Sunday, October 25, 2015

Post-mortem-review #6: Red Alert

My little brother wasn't as much a gamer as I was, but more than once, he would point me the classics. When Command & Conquer came out, I wasn't really familiar with the "RTS" genre(Real Time Strategy). Played the first Warcraft, which was fun, but Command & Conquers predecessor "Dune" didn't really caught my appetite. A top-view world with sand or pavement tiles and blocky things that would represent buildings or tanks... and worms coming out of the sand now and then. Nah, I was more of a Doom guy back then.

First RTS games were developed in te eighties. As a PC gamer, Dune (1992) & Warcraft (1994) were my first encounters.

High Tower

The first Command & Conquer was made in the early CD-ROM era. I can imagine some of you kids have never seen a CD-ROM. Well, neither did we back then. It was hot-brand-new, and beyond cool not to forget. A PC nowadays is, ehm... hell it has been a while since I bought a PC. Most people have a laptop or tablet. Asides from Auto-CAD engineers and the police-station that still operates on old mainframes, those big Desktops are a thing of the past. In the past it was pretty badass to have a “High Tower”, nowadays people will laugh at you. Anyhow, buy a laptop and it has a DVD or Blue-Ray drive, Sound card, 3D card, wide-screen with ten-zillion colours, WiFi, network card, et cetera. Of course. What kind of shop would sell you a laptop without a sound-card, or without networking capabilities? Can you imagine there was a time that none of the mentioned parts above were standard, or even existed at all?

That's right. In early 1995 -when C&C was released btw- we didn't have a sound-card at home. Without much internet, a network card wasn't exactly common either. Our monitor only had 256 colours or so. WiFi would have been a pet-bird's name back then. And CD-ROM? Hahaha. No. Only for rich people. My dad was a computer fanatic (in terms of tinkering/destroying hardware) but not THAT fanatic; if I remember well the first CD-ROM drives were sold for no less than 400$. In 1995, you could buy a new house or slave for that.

That didn't stop us from staring at sunday evening TV programs where "experts" were assembling computers and teaching us how to use them. You got to understand, 20 years ago there certainly wasn't a computer in each household. It was an expensive, and hard to grasp thing. Most people didn't work with computers yet, internet was still a baby, and for games we had a Sega, Nintendo... or almost a Playstation that used CD-ROMs btw. But, the PC was gaining popularity. The office had them, some classrooms had a (extremely old 286 or 386) computer, and besides typing spreadsheets you could now also listen music or watch a digital movie with this fantastic toy called "CD-ROM"! Quality was horrible but… Just the word itself... CD-ROM! No idea what it exactly meant, but a CD just felt so much better than those broken 3" floppy disks.

The Bigger, The Better.

And yes, it actually was a whole step forward. A floppy could store up to 1,44 MegaByte, and was terribly slow. Because of those limitations, PC games obviously had to respect some boundaries, by using low quality sounds/images, and having not too many disks in a box. I believe I once received Doom on 4 or 5 disks. Insert disk 4 of 5. Type A:\. Wait and hear the drive making digital lawn mower sounds, ggggzzzzzkrrt kkrtt krt. And then at disk 4/5, chances were big it would say "Unable to read disk". FFF*****!!

With floppies, you just knew at least one of them would be broken. CD-ROMs were more robust. And although the first drives were still slow as shit, they were fast compared to floppies as well. But far more important, CD-ROMs were about 500(!) times bigger in size. MegaBytes I mean, not actual size. A common CD had about 740 MegaBytes of space. Today, that sounds like floppies again as the average USB drive has 8GB or more. Hence we don't even use physical drives anymore. It's all somewhere in that digital cloud baby.


But back then, it was awesome of course. So far the PC had never been a very popular gaming platform, but now it revealed a secret super-weapon: Game-Movies. Thanks to all those extra megabytes, in all of a sudden, every developer equipped their games with crazy music and even more crazy movies. Not the slick photo-realistic Hollywood (in-game!) 3D renders we have now. But real (very-low-budget) actors on semi 3D (read ugly) rendered backgrounds. Silly for todays standard, but a big deal then. It really separated PC games from consoles like the Nintendo that still used much smaller cartridges. Sure, a PC was an expensive hobby, but if you were lucky enough to have one... Holy Moly!

Silly as the acting, decors, costumes and pretty much everything might have been, visuals like this were absolutely impossible on game consoles till that point.

We were lucky, when the prices started to drop a bit, dad felt life would be better with a CD-ROM drive. And our very first CD-ROM game was? Command & Conquer? No. The 7th Guest. Not just a few cut-scenes, the whole game was rendered like a movie! Truly amazing, being used to simple 2D side-scrollers mostly! Too bad the puzzles were a bit too difficult for an 11 year old though. Command & Conquer was released not much later. But… not being charmed by "Dune 2", I didn't pick up the game. But the pictures of the C&C cut-scene movies in games-magazines, were intriguing. 

The very first screenshots from C&C I saw in a games magazine.

But as said, once again I missed the ride and it was my little brother that came home with big stories about the dad of his friend playing "Command & Conquer", driving a so called Mammoth tank over 100 men, bombarding bases, deploying machine-gun towers, and so on. Whatever little dude. It sounded interesting, but it couldn't be cooler than "Crusader: No Remorse". When little, you can't try & buy every game that sounds interesting. There were only a few times a year where you could ask mom & dad for a game, so you'd better pick wisely. For Christmas 1995-1996, Quake1 or Full Throttle were on my list. Fortunately little dude persisted and asked Command & Conquer... Unfortunately for little dude, older & fatter dude would take his place behind the computer and play C&C from then on.

Though I sort of ignored the game, it didn’t have to try hard to steal my heart once its CD was loaded in our drive. Hence, this game had two CD-ROM’s! Not one, but two! That really felt as getting two games for the price of one. Two times better, two times bigger, two times more fun. One CD contained the “GDI” (goodguys) campaign, and the other CD the “NOD” (badguys) campaign. The in-game graphics weren’t that special, but the slamming electro-metal-hiphop-whatever-its-called music made by Frank Klepacki gave goose bumps right from the start. Humvees, Machine guns, guitars and cut-scenes with explosions. What could a guy ask more?

Real-Time-Strategy genre

But other than that, it was also just a very nice game to play. No fast-paced dumb shooting like Doom. This time you had to think about your moves. For those who never played a RTS genre game, let’s recap. We have a (top-down “God” view) terrain with obstacles such as rocks, trees, villages, bridges or water. In most missions you’ll have to establish a base first, and make a defence system (walls/bunkers/towers) to keep the enemy from destroying your base. Money comes from harvesting Tiberian, which is sort of large radioactive coleslaw. And since your harvester is usually somewhere outside the base, you’d better keep an eye on it as the enemy may try to destroy it. In the meanwhile you’ll be making soldiers, tanks, APC’s, buggies, artillery and get-to-the-choppers. First to recon the terrain, and later on to do a counterstrike on the enemy base. You could knock on the front door with a whole tank battalion, or maybe you prefer a more subtle approach, sneaking in, and weakening the base defence first by capturing power-plants for example.

The key is to do all those things simultaneously, and to do them right with the limited time/resources. Spend all money on making tanks, and they all get destroyed by air-units as you forgot Anti-Air units. Waste too much time on building a base while the enemy keeps pounding your units and wallet. Not spending on an extra harvester will keep the cash flow slow. And it’s usually smart to attack the enemy base from the right direction(s) with the right timing, with the right units.

That’s a RTS (Realtime Strategy Game) in a Nuttshell. But probably I didn’t need to tell you. Since C&C, hundreds of RTS games have been made. Total Annihilation, WarCraft, StarCraft, Age of Empires, Total War, Company of Heroes, Earth 2150, and the list goes on and on. Command & Conquer wasn’t the first RTS game, but probably it was the first real successful one, that made the genre popular till today. However… only one can be the king of RTS. And to me, the king is C&C: Red Alert. And do I have a good reason for it, besides being a living-in-the-past guy? Well, I think I do. 

Yin and Yang

Last years not anymore, but I have played quite some RTS games. And you know what? I didn’t like most of them. Mainly because the word “strategy” can be replaced with “make a billion tanks ASAP”. There is no thinking in most games. It’s more a like a giga-multi-tasking fest. You, you & you - go dig gold here, make 100 strong tanks, repair building, commit airstrike, deflect enemy attack at the north side, send 100 tanks to enemy base, et cetera. If women are truly better in multi-tasking, they should love RTS games.

C&C was also about doing lots of things quickly, but on a somewhat slower, more manageable level. Better balanced, more thinking, less massive. Especially in Red Alert, if you did well, you could throw over an enemy base with minimum casualties on your side. The trick is to find a weak spot, uncovered by Tesla Coils, anti-air cannons or turrets. Sneak in with spies or engineers, capture the right buildings, and destroy the base from inside out. It also paid of to deploy the right units. Soldiers are good against other soldiers, tanks aren’t. Yet tanks can punch over walls or defensive structures such as turrets or towers. Artillery can inflict heavy damage but needs to be protected. Boats can beat up a base from a safe distance, yet you’ll need to construct a shipyard & sweep the canal from submarines first. And powerful air support can only be reached by taking out anti-air units first, as planes are too expensive to mess around with.

(Almost) every unit in Red Alert was useful, from the cheapest soldier to the most expensive battleship or tank. Each defensive structure and buildings has its purpose. This is because the game-rules and balancing were done very well. There were “hacking” programs that allowed you to alter the C&C unit properties. You could make tanks more powerful, planes faster, or give soldiers long range super-lasers. In the beginning, it always annoyed me that it took ages to take out 1 soldier with a tank, and that the soldier fire-range was the same as a Super Soaker. So, we pulled the sliders and mangled some values… and… the gameplay was gone. Fun to see mega airstrikes of course, but it all just felt wrong. Too easy. Winning now was about making enough units of type X only.

Much more than downloading a virtual box today, old game boxes had charms. When seeing such a kick-ass box with 2(!) CD-ROMS, you just knew magic was inside.

Red Alert had its game-rules tuned perfectly. The prizes, the speed, the fire-ranges, the damage, the everything. Duh, of course. Of course? Looking at many of those other games I mentioned, that is certainly not always the case. Half of them are too chaotic / random, and the other half is too complicated. In a game like Total Annihilation, it really doesn’t matter if you attach the enemy base via West or East with tin-can robots, spider-tanks or missile planes. BIG numbers, that’s the only thing that counts (or a few Big Bertha’s). I’d hate to send 50 planes kamikaze style into the enemies base, but there is just no other way to beat the enemy here. So after a while, you don’t care anymore about your units. And since it’s so much and fast, you don’t get a chance to execute well coordinated attacks with small groups of specialized units. As soon as you can make stronger boats/planes/vehicles/Big Bertha’s, you’ll forget about the smaller ones.

The other half, and then I’m especially talking about the WO2 style RTS games, were too complicated for my taste. Not a whole lot of units, but many controls, too many tiny things to remember, and too many ways to screw up. “Luckily” you’ll get a whole lot of dialogs and hints, telling exactly what to do. But without those hints and voices telling you what to do, I really have no idea whether it’s better to send 3 bazooka guys to that tank, or to lay down. Either it all feels very scripted, or there is too much coincidence, timing importance and variation to predict your chances. It’s very hard to measure the actual gain when doing this or that. In Red Alert on the other hand, after a while, it gets very clear that it takes 5 units of type X to perform task Y. That sounds a bit artificial, but it’s actually nice to get a good in a game because you actually understand how it works. I prefer clear rules over “randomness”.
After some excersise, you would exactly know what a group of 10 paratroops could and couldn't do.

Back to the Soviet future

But having the rules setup correctly isn’t the only reason why Red Alert is still enjoyable today. It’s just… It’s just… it has the P from POW! Don’t know how to explain. A few hours ago I finished Red Alert2 (which can be downloaded for free –legally- via EA btw!). And though it was nice, it doesn’t come close to its older brother in my opinion. Not because of bad rules – RA2 had them pretty right as well. Where is the catch?

First of all, I liked the RA graphics and style more. It’s not beautiful, but it’s *clear*. With my bad eyes, I can clearly distinguish a Yak fighting plane from a V2 rocket truck. Red Alert 2 however has more futuristic metallic shiny weird shaped mobiles. And to make it worse, as RTS battles got more massive, they also zoomed out, making the puppets tiny. In later 3D RTS games you can zoom in though, that’s true. But let me tell one thing about 3D RTS games. I never liked their graphics either. Certainly not the early ones. Early 3D graphics were very limited, so a tank usually was just a milk-box with an ugly low-res texture on it. Can’t blame them with 200 tanks on the screen, but nonetheless the hand-drawn sprites just looked better. Obviously we can do a lot more these days, but still RTS games keep behind the high quality physics and visuals you got used to from First Person Shooters. Soldiers run like if they shat their pants, and die without ragdoll physics. Not impressed.

What I also disliked a bit about RA2, C&C Tiberian Sun, and pretty much all other C&C titles that came after, was its futuristic setting. The first C&C and Red Alert had science-fiction elements though. Orca helicopters, laser towers, chronospheres. But, subtle. The majority of units were based on somewhat real military hardware, and in case of Red Alert, with a big wink to Soviet toys. The more Sci-Fi elements were used as advanced, powerful weapons. A tasty combination. But in C&C / RA2, Sci-Fi really took over and I just missed good old bombers, artillery cannons and guys with normal machine guns.

Less Sci-Fi than the first Command & Conquer, but still a weird mix between outdated Soviet hardware and crazy futuristic techniques such as the beloved "Tesla Coil".


All right. That’s a matter of taste maybe. But I want to emphasize that clear sprites sometimes just work better than a chaotic mess of colourful laser shooting “things”. Speaking about taste, one other reason to love Red Alert, was the sound. I mentioned “POW” and “Punch” before. And I think that’s the combination of big ass sprites, heavy guitar music, rattling machine guns, and death-screams. Of course, every (RTS) game has that. But some just have it better than another. And RA had it really well. Modern games are ashamed to have a good background music track and leave it to some threatening ambient and some classical march music. It’s all so goddamn serious these days. Where are the drums and electric guitars? Where is the Hell March?!

And as for the sound effects, guns often sound like popcorn. In Red Alert guns sound like big guns with bass. As if they’re shooting 20 inch solid lead pipes all the time. Here, take that you dumb bunker. Barrels explode in huge flames, numb “bum - bum” from a Cruiser ship would mean serious trouble. And when a man dies in RA, he screams like a man. Not like a stumbling figure skater.

Do the math. My eyes were pleased. My ears were pleased. My tactical brain was pleased. The right concoction. Battles not too huge, sound of battle not too quite. Combat not too slow, choices of life and death not too hasted. Packed in more than thirty missions, as well as skirmish missions if you can’t get enough. AND… of course, interspersed with movies where a real life guy played as Stalin.