It’s time for my yearly RTS craving, and going down the chronological list brings us to Command and Conquer‘s prequel/sequel Red Alert. The RA series would eventually go off on its own path and split timeline (mostly after EA took over from Westwood), but the original is a fitting companion to the first C&C, an expansion and refinement of its ideas, and a much better game overall.
Red Alert proposes an alternate “what if Hitler never existed” version of the 1950s, with a heavy dose of sci-fi (courtesy of exaggerated breakthroughs from Einstein and Tesla). You play as a budding commander for either the Allies or the expanding Soviet Union in 14 battles per side that will decide the fate of Europe. Extra cheesy cutscenes play between every mission. For the Soviets, you’ll be acting as a rising star in Uncle Joe’s inner circle, and be privy to lots of ladder-climbing and backstabbery. For the Allies, you’re a harried General looking to hold off the Russian advance long enough to solidify a new global partnership to be known as the GDI.
The first thing that should be mentioned is that Red Alert is not a huge departure from its older brother in any way. If you’re remembering comic-book units and the invasion of America, you’re thinking of Red Alert 2. This first Red Alert takes most of its units from the first C&C – artwork, behavior, stats, and all. The same light tanks, mammoth tanks, naval transports, helicopters, and infantry units are simply recolored and divvied out among the two sides. Structures are unchanged as well, with no differences to basic requirements or tech trees, and even memorable units are often just rejiggers of ones from the original (the awesome Tesla Coil is just the Obelisk of Light, with the very same weaknesses). Even the sides themselves share basic similarities with those from the last game; the Allies build quick, cheap, and weak units just like NOD did, and the Soviets prefer slow, massive armor with heavy air support, just like GDI.
The changes that are there are great fun though, mostly in splitting the ways that each side achieves the same goal. Uncovering the fog of war is a nice example – the Soviets have exclusive access to a recharging spy plane. It can be sent to any point on the map and will fly over and uncover the fog in a limited radius. The Allies have no practical way to stop you from getting this info. Meanwhile, the Allies have an exclusive spy unit that’s invisible to all Soviet units (except the agile attack dogs) and can be sent inside buildings to capture information. Slip into a Soviet radar dome and every Soviet unit starts uncovering the fog around it – you “see” what every enemy unit sees. And unlike the first, this time both sides have access to air and sea units that further expand the battlefield and the potential tactics.
It’s “balanced” overall, though that can be misleading. The basic rock-paper-scissors concept of having units with defined specialties is there, but every unit doesn’t always have an equal counter. The Soviets have no effective mobile defense against Allied helicopters. The Allies have no effective defense structure against a tank rush. And often, it just gets ridiculous – infantry takes significantly reduced damage from tank shells, so Soviet tanks have a hard time dislodging Allied rocket troopers… but the Soviet mammoth tank benefits from the strongest twin-barreled cannons in the game AND rockets that can splatter groups of infantry without even trying, AND act in a reasonable anti-air role as well. The Allies have nothing that comes close to matching or stopping a rush of mammoths and long-range V2 rockets.
Meanwhile, the Soviets have only one combat naval unit (the stealthy submarine, allowing you to invisibly recon the enemy’s coast) while the Allies have three – a cruiser with the strongest attack and longest range in the entire game, and two more that specialize in sinking any Soviet subs or airplanes that try to kill that cruiser. If there’s a map with water, the Allies can sit back and bombard their way to victory with near impunity. If there isn’t, the Soviets can plow through with an unstoppable force of only mammoths, and the occasional MiG squadron to mop up.
That’s why, to prevent you from doing exactly this every time, Red Alert has a greater emphasis on unique missions in the single player campaign. There are tons of scripted missions where you have only a handful of units without the ability to build more. These include chasing an escaping spy, stopping a nuclear meltdown, protecting a convoy, capturing tech centers before a time limit runs out, and timing your assault to pinch a base from both sides before a truck escapes. The Allies even have a unit dedicated to these missions – super commando Tanya – and you’ll spend plenty of time with her as she infiltrates, escapes, and sabotages her way up and down the Iron Curtain. The variety introduced by each mission’s different, clever constraints is actually quite appreciated.
They also allow for more of a story to play out with excellent continuity – an Allied mission to rescue Einstein is countered with the spy chase mission on the Soviet side. Cutscenes in general do a superb job of matching the missions this round, as opposed to the sometimes random clips in the original. Levels themselves get in on the action, and one Allied mission has you returning to a base you built in a previous mission. Your base will be there exactly as you left it, with an obvious benefit if you took the time to build big earlier.
As for the AI, it’s about as competent as the last game, but with a heavier use of scripting. You’ll see AI repeat tactics and methods, especially when reloading a failed mission. Enemy AI remains as capable as ever at finding the undefended path to your base, and recognizing when your defenses are too strong to beat in one area. The maps work to make sure you’ll have to watch more than one side, and a careless commander can expect a naval landing or air drop right into the defenseless heart of their territory. AI’s still not so hot on the defensive side, as you’re once again just tearing down the walls of a pre-built scenario. And of course, pathfinding for your units remains as miserable as ever. Your groups will split up and wander around like errant children, and just forget about sending a large group across a bridge.
The AI also cheats with both eyes open. It can parachute infantry types that you can’t, build where you can’t, starts with more money, enjoys the luxury of having its elaborate base pre-built, and other little bonuses to help it along. Those transports that keep dropping artillery tracks on the beach near your base? They’re not coming from any building on the map. Even if you annihilate the enemy’s naval capability, it will still receive off-map support and reinforcements. And there were a few missions where units intentionally hid out in the darkest reaches of the map, prolonging the mission until I found him. I’d expect it of a human player, but not the fucking AI.
Though much stays the same, there are a number of general improvements. New buildings must still be planted close to each other, but no longer have to be adjacent. Bridges can be destroyed, allowing you to cut off attackers or create choke points. In the last game, the AI’s harvesters seemed strictly cosmetic – but in Red Alert, you can definitely starve your computer opponent of funds and see it practically reflected in-game (reduced money for building, repairing, etc). The engineer has also been redesigned to only capture critically-damaged structures, so he can’t slip in and win the game alone. The enemy now kindly folds up shop once you destroy its construction yard and all refineries. It knows it can no longer win, and usually saves you the trouble of having to destroy each building individually. Explosive barrels also make an appearance, setting up scripted situations or particular advantages (like chain reactions that just happen to pop all anti-air defenses).
Graphically, it’s still a beautiful title. The hand-drawn art looks great at just about everything but water. Craggy cliffs, snowy peaks, even the structures and units themselves all look sharp (assuming you’re using the Win95 version, that is). Sound is a blast as well. Explosions sound satisfying, music is still energetic techno with CD-style music controls in game, and the exotic weapons are quite memorable. The interface is identical to the original. You can lasso units and group them to key shortcuts, but you cannot double-click to select a unit type, set waypoints, formations or AI behavior (other than a basic guard mode, scatter, and stop), or set rally points for your production structures. There’s definite room for improvement, but it’s completely playable.
Cutscenes are also done well. Soviet intrigue comes across nicely, and players of the first C&C will enjoy seeing the planted seeds of Tiberian Dawn’s future. Eugene Dynarski’s portrayal of hard-drinkin’, paranoid Stalin is a particular highlight. The Allied side is a tiny bit less exciting, but has a wider set of interesting characters. Einstein (John Milford) looks more like Mel Brooks, but gives a quirky humor to his appearances and invention explanations. Tanya (Lynne Litteer) is simply the best anti-infantry, anti-structure unit in the game, but her repeated taunts are pretty damn annoying (“CHA-CHINGGGah!”). Still, once you hit the cutscene where she manages to overpower and shoot a Soviet guard while still tied to a chair, she earns any lost respect right back.
In many ways, Red Alert is nothing more than a continuation of the first game, with a host of reused assets, a relatively small amount of new units, and the same exact formula of base-building mixed with puzzle missions. Likewise, in many ways, Red Alert would set the standard for every Command & Conquer game to come. It proved the value of taking the time to tell a story (and reveled in its cheesiness), gave a new idea of how to do balance under traditional C&C rules, displayed awesome variety with its missions, and solidified the C&C concept. If you enjoy RTS games, you owe it to yourself to play this one. If you’re looking for a title to introduce you to the genre, few of the early RTS titles will make an impression like this one will.
Fundamentally the same as the original, but with some excellent updates to balance and strategy. Expanded air and sea game. Varied selection of missions. More thought and more camp given to cutscenes.
Radical differences come later in the series. Interface totally functional, but far from streamlined compared to newer titles. Two sides are somewhat balanced, but still mostly similar.