davidn: (prince)
Three games (sort of) into the Westwood RTS series, Red Alert is now out the way! This was a... sort of sequel to Command and Conquer, or was it more of a scenario pack? I'm not really sure. Whichever way, it used the same engine as C&C but set the conflict in an alternative history where Hitler was removed from time by Albert Einstein. The plan had obviously been to prevent World War 2, but instead the change to the timeline resulted in a much worse alternative World War 2 where Stalin's Soviet Union was unhindered by Germany and he chose to act on his ambitions of conquering Europe.

This time I used the CNCNet source port of the game instead of the original DOS version, which is not too far removed from the Windows 95 versions of C&C/Red Alert. The fans have done an incredible job bringing the games forward to Windows with support for higher resolutions and a couple of other niceties like fixing some sprite work, but otherwise the game remains unchanged - Red Alert has the same build-defend-attack gameplay that made Command and Conquer the success it was, but with many new units and buildings (including the iconic Tesla Coil) and it adds snow-capped mountain environments to the grassy and deserty scenarios of the first game.

Many of the base C&C units are still around, but there have been some adjustments to rebalance them. Most notably, engineers have absolutely been nerfed to hell - but in a way that they totally deserved! My confusion in the original game must have come from here - this time around, the engineer can only commandeer a building if its health bar is in the red. This affects the engineer tactics in two ways - it makes it much more difficult to take over buildings rapidly, and means that once you do it successfully you inherit an absolute wreck that you have to repair quickly before an enemy gets to it and finishes it off. All of this makes it much more difficult to repaint an enemy base with a small group of engineers than it used to be - nevertheless, I kept playing a quite engineer-heavy set of tactics because in this game it's even more advantageous to take over buildings and get access to the full set of technologies that are usually only available to one side.

As I went through the scenarios I found myself feeling that despite the adjustments, Red Alert's new units were balanced a bit less well than the original - this is mostly due to the new addition of the Medium Tank, which has a good balance between strength and speed and you can pretty much predict who the winner of a conflict's going to be based on how many of them you build. The Soviet side has blatantly superior ground units and defences available to it, and the balance isn't quite redressed by the Allies' access to powerful naval units due to their use being limited depending on the map. The pathfinding also feels a bit worse than in the first C&C, specifically because it tries to be more intelligent - in the first game, when you told a massive group of vehicles to move through a narrow area, they'd stumble a bit, wait behind others before moving and sometimes get stuck. In Red Alert, they notice that they're blocked and try to rectify the situation by finding another way around, and this can often lead to tanks going on a massive tour of the map and running straight into enemy defences unless you're watching them carefully.

The AI is a bit more eager to tear down your defences this time, but not by a whole lot and it still seemed to prefer trying to drive around my walls and straight into ambushes rather than just demolishing them and walking in. It also seems much more aggressive than in C&C, and it's often very difficult to keep track of what's going on if you're dealing with more than one conflict at a time - the announcer man who sounds like Jarvis from Iron Man will politely say "Our base is under attack" or "Unit lost" a couple of times but you won't get any indication of where on the large maps you're being attacked from. In these cases I was glad to be playing at a high resolution where I could see much more than the restrictive VGA view of the DOS version.

However, a quirk of the AI is that even in missions that start off horrendously difficult, once you're over a hump it just sort of gives up and becomes very passive and easy. The place I felt this the most was in the final Soviet mission which bombards you with a ridiculous number of artillery units, boats and helicopters from all sides while you're trying to build your base up (mostly arriving from off the map so you can't even proactively stem them), but once I had finally struggled my way to taking the first small Allied base and capturing its construction yard so I could build my own navy, the whole rest of the map could be dealt with quite easily by trundling casually around and flattening buildings with my leftover tanks. Meanwhile, the non-base-building missions are even more interesting than before, with a lot of set-piece based ones where you have to make it past patrolling guards and defences in a more puzzle-like way.

Once again, the FMVs are the star attraction of this game for how absolutely bloody hilarious they are - they're much more elaborate than the original game's mission briefings where you mostly just had one actor talking to you directly. This time they're complete scenes with a whole cast of characters in a bluescreened futuristic base, dressed up as European military brass and putting on their bravest attempts at German and Russian accents, making it easy to forget that you're not watching Allo Allo. Despite the camp tone of the later series, the makers of the game hadn't realized how preposterous they were at this point and they're all done straight-faced, even at times when an actor has to 'die' from poisoned tea and crawls unconvincingly on to the table in a desperate attempt to remain in the shot. General Kukov then comes in and doesn't even bother clearing him off the table, just accepting this new centrepiece as the briefing goes on without him.

Tiberian Sun next!
davidn: (prince)
My exploration through Westwood's seminal RTS series continues with the original Command and Conquer, later renamed Tiberian Dawn!

Before, I hadn't realized just how closely related to Dune 2 this game was, but the premise and a lot of the mechanics are so close as to be essentially Dune fanfiction. Instead of a struggle for melange on a distant planet, they brought the same scenario back to Earth with the arrival of a mysterious substance called Tiberium, a miracle fuel with the unfortunate side effect of not really getting on with any carbon-based life. Just like Dune 2, your goal is (usually) to build up a base with a Construction Yard at its heart, sending out Harvesters to gather the dangerous economy-driving mineral of the day, keeping your base's power at sufficient levels, building barracks and so on and building units to destroy the opponents' base. Instead of sandworms lurking among the spice, your infantry units will lose health and eventually explode into flames just by being near it.

For the RTS that typified the genre, it's pretty incredible how many mechanics this got right and how familiar it feels. The controls have improved dramatically from Dune 2 - you can select multiple units now and even assign them to groups for quick selection, which is vital given the number of different units and the difference in their roles. Winning by sheer force of numbers is possible but you'll often find that if you build up an army of just one unit type you'll be frustrated at how quickly you can be minced - you really have to learn the units and what their strengths and weaknesses are. (This may also have been true of Dune 2 and I missed it, but I'm not sure.)

There are various attack types - bullets, grenades, shells and rockets - and each of them have different effectiveness on different units. For example, infantry are weak to bullets and being run over by heavy vehicles, but can just about defeat a large tank single-handedly if they're armed with a rocket launcher because they can duck and cover from shell fire. The two warring sides - GDI and NOD - only share a few buildings and units between them, so you have to adapt your play style to fit them (especially compared to something like Warcraft II where if I'm not mistaken, every unit was a direct equivalent of one of the other side's units).

I was also surprised that many of the missions weren't the standard "build a base and destroy the enemy" - often you'll be given more creative objectives like clearing out a mountain pass with a limited number of units, or being able to build no unit-generating buildings because of budget restrictions and having to use your starting units and a crumbling repair bay to see you through.

There is a major interface difference from more modern RTS games, though I remember that this didn't feel at all weird at the time - once again there are no worker units, and all your construction options are consolidated into two lists on the sidebar. You use this to construct new buildings, which pop up out of the ground with a delightful animation - just like Dune 2, you can only build next to existing buildings. Units are also on here, and because you don't have separate build queues for each structure, you can only build one of each type of unit at a time (infantry, vehicles, etc) no matter how many buildings you have - having multiple copies of a building will simply speed up your build rate for the units they produce.

I remember playing this when I was much younger, but never getting very far - the major thing that helped me through this time was realizing just how powerful the Engineer was. This is an expensive infantry unit with no means of defence but the incredible property of capturing a building and changing it over to your side instantly (I had somehow been convinced that you had to reduce the building's health into the red first but it works even on a pristine building)! This means that if you can get a fast APC full of them past the opponent's defences and into the heart of the base, you can wreak absolute mayhem by taking over their buildings, selling them off, building your own barracks and defences and eating the base from the inside. But the NOD doesn't have the APC, so if you've relied on that tactic too hard during the GDI campaign, you have to adapt dramatically when you switch sides.

The AI is... present and good enough to be annoying but it definitely has exploitable holes. It very obviously has no concept of how to construct a base beyond its starting layout in each mission, and will only ever replace buildings you've destroyed with new identical buildings in exactly the same place if it can. As far as attack goes, its most obvious deficiency is its severe allergy to sandbags. It doesn't really know how to handle any wall-like structures so it's quite possible to box yourself in and get on with building up an army while the enemy tanks have disagreements with each other about how to proceed.

And how can I write about this game without mentioning the FMVs? The game came out at the start of the era where developers were realizing what the storage capacity of CDs allowed them to do, and I'm so glad that they did because they're absolute gems - seeing actual actors give you your mission briefings was incredible at the time, and the videos have now become wonderfully, hilarously stylized looking back on them. NOD mission 8 is probably the highlight - and it's also really interesting how the game throws in some wordless storytelling in the couple of missions previous to this as well, with your commanding officer Seth giving you increasingly bad starting units and inaccurate mission briefings in an unacknowledged attempt to curtail your rise to his boss's favour.

It's still amazing today, honestly. It's been released as freeware and made available on archive.org.

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