A game review by Bobulous.
A game by Westwood. Yet another real-time strategy (RTS) romp with tanks and aircraft and sea-faring war machines. You build an army, your opponent (either the computer or an online player) builds and army, and you thrill at the mayhem and death as you try to destroy each other.
Some cheeky bastard thinks that a PC game ought to suddenly cost £34.99 now, so I was forced to use loyalty points at Electronics Boutique to bring the price down to £29.99. You may not be so lucky.
Installation no problem, blah, blah, blah... onto actually playing the game.
Surely you've played one of Westwood's RTS games before? There've been enough of the bloody things.
I have, perhaps sadly, got all of the above and they're all the same — build a little war base, build a cute little harvesting truck to go and gather some valuable commodity, build a bunch of nasty, vicious killing implements and try to take your enemy's base apart quicker than he can dismantle yours. So you probably now won't be surprised to hear that Red Alert 2 uses exactly the same formula. Build, harvest, kill. Originality ain't something Westwood are striving for here.
Red Alert (the first one) was all about the Russians engaging in some sort of naughtiness, the details of which I can't be bothered to recall. Suffice to say, it was up to the heroes of the West to kick their arses proper, and battle ensued. This time, those merry Soviets have decided that the US would make a rather nice annexe to their communist haven, and they've mobilised all their forces for Western-world domination. Battle ensues. So, pick a side, either side, and get to work, commander.
You stare down at the battlefield in the oh-so-familiar two-dimensional, overhead, disembodied god kinda way, selecting your military units and giving them orders to move, attack, defend, etc. All as expected. But this time, some of the units can deploy. Allied GIs can deploy into a little sandbagged defense position which increases their range and power; Iraqi Desolators can deploy to irradiate all the ground surrounding them; Yuri mind-control agents can deploy to frazzle the brains of all nearby infantry. This is a great idea — secondary fire modes — but isn't used for most of the units. Another welcome feature to the control interface is the type-select feature. By hitting 'T' when a Conscript soldier, for example, is selected, you select all the Conscripts on the screen. Hit 'T' twice and you select all of them across the entire map. This is extremely powerful. If any of you played Dune: Battle For Arrakis and now can't believe that you could only select one unit at a time (no drag-select feature existed) then you'll know how the introduction of this new feature feels. The waypoint system from Tiberian Sun is also present, but you may remember how poorly I thought of that. Again, I found no useful application of it — it just seems like too much work to get to the desired effect.
The units and structures on offer are very interesting in this game. Each army really is distinct. The Allies have a much subtler, gimmicky approach to attack and defense, whereas the Soviet forces are less cunning but more brutal to make up for it. The Allies have such gems as the teleporting Chrono Legionnaires who literally erase the enemy; the Spy who steals information or money, or sabotages the enemy power system; the Navy SEAL troops who slaughter infantry and set C4 explosive charges; the Mirage Tank that looks like a tree to enemy units; and the Dolphin. Yes, I said dolphin. Allied structures of note are the Weather Control Centre that unleashes destructive storms on the enemy, and the Chronosphere (taken straight out of the first Red Alert) that teleports vehicles from one place to another.
Soviet specialities include, of course, the Nuclear Missile Silo; the Iron Curtain that makes vehicles invulnerable; the Crazy Ivan who drops dynamite on enemy units and structures; the Yuri, able to control enemy soldiers and vehicles through telepathy; the truly fearsome Terror Drone that dismantles tanks mercilessly; the Kirov Airship that takes time to get there, but lets the enemy know big-time once it does; the slow but mighty Apocalypse Assault Tank; the long-range rocket-launching of the V3 Launcher and the sea-bound Dreadnought; and the hull-hugging Giant Squid. Truly something for everyone. Except pacifists.
The battlefield is littered with more neutral structures than have ever before been present. Gas stations, fast-food restaurants, office blocks and hotels, famous landmarks. All can be garrisoned with your basic infantry units so that enemy units passing by receive a violent attack. Special 'tech' buildings can be captured by engineers to gain handy assistance for your war effort — outposts that repair your vehicles; hospitals that heal your soldiers; airports that give you paratroopers; and oil derricks that generate a steady income. Suddenly the whole battlefield takes on strategic meaning. You can still destroy and repair bridges, but I generally this feature a nuisance. And, thank God, the terrain doesn't get altered by explosives anymore, so flat ground remains flat ground regardless.
The single-player campaigns are good fun, even if they don't seem to last very long. And, of course, Westwood still haven't managed to get the difficulty levels of each mission right. Instead of each mission getting a little harder, they've once again made one mission moderate, the next one impossible and the next one laughably easy. Which would be interesting if it weren't for the fact the final mission is usually such a walkover. For the first time, Westwood have gone for the humorous edge in the video briefings, especially those you see when you play as the Allies. And it's pretty funny. I gained immature amusement from watching the 'American President' congratulating your command skills one minute, then leering at his 'assistant' the next. Sex has become an issue, too — the dubious agent Tanya just happens to be a gorgeous brunette, and the battlefield communications officer, obviously just unable to support the weight of his videocamera, can't help but get frequent close-ups of her cleavage while she's busy barking complaints at whatever idiot is running the show. The Lieutenants who brief you before each mission just happen to be female, and, surely coincidence, they're both very easy on the eyes too. They tell you about enemy plans while smiling sweetly and doing their best Miss Moneypenny impressions.
Online multi-player gaming is made very satisfying by the variety of options and, more importantly, by the Tournament system that Westwood has created. Whenever you play a tournament game online, the result is recorded and your tournament score goes up or down. The players with the highest tournament scores are at the top of the table, and all the players are listed on the Westwood site. I'm currently somewhere around rank 4,500. Little chance of me winning a prize for being one of the top three players, but it's still very appealing to have your online gaming actually count towards something, even if it is only a fictional commander's title and ranking in a list of people with too much spare time on their hands. And, unless you find yourself playing against someone who still thinks a 9,600bps modem is cutting-edge, the game plays very smoothly indeed.
I was expecting very, very bad things from Red Alert 2 (I found Red Alert to be so bad that it's one of the few games in the last five years that I haven't played through to completion). I was pleasantly surprised. So perhaps my enjoyment of this game stems from that lack of expectation. But I don't think so.
The interface is better than Westwood have ever managed before, even if I'm sure it's still not all it could and should be (we want 3D!). The two armies involved offer some really brilliant, diverse units, and neither side seems to have an inherent advantage over the other. The video briefings are so amusing that you won't care about the low production costs, even if neither campaign finale is as good as the ones we got in Command & Conquer. Gameplay is challenging and enjoyable, if a little uneven across the single-player campaigns, though neither campaign seemed to last a long time. Multi-player gaming online works very well.
I'm glad that I bought this game. The name Red Alert no longer causes a tremor of disgust in me. A final note...
The CD for this game contains a sneak-preview of a future Westwood release — Emperor: Battle For Dune. It appears to be a fully three-dimensional RTS, and the preview clips are breath-taking. I look forward very much to this game.