The first major RTS for the iPhone and iPod touch is here. If you’re a big Real-Time Strategy fan, then you probably already own it. If you’re someone who was familiar with the franchise, but hasn’t been keeping up with it, I hope this helps you make an informed purchase. There’s plenty to love and plenty to hate with this game.
I remember some scoffing going on when I wrote my “All Your Base are Belong to Touch” article stating 5 reasons why RTS will work on the iPhone. It’s hard for hardcore strategy fans to imagine controlling the genre with anything other than a mouse and keyboard. Anything else is considered too dumbed down, and thus not a true RTS experience. Despite some definite shortcomings, Command & Conquer: Red Alert is the real deal.
Since the epic saga started with Westwood Studios many many years ago, EA has taken some interesting paths with the story arc and gameplay in the series, but it’s always stuck with its roots in campy cutscenes, crazy units, and solid RTS action. While Red Alert for the iPhone may not include any video cutscenes (shame!), the action is still there, and even some of classic characters of the series like Natasha and Tonya. I must warn true Red Alert fans though, I’m not really sure how this fits into the PC series story-wise… but oh well, it’s Red Alert for your iPhone!
Command & Conquer: Red Alert look great. Rather than go with sprite-based graphics like the original games, EA went all out with a greatly slimmed down version of their current game engine. That is, fully rendered 3D maps, units, and buildings. I was impressed with the amount of detail packed into the assets for this game. You can easily use your fingers to pinch and zoom in on the action to see these details, or, like a true RTS player, survey everything from far in the sky. This is how I played most of the game, but I certainly zoomed in to check out some of the great modeling work from time to time. You know, to check out Tanya’s “assets’… *ahem*
From the menu to the missions, the music in Red Alert is awesome. The industrial rock pumps through each mission and never gets boring or annoying despite a very short list of songs. The sounds from the units are acceptable, but inconsistent. You don’t always hear
sounds you expect when you expect them. Not a terrible thing, but kinda weird. There also aren’t always response sounds when you give orders to each unit. Luckily, with hero characters you always get a cheesy one-liner when dishing out commands. I’m not sure how “Hope you’re wearing your seatbelt!” applies when I send Natasha to blow up a building, but that’s always been one of the great parts of Red Alert. It’s not supposed to make sense!
The storyline for a Commies and Allies are only 5 missions each, but I honestly don’t see this as a huge issue considering new content will made available via the store. It will only take the experienced player a couple hours per campaign, and the missions carry the usual variety. Secondary missions, like blowing up a defense post or capturing a radar station, add some challenge, but very little. Red Alert includes the ability to fortify civilian buildings with units, which is pretty cool. The engineers also play a nice effect with their usual ability to commandeer enemy buildings for your cause.
The touch controls are probably the most impressive accomplishment in Red Alert… as in, they actually work! Tap units to select them and tap to move them. Double tap one unit to select all of that kinds, or click the “all” button to select all units on the screen. You can then group units to one of 3 slots, and tap on that group icon to jump to where they are on the map. To make things easier during battle, you can actually collapse both the radar and the building screen at any time. I rarely had issues controlling my units or targeting them appropriately, which says a lot for the iPhone’s minimal real screen estate.
EA has built a very nice little in-game store for Red Alert which will be used to purchase skirmish maps and campaign expansions in the future. I think this is a great idea for a game like this. Already there is a 6-map skirmish pack available for just 99 cents. If EA keeps up
with reasonable add-on pricing, and the promised multiplayer update, Red Alert is going to offer some long-standing replay value for your buck. Unfortunately, at the moment it won’t be offering a lot of that promised replay value. See below.
Just wanted to get one annoyance out there before diving in here: if you’re going to put the game tutorial in the Commie campaign, don’t give me the ability to start with Allies. I know that Red Alert has always offered the option to choose which side you start with, but for Pete’s sake, if you’re going to do that then add the tutorial to each with the option to skip. I started the Allied campaign quite confused. Luckily you can read through an in-game help, but it’s not quite as helpful as that tutorial that started when I launched the Commie campaign. Also, because I played the Allies first, I didn’t get the full scope of the plot as it mixed in with the Commies.
One of the biggest issues I had with Red Alert was some of the extreme lag, especially when trying to place buildings. When you select a building to place it down, the game goes into ultra lag mode which makes it really difficult to build anything. It’s especially hard because buildings tend to take up a lot of invisible space for some reason, and in most maps things seem really cramped. This got extremely frustrating at times, and in one mission actually led to my demise. I made the common mistake of building too many buildings, thus shutting off power to my defense. In the time it took me to build a power plant I was almost completely over run. This may not be an issue with the 3GS or iPod Touch, but if that’s the case there needs to be a warning for other users! I also had the game crash on me many times, and in most cases lost my current progress. Yikes.
Speaking of crashing and resuming, my biggest disappointment with Red Alert is the complete lack of a save feature. Sure, the game saves very well if you quit or the game crashes, but there’s no way to manually save your game at all. One of my favorite part of RTS
games was saving before a big attack, and then trying various strategies to see what works best. Even worse, if you die in a mission, you have to start completely over from scratch, which became frustration in a couple of the later missions. Adding a manual save feature could also help recover from random crashes.
The AI in Red Alert is pretty abysmal. It seems that in most levels your enemy will keep sending the exact same amount of enemies down the exact same path. Setup an ambush for them and you will continue to kill them while you can expand indefinitely. In very few instances was I actually challenged during the game. To make matters worse, there is no way to bump up the difficulty – not even in skirmish mode! So you play against the same dumb AI opponents over and over, which is both extremely easy and boring. Moving larger units like tanks feels like trying to move a bunch of mentally challenged monkeys through a banana factory. It almost comical to give a group of 5 or more tanks a move command, and watch them endlessly continue to move around back and forth during the journey and after they reached their destination. I sat there for 10 minutes at one point as my tanks continuously rearranged themselves without my command. *sigh*
Finally, one complaint hardcore RTS fans will probably have the slowness of gameplay in Red Alert. Personally, I didn’t have a big issue with this, but the game does really feel like you’re playing in slow-motion at times, and not jsut from the lag. Personally, as with most RTS games, I think there needs to be an option for game speed overall. Some people may want the game to be a little more “real time” than it currently is.
While EA has plenty of things to fix and tweak with it’s RTS baby, Red Alert still offers a good gameplay experience that will hopefully improve with time. As with most RTS games, the initial release always has issues, and the inevitable patches to come will help balance things out. At the moment some may not think it’s worth the $10 price of admission due to only 10 campaign missions and a lame skirmish mode that sets you against a dumb AI opponent, but I like to look to the future with games like this. It would have been nice if more than 2 maps were included, but 99 cents for 6 new maps is a steal. Once wifi multiplayer and new campaign map packs become available, I think Red Alert will turn out to be a good time for any RTS fans out there. At the moment, despite some obviously pitfalls, Red Alert is by far the best RTS on the app store, and definitely one to pick up if you are a fan of the genre.