Red Alert: Single-player campaign as tutorial

Red Alert is essentially a two-player game, even when you’re playing the single-player campaigns. It’s just that in single-player mode, the opponent is computer-controlled, has a large material advantage over you, and is kind of stupid. If you destroy the enemy’s ore trucks, for example, there’s no guarantee that they’ll even try to build replacements, even though they’re pretty much doomed without a source of wealth.

The computer is more predictable than a human opponent, and if that isn’t enough to guarantee victory for the player, you can save the game mid-battle. (In fact, mid-battle is the only time you can save the game, which is something of a deficiency. I’d like to be able to save between missions. Sometimes you have a choice between two battlefields for the next mission, but you can’t save until you’ve chosen one.) In other words, although the single-player campaign is where the plot and the FMV is, the two-player game is where the challenge is. As usual for the RTS genre, the single-player game is essentially a tutorial for the real game.

Except… it’s kind of lacking as a tutorial. I remember playing the original Command & Conquer, the original Warcraft and Starcraft. Those really started off as tutorials, giving the player missions like “build a farm” and “defeat a small group of isolated grunts”. Red Alert is a second-generation RTS, and assumes familiarity with the first generation. If you don’t already know how combat and base-building work, this isn’t the game for you.

Moreover, the game itself doesn’t provide nearly as much information as I expect from a tutorial. No in-game unit or building descriptions here, and the crucial hotkeys (such as assigning and selecting groups of units, or telling them to guard an area) are only documented in the manual. The game gives you the ability to tell a group to maintain formation, so that every unit in the group moves only as fast as the slowest. This is an incredibly useful feature, and one that I wish more RTS games had imitated, but it’s buried where you’re likely to not notice it. This may mostly be a matter of changing expectations, though. Games today are pretty much expected to be playable from just picking up a controller, but they were allowed to be more dependent on their manual in the old days. I’m a little surprised that this mindset was still in force as late as 1996, though.

In fact, the manual actually contains a section titled “Tutorial”, which is a walkthrough of the first two missions. Unfortunately, I seem to be missing part of it: my copy of the manual, part of a 200-page perfect-bound thing covering four anthologized Command & Conquer games, has a 16-page duplicated section. Thank goodness for the internet.

Still, sometimes even the manual isn’t enough. In one of the early missions, I was instructed to do something to the enemy’s technology center. Okay, which of the various buildings in the enemy base is the technology center? The most information the game will give you about enemy buildings is the string “Enemy Building”, and the manual only contains pictures of the icons that you click on to build things, which don’t necessarily look much like the building itself. It took me two or three tries to get the right one.

But I have to emphasize that it functions as a tutorial. It’s just not the sort of tutorial that spoon-feeds you answers. It uses a harsher but no less effective pedagogic technique: that of throwing problems at you, and not letting you pass until you’ve found the answers. The levels largely seem to be strategic puzzles that yield easily to the right approach. Need to destroy a heavily-guarded naval yard? Build some ships of your own. Those ships have to pass through a strait guarded by submarines and tesla coils? Send some tanks to take out the power plants first, so you only have to fight the submarines. Each level introduces new stuff, on both your side and the enemy’s. The puzzle, then, is to find the weakness of the enemy’s new stuff — a weakness that can, in all likelihood, be exploited using your new stuff.

1 Comment so far

  1. malkav11 on 5 Jun 2010

    RTS campaigns are nearly inevitably terrible tutorials for multiplayer, which especially lately tends to play very little like the campaigns.

    I don’t think this is a bad thing – I’ve only ever been interested in the campaign mode of RTS games. But it would be nice if the developers wouldn’t approach them with the idea that people playing the campaign would ever be playing multiplayer, because I certainly won’t be.

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