Graphics Accelerators Performance in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Not so long ago a continuation of the popular strategy series, Command & Conquer: Red Alert, saw the light of day. After Tiberium Wars, the third part has become completely 3D and sprite-free. Our today’s article will show what the owners of contemporary can expect from Red Alert 3.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
12/23/2008 | 09:45 AM

Command & Conquer is considered a classic of the strategy genre by many critics and gamers. Indeed, even though Dune 2, released by Westwood Studios in 1992, is viewed as the progenitor of the genre, it is Command & Conquer, released by the same developer in 1995, that was the first full-featured real-time strategy as we know it today. The difference was largely due to the opportunities of building and controlling your units which had been rudimentary or missing in Dune 2.

 

The first game of the series features handy controls, a clever plot with high-quality video clips, superb sound effects and music. And that was just the beginning. The single project soon transformed into a vast game universe with a sophisticated and ambiguous storyline that depended on the victory or loss of a particular faction, the GDI or Nod. The developers didn’t limit themselves to one time interval but went further in expanding the Command & Conquer universe. Without much deliberation, they chose the ever-popular Red Threat theme for the new series of games conceived as a prequel to the Tiberium wars. Drawing upon the confrontation between the communist Soviet Union and the West countries, the series acquired the telling name of Red Alert.

The storyline of the new series takes its start from Albert Einstein successfully completing his work on a time machine called Chronosphere in 1946. Einstein’s goal was to change the history by eliminating Adolph Hitler and thus preventing World War 2. The experiment succeeded, but with unpredicted consequences. Hitler and the Nazi Germany being out of the scene, Joseph Stalin, influenced by Nod agents who had arrived from the future, began his own war against Europe. Since the game offers two alternative endings, the victory of the USSR agrees with the future goals of the Brotherhood of Nod and thus links Red Alert with the Tiberium series of Command & Conquer.

The victory of the Allies leads to the events described in the second part of Red Alert where the seemingly subdued Soviet Union still harbors plans on world dominance. A massive offensive at the USA across the Atlantic makes the US government order a preventive nuclear strike, but the USSR leaders had prepared for this possibility. Yuri, the advisor of Alexander Romanov with telepathic abilities and a Lenin-like face, takes the American officers under mental control and prevents them from launching the intercontinental missiles. Thus the USSR begins a full-scale invasion of the USA and a new World War begins. Notwithstanding a number of historical and logical faults, Red Alert 2 is one of the most exciting and beautiful games of the series.

Every game has an end, however. And unlike Blizzard’s games, the Command & Conquer strategies always have several endings, one for each of the warring parties. If the USSR wins, the player becomes the new head of the state and enjoys the fruits of his victory. This storyline is not continued yet although the telepathic message from the presumed dead traitor Yuri is a promise of a continuation. And if the Allied Forces win, you can see what happens in the next game of the series called Red Alert 3. It is about this game that we are going to talk in this review. It was officially released in the USA on October 28 and in the European Union on October 31.

As opposed to Red Alert 2, the new game has become fully three-dimensional. It is based on the RNA game engine, a modified and improved version of the SAGE engine previously employed for Command & Conquer: Generals and Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars/Kane’s Wrath. The higher quality of visual effects must have affected the game’s speed, so this review is going to show you how comfortable it is to play Red Alert 3 on different graphics cards. We’ll say a few words about the game itself in the next section.

Red Alert 3: Plot

Red Alert 3 has an indecently simple plot. However, the general storyline is mind-bogglingly complex and intricate as it involves time-travel paradoxes. Moreover, the Red Alert series had been originally conceived as describing events prior to the appearance of Tiberium and the Tiberium wars between the GDI and NOD. It is the more difficult to trace the chain of events in the gaming universe because each of the previous Red Alert games had two alternative endings and thus ends in a triumph of the Allies or the Soviet Union. As a result, the picture of the Command & Conquer world had got so complicated that Electronics Arts cut the Gordian knot in 2006 by giving up the original historic model and announcing that the events of the games should be considered as taking place in three different parallel universes.

 

 

From this point of view, it is far simpler to understand Red Alert 3. The game begins with the Allies claiming victory in Red Alert 2. Alexander Romanov is captured and the Soviet Union is about to give up, but the game proves to be far from over. It turns out that the Allies do not have a monopoly on time travel!

 

 

The Soviets had been working on that technology for a while and by the moment of crisis had come up with a working time machine. Colonel Cherdenko, the project supervisor, saw no other solution but to change the past. Together with General Krukov he goes back to 1927 in order to visit a Brussels conference on physics where Albert Einstein was to deliver a keynote.

 

 

Cherdenko’s plan was to eliminate Einstein from the timeline and thus bereave the Allies of the technological superiority that was to be the consequence of his discoveries. This was to restore the Soviet Union to a leading position. The plan succeeded. Returning to the future, Cherdenko finds the Kremlin rooms in absolute order, portraits of Lenin hanging where they should and himself being the new prime minister. General Krukov becomes Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Army in the new timeline. The situation at the front seems promising enough. Without technical superiority, the Allies are almost ousted from the territory of Europe, and the USSR is preparing a decisive strike on Great Britain, similar to the Overlord plan.

 

 

History doesn’t like to be played with, though. Now that Einstein was out of the timeline, the nuclear weapon was not invented as in our world. In the new reality Japan didn’t feel a military pressure from the Allies who had been opposing the Soviets and didn’t suffer a nuclear strike. Japan had been left to develop on its own. It had never given up its imperial ambitions and the changed historical conditions had not prevented it from growing into the Empire of the Rising Sun, a militarized monster armed with extraordinary technologies.

 

 

Emperor Yoshiro, desiring a world rule for Japan, launches upon a full-scale invasion westward, unto the USSR, where no one is expecting the attack. The new USSR premier orders a nuclear strike, but there are no nuclear weapons in this timeline. And the Allies are not finished yet but are busy preparing a new weapon instead of the not-invented nuclear one. Thus a new world war begins.

 

Red Alert 3: Gameplay

The Command & Conquer games from Westwood Studios and then from Electronics Arts have always featured a good balance of the opposing parties based on the "stone-paper-scissors" principle: an advantage of one party in land force is compensated by its weakness in air or naval force.

Of course, it is next to impossible to hit the perfect balance in an RTS. There are imbalances in every game, and the above-mentioned principle would fail occasionally, too. One of the well-known examples was the too powerful armored troops of the Soviet Union in the original Red Alert that even gave rise to the new term tank rush. As soon as you built them, an avalanche of Mammoth tanks would wipe everything out of the way, leaving no chance to the opponent. However, Westwood/EA’s approach was far more appealing than the exactly identical parties of other strategies where the opposing units had the same specifications and differed in color and shape only.

Red Alert 3 carries this basic principle on. Although there are few genuine innovations on the part of the Allied Forces or the USSR, and most of them are of a humorous nature, the developers unleashed their inspiration, creating the units, buildings and construction methods for the third party of the conflict, the Empire of the Rising Sun.

 

 

Judging by the technological level, the new faction is at least a hundred years ahead of its opponents in technologies, making free use of such things as power fields, nano-assemblers, energy swords, wave cannons, psychokinesis and telekinesis.

 

  

An interesting feature of the Empire’s forces is the construction method which is fundamentally different from those used by the USSR and the Allies: each building comes as a mobile container with a colony of nano-assemblers together with design drawings. This container can be transferred into a convenient location on the map and then unfolded into a full-featured building.

The anime genre has influenced the design of the Empire’s war units. To see that you can just take a look at the Mecha Tengu, a striding battle robot capable of transforming into a Jet Tengu fighter.

Like every hybrid, it represents an engineering compromise and is inferior to specialized robots and fighters in each of its functions, though. And when you see the telekinetic girl dressed in a school uniform or the gigantic Shogun Executor, you’ll have no doubts about the source of the developers’ parody. By the way, playing for the Empire of the Rising Sun seems to be the most difficult game style because most of the Empire units are transformable and need the player’s attention to switch into what mode is presently necessary.

The Soviet forces and buildings look and behave traditionally but the characteristic grotesque style can be seen here even more than in the previous games of the Red Alert series. For example, the highly efficient anti-infantry bloodhounds have been replaced with armored brown bears performing the same battle functions. The Gulag, vodka and other Soviet archetypes have not been forgotten, either. The Red Army is still based on powerful armored forces, long-distance missile launchers, and fantastic electromagnetic technologies developed by Nikola Tesla who seems to be just as an important character in the Command & Conquer universe as Albert Einstein.

 

 

  

New in this game is the Bullfrog, an amphibious troop carrier. Using a special catapult, it can land paratroopers over long distances. The anti-infantry walker Sickle can jump over obstacles while the Stingray boat based on Tesla coils can move on both land and sea. Like in the previous games of the series, the style of playing for the Soviets is mostly offensive but the new units provide some flexibility. For example, you can land your engineers on an enemy base and capture its buildings.

The Allied faction seems to be the most balanced and classic one. It is not as advanced technologically as the Empire of the Rising Sun and not as grotesque as the USSR army. There is one logical slip, by the way. For some reason, the Allied forces can still move in time and have defensive laser rigs although the eradication of Albert Einstein from the history by Cherdenko should have deprived them of the appropriate technologies.

 

 

The Allies’ advanced navy with aircraft-carriers, orbital laser platforms and good aircraft coupled with such exotic technologies as Chronosphere, freezing or shrinking rays can be highly effective against an unprepared enemy whereas the well-developed defensive system should make your opponent lose his head thinking of ways to break or bypass it.

The key points of the gameplay have not changed much in comparison with Red Alert 2. It is unclear why the resource mining has become so simplified. The appropriate building can now be built right near the mine. Having an individual mobile unit for carrying the obtained resources makes no sense for such a short distance.

We don’t like that the camera adjustment options are not wide enough. The interface elements are rather large. Coupled with the small maximum zoom-out of the camera, this limits your vision of the battlefield considerably. Fortunately, you can disable the interface with the End button. Otherwise, people who played Red Alert 2 should not find any problem getting used to Red Alert 3. This stability is welcome, of course.

Now let’s see how the game behaves on modern graphics cards from different price categories.

Testbed and Methods

To investigate the performance of contemporary graphics accelerators in Red Alert 3 we put together the following testbed:

According to our testing methodology, the drivers were set up to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of software optimizations used by default by both: AMD/ATI and Nvidia. Also, to ensure maximum image quality, we enabled transparent texture filtering. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia ForceWare:

13 graphics systems participated in our today’s performance test session.

Premium/High-End category:

Performance-Mainstream category:

Mainstream category:

We ran the tests in all resolutions including 2560x1600 only for the Premium category. Performance-Mainstream was limited by 1920x1200. Mainstream solutions were tested in 1680x1050 max. The game has five levels of detail: Very Low, Low, Medium, High and Ultra High and allows fine tuning certain options. The complete settings profiles look as follows:

The settings are pretty logical, except for the disabled Vertical Sync option in Very Low profile and practically useless FSAA 2x mode in Ultra High profile. Since the antialiasing quality in this mode was not high enough by today’s standards, we kept all the other settings in Ultra High profile as is, but changed the FSAA to 4x.

We used an intensive battle scene taking place on the ground and on water as our test sequence. We used Fraps utility version 2.9.6 to record the average and minimal fps rate. To minimize the measuring error, we took the average results of three combined runs for further analysis. Since the game has a built-in average performance limiter locked at 30 fps that cannot be disabled, the minimal performance readings are of primary interest to us today.

Performance

Premium/High-End Category

 

Red Alert 3 shows a dislike of Nvidia’s solutions including such an advanced one as the GeForce GTX 280 SLI. None of them can provide an average frame rate of 30fps. We rechecked the results by running the test scene on a different configuration (Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 280) but to the same effect. The game would slow down noticeably during massive combats. It did not get totally unplayable, yet the control over the virtual armies was disturbingly less accurate then.

Of course, the game is much less fun to play when it is slow. Perhaps the speed will be increased by means of Nvidia’s driver updates or game patches, but right now we can’t recommend you any of Nvidia’s off-the-shelf graphics cards, including the flagship GeForce GTX 280, for playing Command & Conquer.

AMD’s top solutions are, on the contrary, very fast at every resolution including 2560x1600. Multi-GPU technologies do not work here, except for the Radeon HD 4870 X2 which is in fact a dual-processor CrossFireX subsystem.

Thus, it is all clear in the Premium category. The Radeon HD 4870 X2 is the best choice for playing this game. Nvidia users have to reduce the level of detail to achieve the same level of comfort or must wait for any improvements in the future. Or maybe it is time for them to switch their allegiance?

Performance-Mainstream Category

It’s all quiet clear in the performance-mainstream category, too. None of Nvidia’s GPUs can deliver an acceptable speed at the Ultra High settings with 4x MSAA. And while the more advanced GeForce GTX 260 can be used to play at 1280x1024, the GeForce 9800 GTX+ is just hopelessly slow.

The ATI products, especially the Radeon HD 4870 1GB, feel much better. The Radeon HD 4850 is slower as it doesn’t have ultra-fast GDDR5 memory. Although it delivers 30fps at 1280x1024, its frame rate varies too wildly, affecting the smoothness of gameplay. You cannot play comfortably at the higher resolutions, at least with 4x MSAA, but you can try to get a higher speed by lowering the level of detail and disabling full-screen antialiasing as we will show shortly.

Thus, ATI’s solutions are the best choice in the performance-mainstream category, too. The Radeon HD 4870 looks especially enticing after the price cut by AMD. The card with 512 megabytes of GDDR5 now comes at an official price of a mere $199 while the 1GB version costs only $239.

Mainstream Category

The Radeon HD 4830 is the best affordable gaming card as it delivers good performance at a resolution of 1280x1024. However, you may want to disable 4x FSAA and, perhaps, lower the level of detail to achieve a more comfortable speed (we will examine the influence of these settings on performance shortly).

The other products of the mainstream category can’t give you even 20fps. Of course, the game is virtually unplayable at such a low speed. Thus, this category offers but one solution for playing the game, the Radeon HD 4830, unless Nvidia does something about the low speed of its products soon.

Instantaneous Performance and Image Quality

Our tests have so far showed you that the game doesn’t like Nvidia’s hardware. To pinpoint the bottleneck we performed another test. You will now see if you can lower the graphics quality settings to increase the frame rate at the expense of the game’s visuals. We used another test scene that contained an attack on a fully constructed UN base and a subsequent use of the secret weapon the game developers called Proton Collider for some reason. The name follows the overall Red Alert style well enough, though.

In this test we used a resolution of 1680x1050 pixels and added another graphics quality mode to the in-game ones. This mode was the same as Ultra High but had 4x rather than 2x MSAA. We recorded the instantaneous frame rate for 60 seconds to build comparative diagrams for two popular mainstream graphics cards, ATI Radeon HD 4850 and Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX+.

Besides the instantaneous performance data we also used Fraps 2.9.6 to capture a series of screenshots to check out the visual difference between the graphics quality settings. We got the following data:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oddly enough, it makes sense to use 2x MSAA instead of the popular 4x level in this game. The difference in image quality is insignificant – 4x MSAA is a little better at reproducing micro-geometry but you can hardly spot the improvement with a naked eye, especially during actual play – but the GeForce 9800 GTX+ gets much closer to the Radeon HD 4850. Its average frame rate grows up by 56% and becomes nearly comfortable. We don’t mean that full-screen antialiasing is a bottleneck of Nvidia’s solutions because we don’t see them being so slower than ATI’s GPUs in other games. However, we can presume that the game engine just doesn’t match the raster back-end architecture of Nvidia’s GPUs well enough.

The transition to the High profile doesn’t affect the overall image quality much. Small details suffer from the lack of antialiasing, but everything else looks just as good as in the Ultra High mode. At least, we wouldn’t say that the game looks far worse then. As for the speed factor, the Radeon HD 4850 and GeForce 9800 GTX+ now match each other’s speed, confirming our supposition that the Red Alert 3 engine does not run well on Nvidia’s GPUs when you turn antialiasing on.

The Medium profile provokes a terrible degradation in image quality. A number of small but conspicuous elements such as stairs or stones in the pavements just disappear. The depth of water is largely lost and the sea doesn’t merge into the land as smoothly as in the previous modes. Many shadows are not displayed. The lighting model is simplified, too. As a result, playing in this mode is not such a pleasure for your eyes. The game doesn’t look pretty anymore. And this sacrifice is not justified in terms of speed. The graph only shows the lack of a slump at the moment the Proton Collider is used.

The Low and Very Low graphics quality modes are no good at all. The game looks ugly in these modes as you can see in the screenshots. Perhaps you’ll be able to achieve a playable speed at these settings on an entry-level card or even an integrated graphics core, but do you really want to play a strategy game with visuals like those of games from the year 2000?

Thus, we guess the High profile is the optimal choice in this game. It is but little worse visually than Ultra High but the game runs equally fast on the ATI Radeon HD 4850 and Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX+ in it.

If you’ve got a weaker graphics card, you can try the Medium profile. You’ll lose a large share of the visual appeal of the game, though. The Low and Very Low profiles provide such a low level of detail that they are only going to be used by hardcore RTS fans who don’t care about the beauty of a game scene but need the highest frame rate possible to have more chances to win through smoother control over the units. Well, the game has a frame rate limiter, so it cannot be accelerated infinitely.

Conclusion

Red Alert 3 is a worthy game to spend your time at but we must acknowledge that its theme has been largely exhausted in the previous games of the series and the developer finds it hard to come up with something original. The new faction, the Empire of the Rising Sun, is a good move to enlivening the gameplay but we’ve seen this before: the role of yet another Global Enemy has been played by China in Command & Conquer: Generals, for example. The gameplay has been largely left intact. EA stays true to the basics of the series invented back in the first Command & Conquer and that’s good. The fans wouldn’t take kindly to too much innovation in this aspect. The main drawback is the huge interface that takes up a large part of the screen, especially as the camera controls do not allow to zoom out much. However, you can quickly turn the interface on and off with the End button, so that’s not a serious problem.

The game is good from the visual aspect, too. The water surface is especially beautiful. Since there is a lot of river and sea combats in Red Alert 3, this is a definite advantage of the game at large. Of course, you can only enjoy this at high graphics quality settings (High and Ultra High profiles). If you use the Medium or lower profile, the game quickly loses its visual appeal, getting downright ugly in the Very Low mode: units look more or less normal but the rest of the game world is just awful then.

Red Alert 3 has a frame rate limiter, so there is little sense in using the Low and Very Low profiles. They won’t allow you to get higher than 30fps but will spoil all the fun from the game with their poor image quality. The Medium profile is not as pretty as the High one, but may be useful for owners of such graphics cards as ATI Radeon HD 4670 and Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT. If you’ve got better hardware, you should use the High profile. The Ultra High profile is playable on top Radeon cards. And if you’ve got a Radeon HD 4870 X2, you can even enable 4x MSAA instead of 2x MSAA, but you will hardly spot the difference with a naked eye.

Cutting it short, Red Alert 3 is a well-made continuation of the popular Command & Conquer series. It draws upon the never-ending Red Threat theme, mixing it with an Eastern Threat this time around. Thus, the Free World is now being conquered by the Russian Bear together with the Japanese Schoolgirl. The lovers of the grotesque typical of the Red Alert series will find it aplenty in the new game, including exciting videos and superb music by Frank Klepacki. The new generation of RTS players who have been spoiled by the recent advances in the genre may be more skeptical about Red Alert 3 but the third series can be a good reason for them to get to know the classic RTS series.