Red Alert 3 as an XBLA game? Surely this will be a very simplified version of the game, or maybe even a completely different style of game using the Red Alert franchise? Red Alert mini-games perhaps?
To my surprise, Commander's Challenge is a full, stand alone expansion to the Red Alert 3 universe. Basically this is a very large extra mission pack, and you don't need to have Red Alert 3 to play it.
Because you are downloading all the graphics, units and sounds, the download weighs in at a massive 2GB. With New Zealand internet the bandwidth will be more of a concern than the measly 800 points required to buy the game. More expensive too!
The mission structure in this game is quite interesting. The mission hub is a map where you can choose your missions. Nothing too odd so far right? Being able to select from multiple missions means you will spend less of the game being stuck, but also means there is really no campaign mode, no real story and you are free to switch sides between each battle. Winning each map will unlock new units for your army and coming back to a mission you were stuck on earlier with new tools is quite satisfying. It's not so much fun though when you really need a unit you haven't unlocked yet. A real tactical flaw for me though is the lack of in-mission saving. I'm the kind of person that loves to cover the map in turrets and then save the map for future laughs.
Where real time strategy games have surrendered in the past all too often are the controls. Luckily, Red Alert 3 got these right, and Commander's Challenge doesn't mess with the layout at all. It's actually amazing how many commands are piled onto the poor Xbox controller. Sure the interface isn't quite as intuitive or silky smooth as Halo Wars, but it's still pretty damn close. It will take a bit of practice and trail and error to get used to commanding your mighty forces without a keyboard and mouse, but after a few skirmishes it all becomes second nature. Sure, you can't beat traditional controls for this style of game, but when was the last time you could command a tank rush lying down?
Presentation has always been impressive in Command & Conquer games. Commander's Challenge may lack the flashy cut-scenes that I admit originally lured me into the series, but the bite-sized video messages rival commanders send in-game are brilliantly cheesy and add atmosphere. The graphics themselves aren't awe-inspiring of course, but you can always tell whats happening, which units you are being attacked by and just how much trouble you are really in. The music and sound effects are good too, and of course the game features the legendary 'Hell March' track.
For me Commander's Challenge is confused slightly. Being released as a stand-alone and at such a cheap price should mean that this is a great game for newcomers to Red Alert can test the waters with some harder maps later on to sink their teeth into. The weird thing for me though is that the game almost assumes you have beaten Red Alert 3 and know all the units and require a tougher challenge. the missions quickly become hardcore and despite a (lengthy) tutorial, there's no real playground for rookies to test out new units. I'm not sure how many newcomers will actually stand their ground with the title and not get frustrated. This would make sense for downloadable content, but do people with the game already really need to download all the data required for this game to run without a disc? I suppose the plan was not to restrict sales to people that own the original disc.
With 50 missions, standard units and a smattering of new ones - Commander's Challenge definitely represents good value. The game's harder difficulty, especially if you want to beat par times also means that there is a lot to tackle and eventually overcome. If you loved Red Alert 3 on the Xbox, then this download is a no-brainer, however if you are new to the series and have a decent PC, I'd recommend picking up the PC version of Red Alert 3, and then maybe the Uprising expansion this is based upon. The only other thing to keep in mind is that this is strictly a skirmish, there is no multiplayer.
At the end of the day, this certainly is an enjoyable download, and value for money. Honestly though, I can't recommend it to people with PC's. The download is huge and it's not the best introduction to the series. Who does that leave?