Before I start talking about playing Red Alert on the Soviet side, let me describe the closing cutscene of the Allied campaign. A trio of American GI’s searching the wreckage that used to be the Kremlin discover Stalin himself buried in the rubble, throughly pinned down with only his face visible. (It looks very unnatural, as if he had been deliberately buried, but I don’t think that’s how we’re meant to read it.) The soldiers’ orders are to take him prisoner, but a figure steps out from the shadows: the German commander who we’ve seen in most of the mission briefings. He tells the soldiers to just walk away and report nothing. After they comply, he calmly gags Stalin and covers him completely, so he’ll die a slow lingering death in the ruins, unable even to cry out “For the love of God, Montresor!” — although of course we know he’ll more likely be rescued just in time for the sequel.
The scene left me doubtful about what its point was supposed to be. Was I supposed to be horrified at the commander’s cold-blooded cruelty, perhaps even think that my German allies were not quite as historically-altered as they appeared? Or was I supposed to regard it as no more than the villain deserved, and cheer for his getting more suffering than strict adherence to the code of war allows? I’m a little reminded of another alternate WWII story, Inglorious Basterds. I recall seeing a review of IB that complained about its simplistic view, that it used Nazis as one-dimensional monsters, a mere means for the characters fighting them to perform extreme acts of gratuitous violence without losing our sympathy. This struck me as a good description of just about any other WWII movie, but way off base for IB. Probably the only reason that the gratuitous violence bothered that reviewer so much was that Tarantino took special care to repeatedly remind us that we were cheering on monstrous behaviour on the part of our own side. (I could write about this at length, but I’m already digressing enough.) But then, Tarantino is a special case: a maker of violent entertainment who actually wants us to think about what violent entertainment means. I really don’t think that the writers of Red Alert reflected on it that much. The simple fact that Stalin is head of the Soviet Union was enough to get people itching for a resolution like this in 1996, in the nearer aftermath of Communism’s collapse, which left the more hawkish-minded Americans feeling a little cheated, denied a glorious military victory of the sort depicted in this game.
I mention all this now because the start of the Soviet campaign clears it up completely. We’re supposed to regard Stalin as completely deserving of the worst fate the Allies can dish out. The very first thing you see, as the curtain rises on first mission briefing, is the tail end of another meeting, a report on a test of a new poison gas — tested on an unnamed village, with special mention made of its effect on children. To drive the point home, your first mission is to pacify a small village in the Ukraine by destroying it and killing everyone in it.
So, although it’s not explicitly stated this way, the clear implication is that Stalin is gassing his own people — rather like another mustachioed dictator who American hawks felt a lack of resolution with in 1996. Was this comparison deliberate? Honestly, looking online, it looks like “he gassed his own people” didn’t really achieve repeated meme status until 2002. Still, the events it refers to were in the past, so it’s plausibly intentional.
Anyway, I’m pleased to note that this isn’t just cutscene plot: the lack of regard for “your own people” does in fact extend to gameplay. I earlier made mention of Medic units that heal injured soldiers. The Soviet side doesn’t seem to have them at all. Armored personnel carriers, sometimes the best way to keep soldiers alive, do exist — I had a couple at the start of one mission — but they’re not as readily available as on the Allied side, where they’re one of the basic things that you can build with the same factory that produces tanks. Tanks themselves only come in larger, tougher, and more expensive sizes than the Allies produce, so you’re inevitably going to rely on foot soldiers a lot more, which, given the lack of ways to keep them alive, means producing lots of them and then seeing most of them get killed. I don’t remember the original Command & Conquer well enough to know how much of this simply carries over from there, but I am reminded of the few differences between the sides in the original Warcraft, where healing magic was the exclusive domain of the Human side. (No sign of the Soviets reanimating their dead yet, though.)
One last unrelated thing I’d like to mention before signing off and possibly playing something else: I’m quite pleased with Kane’s cameo. Kane, who looks like he goes to the same barber as Anton LaVey, is the chief bad guy in those Command & Conquer games not set in the past. He’s unusually death-resistant — always a good attribute in a series villain, as it spares the writers from having to set up plausible escapes like they did with Stalin — and he may in fact be immortal, which would explain why hasn’t aged since the 1940s. (Alternately, I suppose he could have access to time travel. Which has interesting implications for this game’s premise.) And what role does he play in alt-history? Hard to say. He just shows up during one of the meetings, whispers something into Stalin’s ear, and leaves. One assumes he’s playing puppet-master somehow. Now, I haven’t completed the game, so I don’t know if he shows up later, but I hope not. This one appearance as it stands strikes me as just about the best way to establish a link between the games: subtle enough that newcomers can play without even noticing it, vague enough to fuel fan speculation, but at the same time highly visible and undeniably significant to those in the know.