I’m sure we’re all familiar with our history: in the mid-1930s, Albert Einstein created a time machine, went back in time to 1924, encountered Adolf Hitler upon his release from a prison following the failed Beer Hall Putsch and shook hands with Hitler, which sent the would-be Fuhrer through a rift in the space-time continuum, and in doing so, allowed Stalin’s Soviet Army to romp and stomp across Europe with reckless abandon until the remaining Allied powers stood up to the red onslaught, eventually mastering space-time manipulation and utilizing it to defeat the Soviets in a final battle in Moscow, leading to the Soviet dictator being found dead under some rubble. Okay, now that we got that refresher course out of the way, we can pick up where the history books left off, with EA and Westwood’s 2000 real-time strategy offering, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2.
Indeed, the story here picks up well after the events at the end of the first Red Alert title; after Stalin’s defeat, the Soviet Union is allowed to remain largely intact, now led by an American puppet named Alexander Romanov. Unfortunately, Romanov begins to tire of his position as a strutting martinet for the Americans, and with a little bit of…prodding, let’s say, he decides to avenge the Soviet humiliation by launching everything he’s got at the West, including a full-scale U.S. invasion through Mexico, so it’s time to roll up your sleeves and go back to war. Much like the original, the main game mode is a campaign mode, contained on an Allied disc and a Soviet disc, that feature 13 missions apiece. Only this time, the battle isn’t confined to generic locations across Europe; this time, it’s an actual world war that reaches locations spanning the globe, including some famous locales here in the U.S. of A.
If you played the original Red Alert, you might remember that, with the exceptions of a few structures like the giant Tesla Coil or the superweapons like the Chronosphere and Iron Curtain, the whole thing was at least somewhat grounded in plausible reality. Welp, this time around, the designers decided to take things to the next level. Allied commanders can call up units like the new Mirage tank, which disguises itself as a harmless tree when it’s sitting still, waiting to ambush its prey, or build Prism Towers, which function similarly to the Tesla Coil, only shooting beams of concentrated light instead of electricity to melt intruders.
Soviet generals can construct Cloning Vats that create a free infantry unit whenever one is trained or enlist the help of the massive Kirov Airship, a nigh-invincible aerial leviathan that’s so devastating that upon building one, it announces its presence to both sides with an ominous soundbite. While there are still a great deal of units modeled after more familiar military technology, the new arrivals are certainly a welcome addition.
Which is good, because as you might imagine, the core gameplay really hasn’t changed very much. Most of the campaign missions still revolve around the “build a base, expand the tech tree, build a massive army, smash enemy base” motif that’s been around since the original Command & Conquer, and it’s up to you if you want more of the same. If you do, there’s still some fun new add-ons to the gameplay here that are quite enjoyable. For one, unlike the original RA, urban warfare exists, and not purely as a cosmetic feature; Allied GIs and Soviet Conscripts can actually occupy various buildings and turn them into mini-fortresses, blasting away at enemies that come too close and protecting the troopers within, and the buildings even visually change to reflect this, with windows boarded up and barbed wire strung out around it. Other civilian buildings can be seized by Engineers for bonuses, like oil derricks that supply you with some extra cash in-between ore dropoffs.
Also, once you reach the top of the tech tree, you’ll notice that this time around, both sides have two unique superweapons. The Chronosphere and Iron Curtain both return, and are far more useful this time; instead of only affecting a single unit, they now affect all units in a radius, making it possible to warp a column of tanks at a time or protect an armored spearhead tasked with smashing a base’s defenses. Aside from those, the Soviets get a massive nuclear missile that can flatten bases, whereas the Allies have a weather control device that can unleash a massively destructive thunderstorm over a wide area.
Of course, even units further down the tech tree have a place, especially with the addition of an experience attribute; as a unit racks up kills, it can upgrade twice over, which improves its attack strength, capacity to take damage, and even allow for self-healing if it reaches the top level. This can turn some units into absolute game-breakers, though, as a fully upgraded Prism Tank acquires the ability to attack multiple targets in a single blast, meaning cleaning up an enemy base can be done quickly without having to get in the range of base defenses or most enemy units.
Visually, RA2 is a massive upgrade from the original, which you would expect, obviously, but not just in quality, but in style. Unlike the first iteration, the perspective is changed from a standard top-down view to an isometric view, carried over from Tiberian Sun the year prior. Strangely, this subtle adjustment adds an extra feeling of depth when troops run behind buildings, ships steam under bridges, and aircraft drift up and down on their way towards a target. Animations are far smoother, like the Soviet V3 rocket smoking off the launchpad or the Chrono effect left behind when something warps from one spot to another. On top of that, the cutscenes in-between missions CLEARLY got a much bigger budget this time around. The production values are a lot higher, featuring cameras that actually move around, more elaborate sets, and a parade of “hey, it’s THAT guy!” actors, including the Allies’ special operative Tanya, now played by Kari Wuhrer of Remote Control fame.
If you’re looking for some more casual warfare, the Skirmish mode is still present here, featuring nine different countries to play as, five Allied and four Soviet, each with their own special unit (or structure, in one case), like the British Sniper that picks off infantry in one shot, or the insane Libyan Demolition Truck, a rolling nuclear bomb that not only creates a massive explosion, but leaves a substantial amount of deadly fallout behind it. There is online multiplayer, although I HIGHLY doubt that there’s anyone still banging around on those servers in 2018. One of the online modes, World Domination Tour, seemed like a fun concept: players on opposite sides fought over a certain region of the map and whatever side got the better of the battles would carry the region. Although, in practice, online Red Alert 2 usually devolved from a battle of strategy and tactical skill to more of a race to see who could spam tanks the fastest, so maybe this might not have been as fun as I’d think.
Overall, Red Alert 2 is an excellent sample of the Westwood formula. If you haven’t gotten tired of base-busting action pitting smaller, lighter armies against bigger, slower armies, then this is definitely more of what you want, with enough new features to learn without reinventing the wheel entirely. However, if you’ve gotten bored with an engine that’s basically remained largely unchanged since the MS-DOS days, the new bits aren’t quite enough to bring you back for more. In any case, most of whether or not you’ll like Red Alert 2 will depend on that personal preference, not on the actual quality of the game itself. If you’ve never played a Westwood strategy title, I highly recommend Red Alert 2, as it may be the best example of the style, and a quality RTS all by itself.
Crazy new unit and building designs coupled with a gameplay engine that’s refined to a fine point.
If you’re sick of the C&C engine and layout, well, this is largely more of what you’re bored with.