Another Look at Red Alert

And now, a brief interlude. For July 4, American Independence Day, I couldn’t resist temporarily resuming my role as lackey to Josef Stalin. I had left off halfway through the Soviet campaign before, and I’m one level farther along now. It seemed like a fairly by-the-numbers level: start in one corner of the map, destroy all Allied units and structures, and while you’re at it, destroy the nearby village and massacre its inhabitants, because you’re evil. (Honestly, I don’t recall any other RTS taking such pains to remind you of this in the mission objectives. In Warcraft, the mere fact that you’re commanding orcs seemed to have been considered enough.) Presumably there were some new units introduced, but after three weeks without playing, I don’t know which ones they are. Perhaps they would stand out more if I hadn’t already seen every unit in the game from the Allied side.

Coming off Tender Loving Care, I’m amazed afresh at the difference that even as little as two years made to the quality of video playback. I don’t think I mentioned before that the video content in Red Alert is interlaced with black stripes, which is very distracting until you get used to it. This sort of interlacing was fairly common practice for early CD-ROM-based FMV titles, and in retrospect, I find it puzzling. I can understand the need to keep your video at a lower resolution than the already-low-res-by-today’s-standards screen, given the CPU speeds and CD-ROM throughput of the day. But surely once you’ve read a scanline-worth of data and decompressed it, slapping it on the screen twice can’t be much more expensive than once. Copying blocks from one place to another is one of those things that computers do really fast. So perhaps they did it this way because they felt it looked better? More like the then-familiar scanlines of a TV, concealing jaggies in the unused space? I have the feeling that an answer to this would have been easier to come by back in 1996, but at the time, I think I just took it for granted that this is how video on computers looked.

Red Alert: Stalin’s Story

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.

Red Alert: Allied Victory

Only in the final battle do you get to use the Chronosphere. Honestly, I find it disappointing. I had been anticipating teleporting a battalion of tanks right into the enemy base, behind the defenses, to take out crucial infrastructure like power plants (always a good first step against the Soviets). I had done similar things a few levels back with helicopters, but helicopters are vulnerable to anti-aircraft guns, and tanks are not. But it turns out that the Chronosphere can only teleport one unit at a time, and a single tank in an enemy base doesn’t last long enough to destroy anything.

Okay, so perhaps I could send Tanya? Tanya is the sole “hero” unit on the Allied side: she can shoot foot soldiers at a greater distance than they can shoot back, and she can demolish buildings in a single stroke by planting explosives. Her only drawback is that there’s only one of her, and she tends not to defend herself unless explicitly instructed. Still, Tanya sent directly into the heart of the enemy base could take out multiple power plants before she died. But no: the Chronosphere can’t teleport people, only vehicles.

But what about a troop carrier, then? An APC with Tanya and a company of engineers would really do a job on the place. Each engineer that you send into a building damages it by 25% of its full hit points. If the resulting damage would destroy it, the engineer instead takes it over. It’s expensive to do this — the engineers used this way are consumed in the process — but it’s just about the quickest way to eliminate an enemy structure, and I imagine it’s really demoralizing in multiplayer mode. I’ve used this trick on a few occasions, and the only difficulty in pulling it off is getting your engineers safely to the structure in the first place. The Chronosphere seems like it would solve that, but teleporting an APC only sends the vehicle, not the passengers. It makes me wonder if the vehicles I sent have drivers.

Just about the best use I ever found for the Chronosphere was to teleport damaged units back to base, where they could be repaired. That saved me the cost of building a few replacements, but I don’t think building the Chronosphere resulted in net savings. Perhaps it has uses I never discovered. Oh well, at least the Iron Curtain seems to be similarly lame: its effects are short-lived enough that the tanks using it always seemed to run out shortly after reaching my base.

I won the level mainly with the tried-and-true massive pack of helicopters on offense, using tanks and defensive structures to deal with counterattacks. That, and harvesting as much Ore as I could, as quickly as I could, to support this strategy. I built up a far larger cash reserve than I had at any previous point in the game, but I still managed to waste it all rebuilding my defenses and repairing my damaged helicopters. By the end, my ore trucks were going clear across the map to the fields that the enemy had been harvesting before I destroyed all their ore trucks. It all ended up in a gradual but inexorable eating away of the enemy base, and the mission went on for a good half hour or so after victory was a foregone conclusion. Not that there was really ever much danger of losing that mission. This is a game that wants you to win. The levels get bigger as you go along, but they don’t really get harder. Still, even when the challenge is removed, there’s a simple pleasure in destroying everything.

That leaves the Soviet campaign. Having completed half the game, I’m tempted to leave it at that and go on to 1997. It’s been almost two weeks, after all, even if I haven’t been playing much during that time. But I do want to experience some of the Soviet gameplay while that of the Allies is fresh in my mind — and to that end, I’ve already started on the other half, which I’ll describe next post.

Red Alert: Indoors

Twice now, I’ve encountered indoor levels: enemy complexes with patrolling guards, where your goal is not to slaughter everyone, but to reach a certain room or rooms. (In both cases that I’ve seen so far, it also involves keeping a brace of defenseless Engineers alive to reach those rooms, that they may ply their skills.) This is a familiar variation on the RTS, and would have been familiar to players at the time as well: I don’t remember if the original Command & Conquer had levels like this, but Warcraft certainly did.

The game engine doesn’t really know it’s indoors. Apart from a paint job on the terrain, everything looks and acts the way it usually does. You obviously don’t have tanks and airplanes in the corridors, but that’s because the level designer chose not to make them available, not because they won’t fit. One of the basic Soviet defenses is a kind of automated flame thrower on a pole: these are seen spewing destruction at the entrance to most Soviet bases, preventing you from simply storming the place with foot soldiers. They’re present in the indoors scenes too, where they somehow seem smaller, more like a Dungeons & Dragons trap than something to hold back an army. But in fact there’s no change in their range or destructive power — it’s just that the scale of the world around them has been altered.

The real way these levels differ from normal ones is that there’s no base-building. You arrive at the complex with a certain number of soldiers, and you have to keep enough of those soldiers alive to accomplish your mission. This extremely contrary to the way I normally play these games, which is heavily based around accepting losses as long as the enemy suffers losses too, and as long as I can recover from them faster. Here, there’s no recovery. Both of the indoor levels I’ve seen give you a medic, who provides slow but unlimited healing during quiet moments. But there’s no healing the dead. Putting this constraint on makes it feel a bit like a special exercise, like blindfold chess or fistfighting with one hand tied behind your back. It’s easy to become complacent about the abundance of resources in other levels — Ore is not inexhaustible, and indeed I routinely exhaust stretches of it through my profligacy. But the indoor levels teach me to be frugal with lives. If it were to teach me this successfully, it would probably make me a better player, raise my customarily abysmal Economy rating at the end of each map, and make the tougher levels a lot easier.

But I doubt that’ll happen. I’m almost at the end of the Allied campaign already; it’s basically just a sprint to the finish now. And if they expect me to carefully look after the well-being of my people when I switch to the other campaign, well, then they clearly need to read up a little on Joseph Stalin.

Red Alert: Moral Clarity

Both sides in Red Alert have their own distinct superweapons: the Soviets have the “Iron Curtain” effect described previously, while the Allies have the Chronosphere, a temporary teleportation device developed from the conspiracy-theory-famous Philadelphia Experiment. I still haven’t seen either of these things used in battle, but their development figures big in the plot, which is greatly concerned with protecting your own research and sabotaging the enemy’s. About two-thirds of the way through the Allied campaign, we learn of another project, Stalin’s ultimate secret weapon: his scientists have discovered how to unleash the power in the heart of the atom, creating an explosion of unparalleled destructive power. You, of course, have to prevent these doomsday weapons — these “atom bombs” — from ever being deployed.

It’s alternate history as moral wish-fulfillment fantasy for America. I suppose some people would argue otherwise — I mean, a world where the Reds got the bomb first? That’s your fantasy? But it is: it puts us in the role of unambiguous good guy. Nukes are, after all, bad-guy weapons, things whose chief practical use is to terrorize the world into submission like a James Bond villain. The first Command & Conquer recognized this by making tactical nukes the ultimate weapon for the fanatical terrorist side, the Brotherhood of Nod. The ultimate weapon for the good guys, the Global Defense Initiative, was an orbital laser: clean, precise, comfortably remote from retaliation, and best of all, fictional, and therefore never yet historically used to massacre civilians.

Come to think of it, the very premise of Red Alert is a moral simplification of World War II. Forget the real-world use of atomic weapons for the moment; that’s something people manage to justify in their minds. All it takes is an extreme us/them mentality, the sort that considers “uncompromising” to be a compliment. But that same mentality finds it extremely galling that, in order to fight the Nazis, we had to be on the same side as the Communists. Removing this factor, Red Alert allows us the luxury of complete purity, of both aims and means. Heck, even the lack of any involvement with Japan presumably means no Japanese-American internment. It all comes a lot closer to our national myth of WWII-as-last-good-war than the reality ever did. It really says something that the creators of this game felt it necessary to clarify and improve our good-guy status even in the context of the war we spent fighting Hitler. And it’s profoundly weird that they decided to do this by removing Hitler from the story.

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.

Red Alert: Storytelling

As I plow my way through the 1990s, I seem to be avoiding the whole “Full Motion Video” phenomenon. This ends now. I wouldn’t call Red Alert primarily a FMV game — the actual gameplay is firmly within the world of 2D sprite graphics — but it was released at a time when the marriage of Silicon Valley to Hollywood still seemed like the way of the future — if not to gamers, then at least to the people who controlled game development budgets. And so it shipped with two CD-ROMs full of low-quality video.

The video content is at least a bit more ambitious than a lot of the era’s shoehorned FMV. Where the original Command & Conquer basically just had talking heads that gave you over-emoted mission briefings, Red Alert actually has a few FMV action scenes — ones that even show signs of editing. It’s still strictly B-movie material, though, with thick accents substituting for characterization. And whenever the video ventures outdoors — usually to show military vehicles either being deployed or finishing their mission objectives — we’re suddenly in Unconvincing CGI Land. When you think about it, that’s a strange complaint. After all, the vehicle sprites during gameplay look even less real. Even putting aside the low pixel count, they basically look like toys — probably due to the flatness of the focus. But at least they’re consistent with the level of stylization throughout that part of the game. My problem with the CGI in the video sequences isn’t so much that it doesn’t look real as that it looks substantially less real than the live actors immediately preceding it in the same video clip.

Also, in a way, I find the in-game sprite stuff to simply be more effective storytelling than the FMV sequences. They keep including little set-pieces told with sprites and more or less without explicit narration. For example, one mission starts you out with just a single Spy unit and instructions to infiltrate a certain building. Spies are hard to detect, but not impossible: guard dogs, with their keen noses, are this game’s low-tech equivalent of anti-cloaking technology, and the player has to devote some effort to avoiding canine patrols. One you enter the building, a truck parked in front drives off, illuminating new areas of the map as it goes: clearly the spy has secreted himself inside. After it gets through a number of security checkpoints, the spy leaps out, leaving it to crash as you proceed to the next phase of the mission. That’s a little story right there, told with toy trucks and toy soldiers. It’s not in any way more sophisticated than the stories told through the video sequences, but it works better just because it’s told in a way that engages the player. Partly because it’s interactive, but also partly because it leaves so much more to the imagination.

Mind you, nearly every mission in Red Alert eventually degenerates into “kill everything”. It would be kind of cool to see a game with RTS-like rules and presentation that stays at a more narrative and less game-like level.

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.