Throwback Thursday - Command and Conquer: Red Alert (1996)
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 02:42pm 12/03/15 | Comments
Throwback Thursday is a weekly column on AusGamers where the nostalgic Kosta Andreadis opens up the proverbial gaming industry attic, has a poke around, finds dusty copies of games from a different time – and plays them!
Watch the iconic Red Alert intro sequence
The Game: Command and Conquer: Red Alert
The Year: 1996
The Developer/Publisher: Westwood Studios/Virgin Interactive
The System: PC (DOS and Windows 95)
With the advent of the CD-ROM drive, various game developers in the mid-‘90s took it upon themselves to fill each disc with as much content as possible. And these being the days when actual game data struggled to grow beyond a few megabytes this led them to include things like pre-recorded music and video. But even that wasn’t enough, and with a few hundred Megs to spare why not fully animate a studio logo, hire some voice actors to read out menu options, and record some backing music for the installation progress bar. After all, the days of worrying about how many floppy disks were needed to store a game and how costly that would end up being to manufacture were over. Developers, and players alike, felt liberated.
So having the introduction of a game come in the form of a video was not only a relatively new thing in 1996, but a welcome one. The intro video helped nurture the idea that games could be like movies. Westwood Studios, who notably deserve a lot of credit for defining the real-time strategy (RTS) genre with Dune II, brought this idea to the fore with the first Command and Conquer game in 1995. Not only did it feature an elaborate introductory video full of computer generated animation, but one with an elaborate plot and numerous scenes of live actors in costume delivering their lines in a proto-‘Syfy channel movie of the week’ manner. Not limited to the introduction, the B-movie feel and noticeable camp was there for the entirety of playing experience, with each mission bookended by story-driven video sequences.
Although a competent RTS game in its own right, Command and Conquer is probably remembered mostly for the presentation of its story. That and being the first instalment in gaming’s premiere wartime soap opera, The Adventures of Kane. A soap opera where the Brotherhood of the Nod, led by the aforementioned Kane, wreak havoc on the world in a bid to secure the precious and magical green stuff that has multiple applications from herbal to medicinal to industrial. That’s right, marijuana Tiberium. The entertaining and often unintentionally laughable nature of the story sequences, which later Command and Conquers made a specific point to highlight, played directly into the experience of commanding armies and subsequently using them to completely destroy your opponent.
With Command and Conquer the seriousness of war took a back seat to spectacle, bombast, and with a clear focus on killing in the name of, well, fun. And Kane. All hail Kane.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert coming a year after the original is no different, and although initially it feels like an offshoot, what with its focus on the Soviets taking over Europe, it actually ends up tying into the overall Command and Conquer universe and timeline. It goes so far as to include Kane as one of Joseph Stalin’s advisors, laying the foundations for the rise of the Brotherhood of Nod. But all of that comes at the end of the game, and is jumping the gun a little bit. What Red Alert does and did so well at the time and what it should always be remembered for, is its outlandish, captivating, and memorable introduction sequence. Easily one of the best from the ‘90s. Long story short, Albert Einstein travels back in time to kill a young Adolf Hitler sparking a geopolitical and military situation where the Soviet Union basically takes over Europe. So naturally this results in a very different World War II, one where an Allied commander can have a German accent.
“Quick tie him up he’s a Nazi!”
“What’s a Nazi? This man is Joseph Goebbels, our new Communications Minister.”
And even though the time machine used by Einstein looks just like a regular ergonomic desk chair you can pick up at Office Works, the brilliant simplicity of the introduction sequence, the editing, the music, and overall impact are impossible to ignore. Revisionist history aside, it’s a great setup, and one that many other games of the era struggled with. If the goal is to simply entice people to start playing, then Red Alert’s intro is a resounding success. And for many people at the time, the premise alone was enough to get them interested.
So how does is stack up today? Well, much like the original Command and Conquer, Red Alert is a competent RTS. One bookended with an entertaining alternate history themed story. And by that token you probably wouldn’t consider Red Alert’s mechanics, controls, and mission design timeless. What Westwood Studios seemed to do with Red Alert was use the hook of the filmed narrative structure as a way to simplify RTS rules, ones that they had already established, and to make the action feel less like a game of chess or rock-paper-scissors and more about different warfare styles.
To that end Red Alert is a success, with the game providing two campaigns across both the Allies and Soviet factions. The latter of which is worth playing for the simple fact that mission briefings usually involve a rather one dimensional Joseph Stalin, who seems hell bent on wiping out Europe. In fact the very first thing players are tasked with in the Soviet campaign is to kill a group of civilians who, although are expendable in the eyes of the Red Menace, still manage to take out a few of your soldiers. That may sound grim, but Red Alert is anything but. The sheer gleeful disregard it has for the value of individual units (or life as it were) set it and the Command and Conquer series apart from other RTS games from the era. There aren’t any real population caps so once you've built a barracks you can pretty much just keep pumping out infantry soldiers to build up huge armies that will either get wiped out completely or whittled down severely as you make progress into enemy territory.
The same goes for vehicular combat which, much like in Command and Conquer, becomes a game of ‘who has the most tanks’ or ‘you can never have enough tanks.’ Now it can be a lot of fun amassing an overwhelming force, but the nuance and strategy feels somewhat lackluster with this sort of approach. Playing Red Alert today there’s a nagging feeling that something is missing, and overall it hasn’t aged as well as something like say, Blizzard’s Warcraft II. But for its day, especially with the inclusion of an online multiplayer mode, Red Alert was a lot of fun. And the story, although ludicrous, is still strangely compelling. And much like the Command and Conquer series as a whole, is still worth the price of admission.
Best Forgotten / A Trip Down Memory Lane / Timeless
Kosta Andreadis remembers a time when in order to get the best out of a console game you had to blow gently into it and whisper sweet nothings like "please work, I’m up to World 8-3, for fudgcicles sake". Situated in Melbourne, Kosta is a freelancer who enjoys playing RPGs, strategy, adventure, and action games. Apart from investing well over 200 hours into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim he’s also an electronic musician with an album recently released.