The real-time strategy genre is a victim of its own success, suffering the same unfortunate fate as first-person action games in the post-Doom era. Publishers know the category is hot, and have responded by firing salvo after salvo of copycat designs and lookalike games at unwary players. There will be no less than a dozen new entries into the real-time strategy market this holiday season alone - and trying to pick the right one is like playing Russian Roulette with five chambers loaded.
That is, unless you pick Command & Conquer: Red Alert. Developed by Westwood Studios - whose seminal Dune II created the real-time strategy category, and whose Command & Conquer (along with Blizzard's Warcraft II) represents the highest achievement in the genre to date - Red Alert has the pedigree of a champion and a premise to match: Albert Einstein applies his theories of relativity to time travel, hurtling back in time to assassinate Hitler before he ever comes to power. The plan works, and with Hitler out of the picture, Nazi Germany never materializes. But unfortunately, the Red Menace does, with Russia's Stalin turning a burgeoning war machine towards the West, raining destruction and terror on those unfortunate enough to find themselves standing in his way.
And that's where you come in, on either the Allied or Soviet side. Allied players will rely on stealth and surprise, while those aligning themselves with the Soviets will place their bets on brutal force. Overall, we like the Soviet side better, especially since players are given the freedom to play the bad guy to the hilt. In the first Russian mission, for example, the player is informed of a partisan uprising in a small village, and gets marching orders that only a sadist could love. "They are enemies of the people," intones a cold-hearted Stalin, "Destroy the town, and kill everyone in it." The meeting room slowly dissolves to the now familiar overhead map, covered with tanks, soldiers, and assorted other perpetrators of mass mayhem, all eagerly awaiting the player's command to exterminate the enemy.
The design and functionality of these units is arguably the best ever in a real-time strategy game, and certainly the best since the aforementioned Dune II. The variety of forces and structures is unmatched, providing players with an almost unlimited palette with which to paint their strategic strokes (the only flawed unit is the Soviet sub, which inexplicably will not attack ships that come within its weapons' range). Better yet, the units of the two opposing sides aren't mere copies of each other, but instead maintain a sort of karmic balance. For example, the Allies' aptly-named Destroyer, which can relentlessly attack land, sea, and air units from long distances, is countered by the Soviet MiG, which packs a powerful punch and is absolutely devastating in numbers. The Allies' Medic, who can literally restore life to the barely breathing foot units, is eerily matched by the Soviet's brutal Attack Dogs, calamitous canines that can wipe out a half dozen troops in matter of seconds. This not-the-same-but-somehow-related unit design permeates the game, and gives Red Alert a level of depth and complexity that will keep players occupied for months on end.
Another huge plus is the level design found in Red Alert's one-player game. The forty or so levels consistently strike the right balance between long, drawn out wars of building and attrition, and short intense bursts of behind-the-lines conflict, convoy protection, and hostage rescue. The levels are also fair: You won't need to send troops out to explore the undiscovered regions, then restart the scenario with this illegitimately acquired knowledge. You also won't be forced into using any particular strategy to "solve" the "puzzle" a mission presents - the number and variety of units means there are literally dozens of ways to take any given piece of territory. And last but not least, Red Alert doesn't require overwhelming force to win. With the right mix of troops, the right plan, and the right timing, you can handily win battles that would otherwise appear to be heavily tilted against you. All of these factors encourage exploration and risk-taking relatively early in each scenario - bringing a sense of unpredictability and adventure to Red Alert that is all too often missing from games of this type.
The action is punctuated by cutscenes which dramatically illustrate a key moment from or result of the previous mission - an Allied bridge being blown to smithereens or a Russian sign being crushed by an Allied truck. As you might expect from Westwood, the animated cutscenes are simply awesome. The mission briefings with live actors are less impressive - the writing and story are fine, but the acting is awkward at times (Stalin's romantic interlude with a female aide is particularly difficult to watch).
The cutscenes are beautifully complemented by Red Alert's SVGA gameplay graphics. Whether the smoke trailing behind an air-to-air missile, the fiery glow of an explosive chain reaction, or swarms of HIND helicopters mercilessly gunning down a land-based target, the visuals are consistently smooth and convincing. The higher resolution also means that a large portion of the battlefield is visible onscreen, allowing quick and easy monitoring and control of units over relatively vast stretches of territory (Luddites who disagree with the above are welcome to play the DOS VGA version of the game, included at no charge for nostalgia's sake and for the benefit of those with less advanced systems). And Red Alert is as much fun to listen to as it is to watch, with crisp, realistic sound effects and more of the Westwood's trademark techno-cum-military musical accompaniments.
As you'd expect, Red Alert includes a full array of multiplayer options, and compatibility with just about every type of network protocol. We've only scratched the surface of the multiplayer game, but we can report that it is so good that Quake's reign as king of the hill at the GameSpot office may be nearing an end. There's also a skirmish option that can be used for practicing on multiplayer maps even if no one else is around - and the computer AI is good enough to offer legitimate preparation for a human opponent.
It's a compelling package - one of the best you'll find in the world of PC games. Red Alert belongs in the same category as Civilization II and Quake, games that followed legendary predecessors and immediately eclipsed them. One can only wonder where Westwood can take us from here.