Updated: January 12, 2022
The 1990s saw the emergence of the quintessential Real Time Strategy (RTS) game. Starting with Dune II, and finishing with Age of Empires II, the genre was born, defined, sculpted. Indeed, the RTS titles of the era, Warcraft, Command & Conquer and a few others became the gold standard of the build-research-destroy computerized fun, never eclipsed despite advancement in software, graphics and availability. Needless to say, I've played them all.
The aforementioned gold standard is so high that it seems impossible to beat. In fact, many a game company has simply stopped trying, and instead decided to play the game of nostalgia instead. Release these supreme classics as modern titles, complete with all the tech bits that have changed in the past 20 years. Mostly extra power and high-def graphics. Age of Empires II and its Definitive Edition are a great example of a timeless success. Now, we also have Red Alert Remastered, the oldie goldie in 4K. Follow me.
Nostalgia Control Activated
The story of the C&C franchise is a long and colorful one. But for me, it spans only the first few years. Because after Yuri's Revenge, my appetite for the repetitions reincarnate vaned. I did have a major blast playing the original, although I've always been more partial to the medieval magic lore of Warcraft, and then Warcraft II, which, much like C&C, made awesome use of the blooming CD-ROM technology to give players the most memorable of experiences, including an iconic soundtrack. It commanded and then conquered my heart.
But Command & Conquer itself was a great game, even if my taste for tiberium was a bit less. Then, Westwood released Red Alert, a prequel taking place in a time-jump alternate history in which World War II as we know it is replaced by a semi-futuristic conflict between the Allies and the Soviets. Fantastic. Time went on, the popularity of the franchise never waned, and Red Alert 2 war born. My favorite, really.
It had the original charm + even better units and tech, and I spent many a month gaming like mad, testing the limits of my eyesight and wrist motion (no pun intended). In 2008, my enthusiasm still going strong, I bought myself Command & Conquer The First Decade DVD Collection, which had all of the franchise games included on two DVD discs, and I kept having fun, focusing on the first two generations of the C&C titles.
As time went by, it became harder to enjoy Red Alert and Red Alert 2. The reasons were mostly technical. The games ran well on Windows XP, but then, they needed patches for later service packs, and even more hacks for Windows 7. Red Alert 2 had a multiplayer mode, but it relied on the IPX protocol. New computers would ship without DVD drives, making the use of this "ancient" tool a bit more cumbersome. And thus, slowly, the games kind of slipped off my radar, never truly forgotten, more sort of mired in technological problems.
In parallel, Electronic Arts, now the owner of the C&C intellectual property, released the first three titles in the series as freeware, which brought an influx of fresh enthusiasm and community contributions to these lovely classic. For me, a couple of years ago, there was a moment of renaissance when I discovered the Linux ports of both Red Alert and Red Alert 2. Getting the former to work was quite simple (and there's also OpenRA), but for the latter, I needed my original DVD game files. Solid fun, but one could still feel the technology gap of some twenty years looming over the gameplay. It was doable, but not seamless.
Well, that problem has finally been solved in 2020. There is now an official Command & Conquer Remastered Collection edition available (also on Steam), featuring the the first two games and their expansion packs, 4K graphics, remastered music plus new tracks, modern online gameplay, upscaled cinematic footage of the original (and rather iconic) movie-like C&C videos, and then some.
Is this a daring nostalgia stunt? Yup. Do I care? Not really. Because I wanna play!
Rock 'n' roll babe
I must say that I almost had a fit when playing the game for the first time. It launched in awful low-res mode. My first instinct was to start foaming at the mouth, but then, within seconds, the game's cold "computer" voice told me: "Commander, your action is needed." I could press Spacebar to activate the modern 4K graphics mode, and lo and behold, the game now ran sharp and clear on my 2560x1440px monitor.
You can instantly feel the UI improvements. The sidebar has been refurbished, and you have a bit more control managing your base than in the older days, but you can tweak how you want the game to behave. If you're a purist, you can dial everything back to the original features, including the mouse click actions.
The looks are great, but the biggest improvement is in the music score. Normally, I'm not that much of an audiophile, and typically, very few title grab my attention when it comes to in-game sounds. The exceptions are the aforementioned Warcraft II (the Orc tracks are just bewitching) and GTA Vice City, of course. And I feel I need to add the new Red Alert to the mix. In particular, the namesake title, Red Alert, which starts with the sound of boots marching, followed by the Re-re-re-RED Alert klaxon, well ... Fantastic. You get full 3D sound, so you can actually pinpoint the noises quite accurately, including the location of any skirmishes with the enemy troops.
And what about the gameplay?
Ah. Solid. Really solid. But not perfect, and I got to remember all the little flaws that made me like Warcraft II so much more. The big problem is that you cannot place buildings anywhere you like, only within three squares of your existing base buildings. This makes in-game progress slower. Typically, I like to charge and establish forward bases, but you can't do that until you have a service depot and an MCV, which can take a bit of time, and by then, you will have to focus on defending yourself from the first enemy attack.
You cannot queue buildings, the ore silos feel a bit tedious, and the maps are too small. The biggest default map measures only 128x128 squares, which was adequate in the 640px DOS era, but feels a bit small today. In combat, your units need a lot of supervision. If you don't micro-manage them, they will often sit idle even while there's an attack nearby. True both for defense and offense.
The Map Editor is utterly confusing. I never figured how to change the map size. I was able to create rivers and ridges, add ore and buildings and decorative artifacts, but the size always remained a small 64x64 square. Not sure what gives.
All that said, Red Alert is still a blast. Totally fun. You can easily burn hour upon hour trying to build the perfect base, the perfect army, defend against spies and Tanyas, or flatten your foe with a volley of nukes. Speaking of, I found to my chagrin that you cannot use Chronoshift on demo trucks - they simply explode, and when you have ten of them parked next to each other, the whole maps goes big bada boom. On other occasions, they are the perfect harassment tool, as you can cause a lot of noise and damage to the enemy base, even if they don't reach the very heart of it.
I don't know if the AI has changed, but it doesn't look like it. However, it's still way easier to skirmish here than in Warcraft II, for instance. You actually stand a chance, especially if you stay a bit more defensive early on, as the enemy likes to send a probing attack in the first fifteen minutes or so. The skirmishes are quite replayable, as you can use the individual, asymmetric advantages of different in-game nations to wage your war. In fact, this is one of the best features in Red Alert - you don't play the two sides the same, and you don't play the French or the German or the British faction quite the same either. The only thing missing is the dope Kirov airship, but one can hope, eh?
My wallet is thinner by USD39.99 (excluding the occasional Steam sale discount), and my life's chronosphere is down a good few hours of furious, wild gameplay, but I'm super happy. With Age of Empires and Red Alert already remastered, Caesar III available in HD thanks to Julius (check my gaming section), I only need Warcraft II and Yuri's Revenge, and my life shall be complete. Well, mostly. At least when it comes to games.
There are many things to be said about this or that game company, especially their newer titles, but I will not delve into that. This Remastered Collection if a fabulous piece of history and modernity blended, and worth every cent or penny, whatever your preferred proverbial currency is. If you were born in the olden era of pre-Internet dinosaurs, and there be nuggets of PC gaming nostalgia in your heart, then you might want to consider this set and rekindle some of that youth, innocence, and above all, spectacular gameplay. Battle Control Terminated.