Command & Conquer Red Alert 2 is the sequel to the popular 1996 spin-off of Westwood's definitive real-time strategy game. The latest game in the successful series isn't a dramatic technological improvement over any of its predecessors, and its hammy alternate-World War II setting borders on being tasteless. However, Red Alert 2 is a very polished game that combines tried-and-true play mechanics with enough new features, improvements, and enhancements to make it both an excellent sequel and a great real-time strategy game in its own right.
Red Alert 2 retains many of the conventional mechanics established and reused in the various Command & Conquer real-time strategy games. As with its predecessors, Red Alert 2 encompasses most all of the elements that define the genre. You view the action from an isometric perspective typical of most other 2D real-time strategy games, and you play using most of the same exact controls from previous Command & Conquer episodes. The formula still works just fine - you can easily select and move your groups of units, which generally do a good job navigating the game's environments. Red Alert 2 doesn't offer any especially advanced options for your units - for instance, you can't move or array your troops in preset formations, and you can't order your troops to automatically scout or return for repairs and such. But it's just as well, because the units are autonomous in more important ways - they're good about automatically acquiring enemy targets, and they're generally responsive to orders, if only because the game itself plays very smoothly.
Even so, you might initially have some trouble directing your attacks, because it can be difficult to see incoming enemy units on the game's minimap, especially at higher resolutions. Also, when you set units to battle groups, the number corresponding to the group appears a little too large next to each unit; it can almost eclipse some of the smaller infantry. These minor problems may take getting used to, while most other aspects of Red Alert 2's interface just make the game more accessible and more rewarding as you get better at it. For instance, you can set waypoints for several groups of units and thereby conduct these groups simultaneously, though doing so might not always be viable in the heat of battle.
Though the right-hand vertical interface bar in Red Alert 2 will seem instantly familiar if you've played a Command & Conquer game before, you'll soon find that this particular interface is actually much better. The lower portion of the interface, which is used for building all the various units and structures available to your faction, is divided under four tabs: You click on the respective production tab to see all your available base infrastructure, base defenses, infantry units, and vehicle units. This division makes it easy to quickly find the right unit or structure you want to build. Red Alert 2 also lets you queue up multiple units for production, set rally points, and customize the keyboard hotkeys to your preference.
The interface also introduces what's a fairly significant change - and what's a fairly significant improvement - to the way that this Command & Conquer plays. You can generally build only one type of thing at a time under each production tab, though there are exceptions, as you can build land, sea, and air vehicles all at once from the vehicles tab. However, you can also build from any and all of the tabs simultaneously. Previous Command & Conquer games restricted you to having to build only one type of structure at a time, which meant that as you built up your stationary base defenses, including walls and gun turrets, you'd have to forego building new facilities that unlock the strongest units. However, in Red Alert 2, you can build structures and defenses simultaneously. This change actually goes a long way toward making the gameplay even more fast-paced, since you can - and should - now oversee the production of base infrastructure as well as defenses all at once. This also makes the resource management aspect of Red Alert 2 even more interesting, since you need to balance your resources more carefully.
You need to harvest your resources from mineral patches by using special mining vehicles, as in all other Command & Conquer games. While the real-time strategy genre has recently seen a backlash against resource management elements - tactical combat games that completely exclude resource management have become quite common - the resource gathering in Red Alert 2 is actually an interesting part of the game. On one level, it's very simple - as soon as you build a refinery, its miner vehicle immediately and automatically sets out toward the nearest mineral patch. The miners are fast and efficient as they go about their business - and for the first time in a Command & Conquer game, and perhaps for the first time in any real-time strategy game, your miners aren't a complete liability. Actually, the mining vehicles are distinctly different between the game's Allied and Soviet factions - the Allied miner instantly teleports back to its refinery as soon as it's full. If you need to rescue it in a pinch, you can also make it teleport back to base at will. The Soviet miner is more self-reliant; it's heavily armored, and it packs a powerful machine gun that can shred groups of infantry and light vehicles. Neither of these vehicles is susceptible to early-game attacks that might otherwise cripple a player's economy before he could assemble a sizable force.
The distinction between these two units also helps show the differences between the Allied and the Soviet sides in general. Many of the units available to the two evenly matched factions are not only very different, but also quite original. For instance, the Soviets have a small, spiderlike robotic unit that quickly burrows into enemy armored vehicles and starts to rip them apart from the inside. The Allies have a specialized infantry unit, the Chrono Legionnaire - it can teleport anywhere on the map, and its weapon can literally erase other units and structures out of time. Such units may sound powerful, and, in fact, they definitely are. Actually, most units in Red Alert 2 are very strong, which makes the combat satisfying; the arsenal of available land, sea, and air units isn't exhaustive, but there's enough variety, and more than enough raw firepower, to make the battles quite spectacular. The fact that the units are generally so strong also reveals another element of Red Alert 2's design: The battles usually don't last long. A small platoon of Soviet apocalypse tanks can easily decimate a lightly defended enemy base. And that's nothing compared to the two sides' respective superweapons, the Soviet nuclear missile and the Allied weather control device - these attacks can level an entire enemy installation. The impending danger of these attacks - all players are notified whenever one of these weapons is being prepared - will cause you to try to play Red Alert 2 very aggressively, which makes the game seem even more intense.
The game looks better than last year's Tiberian Sun, but similar. For the most part, the graphics in Red Alert 2 are colorful and detailed. But the tiny units can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from one another, especially if you play the game in the highest resolution of 1024x768. Each unit audibly confirms whenever you select it or tell it to move, and though each one sounds different, some of the speech is repetitive and will start to wear on you. Or you'll start to ignore it. Red Alert 2's soundtrack is a departure from previous Command & Conquer games, whose technoindustrial music is replaced mostly with straightforward heavy-metal guitar riffs in this installment. Fortunately, you can control the volume for the sound effects, speech, and music independently.
Red Alert 2 features a campaign for both the Allies and the Soviets, in addition to a short optional tutorial. The campaigns span a dozen missions each, and they won't take too long to finish; but they offer a lot of variety, and they're generally of very high quality. The densely populated urban settings of many of the battles are far more interesting than the flat plains and desert settings typical to most real-time strategy games - you can actually garrison your troops in various buildings and lay claim to neutral structures such as hospitals and airports. Full-screen, full-motion video sequences show the continuing story in between each mission. These sequences are self-consciously silly; they're so tongue-in-cheek that you might just as soon dislike them if you're used to taking games more seriously. Nevertheless, the video sequences are well made and generally amusing, and you might recognize some of the actors and appreciate some of the performances, like the creepy Udo Kier in the role of the Soviet psychic, Yuri.
You'll want to play through both campaigns, but Red Alert 2's real lasting value is in its great multiplayer mode. The game offers several different multiplayer variations, in addition to options for disabling superweapons and more. In multiplayer (and also in a skirmish match vs. the computer), you actually choose a specific nationality rather than just the Allied or the Soviet faction, and this choice essentially just gives you access to a particular unit unique to that side. For instance, the Russians have a tesla tank that uses a powerful electric attack, while the British have a deadly sniper. It's very simple to find an opponent online - the fully integrated player-matching service in Red Alert 2 can actually pit you against a random opponent if you use the quick-match option. Otherwise, you can chat with other players looking to play, check to see if your friends are also playing online, compete in ladder matches for a better ranking, and more. The game even has a series of cooperative multiplayer missions, as well as the world domination tour mode in which players engage in a persistent territorial conflict. Multiplayer Red Alert 2 plays smoothly and seems stable over a fast Internet connection.
In spite of its premise - a world war - Red Alert 2 is lighthearted. From the humorous full-motion video sequences to the heavy-metal music to the toylike unit designs, the game has much more in common with G.I. Joe than with Saving Private Ryan. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy this style, you're likely to find that Red Alert 2 is actually a very good game, from its interface to its play mechanics to its multiplayer mode. It's not the most visually impressive real-time strategy game available this year, but it's among the most enjoyable to date. Red Alert 2 offers lots of challenges and variety for real-time strategy players of all skill levels, and it'll be particularly fun for fans of previous Command & Conquer games.