Considering all the delays, hype and disappointment that surrounded last year's release of Command & Conquer sequel TiberianSun, Red Alert 2 has, in comparison, had a rather quiet time of it. Its announcement in May took many by surprise (including us) and now it seems barely has the marketing machine had time to get into first gear than the game has been finished, packaged and readied for release.
Consequently, thanks in no small part to the worldwide panning of Tiberian Sun, expectation for Westwood's new real-time strategy game has been only marginally higher than that we would reserve for a decent English summer. To its credit, developer Westwood has neither proclaimed Red Alert 2 be ground-breaking nor Earth-shattering and, after the tragic anti-climax that wasTiberian Sun, we wouldn't have believed them if they had.
Using an enhanced -unnoticeably so - version of the Tiberian Sun game engine and sporting many gameplay features and units from a four-year-old game, Red Alert 2 could be seen as a glorified remake of its predecessor. Westwood has done the same thing before, with Dune 2000 - the botched up remake of real-time strategy's most influential game - so it wouldn't be beneath them to do the same again.
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Now before you all start sending me death threats for my cynical indifference, let me just say if I hadn't been so pessimistic before playing the game, I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much as I did.Think about it - and be honest - what are your expectations for the next Star Wars game? I'd wager not too high after having wasted your money on Force Commander. But because we are all Star Wars fans, or at least we should be, there is the hope that the next one will be brilliant. However, in Red Alert 2s case I wasn't hoping for much at all. You'd do well to think the same, for if you do, I guarantee you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Heroes And Villains
When you review a game - or at least when I do - one essential technique is to jot down pages of notes while you're playing, so when it comes to writing the review, you can refer back to them. Normally what is written down, though illegible, makes some sort of sense, but one of the last things I wrote was 'missions good. Nothing special. Addictive'. I am at a loss as to what I was on about, but I can tell you this: the missions in themselves are pretty undemanding, yet taken as a whole (and separated by a story that sees the USA being invaded) the two campaigns on offer (you can play as Allies or Soviets) are very engaging.
As is par for the course, you build a base, harvest ore, expand your borders and kill the unending trickle of enemy units until you overrun their base, all with scant regard for tactics - been there done that, we all have. With that in mind, what has been baffling me is why I enjoyed Red Alert 2 so much and yet could not derive any pleasure from Tiberian Sun. Both games are practically identical in structure, offering similar units to play with across a linear series of missions, liberally interspersed with high-quality video sequences. The only answer I can offer is a subtle difference in feel and mood. Where Tiberian Sun was a dark and faintly absurd yarn full of square-jawed heroes and boo-hiss villains, Red Alert anti its illustrious predecessor are somehow believable, despite being even more outlandish.
Graphically, Red Alert 2 is far from great. The animation for some of the larger units, ships especially, is juddery and the explosions are hardly spectacular. However, bearing bright colours and full of tiny details - like baseball and football pitches, fast food bars and houses - many levels are full of civilian life that have little impact on the game, but add a touch of fun to the proceedings. Sunbathers run half-naked on the beaches and cattle make themselves targets for your restless attack dogs on the farms. Elsewhere, across maps frozen with ice, all the buildings are draped with snow as if to fool us that they had been there forever. They haven't of course, but it's seemingly insignificant details like this that add a bit of colour to our interminably dull lives.
In regard to the two sides you can choose to play, both are as distinct as any you'll find in a real-time strategy game. One of Westwood's strengths is that it always offers two very different challenges in all its strategy games, by throwing in units and buildings that look and play to different styles. Many of the units are standard fare with infantry and tanks in abundance, but there are a number of clever differences between even those.
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Soviet conscripts are both cheap and weak, American GIs are marginally more expensive and can be deployed in a defensive role, able to fortify themselves in an instant within a cocoon of sandbags.
The Allied Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) is another interesting unit. Alone it is a weak reconnaissance tank, armed with a simple rocket launcher. But put a Gl inside and its turret becomes a powerful anti-personnel platform. With an engineer at the controls it alters into a mobile repair vehicle and there are other transformations that can be achieved by trying out other, more potent infantry units inside.Things like Rocket Launchers, Tech Yards and Gap Generators we've seen before, but many units, both old and new, can combine in interesting ways.
Place some Tesla Troopers with their electrifying weapons around a static Tesla Coil and they'll boost the power of it and keep it charged even when the power is down during an enemy attack.As in all RTS games, both sides' infantry units are easily overrun, even in large numbers, but this time around they can find shelter in many of the neutral buildings that pepper the levels. It's a feature that is long overdue in a Westwood game (Age Of Empires IIanti the soon-to-be-released WWII RTS Sudden Strike both offer the same option) and although not every building can be captured, certain ones that are can be a powerful complement to your base by creating chokepoints through which a lightly armed enemy can quickly perish.
Furthermore, there are four neutral Tech Buildings that can be procured - Airports, Hospitals, Outposts and Oil Derricks - all of which can support and replenish units that might otherwise have to make a long journey back to base.
The Soviets are still the side of cheap mass-produced technology, underhand and willing to sacrifice numbers for victory. In contrast, the Allies rely on fast, high-tech units that are more adaptable, yet weaker if left in a sustained fight with Soviet units of similar role.
One aspect in which Red Alert always won out over CSC was its use of naval units. And once again, Red Alert 2 gives the Soviet side a greater underwater navy, while the Allied fleet is predominantly surface-based with Destroyers, Cruisers and Aircraft Carriers going against the Russian Typhoon Subs and Giant Squids.
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Trained animals play a larger role in this sequel than they did in the original Red Alert. The Allies now have attack dogs, as do the Russians, and against the Squids the forces of good rely on herds (or pods if you want to be technical) of clicking dolphins and their sonar attack.
Bring Your Friends
Even though the storyline and the level-by-level feed of new technologies are enough to keep you entertained throughout the two campaigns - and there is always the option of the skirmish game - there comes a time when the war will be over against the computer and the time will come to take on a human opponent.
We won't even pretend that we have played Red Alert 2 online yet, no servers are running anyway, but we did play over a LAN and, thanks to the diversity in units and the immediate familiarity of all of Westwood's games, playing against a real opponent was tremendous fun. In multiplayer or skirmish games you not only have to pledge allegiance to the Allied or Soviet sides, you have to choose an army from a particular country, each of which have a particular special unit they can use: Germany has tank destroyers; Libya has demolition trucks; Cuba has terrorists; the US has paratroopers; and Britain has snipers. Not a deal-clincher, as Steve Hill would say, but fun all the same.
As was the case in CSC, Red Alert, Ttberian Sun and now this,multiplayer games are all about throwing forces (onward to eat away at the opponent's defences. As you do so you are constantly thinking about what concoction of forces to send in next and while you leave your units to get on with it, you're cooking up another batch to send in. Westwood has never made strategy a priority in its games and here, too, the multiplayer game is about a slow pace of play that always ends up in spectacular fashion with entire bases wiped away by just one weapon. This - what we might term the railgun factor' -makes each game a race to build the most devastating weapon available rather than a plod through attack, counterattack and stalemate.
The Bit At The End
About as ground-breaking as Windows 98 is to Windows 95, Red Alert 2 is no less essential for it. The interface has certainly improved since Tlberian Sun and the missions, varied and interesting, are carried along by a storyline that doesn't take itself nearly as seriously as other CSC games - for every cheesy line of dialogue, there's a knowing smile behind.
Remarkably well-rounded, the phrase 'more than the sum of its parts' could easily have been written with Red Alert 2 in mind. Unspectacular graphics, an AI that is clearly artificial and with little in the way of true innovation, Red Alert 2 is, nevertheless, an excellent game, well-designed and carried through with wit and style. In these times where realism is de rigueur, Red Alert 2 feels like a breath of fresh air.Just remember not to expect too much and you'll be as impressed as we were.
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Back To The Future
Red Alert, the story so far...
In theory it's a good plan, but the greatest theorist of them all failed to realise the implications of his actions. After developing a timetravelling device in post-war America, Albert Einstein returns to 1923 to wipe Hitler from the history books. Unchecked by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, lead by Joseph 'Madboy' Stalin, embarks on a European crusade to turn our continent a nasty shade of red.
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Defeated by an uncharacteristic display of unity, Stalin is killed by European Allied forces and Premier Romanov takes over Soviet control. Seemingly compliant and peaceful, he is of course quite mad and plotting his revenge against the Allies, he decides that America is ripe for invasion. Using mind control technology, the USSR sabotages America's nuclear capability and a huge invasion is launched into New Mexico, Texas and California. Which is where you come in to save the day.