Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 was developed by Westwood Studios, officially re titled Westwood Pacific, and published by Electronic Arts in 2000.  The fourth Real-Time Strategy title in the Command & Conquer franchise; Red Alert 2 was the direct sequel to Red Alert and followed its predecessor thematically and mechanically.  It would be followed in 2001 by an expansion pack, Command & Conquer: Yuri’s Revenge, which added a third faction as well as additional units and fourteen new single player missions split up into two campaigns.

Red Alert 2 was also the first title to be finalized after Westwood and Electronic Arts had completed their merger and did not suffer the development problems that had plagued the previous title in the series: Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun.  It also reflects some of the design changes that EA would begin to implement in the series, such as an increased focus on setting-based tropes (in this case Golden Age America and the Cold War) as well as a gradual lessening of the dichotomy that factions had displayed in previous games.  Yet EA wisely chose to keep the story premise largely intact and to build closely off of developments that had occurred in Red Alert.

Red Alert 2 picks up where its predecessor left off.  The Allies defeated the aggressive Soviet Union and established a puppet government to oversee reconstruction.  Thus the Allies, including the newly arrived United States, were caught completely off guard when the Soviets began a secret re-militarization and launched a surprise attack on the United States from three directions.  Initially the other Allied nations are not involved, but gradually join the war effort as Soviet aggression continues.

The player takes the role of a specially appointed American commander in the Allied campaign, or an up-and-coming Soviet commander in the Soviet campaign.  Most of the missions take place in the United States and its territories, with Europe and Russia itself also featuring a number of locales in various missions.  The missions, and the regions they take place in, are heavily thematic and geared towards making the game’s challenge, and Cold War feel, the centerpieces of design.

The Command & Conquer series always did a masterful job keeping the player at the center of the campaign’s narrative.  The most important battles of the conflict serve as the missions of each campaign, with the commander taking a pivotal role in either stopping the Red Menace for good or completing the final conquest of the various Allied nations.  The cutscenes and in-game cinematics are campy and perfectly reflect Golden Age Cinema techniques; they also don’t distract the commander from the RTS experience, keeping such elements as moral choice and NPC involvement to a minimum.

The portrayal of in-game units in the cinematics, as well as the perception that the commander is one of the first officers to gain access to new technology when it becomes available, keeps the immersion throughout cutscenes and missions.  Some missions contain segments where particular units are required, but for the most part the player may choose whatever strategy that their current unit roster will facilitate.  More advanced units and buildings are unlocked as the player progresses through the campaign; in multiplayer each faction’s roster is completely available for use.

Westwood RTS products have always been a little finicky when it comes to multiplayer games, but Red Alert 2 had a strong online following in its heyday, although it was admitted that the vanilla game was unbalanced in several aspects.  Connection issues once a match has begun are rare and often more indicative of localized malfunctions instead of issues with the game itself.  In the present day no public servers exist for online matches, but community run servers are still available for games between friends.

Red Alert 2’s AI does what it can given the conventions of RTS design at the time.  In the campaign the AI can prove to be a very enjoyable opponent given its terrain advantages and often superior positioning.  Most campaign missions are also of a substantial duration and can be accomplished through multiple strategies and tricks, warranting each faction’s campaign at least two-playthroughs.  The Skirmish AI suffers without its campaign bonuses, as it follows predictable patterns and often fails to keep consistent pressure on the player.  There are even cases where the AI will stop trying after a suffering a certain degree of setbacks.  Yet for all its weaknesses, Skirmish mode does allow players to explore the game’s nuances at their leisure and test the capabilities of units in a more relaxed environment.

Red Alert 2 is widely considered to be one the of best Command & Conquer titles of all time.  Its combination of fast-paced dynamic combat, traditional mechanics, and campy fun appealed to a wide range of gamers and also made it easy to learn and enjoyable to explore.  Ironically the expansion pack Yuri’s Revenge upset that balance in the online arena, but self-imposed moderation in the online community as well as a host of balancing mods have kept the core game’s online experience intact.  Red Alert 2 marks the high point of RTS gaming in the industry’s history and rightly remains one of the most beloved RTS titles of the first decade.