Westwood Studios' classic turns 20 today, and PC gaming wouldn't be the same without it
When Command & Conquer: Red Alert was released 20 years ago today, the real-time strategy game was young, but not so young that it hadn’t spawned icons. In one corner, you had Red Alert's creator Westwood Studios – also the maker of Dune 2, the game that kicked the genre off in 1992 and set in place design innovations that persist today. With the first Command & Conquer, Westwood ushered the RTS genre into the mainstream consciousness. In the other corner was Blizzard Entertainment, maker of two much-loved games: 1994’s Warcraft: Orcs & Humans and its sequel, each of which built on the form with refinements such as true fog of war and more varied missions.
RTS games were gaining multitudes of fans and the stage was set for a new entrant by Westwood, the last game it would make as an independent studio and a followup to the hugely popular (and straight-faced) Command & Conquer. When Red Alert launched on October 31, 1996, it set new standards, offering tactical variety by pitting vastly asymmetric forces against each other in a package that pushed story to the fore, and featured online multiplayer, opening the genre to a new dimension of play. And its popularity was such that it set a course for Westwood’s demise.
Much of Red Alert is wrapped up in its story. Released at a time when video games were cashing in on the megabytes of storage space afforded to them by CD-ROM, full-motion video cutscenes were a huge selling point. Command & Conquer featured actors superimposed on CG backgrounds to contextualize its missions, but Red Alert expanded on them with all the subtlety of a WWE production. As a prequel to Command & Conquer, it tells the backstory of the rise of Nod, the original game's villains. During the throes of World War 2, Einstein invented a device called the Chronosphere and used it to go back in time to 1924 to kill Hitler (cue the chugging guitars of the intro theme). But he’s apparently not been smart enough to have calculated that with Nazi Germany failing to rise, Stalin is left unfettered and he invades Eastern Europe with dreams to occupy the entire continent.
Watching it today, the tone is weird. If you remember Red Alert 2 and 3, which threw Tim Curry and war dolphins around with abandon, it’s a surprise to realize that Red Alert plays it pretty straight. Without the constant, knowing wink that makes the rest of the series so fun, pretty much every scene is awkward, lasting at least a beat too long. Performances are stilted, particularly when it attempts sexy moments featuring Stalin and his lover. It’s wonderful and unbearable at the same time.
But Red Alert’s enduring quality is in how it plays its cartoon representation of its two forces, the Allies and Soviets, through to the design of the game itself. Dune 2’s three factions feature some unique units and abilities and Command & Conquer expanded on that approach, but Red Alert’s are entirely asymmetric and invite great tactical nuance.
The Soviet forces are strong, expensive and slow, while the Allies are lighter, cheaper and faster. The cadence of battle is set by the constant threat the Allies face of their Medium Tanks meeting the slow but superior Soviet Heavy Tank. They can counter it by laying mines and they have Tanya Adams, a commando who can instantly destroy buildings if she can reach them, and can parachute infantry anywhere on the map. The Allies are therefore about hit-and-run tactics, though the Soviets generally have the advantage on land, especially with the Tesla Coil, a defense building that decimates ground units. But the Allies excel at naval engagements with the Destroyer, which can attack land, air and sea, and the Cruiser, which can sit and bombard targets with huge missiles. Still, the Allies also lack air units and ground-to-air turrets.
These dense interlocking interactions resulted in the sides less being balanced against each other than they could've been, something that soon became apparent in multiplayer. Red Alert was one of the earliest games to feature online play, and it was many RTS players’ first thrilling experience of online competition, paving the way for Blizzard’s behemoth StarCraft in 1998. But though it was imbalanced, Red Alert’s multiplayer is persistent. It’s still playable online today and you’ll routinely find over 100 people playing on CnCNet, an open source community dedicated to Command & Conquer and its related games. (You can also download Red Alert’s full campaign, since the game became freeware back in 2008.)
Red Alert’s success was a big reason why EA ended up buying Westwood Studios. When it closed the deal in 1998, it was the beginning of the end for Westwood. Though the studio would go on to put its name on a couple of celebrated games – namely 1999’s Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun and 2000’s Red Alert 2, Westwood was ultimately liquidated in 2003, despite those games selling millions. Perhaps most unfortunately, there's no one left to truly challenge Blizzard’s Starcraft-shaped creative hold over the RTS. We all know how that scene in history played out.