The first Red Alert made great use of the "what-if?" plot device in order to create a very fun game with intentionally campy takes on the theme of fictional, alternate history. The outlandish themes that it had allowed its designers to work in a lot of game concepts and unit designs that were quite refreshingly bizarre, yet felt somewhat feasible.
Red Alert 2 intends to be a sequel to all that. If its box-shot does not show already, the Soviets have now set their sights on subjugating the USA, which in this game is the main member of the Allies coalition. There are some bits that associate this game's story with the previous one's, in which the Allies typically won so that the apparent bad guys have a chance at rising to power again (because the apparent good guys, to (mis)quote Edmond Burke, "did nothing").
Despite being a canonical sequel, the story in Red Alert 2 is really only an excuse to have the Soviets at loggerheads with the Allies again, and also to feature entertainingly campy performances by AAA stars that have been roped in to give the cutscenes in this game (superficial) super-star quality.
Gaudy cutscenes and conveniently written stories aside, Red Alert 2 offers real-time strategy gameplay invested with wacky and bizarre designs for the hardware and tactics available to the playable factions, much like its predecessor.
As mentioned earlier, there are two main factions in the game: the Soviets and Allies. It has been some time since the end of the first game's story, so both sides have obtained some technological advancements in their military hardware.
The Allies now favor units with a visible degree of versatility. Most Allied units have an alternate option at how they operate. For example, the G.I. by default is armed with a machine-pistol when he is moving around, but if the player requires him to take and hold ground, he can (inexplicably) deploy sandbags on the spot and whip out a heavy machinegun, increasing his toughness, damage output and weapon range.
The Soviets on the other hand tend to prefer fielding units that are intended to have staying power and weaponry that are intended to eliminate the enemy in a harsh but otherwise crude manner. Few of them have any level of versatility that is comparable to those of the Allies.
The manual for this game clearly describes the Allies as resorting to some tactics from a multitude of them as the situation demands, while the Soviets are generally predisposed towards brute force. However, that is not to say that the Allies are strictly for players who prefer to dabble in micro-management and the Soviets are for players who like to bring the fight to opponents in a simple manner.
Both factions have mixes of units that accommodate for different play-styles. For example, the Allies still have a few units that are capable of taking on a role of brute force such as the Grizzly tank, while the Soviets have units such as the Terror Drones and Amphibious Transports (which the Allies also have) for less direct attacks.
To support the player's attempts at raising an army capable of overwhelming those of opponents, the player can build a myriad of structures, many of which, while following a general categorization of buildings according to their main functions, are now unique to either faction (or at least unique in terms of aesthetics).
While there had been attempts at standardization of certain buildings with respect to both factions in the previous Red Alert games, or other Command & Conquer games for that matter, Red Alert 2 is the first to formalize a structure of sorts. Buildings now fall under these categories:
This categorization is emphasized conveniently enough in the tutorials, which serve to tell the player, among many other things, which buildings produce what, how to identify them at at a glance and what their limitations are.
The tutorials also serve to teach the player how to effectively use the tools at a commander's disposal (or at least master their basics). Setting waypoints, queuing production, power management, etc. and how important that they are to the gameplay are taught to the player with efficient (if rather simple) examples. All of these are skills that the player will need later, and the tutorials do a good job of emphasizing this.
Other than some refinements to the user interface, controls and presentation of the game's concepts, the core gameplay essentially remained the same as that in the first game. Players, both human- and AI-controlled are expected to build up their economy by placing bases at strategic locations (namely those close to ore fields), develop these and use them to fuel the raising of an army and/or armada that is capable of crushing opponents.
There are several new tweaks to gameplay, however. The relatively new game engine that powers this game uses an isometric point of view which now allows for the addition of terrain of multiple heights, a la Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun. There are also more buildings in the game that can be garrisoned compared to its predecessor, and these are much more durable than before, which allows players to hold key points on the maps (especially ore fields inexplicably located in cities and bridges overlooked by buildings).
The design for this next Red Alert game also accommodates the inclusion of a truly amphibious unit (though its amphibious quality is a graphical illusion as the game simply swaps models when it enters/exits water). Unlike the transports in previous Command and Conquer games, this transport is capable of loading up land vehicles as well, allowing for plenty of variations in assault strategies.
As expected of a franchise that has the trademark of wacky units, there are many new ones. Many units in the predecessor had been revamped and renamed, such as the aforementioned G.I. who is the successor to the Rifleman. The new ones include some units that need some micro-management to use, such as the Giant Squid, which can grapple enemy ships and render them completely useless but otherwise takes a while to sink them.
The huge variety of units in this game makes rushes less effective and tempting now. They are still feasible (and simple to pull off), but there are now more counters than ever; counters do not include just using the right units, but also terrain. Players who are attempting to pull off a rush with Apocalypse Tanks (and that is assuming others give them that chance) will find that blown bridges mean long detours that expose their rush to attrition tactics.
The new engine also allows for the introduction of new forms of attacks, such as the light-based prismatic weapons that the Allies have access to. It can be quite a joy to watch a bunch of prism-equipped units or buildings autonomously focus their fire on a single target and obliterating it in a single shot. For the Soviets, they are now able to irradiate areas in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, giving them an effective capability at area denial.
These tweaks and additions go a long towards breaking the prevalent assumption that rushes are the only sure way to win in this RTS game.
As mentioned earlier, Red Alert 2 uses a graphics engine that is relatively new to the entire Command and Conquer franchise, one that is similar to that in Tiberian Sun, except that it appears to support the inclusion of more buildings and more dynamic doodads and terrain features. Previously in Tiberian Sun, units could not really go far behind hills to obscure themselves; units in this game can, though the game highlights their outlines to tell the player that they are there if they are visually obscured. Moreover, unlike previous games, these buildings and terrain obstruct lines of fire much more effectively.
As befitting the outlandish themes of the Red Alert franchise, the graphics are colorful with sharp contrasts; no units, unless those that have stealth capabilities, will be able to blend into the background due to their color scheme and outlines alone. Even for armies made up of the same unit (which is the typical consequence of a the classical vanilla rush strategy), human players are still able to make out individual units and thus select which ones to be subjected to micro-management first.
Like the graphics, the sound designs serve to emphasize Red Alert's wacky themes. The music soundtracks tend to be rock and/or orchestral scores with exaggerated emotions. Sound effects, especially those of weapons-fire, consist of zaps of electrocution, crackles of flames, the droning of sonics, the hum of prismatic light-based attacks and even the odd sparkling and twinkling.
The voice-overs are just as appropriately campy as the rest of the sounds in this game. Unit responses to orders are over-the-top, loud and often make fun (either deliberately or unwittingly) of their roles on the battlefield. The acting of the actors and actresses in the full-motion video cutscenes is no less hammy and attempts to unabashedly ooze melodramatic cheese at every opportunity.
The single-player campaign is uproarious, and the multiplayer experience is not any much different in delivering the fun. Skirmish options are still there, with AI opponents and allies being quite competent in coordinating attacks with or against the player. (Allied AI players still tend to act unilaterally however, though they can be requested to perform advances towards a certain location.)
LAN play is suitable for local matches and skirmish games, but full Online play allows players to join tournaments and ranked games as well as give them access to features like voice chatting. Currently, EA has transferred control of online multiplayer to XWIS, so the opportunity to play this game with others is still there, which is always welcome.
Red Alert 2 may be just another sequel in the big franchise that is Command and Conquer and may not have done something terrifically different that redefines the RTS genre, but whatever promises that it had made (namely the promises of more campy and out-of-this-world fun), it fulfilled them nicely.