When you're talking about strategy games, Command & Conquer (C&C) usually comes up. The series is known to push the real-time strategy (RTS) genre forward with balanced units, great gameplay and whacky sense of humor. Especially it's second incarnation, Red Alert (now available as freeware), was praised by gamers and critics world wide. In 2000, the franchise was continued with Red Alert 2 that further pushed the genre and set a new standard of how RTS games should play. But can a game over a decade old still capture the attention of modern gamers who are used to having DirectX 11 graphics and dozens of customization options? And more importantly, is Tanya still hot by today's standards?
Red Alert 2 takes place in an alternative history. The Soviet Premier Romanov is fed up with being a puppet for the US government and sends out the whole Soviet army to invade USA. The US President Michael Dugan is caught with his pants down and realizes all his top Commanders are done for. The only one left is you, the player. The President gives you control of all the units and structures of the US military in an desperate effort to push the Soviets back. What follows is a totally insane story filled with memorable characters, mind control and time travel.
The campaign is split into two; you play as either the Allied or the Soviets. Both sides have different storylines but they have one thing in common: B-class Hollywood actors. Between each mission you're greeted with a live-action cut-scene that usually takes place in front of a computer-generated background. These scenes are hilarious (especially when considering the fact that they were made with computers from the last millenium) and filled with camp humor. The missions themselves are pretty straightforward and last between 10 - 40 minutes. You'll occasionally receive video feed from the units to further the immersion of being in the middle of a war. These feeds are made with the same grin-inducing style as the cut-scenes.
The missions have a single primary objective that has to achieved in order to succeed. These objectives are usually split into secondary objectives that help you with your quest to thwart the Soviet invasion. These objectives vary from the simple 'Destroy the enemy base' to the more complex 'Sneak into an enemy camp and take out the power plants'. Playing the sneaking missions makes the game feel like Commandos, which is not a bad thing. It keeps the game fresh and exciting. The missions aren't overly difficult and veterans of the genre should complete both campaigns in a day or so. There's also a boot camp to teach you the basics.
Once the campaigns are done with, it's time to hone your skills in the offline Skirmish mode. Skirmish is basically a free-for-all game mode that allows you to freely play the game without pre-set objectives or time limits. You select a map, how many enemies there are, the armies you'll be controlling and tweak some basic options (like your starting cash for example). Once you're satisfied with your selections, you're set loose on one of the game's multiple maps. These maps vary in size and shape as well as the climate. You have islands, mountains, snow and desert to name a few. Most maps also feature structures that can be garrisoned by regular soldiers or captured by engineers to give an advantage over the battlefield. This mode is the reason I still keep coming back to this game.
There's also multiplayer included which, unlike most modern games, supports LAN. The multiplayer mode plays just like Skirmish but with human opponents (duh!). When played with a few friends, this mode really shines and holds it's head high with the modern multiplayer favourites like Battlefield 3 and DayZ.
The gameplay is very simple and played in real time with a simple point-and-click interface known to everyone who has ever played a strategy game (which is around 101% of players): you and your opponents construct buildings and train units to ultimately wipe out all opposition. There are different structures for the two different sides but the basic structures are the same; you have power plants, ore refineries, war factories and others. Special buildings available for only one of the sides include a spy satellite, psychic sensor, gap generator and a few other special buildings that grant the Commander some special ability or a one-time effect. The spy satellite for example reveals the whole map. There are also superweapon structures that allow you to wreak havoc with nukes or thunderstorms for instance. These superweapons can be turned off in a Skirmish game, which is a relief. Playing against a skilled human or Brutal AI with superweapons turned on ensures your base is quickly overcome with nuclear winter. Ore refinery allows you to collect ore (and it's more valuable version, gems) which is the main currency in Red Alert 2. Ore is used to construct buildings, repair broken ones and to train new units.
The units in Red Alert 2 are very varied and filled with humor and unforgettable one-liners. Soldiers are trained in barracks and they are the backbone of your army. There are G.I.s, flak troopers, attack dogs and other basic infantry units. The bigger units, like tanks, ore miners and rocket launchers, are built in the war factory. More advanced units are available after constructing a battle lab. These units are absolutely fantastic and include some of the most greatest units ever seen in a strategy game; there's Apocalypse (double barreled tank), Kirov (huge airship that drops bombs), Tanya (hot chick who kills infantry with a single shot and blows up buildings) and Mirage (a tank that camouflages itself as a tree) for example. On top of this, the units all have hilarious one-liners when you command them. These vary from the basic 'Hooah!' to the more extreme 'I lost a bomb, do you have it'. The voice-actors are great and especially the Soviet units are a pleasure to command. Each of the 9 countries in the game also have a special unit that's only available to them. These range from the Iraqi Desolator that kills infantry with toxic waste to the Korean Black Eagle that's faster and more powerful than the basic Harrier. All the countries are well balanced and each one is a pleasure to play.
As stated before, the voice-acting in the game is superb. You constantly have a small grin on your face while playing Red Alert 2. Other sounds include your basic boom and crash when huge tanks are hammering each other. One particular sound deserves to be mentioned; the sound when your unit drives over enemy infantry. The resulting sound reminds me of someone stepping on a tomato. Brilliant. The music is also great and this must be one of the few games in which I don't listen to my music collection while playing. The theme music still gets me pumped and gives me shivers.
The graphics are very simple by today's standards but they are in no way ugly. The unit sprites are drawn with love and some effects utilize the DirectX 7 nicely with moving flames and explosions. The game engine is great and it still works with Windows 7 when using the compatibility mode. The only downside is that the game supports a maximum resolution of 1024x768 but this can be easily changed from the configuration file. Multiplayer games between different Windows versions are nearly impossible to get working but with two Win 7 machines, we got the game working with a fan-made IPX patch (although we did encounter some crashes).
Overally the game feels like a great breeze of simplicity and fun after dozens of modern ultra-realistic RTS games that have hundreds of different units and customization options. I like my games just like my women; simple, easy and clean. That's why I can easily recommend this game to anyone.