It's like playing Doom II, watching another season of The X-Files, or listening to a new Oasis album - nothing is too innovative, too shiny, or too confusing. Everything feels familiar to millions while being just slightly different enough to dish out a good time for all. Yes, it's "comfort food" that entertains you and with what seems like the 403rd installment in the Command & Conquer series, Westwood successfully believes in the old adage of reaching a man's heart through his stomach.
Indeed, the immediate gut instinct while loading up Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 is that it's often difficult to tell it apart from the original game made almost five years before. Same isometric 2D view, same resource management, same tiny unit sprites, same regurgitated real-time strategy (RTS) tricks. But, for some reason, mainly due to small, yet effective gobs of spit and polish, it's a blast. How exactly did that happen?
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 continues where the 1996 original left off. That alternate World War II had the Soviets contained, but now a new, last-minute danger has arisen with mind-control machinations and an invasion straight into the American capital. Not to put too fine a point on it, "red" in this context still equals "evil," but no one really takes the game's premises seriously, do they?
Of course they don't. Which is proven more now than ever before, helped in part by the overly camp, full-motion video briefings that, despite trying so hard to be taken lightly, make you want to laugh at them, not with them. Northern Exposure's Barry Corbin tries his best to make certain his good old Yankee patriotism is understood while Sliders' Kari Wuhrer's physical attributes are amply displayed in every clip she graces.
But, instead of shooting themselves in the foot by taking such an unquestionably silly premise as Russian airships flying into New York City with the straightest of narrative tones, the video segments are shot with a "we know you know that it's all just a lark anyway" attitude. This is both refreshing and grating at the same time but it works - in a way.
In any case, at least we're reminded this is just a simple game intended for enjoyment. The interface is unarguably familiar with the aforementioned isometric, 2D view of the battlegrounds with a menu on the right-hand side of the screen detailing your radar, resources, and building options. What's changed for the better, however, is this one-stop shop now divides all your possible building options into four main tabs: infrastructure, base defenses, men and vehicles.
This means that not only is it easier to search and quickly locate that specific turret or submarine to build, but it's also much handier by allowing you to simultaneously build choices of many different types. Need a turret as well as a submarine ASAP? Start building both and watch the efficiency soar!
As for the buildings, it would be a waste of time to go over the usual walls, power generators and the like. The most interesting new additions in this area, though, include defense installations such as the Allies' Prism Towers and the Soviets' Psychic Sensor. The former act like Tesla Coils but are exponentially stronger according to the number of other towers nearby, while the latter lets you know which units or buildings in your vicinity are targeted for attack from any sort of enemy (very helpful for lop-siding your defenses accordingly).
Another very nice feature is the addition of bunkers and civilian buildings that can be "fortified" by pumping soldiers into them. Everything from skyscrapers to barns can be stocked with troops to act as a unified, remote defense structure in areas that might need it the most. It's a good idea to keep an engineer nearby these buildings, as once they are extensively damaged, your men flee out of the wreckage like mice from a sinking ship.
This train of thought leads us neatly to the new types of units made available in the game. Once again, ignoring the expected infantry and tanks, there are some quite interesting and powerful units that make the game elicit smiles from even the most weaned RTS players.
For example, the Allies have some quite amusing jetpack equipped Rocketeer-like soldiers (looking much like those in the 1950s ads that promised what travel would be like in the year 2000) that are actually quite powerful when the enemy fails to stock up on anti-air flak units. Truly, the first few Allies' levels are quite easy once you concentrate on making these jetpack soldiers. The Soviets have some rather nasty (although difficult to manage) Yuris that can take control of the mind of just about any enemy unit.
Not to be outdone, the Allies have Prism Tanks that retain the exponential power of the Prism Towers, albeit on an obviously mobile platform. Providing the most sadistic of entertainment, however, is probably the Soviets' spidery Terror Drones - they shred men fairly easily but really get the job done taking out formidable enemy vehicles by cutting their way straight to their interiors and shredding them from the inside. These machines are well animated and amusing in a sick sort of way.
Almost all of these units are deadly if used properly and make nice new developments to an otherwise predictable sequel. For instance, while the strategy in RTS games is usually simplistic at best (if anything, they should probably be renamed "Real Time Tactics"), here the relative complexity of rock-paper-scissors choice of attacking and defensive maneuvers is increased to a very lively and refreshing level.
In general, the Allies are powerful in the air, the Soviets are strong in the sea, and choosing the right units and structures to bash it out is the cardinal rule in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2. It's a series of confrontations that include scenarios like Flak Cannons versus '50s Rocketeers, Prism Towers versus the nasty Apocalypse Assault Tanks, dolphins versus giant squids, and so forth. Because of such a huge number of units, especially later on in the game, just getting a handle on the new attack/defense combinations is a small treat.
Unfortunately, getting specific logistical tactics to work is tricky with the tiny sprite units (even more difficult in higher resolutions) and you'll eventually find it difficult to grab the right units to throw at the bad guys without inevitably making sloppy moves, flawed waypoint system notwithstanding.
Also, one doesn't have to worry about protecting the miners as much as in past games (the Soviet miners now have their own gun turret and the Allies' version can teleport back to base). Though keeping tabs on resource management isn't really a priority anymore ("get sparkly stuff and bring it back" is still the name of the game) and levels are generally pretty and well laid-out, it would've been nice for unit control to be a bit more seamless and easy to manage. However, the basic objective of "Make Everything a Burning Pile of Flesh and Metal" still exists.
As for other polish, some of the positional sound effects are much improved (pump up those speakers to hear those Saving Private Ryan-like flak effects) even though the game's soundtrack leaves a lot to be desired. It still has the same pseudo-industrial flavor from the first game along with those contrived "military" backing vocals and is probably the weakest link in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2.
This brings us to the final point: multiplayer. Far from Blizzard's idiot-proof Battle.net, Westwood gamely holds its own with Westwood Online, letting you choose meet-up rooms, specific map tastes, like-minded players, and so forth with a seemingly stable roster of options and speed. It'll probably take a bit more time to work all the kinks out (on the users' end as well as on the servers' end) but early attempts (at the time of release) are straightforward and well executed.
More to the point, though, with specialized units for more specific nationalities (French, German, Korean and so on) adding to the multiplayer possibilities much like Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings did, it's yet another admirable, tiny step in the right direction.
With more spit and shine that will have both long-time fans and newcomers alike having an easy-going, comforting, accessible good time, the level of no fuss and definitely no muss is fused with a successful effort to tweak some RTS elements that always needed tweaking. Straightforward, cautious, and pleasurable - this is a prequel-sequel that fills the stomach with candy that threatens very few intestinal side effects.
Graphics: Nice building details and unit effects but the 2D isometric engine is a bit antiquated by year 2000 standards.
Sound: The sound effects amidst the shredding and often explosive battles are well done even from a "distanced" vantage point, although the music soundtrack is corny at best.
Enjoyment: Both single-player campaigns build up with complexity and entertainment in typical RTS fashion while the multiplayer modes make for some great heated bouts of pride.
Replay Value: The campaign missions can be replayed at different difficulty levels, but the real replay value comes in the multiplayer portion of the game. However, some RTS veterans may tire after fiddling with the new units and buildings.
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