Command & Conquer: Red Alert

The original Command & Conquer, one of the foundations of the realtime strategy genre, made the unusual choice of near-future sci-fi for its setting. Wargame settings tend to be either strongly historical (as in the Total War series) or completely separate from reality (as in the original Warcraft), but C&C forged a path through the middle, giving us a world recognizable as our own, but greatly changed. Fictitious global alliances fought for control of real nations; mundane technology like tanks and airplanes mixed with fanciful stuff like death rays and automatic mining/harvesting machines. The player was effectively left with a choice of whether to regard it as a military story with sci-fi elements or a sci-fi story with military elements.

And then, intriguingly enough, they aimed for the same effect in the sequel, which is set in the near past.

How? Alternate history. Red Alert very explicitly sets this up in the opening FMV cutscene, in which a time traveler assassinates Hitler as a youth. As in countless Nazi apologists’ fantasies, the might of the Third Reich turns out to have been the only effective check on Soviet expansion — at least, until you come along. Thus, in a sense, the player is taking on Hitler’s role. But not in any strong sense: the anti-Soviet alliance shown in the cutscenes includes a strongly-accented German representative independent of the player. In fact, the entire alliance seems to consist of Germany, Greece, and whatever nation the player represents — presumably America, although I haven’t seen this stated explicitly. Perhaps there will be more details when I play the Soviet side. (Which I’ll definitely have to do before I can consider the game finished: in C&C, the two sides played noticeably differently, and I have every reason to believe that the same is true here.)

The milieu, then, is WWII-era warfare with modifications. The first Allied mission’s goal is to rescue Albert Einstein, who’s been kidnapped by the Soviets. (I predict that the first Soviet mission’s goal will be to kidnap him.) While in captivity, he was presumably forced to contribute to their secret weapon projects. You get a taste of those secret weapons from the very beginning: devastating defense towers based on the works of Tesla. And I’ve gotten just far enough into the game for the Allies to become alarmed by a newer development, code-named “iron curtain”: a device for making units completely impervious to harm, which should have interesting effects on gameplay. But most of the buildings and units are ordinary things like tanks and jeeps, factories and airstrips — even when they’re exactly equivalent to something science-fictional in the original C&C. That harvesting machine I mentioned, for example, is replaced by a guy in a truck. The stuff it’s harvesting, in the previous game a mysterious crystalline substance called “Tiberium” that was a vital ingredient in all your advanced technology, is now reduced to mere “ore”, which you sell for the cash you need to supply your army. It all makes it quite clear how skin-deep the themeing was in the first place.

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