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Rise of the Soviets: 25 years of Command & Conquer: Red Alert

It's been 25 years since Westwood Studios explored an alternate World War II. Today, we celebrate 25 years of Command & Conquer: Red Alert.

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Gaming was being revolutionized in a number of ways 25 years ago. We've looked back at how games like Quake, Super Mario RPG, Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario 64, Wave Race 64, and several other 1996 releases have impacted this great hobby. For today, we're taking the focus off of shooters and platformers and shifting gears to real-time strategy. While there are many wonderful RTS games to be found in 2021, there was one title in the genre that stood out above its contemporaries in 1996. Today, we're looking back at Command & Conquer: Red Alert.

The sands of time

Before diving into Red Alert, let's look at the Command & Conquer series as a whole. Westwood Studios released the original C&C back in 1995. However, it didn't start off life as an original title. Not exactly, anyway. Prior to that year, Westwood was recognized for creating a pair of games based on the Dune license, which released on the Sega Megadrive. Dune 2, specifically, featured some mechanics that are taken for granted by some of today's RTS userbase. It utilized unit-based combat, resource management, and an isometric viewpoint. Westwood wanted to build on those ideas further, but not through the Dune license. Instead, the development team wanted to explore something new.

This led to the birth of Command & Conquer, which explored an alternate world devastated by two warring factions competing over control of a resource called Tiberium. The original C&C built on the foundation of many of the concepts established in Dune 2 and proved to be an exciting new endeavor for Westwood Studios.

"I think the appeal was the combination of plausible sci-fi military units melded with the real-time aspects of Populous with a light splash of the unit progression found in Civilization," said Lead Programmer Joe Bostic (via CVG). "We weren't exactly sure it would work at first, but when we had so much fun playing it in the office, we knew we were on to something."

"Command & Conquer was originally a fantasy game with wizards and warriors," Westwood Studios co-founder Louis Castle added. "But Brett [Sperry, Westwood co-founder] felt strongly that a contemporary war environment would be more accessible for most people so the game moved into 'modern war' and the C&C; fiction began to take shape."

The original Command & Conquer became a big hit on PC, selling one million copies in less than a year. With interesting new mechanics and a story bolstered by state-of-the-art cutscenes, this looked to be the start of a new franchise. So what did the team have lined up next?

Seeing 'Red'

To go forward meant to go backwards when it came to Command & Conquer. Red Alert explored the origins of the first game's conflict, centering around a clash between the Allied Forces and the Soviet Union. This is where Westwood Studios would really cement the idea of an alternate future by posing the question: What if Hitler never came into power following the Great War?

In Command & Conquer: Red Alert, the answer is that the Soviet Union rose to power much sooner under Joseph Stalin, seizing China, India, and Eastern Europe. World War II still took place, but now with Allied Powers banding together against Stalinist Russia. It's a fascinating plot, one that's bolstered once again by the Command & Conquer series' innovative cutscenes. It wasn't quite Tim Curry's time to shine yet. No, that comes later. However, it set the continuing standard for what full motion cutscenes should look like.

In terms of gameplay, Red Alert further built on what Westwood Studios had put in place with the original Command & Conquer. The game also gave both sides their own distinct strengths and weaknesses. The Allies were quicker, had more resourceful units, and could bolster their forces at lower costs. In exchange, they had fewer aerial unit options, but more importantly, were at a distinct disadvantage when going toe-to-toe with the Soviets. Meanwhile, the Soviets had greater defensive units, more powerful vehicles, and greater recon forces. However, their units are significantly more expensive, their vehicles are slower, and they have a much weaker naval presence.

This led to some exciting skirmishes when playing online, especially since players selected individual countries. The pros and cons broke down further when split between countries, offering a deeper meta than anything seen in the typical strategy game at that time. Even better was the simple-to-use interface, which allowed for queued commands, as well as control of multiple units simultaneously.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert's sales numbers didn't quite match what its predecessor did, but they were still nothing to sneeze at. Drawing in revenues of over $16.5 million USD and scoring high with critics across the board, Red Alert was considered a massive success. Two subsequent expansions, Counterstrike and The Aftermath, further added to the fun with new maps, units, and missions.

All of this would lead to a bright future for the Command & Conquer franchise, which would receive a dozen new games and side stories over the next 15 years. This includes 2008's Red Alert 3 and, yes, let's play the clip.

Remastering a classic

There have been a lot of fond memories of Command & Conquer: Red Alert, as well as the C&C series as a whole. That's why it was such a treat to see the Command & Conquer Remastered Collection celebrate the original game's 25th anniversary last year. Our own Chris Jarrard got to check out C&C Remastered and saw the amount of love that Petroglyph put into these classic games. The FMV cutscenes were all upscaled, audio was heavily improved, and a revamped multiplayer package brought online play into the modern age.

Sequels being remembered more fondly than their predecessors is hardly a phenomenon in gaming. Red Alert being the standard for C&C games is just another example of it. Today, we celebrate its 25th anniversary, honoring this classic RTS in its original form, which players were treated to back in 1996. For those who don't have access to that original game, be sure to experience Red Alert by jumping into 2020's remastered collection, a faithful re-creation of the Command & Conquer series' glory days.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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