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Looking Back to 1996 and the point-and-clicking of Command & Conquer: Red Alert


In 1996, I was a relatively fresh faced 23 year old, enjoying life at University in Derby. It’s hard to believe, I know, but after growing up on the mean streets of Oldham, Derby seemed like a little slice of paradise, and I spent my days filling my brain with knowledge, and my evenings either working in a pub, or else drinking in one. What this rambling introduction is leading up to is my introduction to RTS (Real Time Strategy) games on the PC.

You see, one of my housemates at the time had a PC, while I thought I was pretty swish for having a SNES. It was he who introduced me to RTS games with a few rounds of Dune 2 from Westwood Studios – a company who went on to make Command & Conquer, and then later, the subject of this article, Command & Conquer: Red Alert. You see, everything in the world of video games is linked together somehow…

Anyway, back to the subject of the article. Red Alert is the second game in the massive Command & Conquer franchise; a prequel to the events in the first game. The story is that of a conflict between the Soviet Union (ie the Red in Red Alert) and the Western powers, and features an interesting starting point. You see, Albert Einstein, in New Mexico, has built a time machine and uses it to go back in time to Germany in 1924. He meets a young Adolf Hitler, fresh out of prison, and by shaking his hand, somehow erases him from the timeline. This of course means Hitler never rose to power and couldn’t start the Second World War. Instead, Josef Stalin decides that he wants to control the whole of the Eurasian continent. He takes land from China, India, and then invades Eastern Europe, where an alliance of the Western nations including, ironically, Germany, stage a different World War II. It is here where the game opens.

The gameplay in Red Alert is pretty familiar to anyone who played the first game in the series. The first choice you have to make is which side you are going to play as, either the Soviet Union or the Allies. As you’d expect, the different sides have different units, and therefore different tactics are effective. The Soviet side have more powerful tanks, but they are expensive to build and quite slow, whereas the Allies tanks are weaker in a 1-on-1 situation, but are faster and cheaper to build, so maybe a gang can overwhelm the enemy? I was always a big fan of the tank rush style of gameplay, and while the Soviets can steamroller pretty much anything if they get momentum behind them, the enemy armour can be countered with mines and even helicopter units. 

On the maps that feature water, the Allies have the upper hand, as they have two naval units that are very powerful: the Destroyer can target anything on land, sea or air, and the Cruiser has the most powerful surface-to-surface attack in the game, using its cannons to fire broadsides that are devastating to enemy units.

Of course, building units is only half the battle, and building a strong base is the flip side of the coin. The staples are all here: the ore refinery (as Tiberium, in the first game, has not yet arrived on Earth) allows you to gain credits. And what do credits make? The ability to build stuff! Power generators, walls, defenses and even barracks and factories to build armour are all necessary. 

As you go through the parallel campaigns, more units and buildings become available, and you can make a good sized construction. What makes the game easy to manage is the ability to queue commands up, telling the barracks to train five soldiers and then to make a spy for instance (on the Allies side, at least). These spies were very sneaky units, able to capture enemy buildings and turn them to your side, saving you the cost of building the place. They were very handy, especially if you capture an enemy factory and can start churning out your own versions of the enemy units…

In addition to the single player campaigns, there was also the ability to challenge other players online, or to challenge the AI to a Skirmish battle. I only took part in a few of these, and remember them being deeply humbling experiences, as more experienced players pretty much just swept me aside without a second thought. I had more success against the computer, but online was a bit tricky. Much like it is nowadays. 

There were a number of add-ons for Command & Conquer: Red Alert which expanded not only the number of maps but added extra units. The first two of these, Counterstrike and The Aftermath, brought in cool new units like the Chrono Tank and the Tesla Tank, as well as new larger maps to battle on. As the game by this point had also appeared on the first Playstation, an updated version of the game – Command & Conquer  Red Alert: Retaliation – was released on Sony’s wonder console in the August of 1998. This was an amalgamation of the two packs released for the PC, and featured all the units that had been added, along with the special Ant missions from The Aftermath. The Playstation version also featured 19 new FMV video clips that would act as iconic mission briefings.

So, these are my memories of playing Red Alert back in the day. But what about you guys? Did you have access to a PC all those years ago, and if so were you playing? Did you play on the Playstation? Let us know in the comments!

If you haven’t played it, you’re pretty much now looking to Amazon for a physical PC copy. Or you could play the Remastered version on Steam.

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