Today we're going to try something a little different. Enough talk of disappointment! Today we're going to look at a sequel that was actually way the hell better
than the game that came before it. Yes, it seems that every once in a while, even sequels can have their day in the sun. THE SUBJECT: Red Alert!
So let us first look back at the humble beginnings...
: Command & Conquer: Red Alert
The original Command and Conquer set the stage for the boom of the RTS genre in the mid-nineties, and in 1996 Westwood was ready to to expand the series. They did so with Red Alert, an alternate WWII-themed affair.
The game centered around the concept that in the late 40's, Albert Einstein, genius that he was, invented time travel, headed back to the thirties, and wiped Hitler right out of existence. This plan worked perfectly in avoiding Hitler's rise to power, but where in became kind of a Fail was when it allowed Stalin to expand unchecked across much of the world. The game picks up as the Red Menace is surging into Europe, creating the need for an alliance to defend against it, and plunging the world into an alternate WWII.
As for the gameplay itself, I can sum it up pretty simply: if you played Command & Conquer, you've played this. The game was, quite obviously, built on C&C's engine, with only a few extra features thrown in to show that it had changed at all. Much like C&C, the game was split into two campaigns: Russia and the Allies. Each side had their own specific units, with the Russians focused on heavy-damage, slow units that could take a beating vs. the Allies faster, more nimble units. In between missions you were treated to FMVs to keep the story moving.
It's like Command and Conquer, but whiter.
All in all, it was a totally OK game. It was fun, no doubt about that, but it really just felt like a reskinning of C&C with a different storyline. The game seemed to want to break out on its own, but at the same time it also threw in elements (such as Kane showing up) that indicated it was tied in to the regular C&C universe. It didn't quite have the spark of energy that C&C had, and in general it seemed perfectly content to play second fiddle to its better-known cousin.
I played through the entire game, and as I said, it was enjoyable, but not particularly memorable. Even after finishing it, my real excitement was for the inevitable C&C 2, and thoughts of a Red Alert sequel were not even on my mind.
: Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2
In the summer of 1999, after years of waiting, C&C 2: Tiberian Sun finally hit the shelves. I, like many others, ran out to grab it as soon as I could. After getting it home, tearing it open and loading it up, I played and played and played. Overall, the game ended up being totally mediocre. The graphics were not so hot, the music was not so hot, and the gameplay itself was pretty rough around the edges. The AI seemed to be on vacation for much of the game, the unit design was wholly uninspiring, and most importantly, barely any Kane!
I beat the game and then put it on the shelf to be forgotten (and it's probably still there).
So, in 2000 when Westwood announced that a sequel to Red Alert was coming out, it didn't really peak my interest all that much. RA had been a fine game, but C&C2 had lowered my expectations of what could be coming significantly. But, come October of 2000, sitting around my dorm room of my senior year, I decided that I need an RTS fix. I picked up RA2 and thought I'd give it a shot.
My expectations, it turns out, were totally blown away. From the moment you started the game up, Red Alert 2 hit you with pure frenzied energy. This was a game that knew that it wanted you to have a good time, and damnit, it was going to give it to you. Poor Liberty... she suffers so much abuse at the hands of writers.
The opening movie sets the tone for the whole game; taking place years after an Allied victory in RA, the Russians have secretly plotted their revenge. Launching an all-out invasion of the US, it looks like they are doomed to annihilation at the hands of American ICBMs. Doomed, that is, except that the Russians unleash the powers of the psychic Yuri
to stop the missiles from ever being launched!
Yes, psychics, war blimps, the Statue of Liberty getting her head blown off in the first five minutes; this was a game that did not take itself seriously and had no qualms about it. The first Allied mission consisted of taking back New York City from the Russians, starting with your kick-ass commando unit, Tanya, swimming ashore and unleashing some whup-ass. Tanya spouted off constant trash talk, and all your Allied infantryman sounded like over-excited GI Joes. It was fantastic.
From a gameplay standpoint, while it was still the same basic C&C principles at play, the unit variety and special abilities seemed greatly increased, and the game also introduced one of the best (in my opinion) tactical options to the series: the ability to garrison buildings. Infantry units could pile into any available structure and start laying down fire at anything that passed by. They wouldn't leave until you told them to or until the building was leveled. Be it a Hawaiian beach house or an office building in downtown DC, they were all up for grabs. And yes, I did garrison many a Hawaiian beach house.
You laugh, but that rocket is loaded with kittens
Naval units also played a bigger role in a lot of missions, with the introduction of two of the greatest units to ever grace any RTS ever: Allied War Dolphins and the Russian Psychically Controlled Giant Squid. Yes, you could a full on naval battle of giant squid vs. dolphins just like I know most of you have always secretly dreamed. Cute now, but less cute when they are out for Soviet blood.
On the story side of things, after the initial invasion, the Allies have to rush around the country destroying Yuri's psychic amplifiers, which are being used to keep the population in check. After that, it's off to Europe to rescue Albert Einstein and get him to use his technology to warp your army straight into the heart of Russia. Good times!
On the Russian side, you do your Soviet duty and kick the US to curb, then move on to deal with Europe. But then it turns out that Yuri, who has slowly been gaining more and more power, may not the be the good soul you thought he was! Can you imagine, an insane, powerful psychic using his powers for evil? Shocking, I know! But yes, soon the Russian forces fall into civil war, and the final stretch of the campaign centers on hunting down Yuri and ending his threat once and for all.
Where It Went Right
The real secret to RA2 is that it is a game of boundless energy. It starts off with a bang, and then it just keeps going. Every battle feels frenetic, every unit has personality, and even the maps themselves ooze with character. Colorful environments (well, except Russia), big, bold unit sprites, and a nice clean interface. The FMVs between missions are excellently done, with actors who aren't afraid to lay on the cheese and are clearly having a good time doing so. The story is over-the-top shlock-fi fun, and it seems to sever the ties from the core C&C universe and is all the better for having done so.
How could a face like that have turned out evil!?
Now, pure energy is good, but the game also backs it up with solid gameplay, including a rich variety of units and a (mostly) challenging AI. The two sides are clearly differentiated, each having well-balanced strengths and weaknesses. They also allow enough flexibility of strategy to give options to all styles of play, depending on your personal preferences.
So, overall, RA2, to me, came out of the blue and completely wiped away the so-so memories of its predecessor. It's one of those games I still load up every so often to remind of what an RTS should be. If you haven't played it, you should seek it out and do so immediately. You can get it currently as part of the C&C: First Decade pack which makes installation and compatibility very easy. There was, many years ago, an unofficial announcement of RA3 (back in 2004), but that soon fell to the wayside and has never been heard from since. Who knows, maybe they will launch it one day by surprise and it will blow us all away. Of course, it may also end up the subject of a future "How Did You Screw This Up?" Only time will tell...