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Welcome Back Commander: A C&C Retrospective - Red Alert 2

After finishing Tiberian Sun, Westwood wasted no time getting their next game out. Their last game was good, but a rocky development cycle led to an unpolished product with lots of room for improvement. And maybe they sensed their coming doom at the hands of EA, cause in November of 2000, only seven months after the release of the Firestorm expansion, they dropped the next installment on the C&C franchise, considered by many—yours truly included—their best. To much acclaim, the world received one of the finest RTS to ever exist.

We received Red Alert 2. Boy, how I love this game.

Important

As usual, this is an old game and getting it running in modern systems requires a little bit of work. Unfortunately, we’re done with the freeware era of C&C, your only options for playing Red Alert 2 are trough Origin with the Ultimate Collection, using the original CDs, or with the First Decade Collection—and each of those requires some additional work to get it running.

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So let’s get to it! As usual, CNCNZ has the instructions you need for whatever method you choose. It’s worth noting that:

  1. If you’re just interested in the multiplayer aspect of RA 2, it’s possible to install just that component trough an officially endorsed fan install.
  2. I was able to install RA 2 trough the original CD that I still own. No such luck with Yuri’s Revenge though, the installer only gives me a black screen that I can’t do jack about it. In the case of the latter, what I did was install the aforementioned fan-made multiplayer patch and copy the necessary campaign files from my CD to that folder.
  3. For systems using Windows 7 or above, you’ll need some compatibility patches. Thankfully, the newest method only requires you to install C&C Net and let it patch the game.
  4. Set RA2.exe and YR.exe to run as admin and the compatibility mode to “XP SP 3”. Don’t forget to change the resolution in the RA2.ini file. If there’s none, launch the game then quit. And you’re done!

With that outta the way... Welcome back, Commander!


Warning! Military Software Detected

Red Alert 2 is a blast from start to finish. Like Tiberian Sun, it’s a game that greatly expands its universe, bringing it up to speed with the times both in setting and gameplay. RA 2 also has a unique atmosphere compared to the rest of the series. Where Tib Sun is unique in its bleakness, RA 2 is unique not in its campiness, but in how perfectly balanced that campiness is: not cheesy enough for satire but not serious enough for them Oscars. Set 25 years after the Allied victory in WW II, the world is enjoying a time of peace and quiet. The Allies have total control over the Soviet Union thanks to their puppet leader, Alexei Romanov. Or so they thought! With a betrayal that should shock no one, the Soviets invade the USA on three different fronts, because Romanov has legacy to consider! America tries to retaliate with nukes but Romanov’s right hand, a psychic named Yuri (yes we have those now, no questions please) gives their missile command a call and stops the silo doors from opening, detonating all the nukes on the ground. Which would probably win the war before it even began. It gotta be extremally demoralizing to have your own nukes detonate quite literally on your face, not to mention the destruction and fallout, but this is a world where a man can mind control another man through a phone call, so what do I know. Cue the epic intro!

It has only begun...

So naturally, RA 2 has no pretense of telling a serious story, but just because the plot doesn’t take itself too seriously that doesn’t mean the actors were resting on their laurels, quite the opposite. Once again Westwood has resorted to famous actors to do their act in their FLV cutscenes, but they cleverly decided to go for more affordable people this time (either that or they had an actual budget this time). Actually, the presentation starts to shine before you even start playing: the installer for Red Alert 2 is fantastic! All of Westwood’s C&C games have them, but this one’s special. It’s framed like you’re installing this top-secret, black ops app, complete with required levels of clearance and confirmation codes (the CD Key). During the installation, you get a recap of the previous game, some backstory for this one, and previews of the units in the game, like a slideshow presenting the information your spy stole from the enemy. Oh, and instead of saying things like “installing maps” it says “acquiring geographical data”. This was a time where installing a game was an experience in and of itself kids, games were fun before you even got the chance to press start.

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And fun really is the keyword here. Playing the game, you get the feeling that everyone involved just had a blast making it. The acting hits that balance I mentioned earlier, everyone clearly knows they’re making a B grade movie and they deliver it with grace! Romanov’s exaggerated accent, Yuri’s threatening presence that wouldn’t be out of place in an old Bond movie, Tanya’s happy-go-fuck-yourself attitude; really everyone just did a fantastic job and I’m glad they all came back for the expansion.

Establishing Battlefield Control

That “make it fun” attitude reached the gameplay department as well. RA 2 brings some much-needed quality of life improvements. The sidebar has finally been given tabs, putting buildings, defensive structures, infantry, and vehicles in a dedicated space for each. Buildings and defenses now have separate build queues, so you’re no longer a sitting duck when teching up. And speaking of queues, the five-unit limit is gone, you can produce to your heart content. There’s now an option to see if there’s a unit behind a building that you should never turn off. Last but definitely not least, the waypoint system from Tib Sun has been reworked into something actually usable, and that makes macroing your units a lot easier.

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Here come the reds!

And speaking of units, setting the game during the (not so) Cold War wasn’t just for cosmetic purposes. Going forward in time allowed Westwood to really tap into the world of conspiracy theories, and boy did they went in. Iron Curtains and Chronospheres make a return but the new toys are the ones that steal the show. I already mentioned Yuri and his Psychic Corp, inspired by the real-life rumors of Soviets experimenting with the minds of humans, but there’s a little bit for everyone here: weather control devices being used as a weapon are clearly inspired by the whole HAARP project, the Allies have access to prism technology that literally uses light as a deadly laser, while the Soviets have mind-controlled giant squids that need to be countered with specially trained dolphins, and as anyone that ever played Echo will attest, you don’t underestimate a dolphin.

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But before you even build your first reactor, you’re gonna notice that this game is freaking gorgeous. These sprites stood the test of time with the grace of a gymnast pulling off a triple mortal and getting the 10/10 she deserves. Because this isn’t the apocalypse anymore and most missions take place in real-life locations, the maps are oozing with personality. It doesn’t matter if you’re in raiding a secret Soviet research facility in Hawaii or taking control of the World Trade Center (can you tell this game was released before 9/11?), the buildings are full of detail and are true to their real-life counterparts. The look of them when infantry uses them as a garrison is just awesome, with the sandbags, the barbed wire, and the boarded windows. My favorite has to be the fast food with the monkey mascot on top when garrisoned, that monkey gets a bandana, Rambo style. They didn’t need to go that far, but this attention to detail is certainly appreciated. Even the weather is accounted for—when it’s snowing, buildings have different sprites that reflect that. RA 2 is full of those little details that make every map feel like a real place. Like how random police cars roam the streets or how civilians run for their lives when the Soviets parachute in Washington and replace the American flag in the Iwo Jima monument with their own.

The details extend far beyond just cosmetic stuff, the campaign for Red Alert 2 is by far the best in the entire series. We’re back to the linear style from the Firestorm expansion, but each mission has secrets in them that are completely optional but feel amazing to find. It can be anything from reinforcements to crates—that now can contain upgrades for the unit that picks them or even a free unit (like a harvester for example). Not only that, but some allow you to win in multiple ways! For example, in the first micro mission of the Allied campaign, where you have to take out some Soviet nuclear silos using Tanya and some spies. Sure, you can play it as intended, sneaking spies inside enemy bases and sabotaging the power so Tanya can finish the job. Or you can explore, find some engineers, capture one of the silos and use it to nuke the other. Hell, if you’re really diligent, you can free a group of cows and use them to scout the map! COWS! Another Allied mission tasks you with capturing the Kremlin, but the building is guarded by an elite group of apocalypse tanks. You can just throw a lot of units at them and hope they kill the fuckers, or you can be an absolute alpha male commander like myself and steal the Soviets mind-control technology, use the Chronosphere to give half the tanks a nice view of the bottom of the nearest river, and mind control the rest to do your bidding for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming, Romanov!

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After playing this game for so many years, I can beat each and every par time so bad they wake up in Skyrim. But it isn’t just map knowledge that allows me to do that: when it comes to balance, RA 2 is like a drunk clown trying to ride a tightrope. Fortunately, it’s a case of “everything is broken, so nothing is”, aka Syndrome’s philosophy from The Incredibles (God I love that movie). Take the Prism Tank for example: at its base level, that thing outranges every single thing in the game that isn’t dedicated artillery, it does AOE damage, and they do well against pretty much everything in the game. Its only downside is a slow rate of fire, but that is quickly fixed when they reach max rank. Oh yeah, the veterancy system is back and it is downright stupid in this game. A fully maxed out unit attacks faster, harder, auto heals and some even gain AOE! Case in point, an Elite GI can straight up win against a tank without breaking a sweat! If you think that’s bad, wait until you meet the Soviet Kirov, a giant bomber zeppelin that lacks in speed, but more than makes up for it in durability and raw firepower. A well-placed Kirov can take out a Con Yard in seconds, and their death crash is in itself a weapon! There’s a reason why every player in a match gets to hear “Kirov reporting” when one is built—that reason being having enough time to panic! Naval combat was greatly expanded as well. I already mentioned the dolphins and squids, but now each side gets some form of long-range siege and transports are now amphibious, meaning they’re way more useful in getting people around.

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With all of this, Red Alert 2 is easily one of the best RTS ever made. So it’s impressive that the expansion manages to top it in every regard.

Guess Who’s Back…

Back again. Yuri is back and Yuri is master. In another 180 from Tib Sun, Yuri’s Revenge is a downright awesome expansion, and the definitive way to experience the multiplayer. It takes place after the Allied victory in the base game (what a surprise, right). Yuri vanished for a while but came back with an army of clones and a network of Psychic Dominators, and take a guess at what they do. If you answered mind control, congratulations you were paying attention! The USA president tries to convince Yuri to not do it but he ain’t having none of that, and activates his machines. Thanks to sheer luck, the Allies manage to damage the power plant feeding the Dominator in Alcatraz island, giving them and the Soviets a chance to fight back. And how are they going to do it? Time travel of course! If you think you can have a Red Alert game without that trope, I have bad news for you buddy!

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Yuri now has his own faction, and he’s all about dat mind control. He has no hard-hitting tanks or strong air presence, but he doesn’t need it. Several of his units, one of his defensive structures and his superweapon can mind control enemies, and Yuri himself can join the fray as his faction’s commando unit. Unfortunately, there is no campaign for his faction, probably because he starts the game by almost winning. But he’s perfectly playable in Multiplayer, where he is broken even by this game’s standards. The CPU just kinda throws anything they have at you, but a real human will micro their armies and make your life a living hell. There’s a damn good reason why the C&C Net lobby includes an optional fan-made balance patch for Yuri.

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And speaking of the campaign, Yuri’s Revenge’s might be shorter, but it’s very much a case of quality over quantity. Once again there are a lot of details and things you can miss, like the fact you can recruit a T-Rex in the first Soviet mission. I’m not telling you how go figure that one out yourself. Also, here’s a pro tip, in the fifth Allied mission, don’t destroy the Psychic Dominator at the beginning of the mission, trust me on this one. Sometimes maps are shared between both campaigns, but the context and the way they play are completely different, so most of the time you won’t even notice it. Major props for the second Soviet mission being a repeat of an Allied mission from the base game, except now you’re on the other side, it’s a clever way of reusing content but not being lazy about it.

Somehow, I went this entire thing without mentioning the music once, which is amazing because the intro for this game is rocking a brand-new remix of Hell March, and it is awesome! The soundtrack goes for a mix of hard rocking metal with electronic beats sprinkled in, while embracing the vocal samples fully. You’d think that making a whole OST in a single style would get repetitive, but each and every song in this game is instantly recognizable. I love how Hell March 2 sounds much more intense now, and pay attention to the final part of the song: it’s the opening riff for No Mercy, a song from Tib Dawn that is mostly known for being the theme for Nod, reflecting their intended connection in the soundtrack. Such a nice touch that many won’t even notice.

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The Future Is Yours, Comrade

Red Alert 2 is an amazing game, and if I were to talk about every little thing it does right, we’d be here all day. If this were to be the last game in the franchise, it would’ve been the best possible send-off. This game is one of the most fun experiences you can have with an RTS, and to this day I never found anything quite like it. There’s a damn good reason why you often find a couple hundred people playing YR online through C&C Net at any time, and there are YouTube channels making RA 2 content to this very day. That is a testament to Westwood’s legacy, their magnum opus, and one of my favorite games of all time.

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Westwood would still develop one more game in the C&C franchise before their closure, taking us back to the Tiberium timeline for one last ride. But not in the way one would expect. Next time, we’re fighting Nod up close and personal kids.

Bonus Round!

Some of you who own the original CD for Yuri’s Revenge might notice that in the second Allied mission, something is amiss. In this mission, you can find and recruit Hollywood actors to fight against Yuri. These three special units are references to Clint Eastwood, Silvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, they were changed to the generic GI sound in Patch 1.001, but I’m here to tell you there’s an easy fix you can do in less than five minutes, no modding knowledge required!

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1. First, download XCC Utilities. This is the most basic tool used to mod classic C&C games.

2. Run the XCC and go to where RA 2 is installed. From there, find “rulesmd.ini” inside the expandmd01.mix file. Extract that inside your RA 2 folder.

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3. Open rulesmd in a text editor. From there, find [CLNT] and replace the following values under it:

  • VoiceSelect=GISelect->ClintSelect
  • VoiceMove=GIMove -> ClintMove
  • VoiceAttack=GIAttackCommand -> ClintAttackCommand
  • VoiceFeedback=GIFear -> ClintFear
  • VoiceSpecialAttack=GIMove -> ClintMove
  • DieSound=GIDie -> ClintDie

4. Repeat for [ARND], replacing “Clint” with “Arnold” and for [STLN], replacing “Clint” with “Sly”. They’re all one after the other in the file, no need to search for it.

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5. Have fun!

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