Turns out that I lied to you all. In my review of Command & Conquer, I claimed to have never played the series before. I believed that to be true when I said it. When I fired up Red Alert, however, I was struck with a sense of deja vu. Apparently I had played this series before. I played Red Alert! I hated it so much that I quit after an hour and forgot all about it.
Unfortunate as that may be, it also made me wonder if maybe I’d overlooked something. Now that I had enjoyed Tiberian Dawn, perhaps I could see something new in Red Alert.
Let’s start from the beginning. Command & Conquer: Red Alert is basically an alternate universe take on the original game. Rather than the futuristic setting of Tiberian Dawn, Red Alert is inspired by the Cold War. Its story revolves around Albert Einstein, who uses time travel to assassinate Adolf Hitler before his rise to power. While this prevents World War 2, it also indirectly leads to a conflict between The Allies and USSR. Once again, players can choose to join either of these sides to battle for control of Europe.
My reason for initially dropping the game is that the Allied campaign is garbage. I remarked that the NOD campaign was maybe too gimmicky, but Red Alert pushes the gimmicks even harder. Few of the Allied missions offer you that baseline RTS experience of building up a base and defeating the enemy. Instead, nearly half of its missions are based around stealth of all things. You’ll be controlling commandos, spies, or engineers on missions to infiltrate the enemy base, instead of just besieging it.
So many factors come together to make these missions deeply unfun. First and foremost among them being that these missions are rife with instant fail states. You have to keep a specific unit alive no matter what, who usually dies instantly from anything. The barebones mechanics for stealth and unpredictable AI make it a toss-up whether you’ll be caught or not, leading to constant Game Overs and strong incentives to save-scum.
The Allied campaign is also held back by the boring story, with its video sequences failing to match the silly appeal of Tiberian Dawn. The characters are forgettable and, in the case of Tanya, absolutely unbearable to put up with. Especially during gameplay when Tanya insists on screeching an obnoxious dialogue line with every move she makes.
I pushed through for a while, but eventually got stuck on one of these missions with 0 motivation to keep trying. Instead, I switched to the Soviet campaign, which turned out to be a blast. Hanging out with Stalin and his crew is a great time. The video sequences are ridiculous in an endearing way and the missions offer a much greater variety. Most of them are your standard skirmish battles that gradually introduce more units and buildings as you progress the story. However, unlike the GDI campaign, the USSR missions do have some gimmicks for variety. Like one where you have to use mostly aircraft to clear a path for a convoy. Or where you get to turn the stealth mission bullshit around by hunting down a spy as he attempts to lead you into traps.
The missions could get difficult at times, but this was easily my favorite campaign in the series thus far.
As for gameplay, Red Alert introduces a bunch of exciting new mechanics. Its roster of units is very different from Tiberian Dawn and rebalanced to make the 2 factions more distinct from each other. In particular, the Soviets have a greater variety of airpower. They can build Yaks and Migs, which excel at killing infantry and armor respectively. They also have special powers to call in spy planes, drop in paratroopers, or drop bombs on an area. The Allies, meanwhile, far excel at sea. Soviets have to make do with submarines, whereas Allies can build a variety of boats with different utilities each.
Unfortunately, Red Alert does also retain the issues from the last game. Issues that are worsened by the addition of these new mechanics. Pathfinding was Command & Conquer‘s biggest problem and it has not improved now that the AI also has to account for destructible bridges and so much more water. Getting units to board transport carriers was hard enough when it was just APCs and helicopters; now you also have to get armor into boats. The traffic jams are a nightmare, frequently deadlocking entirely until you manually intervene. Units also have even more trouble staying in fights, with submarines in particular refusing to fight back against units even when they are right next to them.
Gameplay itself, at least in the campaign, has also taken some step backs. The fog of war in the remaster was very buggy. It keeps flickering on and off in some areas or wouldn’t recede, even when units were right next to it. I frequently had to spam spy planes or map out the entire playing field inch by inch.
The degree to which the AI cheats is also far too blatant now. When storming the enemy base, they’d frequently build their stuff back right under my nose. I force my way through the gate and begin attacking the buildings, only for the turrets at the gate to be back up before my army is even through it yet. You can even see the AI build multiple buildings at once or 2 instances of the same building, which is mechanically impossible. I can’t understate how vexing this is. Trying to storm the enemy base becomes so annoying when you repeatedly have to blow up the exact same defenses.
There are several other annoyances that weren’t an issue in the first game, but I think the message is clear. My first impression of Command & Conquer: Red Alert was perhaps extreme, though that doesn’t mean the game is free of blame. It’s nice enough as an alternate take on the universe established in Tiberian Dawn, but doesn’t manage to really improve on it. Naval and air combat feel too off to really count as improvements, while introducing new bugs that tested my patience constantly. It’s not as memorable of a game either, with the Allied campaign in particular being a major disappointment.
If you liked the first game, then Red Alert is worth playing once you’ve exhausted the original’s campaigns. I wouldn’t recommend it as your first or only experience with the series however.