Command & Conquer: Red Alert
Command & Conquer, Westwood's phenomenally successful real-time wargame, was a runaway success. During the peak months of its popularity, it sat on more hard disks than a dyslexic prostitute manages throughout an entire career. You played it, I played it, we all played it. Some of us even linked up and played it head-to-head, in an orgy of tactical manoeuvring and relentless bastardry that would have given Ghengis Khan a cob-on you couldn't dent with a steak tenderiser. And now we have a sequel, of sorts. Red Alert is, apparently, not Command & Conquer '2'. No, it's more like Command & Conquer: The Previous Generation. As if you didn't already know, the action is set in an alternative version of the past in which Hitler never made it to power. In fact, he never made it very far at all: Albert Einstein, no less, managed to nip back in time to 1924 and bump off the would-be Fuehrer before he could wreak much in the way of havoc. How's that for a successful bit of reverse-engineering?
Far from ideal, actually. Einstein's time-travel assassination may well have erased the malevolent Zebedee from history altogether, but it also had an undesirable side effect. Aside from robbing the world of an easy insult to hurl at traffic wardens, it paved the way for another moustachioed despot to start entertaining the prospect of total world domination, namely big Joe Stalin. Without World War II to keep him and his troops busy, he decided that the ideal way to stave off that indefinable, omnipresent sense of ennui (commonly known as 'peacetime') was to invade as many countries as possible. Painting the globe red, if you like. So, the lights are going out all over Europe - and it's down to you to switch the buggers back on.' 'Unless you're playing as the Soviets, obviously, you pedantic tosser.
C&C carnage factory
Now, assuming that you're familiar with C&C numero uno, what you'd probably like to know is this: how does Red Alert compare to that and, most importantly, which bits have improved?
Well, the graphics, for one thing. If you happen to be playing under Windows 95, it's SVGA city for you (a slightly non-comformist 640 x 400 resolution to be precise). I won't even start to bang on about how lovely and detailed it is (because you can see that for yourselves) since natty visuals aren't exactly the point here.
It's the gameplay we're interested in. And while that seems to have remained more or less the same, the wealth of new units and structures send the fun factor scaling to new heights. Paratroopers, guard dogs, submarines, medics, spies... on paper they sound like small beer, but in the game itself they're a godsend.
The single-player missions display more variety than the ones on offer in 'old' C&C; they're also a damn sight harder (unless you play on the 'easy' setting), with the learning curve resembling a brick wall on occasion. Some of them will induce a severe case of desk-thumping, tooth-gnashing 'monitor rage' (get through mission five playing as the Allies without swearing out loud and I'll send you 1,000). As ever, you can choose to play as either side, with the Soviet missions being, to my mind, faintly superior to the Allies' equivalent.
But the multi-player options... ahhh. Now that's where things start getting really cool...
Red Alert has loads of new (and amusing) multi-player options- my favourite being the Allies' sneaky (and shockingly handy) ability to construct fake buildings - a la 'Blazing Saddles' - in order to fool the enemy. There are radar jammers, ore thieves and invulnerability devices. But all these new additions - superb though they are - are not the special thing about the multi-player options.
The special thing about the multiplayer options is that they all work. They're easy to set up (even I managed it) and incredibly good fun to play. Within 30 minutes of installing the game on my home pc, 1 was playing head-to-head (via Westwood's server) against a guy in New York. Despite the odd slowdown, the game ran smoothly and with no visible glitches. Incidentally, my opponent pissed all over me. Being an American, he celebrated his victory with grace, dignity and by sending the message, "YoU sUcK!!!" about a million times. Such decorum.
So the Internet option works. Head-to-head modem mode works. And anyone who's got access to a network can start rubbing their hands together at the prospect of seamless eight-way action. But what about those of you who don't have any of those things? Aren't you going to feel left out?
Nope. Because thanks to the superb 'Skirmish' mode, you can play against up to seven computer-controlled opponents, with all the special multiplayer features switched on. It's a great way of trying out some of the more advanced hardware, and widens the old 'addiction window' considerably. Oh, and there's even a map editing program bunged in, so you can build your own battlefields. Neat.
Red Alert is one of those 'time sponge' games. You think you've been playing it for half an hour, but a quick glance at the clock reveals that it's now the year 1999. It's brilliant - the gaming equivalent of an 'unputdownable' book. What more can I say? Not a lot, really. Check the score.
There are more weapons in Red Alert than you'll find in all the schools in South London put together (and that's a boast that even our own armed forces can't make). Many are familiar friends from the original C&C, but there's a decent quota of new big boy's toys chucked in too. Here we present a brief list of some of our favourites - and a few of our unfavourites - from the new batch.
Dogs? Dogs? What use are they, then? What are they going to do, sniff the opponent's arse until he runs away in embarrassment? Er, no. While your pooch contingent is admittedly rather less use than a glass hammer when it comes to mammoth tank invasions, they come into their own against lone enemy characters bent on sneaky base infiltration. Their unerring habit of leaping unexpectedly at the throat (instantly killing the throat's owner) makes them deceptively deadly.
Wahey! Now you can have complete control over your very own fleet. Gunboats, cruisers, transporters and full-on destroyers (or submarines, if you're playing as the Soviets) are a laugh and a half. Cruisers, in particular, are capable of blowing all they survey into powder, often before the enemy knows what's coming.
Once you've built an airfield, why not let your opponent know - the nasty way. Parachute bombs are just what you think they are - albeit slightly deadlier than you might expect.
Red Alert's female equivalent of C&C's commando character. Tanya is nails. Absolutely nails. A sharp-shooting demolition expert, she's the ideal choice for bundling into a Chinook and landing unannounced in the centre of your opponent's base. And she's got a nice line in catchphrases, too (if I ever shoot somebody in real life, I hope remember to shout, "Cha-CHINGGGI")
The atom bomb is a major let down. It takes an age to construct - and for what? Let's face it, if you've got to the point where you're about to drop one of these on your enemy's head, you want to see something special. You want widespread destruction. Roaring, 'Independence Day'-style walls of flame. Radioactive, mutating victims vomiting blood all over their new trousers. 'Genocide: the movie' - that's what you want to see. A weedy little mushroom cloud effect that's gone in a puff of smoke just doesn't cut the mustard, I'm afraid.
I have yet to deploy paratroopers and watch them do anything remotely useful. Five of 'em just aren't enough - especially since it takes them a while to float down to earth (during which time the opponent invariably decides to get a bit of target practice in) -and since they're only armed with standard machine guns, their lifespan tends to swing towards the 'Mayfly' end of the scale.
2018-10-29 Command & Conquer: Red Alert game added.