The real-time strategy genre of video games is one that has ailed in the last few years: given the large number of such games released in the 2000s, it is shocking to see the sharp decline in the number of these games being produced in the mainstream of the industry. The Command and Conquer series is a veteran of the genre and has served as an inspiration to the mechanics and narrative settings of many games within it, as well as, on a more personal note, serving as an introduction to the world of video games for myself in the original Red Alert. The second offering in the Red Alert franchise takes everything that made the original excellent and increases the stakes with more eccentric weaponry, a (somehow) more ridiculous story and greater graphical fidelity.
The core gameplay remains fundamentally unchanged from the original: there are two single-player campaigns on offer with each representing the story of the success of either the Soviet or Allied forces, a single-player skirmish mode and a variety of local network and Internet game modes. In all modes, the focus of the game is on the construction of and maintenance of a base of operations and destruction of an opposition force through the use of units produced from the buildings constructed during the process of base-building. As tedious as this may sound with this basic process being repeated for all missions in the campaigns and any other play, the variety with which one can go about performing these actions ensures that the action remains compelling, even with the most extensive play. Including the Yuri’s Revenge expansion, the player is provided with three thoroughly different technology trees (one for each game faction) to work through and learn to use their best effect. This process of learning is never quite complete and the excellent design of the game means that new ways to tweak the army produced by the player to tackle certain situations can almost always be devised. Players can choose to focus their efforts on naval, land or aerial warfare or any combination thereof: particularly in multiplayer modes and the single-player skirmish games, the game plays like something of a sandbox. Westwood’s development team has provided players with a defined set of play elements, but it is truly up to the player as to how they are used.
There is something oddly compelling about the nature of the hardware on offer to the player to command: from standard infantry to flying men with annoyingly slowly firing semi-automatic weapons to spider-like drones capable of tearing apart enemy tanks in seconds to tanks capable of controlling the minds of enemy units, the game shifts from the traditional to the ridiculous in its unit design and implements all of these ideas in a uniformly sublime way, with no unit being devoid of purpose and feeling like any other. Even the most basic of infantry feel different between the factions in a meaningful way: the Soviet conscript is more powerful but slower than his Allied GI counterpart, and is also unable to deploy himself amongst a sea of sandbags as the GI is – the choice of faction is meaningful and not merely a change in insignia. Choices matter in this game, and the capability to meaningfully strategise improves as a result. The superweapons of the game, such as the Soviet Iron Curtain and Nuclear Silo and the Allied Chronosphere and Weather Control Device, further serve to characterise the factions.
Considering that the game recently passed its 12th birthday, the 2.5D pseudo-isometric interface has held up well, particularly if one types “HIRES” at the main menu to enable resolutions higher than 1024×768. The game does suffer, at times, from the inability of the player to rotate the camera to see what is behind buildings and it is possible to lose some of your units behind structures, but the light-coloured highlight given to units behind buildings generally does the work required from a system for preventing such misplacing of units. The sound is, aside from the sound of gunfire and explosions, the rock/metal soundtrack that has characterised all games of the series and accompanies the action well.
A criticism levelled at the game at the time of its release was that it was a little too off-the-wall for its own good. This is, however, a criticism to be made of the hideous sexualisation inherent in Red Alert 3 and not the mild egocentricity of Red Alert 2. Of course, to make such a criticism of a spin-off series that is premised upon Albert Einstein traveling back in time to kill Hitler and thus prevent the his ascension to power in Germany is a little incongruous: starting from this level of fantasy, who is to demarcate exactly where things become “too silly”? Red Alert was always designed to be a little bit silly and give the player a little room to engage with a near-future setting and ridiculous technology. Better this game, with its ability to look at itself reflectively and still laugh, than the ten-a-penny “realistic” modern warfare simulations of the current time.