Review: Electronic Arts Command & Conquer Red Alert
As the iPhone and iPod touch continue to expand as versatile gaming devices, real-time strategy games have begun to appear, offering more sophisticated and challenging game play options than many of the small puzzle and arcade type games that have traditionally populated mobile gaming platforms. While the real-time strategy genre is by no means new to mobile devices, EA’s Command and Conquer Red Alert ($10) represents one of the first popular desktop RTS game franchises to appear on the iPhone and iPod touch.
Set as a sequel to the desktop Command & Conquer Red Alert 2, the iPhone version of Red Alert puts the player into a role as a commander of a group of either allied or Soviet forces, with a general goal similar to other real-time strategy games of this sort: establish a base, build base facilities and defences, train assault forces and wipe out the enemy forces. The iPhone version of Red Alert provides two game modes: a skirmish mode for those players who just want to pick a map and faction and jump right in and a campaign mode for players interested in undertaking more varied missions in an evolving storyline.
Skirmish mode allows the player to choose from one of two included maps, select which faction to play as and to play against and choose a starting cash level for both factions. From there, you jump right in with a basic set of base facilities: a construction yard, refinery and one power plant, and a simple objective to destroy all enemy forces in the area. All of the base facilities and troops for your chosen faction in the game are available for construction in skirmish mode, and the play is open-ended in terms of how you construct your base and deploy your forces.
On the other hand, the campaign mode provides a more evolving story line. You choose one of the two factions to play as which determines which story line you follow. Each of the two possible campaigns includes five missions with varying objectives ranging from simple frontal assault missions to more tactical infiltration missions.
In terms of the actual game play itself, Command & Conquer Red Alert boasts impressive three-dimensional graphics and reasonably sophisticated game controls that work much as you'd expect: Tap units, buildings and other controls to select them, tap on a destination to move units or attach an enemy unit, pan around the screen by dragging and zoom in and out using the normal iPhone two-finger pinch gesture.
In-game controls appear on the screen edges, with a mini-map in the top-right corner, building and training controls on the right-hand side, and squad selection controls on the left. Tapping on a building on the map will provide additional options to repair or sell the selected facility.
Double-tapping on a unit will select all visible units of that type, while all units visible on the screen can be selected at once by tapping the all unit selection button at the bottom of the screen. Units may be grouped into one of three squads by selecting the units and then tapping the add to squad button which appears at the bottom of the screen and selecting which squad to assign them to from one of the three slots at the left.
Constructing buildings and training units is handled from the panel at the bottom-right of the game screen. Tap one of the three buttons on the right to choose troops, buildings or armor/air units, and a second panel will slide out to the left allowing you to choose which units or facilities you want to create. Units that are not available for training or construction will appear greyed out until you have a facility which is available to construct that particular unit -- each facility can only construct one type of unit at a time, although multiple units of the same type can be queued for construction.
The mini-map and construction/training panels on the right side of the screen can be hidden from view by tapping on the red arrows. This allows more of the full map to be visible, and is in fact necessary when working near the right edge of the map, as the right-side panels will actually hide a portion of the map which cannot otherwise be scrolled into view.
Once you've played through the two relatively short in-game campaigns and have grown tired of the two skirmish maps, an in-game purchase option is available so you can add expansion packs. At the present time, only a single "Assault Pack" is available, which adds six additional skirmish maps to the existing game for an additional $0.99. EA has indicated that additional expansion packs will be available to add more maps, campaigns, units and even a new faction. Multi-player support is also indicated to be coming in a future update.
Although the graphics are excellent the gameplay is relatively smooth, the iPhone adaptation of Command & Conquer Red Alert is unfortunately not without its limitations. Firstly, the in-game help system provides sparse information at best, and there are no tutorial missions provided to help new users get acquainted with the game's features. The game is clearly targeted at users already familiar with the Command & Conquer series, and although players of other similar real-time strategy games will probably be able to muddle through and pick up the gameplay, some users may end up feeling a bit lost. For example, descriptions of basic in-game controls are unclear, with references to buttons and screen areas that are neither illustrated nor explained, and there is no information available at all on the different building types, facilities or unit types in the game, leaving the player to either rely on existing knowledge of the Command & Conquer game series or figure it out through experimentation. A simple tutorial mission or even a screen diagram of the on-game controls would have been invaluable here in helping new players get started.
Command & Conquer Red Alert also suffers from a few other game play issues that detract from the overall game experience. Unit pathing is not as sophisticated as it should be, and it was possible in several cases to see units get "stuck" on their way to specific destinations and have to be manually routed around obstacles, making unit management and navigation a more cumbersome process, particularly on a busy game screen. The mini-map and unit construction panels on the right side of the screen can also obscure the map, a problem that is particularly noticeable when engaged in skirmishes at the map's right-hand. Although these panels can be hidden manually this was not intuitive and it would have made more sense to simply allow the map to scroll a bit beyond the right edge when the panels are being shown.
The game is also limited to only 12 different maps and scenarios in total, with two available in skirmish mode, and the other ten split between the two campaigns. While the campaigns provide a reasonable variety of mission types among their five scenarios, the storyline itself feels far less immersive in the iPhone version than in other Command & Conquer games, and in some regards even seems a bit puerile in its approach, particularly in light of everybody you encounter during your "mission briefings" looking like supermodels.
For the most part, the AI opponent seems overly single-minded in its approach, leaning toward repeated brute-force attacks rather than any kind of observable strategy on the part of the opponent. This makes the game almost too easy for an experienced player, a problem exacerbated by the lack of any user-selectable difficulty levels. The single difficulty level also limits the game's re-playability -- once you've gone through the relatively few campaign missions, there's little motivation to go back and challenge the same campaigns again. Ironically, this creates a discrepancy between the game's lack of help for new players and the level of challenge for experienced players. In short, the game seems built for fans of the Command & Conquer series, yet many of these fans will likely find the game to be less interesting than they might expect. While this is an issue that could easily be addressed in future expansion packs, for the initial $10 price tag fans of this game genre might find themselves disappointed.
EA has done an excellent job with the graphic presentation and UI in bringing Command & Conquer to the iPhone platform and it's easily one of the most impressive looking games in this particular category. Unfortunately, underneath its looks it feels like EA has relied a bit too heavily on the name of the Command & Conquer franchise rather than trying to spend a bit more effort developing the game to be more sophisticated in its own right. At this point, Command & Conquer Red Alert is definitely a fun diversion for the average player, but reactions from Command & Conquer fans will likely be mixed, with some embracing the game enthusiastically for what it represents, while others will likely be disappointed at its simplicity and basic storyline. In our opinion, the $10 price tag is on the high side for what you're getting in the package, and the game may perhaps be relying on the sale of expansion packs to bring it up to its full potential. We're not fans of developers choosing high price tags based on the promise of future expansion, and would have much preferred to see EA choose a more reasonable entry-level price for the basic game itself. The real value of this game will be largely dependent upon how EA chooses to approach and price their future expansion packs, and players looking for a solid real-time strategy game would be best to wait and see what EA brings to the table in this regard.