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Review: Command & Conquer Red Alert for iPhone

Jaib reviews Red Alert

This is a story about a game called “Command and Conquer: Red Alert” on the iPhone. It features the same publisher, the same factions (the Soviets and the Allies), and a female voice still says “Building…” as you construct your own base. Many of the classic Red Alert elements are in place, so why doesn’t this feel like a C&C game?

I think it all comes down to priorities, and Red Alert has all the wrong ones. Instead of providing smooth, fast-paced strategy title EA has instead created a gorgeous, but irritatingly disappointing game that is C&C in name and copyright only.

I realize it’s probably an extremely difficult task porting an RTS experience over to a mobile device, but it’s not as if this hasn’t been done before. I played a bit of Warfare Inc. over on the Palm and Win Mo platforms and it was actually alright — and that game has been around for years. I’m guessing that Red Alert was probably rushed out of the studio to hit the App Store like many other console and PC titles are, and it’s a shame that the series is starting off on such a lame foot.

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This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife

So I’m sure I’ve come off as disappointed by this point, and once again it comes down to what the game has focused on. The graphics and story are the strong points here, but that’s not saying much considering the fact that each faction’s campaign only consists of six missions — the first of which is the usual tutorial mission. The game runs quite smoothly on my iPhone 3GS even when commanding the maximum number of units at my disposal, and I was pleasantly surprised by the detail for units. Not all the units are easily recognizable and infantry can look very small on the iPhone’s screen, but there’s a definite cool factor to the unit design and that’s good. That’s part of the reason you buy a $9.99 premium title by EA: because you know their deeper pockets can produce some really good-looking games.
As for the story, well that doesn’t run quite as smoothly. Dialogue pop-ups during the mission actually show the word “STORY” in bolded letters just in case you didn’t know what the box of words was for, and there really aren’t any characters to care about. Command & Conquer on the PC always featured live-action cutscenes between missions and I know for a fact that the iPhone could handle this (other games can, anyway), so I’m really not sure why everything in Red Alert is told through giant STORY boxes and portraits of characters. Most of the units are missing their own in-game introductions, as well. Most RTS’es will slowly introduce new units to you so that you gradually learn more about the faction you’re playing and what its strengths really are. Something along the lines of “this is a rocket soldier, use him to attack armour and air units” is pretty standard, but by mission four of the Soviet campaign I had access to all 11 units and I had really only been told about two or three of them.
I don’t expect a five-act play from an iPhone version of Red Alert, but it would have been a great touch if the series’ debut on this platform had honoured some of its storytelling and RTS roots.
Where have all the Gameplays gone?

Here’s the honest truth: all of the above could have easily been forgiven if commanding units to shoot other units was fun and smooth, but, sadly, it just isn’t. You still build bases, manage power plants and buildings, and need a radar to fully unlock the minimap, but it’s just not as much fun.
First off, managing units in Red Alert feels a little too claustrophobic. You can hide the build menu and the radar, but I could never shake the feeling of the screen being simply too crowded. You can tap on units to select them and you can always organize your units into squads (the three buttons on the left side) or use the “select all” button to take command of everything on-screen. One issue I experienced frequently, however, was de-selecting units. There were times when I simply wanted to pan the camera without accidentally tapping too long on the screen and issuing a move command, but the game makes it very difficult to de-select units (clicking on the button of an unassigned squad works, but it’s clumsy).
For a game called Red Alert, the units in the game seem to be on anything but. In other words, I found most of the units to be slow as molasses. I’m tempted to type one of those “In Soviet Russia, tank drives YOU [crazy]!” — well, okay, I guess I just did. The fact of the matter is that units respond a little too slowly for my liking and they take until half past forever to reach a destination. I’ve read this in other Red Alert reviews, and I’ll say it again here: just because you told your army to move across the screen, it doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Sometimes the units will just stop a foot away from the building you asked them to take over (in the case of an engineer), but most times they’ll zig zag back and forth until they eventually make their way. It’s as though the units don’t want to get in each other’s way, which is ironic since most units in Red Alert actually phase through each other. Units may hold some semblance of a formation when you tell them to move out, but if they eventually reach their destination they will end up in one giant cluster fudge (replace the word fudge as necessary).

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Somebody get these soldiers some glasses
The unit selection in Red Alert is pretty basic: infantry, armoured vehicles, and aircraft. In theory there should be some rock-paper-scissors interaction between all of these types, but in my experience with the game, tanks and heavy infantry rule the battlefield.
What’s really strange, though, is the fact that all the units fire from approximately the same range in combat. It’s as though all of the units are equally near-sighted and so they all push against each other as they race to fire at their targets…a mere five feet away. I think this takes a significant chunk of strategy out of this RTS experience, especially since I can’t recall any C&C game without artillery. Artillery was absolutely devastating in the original C&C and I remember loving the V2 rockets of the Soviets in the first Red Alert. The way that units tend to clump in this game is really just asking for some sort of long-range kabooms, and it’s a real pity that there isn’t more depth or variety to the unit choices. In fact, it’s because all of the units essentially serve the same function (but with different damage outputs and health) that the maps end up feeling rather large. My strategy for winning games was never to flank or ambush, but just to bum rush with the strongest tank I could find followed by a set of heavy infantry. Stages were clumsy, close-quarter wars of attrition that just felt lacking.

Repairing…
I doubt that the gameplay will be significantly changed in a patch, but there are some other things that could use some fixing to make the title a little better. Auto-saving is included, but it’s not very good. I was literally 99.9% finished with a mission and was waiting only on my clumsy commando to pirouette across the stage to the final objective when I received a phone call from my best friend. I foolishly picked up the phone, shouted “aaaaargh I was just about to steal the time machine!”, and then returned — nay, reloaded the game. That’s alright, I thought: I know the game auto-saves because I’ve had to quit before and I’ve returned to the same spot. I was wrong. My auto-save loaded up and the enemy base that lay in ruins only seconds before my phone call was fully rebuilt — and my armies were spinning endlessly in circles trying to complete the last move order I’d given them. It’s actually strange how punishing Red Alert is with saved games. My phone call example is probably a bug, but losing the mission actually requires you to do the whole thing over again. No checkpoints, no nothing.
Scrolling could also be improved  with some sort of scrolling sensitivity option in the main menu. Many, many other iPhone games feature this and I don’t know why Red Alert chose to leave it out. Panning the camera is insanely important in an RTS, and panning half a screen at a time just isn’t ideal.
The last thing that could be improved is what I’d call “EA’s cheapskate attitude with a premium title”. Yes, iPhone titles are cheaper than other PSP and DS titles, but let me make another comparison here — one a little closer to home. EA also released Rock Band for $9.99. The game features 20 songs that you can either unlock slowly in World Tour mode or enjoy instantly in Quick Play. Red Alert, I believe, features at least 12 maps, and yet only two of them are available in the skirmish mode (no story: build base, kill enemy). A 6-map pack can be purchased for $0.99 on the EA Store, but that should absolutely have been included with the release. I really think EA is nickel and diming Red Alert customers with this move, and it’s shocking how much more value you get with Rock Band considering that they’re both EA titles.

Conclusion
To reiterate, I wasn’t expecting a desktop-class RTS experience on my iPhone. I know the device is limited in many ways, but it doesn’t feel as though Red Alert was just dreaming too big on Apple’s small device. I think this is a matter of not dreaming at all: this game didn’t play like there was much heart or soul to it, and the giant STORY boxes, the lackluster gameplay, and the “extra” six maps for $0.99 really make this game feel like a $10 cash grab hiding in the skin of Command & Conquer. I’m actually not a die-hard C&C fan or a particularly zealous RTS player, but I’ve always had fun with those games on the PC and I just didn’t have any with this iPhone version. So I’m raising my own Red Alert: look for another EA title to spend your money on, this one’s a bust.

Command & Conquer Red Alert is available on the App Store for $9.99.

Red Alert was  bought by JAiB for review on the site. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.

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  • Pingback: Review of Command and Conquer « Clark's Tech Blog()

  • Well I waited for you guys to review it before I bought it. Nice review of the gameplay Thomas…. I was really excited about purchasing this app but now I think I may wait and just stick to playing Civilization instead. I will use my $10 towards buying LogMeIn Ignition instead. Now that we have Civilization & Red Alert, what are the chances of seeing Rise of Nations? I am a big fan of the game & would really love to see that in the app store…..

    • thanks, Frank. It's really too bad about this one, but I do think that we'll see more major PC/console IP's coming to the iPhone

  • Jimmy

    Your review was spot on. I wish I had waited before buying the game. It is by far the worst game and the biggest rip off. A complete cash in from ea

    • well maybe it won't suck so much next time…:(