fully-featured combat on air, land and sea. Water areas are a crucial part of the battles in most missions and skirmish maps, but EA LA cleverly integrated naval warfare even more by including numerous amphibious units. The Soviet stingray is a patrol boat armed with twin tesla cannons which can wade on shore with robot legs; the Empire’s stealthy shinobi can swim to distant buildings to wreak havoc inside; and the Allied assault destroyer sprouts tracks to bring its heavy armour and powerful cannon into land-based engagements.
RA3 uses a system whereby almost every unit in the game has a special ability. Mastering these is often crucial to victory and they are a consistent thrill to use. Soviet conscripts can use Molotov cocktails to clear enemy infantry out of buildings; war bears can use an amplified roar to stun enemies; and several of the Empire’s units can transform into alternate modes, like the sea wing, their anti-air submarine which becomes an anti-infantry aircraft. These abilities add tremendous depth to RA3’s gameplay, and while they increase the burden of micromanagement, they are all accessed using the same hotkey. The campaigns gradually introduce players to the abilities, but it’s online matches where they can really swing the outcome of a game.
Is it possible to imagine a world in which it isn’t StarCraft II which becomes a huge RTS e-sport, but Red Alert 3? It may sound implausible, but a thorough look at the game’s multiplayer does raise the possibility. In fact, EA did make some effort to cultivate Red Alert 3 and its predecessor Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (2007) into competitive games, but never made the massive investment of resources that Blizzard did.
In addition to its innovative co-op mode, RA3 also includes a more traditional competitive multiplayer component. Across a fairly large variety of maps, players vie for control of ore mines to power up their economies and to develop a conclusive military advantage. The special abilities of units and the high degree of differentiation between the factions give RA3 multiplayer a lot of potential. The pace of battles and the spectacular effects are an asset to tournament broadcasts, but unfortunately the game never took off in the way that StarCraft II did after its release in 2010.
Originally, RA3 multiplayer was dependent on the defunct Gamespy service but today the community benefits from heroic efforts to keep the war raging online using the C&C Online tool, which also supports Generals, Command & Conquer 3, and their respective expansions. A community-run server intercepts game traffic intended for Gamespy, and helps keep co-op and competitive games running. It’s an amazing achievement which reflects the deep and ongoing love for the C&C series and over a decade on from release RA3 multiplayer is still well worth exploring.
Almost all of the C&C games to date have received at least one expansion pack, and Red Alert 3 is no exception. Its expansion, Uprising, was released in March 2009 and is unusual for two reasons. The first is that it received no boxed release - being made available as a download only, which is typical now but was uncommon at the time. The second reason is more unfortunate - Uprising is single-player only.
This major omission aside, the expansion is arguably one of the biggest and best in the history of the series. It contains four “mini campaigns” of three or four missions each; one for each of the main factions and a final one focusing specifically on the Empire’s hero unit, the fearsome teenage psychic warrior Yuriko Omega. The new campaigns may be short, but the missions are clearly designed for players who have already tackled the main game, as their scale and difficulty pose a significant challenge. In story terms, the campaigns have an interesting focus in that they deal with a period of chaos following the war in the main game.
Additionally, the expansion adds a huge chunk of extra single-player missions in its “challenge mode”. This is loosely inspired by the challenge mode in Command & Conquer Generals: Zero Hour, which was one of the most praised aspects of that expansion. In the RA3 version, players take on the role of a commander for the devious FutureTech corporation, which produces many of the weapons upon which the Allies rely. There are over 50 missions which can be tackled in a largely non-linear order. Players can choose any of the three factions for a mission, and beginning from a very limited set of tech options they gradually unlock units and structures to help them approach later battles. Typically, the enemy commander in a mission will heavily rely on the unit the player is attempting to acquire. This is simple enough when that unit is the humble attack dog, but when the enemy leans into building fleets of King Oni war-mechs or Kirov airships, the threat increases considerably.
A good RTS expansion means new units, and Uprising does not disappoint in this respect. The Allies gain four extremely formidable late-game units, including the cryo-legionnaire armed with a devastating freeze-ray and the Harbinger gunship which is one of the most devastating air units in the game. The Empire gains a much-needed anti-air infantry unit, the archer maiden, as well as the almost comically overpowered giga-fortress. Finally, the Soviets may not gain much in the way of late-game tech but do get the very entertaining mortar-cycle which offers them early artillery support, and the desolator, which returns from Red Alert 2 and basically does to enemy infantry what that vat of toxic waste did to Emil in RoboCop.
While it’s a shame that these new units aren’t available in multiplayer, they very likely weren’t designed with online balance in mind - and to be fair, Uprising adds a very large amount of single-player missions in which to test them out, not to mention an amusing skirmish mode.
For years, it looked as though EA had all but given up on the Command & Conquer series after the embarrassing failure of numerous recent projects. But then, EA oversaw the remasters of both the original 1995 game and of the first Red Alert. These eventually saw release in June 2020, and won acclaim across the board. Remasters are hardly unusual these days - in fact, it seems like a new one comes out every other week - but very few are given the care and attention that was afforded to this project.
Petroglyph Games and Lemon Sky Studios lavished every possible care into the games, from upscaling all of the original live-action cutscenes to painstakingly recreating all the original terrain and unit art for high-resolution. They even revamped the netcode, included all of the expansions, and allowed the new assets to be used by the developers of the free and impressive OpenRA project. This last gesture is remarkable, especially from a company like EA. After years of neglect, there is a very real sense that EA has begun to really value the C&C games and the enduring community which formed around them.
Now, there are high hopes of a second remastered collection, presumably to consist of rebuilt versions of Tiberian Sun (1999) and Red Alert 2. Should those actually come to pass, and be successful, then there may even be reason to dare to dream of a new and worthwhile entry in the C&C series. Given the rich history of the series, EA and their in-house developers would have a lot of options in terms of which direction to take any future project. But in Red Alert 3, they might just have the ideal blueprint of the way forwards. The game’s fun and colourful world, outlandish but strategically sound units, and engaging but accessible gameplay are still superb today and could well be the template for Command & Conquer’s third decade.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.