One of this year's biggest surprises was Westwood's April announcement of Red Alert 2. The Las Vegas-based developer had managed to keep the game's development a secret for more than a year, then a month before E3, it officially unveiled the game at a flashy press event in a local Internet bar in San Francisco. We were invited to take a look at the game a few weeks prior, and we walked away impressed by the game's fast pace, enhanced graphics engine, and the sheer amount of work that had gone into the game in such a short period of time. Since then, Red Alert 2 has undergone some minor changes to balance the Allies and Soviets equally, and while our original preview covered a lot of the game's features, we uncovered additional information at a recent closed beta session of Red Alert 2, which was held near Westwood's Southern California offices.
Upon loading up Red Alert 2, the first improvement we noticed was the incorporation of all the computer-generated and live-action cutscenes. When we first saw Red Alert 2 back in April, these sequences hadn't been added to the game yet, as filming was still in production. But the cinematics were finally completed in mid-July, and Westwood apparently wasted no time incorporating them into the game. Even though the actual quality of these live-action sequences is great, we were surprised to find them to be somewhat campy. Unlike the acting in Tiberian Sun and Command & Conquer, the acting in Red Alert 2 seems to be somewhat comical - the actors had fun playing their roles, and they didn't take themselves seriously. Ironically, their acting fits perfectly into the showy and over-the-top theme of Red Alert 2. Some of the actors include TV favorites like Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure), who plays an Allied general, and big-screen celebrities like Armageddon's Ubo Kier, Red Alert 2's Yuri. Kari Wurher was also a great cast for Tanya - a far cry from her ditzy role in VH1's recent Out of Sync.
Like the rest of Westwood's Command & Conquer lineup, Red Alert 2 will mix these live-action sequences with prerendered video. Judging from the game's opening sequence, however, it seems that Westwood has opted to move away from photorealism in these cinematics, in favor of giving them an animated feel. Again, the overall result works, and it fits perfectly with the game's larger units and colorful graphics.
The in-game interface is also an improvement over previous Westwood real-time strategy games. Although the overall layout is the same, Red Alert 2's build list now has four tabs that enable quick toggling for simultaneous construction of buildings, units, and defense systems, and for training infantry. On the bottom of the screen, you'll find an advanced command bar with nine icons for grouping units, selecting units of the same type, setting down waypoints, canceling an action, deploying units, and so forth. Advanced players will most likely use their keyboard's hotkeys to call out these commands, but beginners will find the command menu intuitive. The rest of the interface remains more or less unchanged from the standard set by Dune II and Command & Conquer so many years ago.
Elite Units and Super Weapons
One of the aspects that the designers at Westwood have spent the most time tweaking is the elite status of the game's units. As in Tiberian Sun, all the units in Red Alert 2 gain experience as they accumulate kills, only now they do so at a much faster pace. Once any unit attains elite status, that unit will be denoted with rank stripes in the lower left of that unit, and it will instantly receive a number of enhanced abilities that include increased speed, higher hit points, the ability to scatter away from the path of danger, and increased rate of fire. Additionally, some elite units will actually look completely different from their standard counterparts, receive a brand new weapon, gain the ability to self heal, and be invisible to the enemy radar. Some of the more noteworthy examples of Soviet elite units include Crazy Ivan, who carries mini-tactical nukes instead of standard dynamite; the elite V3 rocket launcher, which will actually fire nuclear missiles; and the Kirov airship, which will drop tesla bombs with electric splash damage once it reaches elite status. The Allies can gain some powerful elite units as well, some of which include the standard GI, who gains the ability to chrono-warp once he becomes elite, and Tanya, who'll be able to "daisy chain" her shots, which is much the same way that the prism tanks work.
While the addition of these ultrapowerful elite units might be enough to ensure gameplay that's truly fast and furious, Westwood didn't stop there. Like its predecessor, Red Alert 2 will give you a handful of super weapons that are designed to deliver the knockout blow to your opponent. Most of the game's super weapons have been retained from the original Red Alert and have either been given a facelift or been completely reworked for a different strategic purpose altogether. Here's a quick rundown of Red Alert 2's five super weapons:
Iron curtain: This Soviet weapon makes a return from the original Red Alert with some added functionality. The Iron curtain is designed to make your units invulnerable to attack for a limited period of time. The curtain's area of influence is relatively small, which leaves it to protect no more than a handful of units at a time. This weapon does have some side effects, though. Placing an iron curtain over any infantry unit - including your own - will instantly kill it. Because of this, however, you can place the curtain over a group of enemy soldiers and kill them off that way, if you so choose. It's not the most effective offensive weapon, but in desperate situations, the iron curtain always makes a great backup.
Nuclear missile strike: The nuclear strike is easily the most favored secret weapon in all the Command & Conquer series. Just like in the original Red Alert, the nuclear missile takes several minutes to "charge up" before it becomes available to you. Once it's ready, you can target anything in the game by simply clicking on that section of the map with your mouse. A new feature to the nuke in Red Alert 2 is the radiation it leaves after it explodes. Irradiated ground will quickly kill any unit, infantry or otherwise, even under limited exposure.
ChronoSphere: Available exclusively to the Allies, the ChronoSphere is used to warp friendly units anywhere on the map. It should mainly be used for transporting an attacking force into or near an enemy base. However, you can use the ChronoSphere to warp enemy units as well. If you pick an enemy naval unit and warp it over a ground tile, it'll instantly be destroyed. Again, like the iron curtain, it's not meant for offensive purposes, but it's nice to have as a contingency plan.
Weather control station: Like the ChronoSphere, the weather control station, also known as the lightning storm special, is available exclusively to the Allied side. This weapon has two primary effects. First, it completely scrambles the enemy's radar, even if they're running on full power. Second, it generates a lightning storm over any area of the map that desolates anything in its path. Currently, this is the most devastating secret weapon available in the game.
Paratroopers: Paratroopers are available to both sides in Red Alert 2. When this option is excercised, a C130 transport plane is called in to drop five Allied GIs or ten Soviet conscripts anywhere on the map.
Initially, you'll certainly find the game's elite units and super weapons to be overpowered. Whereas Tiberian Sun balanced the NOD and GDI by making the units on either side somewhat weak, the units in Red Alert 2 are much more powerful and are being balanced on a much wider spectrum. The catchphrase being used inside the Westwood offices to describe Red Alert 2's gameplay is "balanced high." Harvard Bonin, Red Alert 2's producer, explains: "Most real-time strategy games typically have very even and flat balancing, where the units and structures in each faction are very similar in power to one another. In order to make Red Alert 2 a very unpredictable experience, we have made strategic choices in making certain units very powerful."
According to Bonin, there are many strategies you'll be able to employ to defend against rushes. In fact, skilled players on either side should be able to counter a specific unit rush with multiple tactics. That is, you won't be forced to use a specific action to fend off an enemy invasion. A perfect example of this is the Soviet's Kirov airship. A group of these zeppelins can single-handedly destroy an enemy's base. If you're playing on the side of the Allies, the best way to defend against the Kirovs is to activate a spy satellite that removes the fog of war in order to spot the slow-moving blimps early on, before they reach your base, and to intercept them with a handful of rocketmen. However, if you're caught off guard and find a flotilla of Kirovs at your doorstep, you can still fall back on your Patriot missile batteries or quickly mass-produce some infantry fighting vehciles.
Another favorite Westwood strategy is to occupy civilian bases near your base. Infantry units have the ability to garrison buildings in Red Alert 2, and the more units you place inside a building, the more powerful that building becomes. Units garrisoned inside structures will open fire on any incoming enemies. This tactic works best at choke points, where you can catch a group of enemies between two or three garrisoned buildings. Additionally, you can send engineers into certain buildings to gain special abilities. Airports will grant you free paratroopers; oil derricks will give you a slow trickle of money; hospitals will heal any injured infantry; and neutral outposts will lose their turrets when they are captured by an engineer.
In a multiplayer skirmish, your strategic options are even more varied. As in Age of Empires II, the sides in Red Alert 2 are split up into multiple factions or nationalities, each with a unique unit or technology. Playing as the Allies, you can choose between the British, French, Germans, Americans, or Koreans. As the Soviets, your options are to play as the Cubans, Libyans, Russians, or Iraqis. The Brit unique unit is a sniper who can fell enemy soldiers at an even greater distance than Tanya. The French have a grand cannon, which is essentially a fixed turret with an extended range and faster rate of fire. Germans have a great anti-tank unit, aptly called the tank destroyer, and the Americans have use of paratroopers. The Koreans, the last Allied faction, have the black eagle, which has twice the hit points of the VTOL intruder and does greater damage. In keeping with the balance of the game, the Soviet unique units are a bit slower than the Allies'. The Cubans have a terrorist who functions like the crazy Ivan, but uses C4 instead of dynamite. The terrorist can also assume the form of an Allied spy. The Libyans' unique unit is a suicide truck that carries a nuke that explodes on impact. The Russians have the desolator, an infantry unit that can irradiate the ground around it, creating the same effect as that left by a nuclear explosion. Finally, the Iraqis make use of the tesla tank, a very powerful vehicle that can make quick work of armored units and infantry alike. With all these variables built into the game, the amount of counter-offensive options that'll be available to you is vast.
This year has been marked by the release of many great real-time strategy games, like Ground Control and Shogun: Total War. In the coming weeks, the genre will expand to make room for Age of Empires II: The Conquerors and Homeworld: Cataclysm. And after Tiberian Sun's lukewarm reception last year, gamers might be somewhat reluctant to accept another Westwood real-time strategy game in the midst of so many other good games. But Red Alert 2's incredibly fast gameplay, varied units, and broad-range appeal might surprise more than a few people when it hits store shelves this October. Keep an eye out for this one - it certainly won't disappoint.