Playing with the balance of battle in C&C: Red Alert

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In Now Playing PC Gamer writers talk about the game currently dominating their spare time. Today, Sam gets mauled by Soviet might, but unbalance can work both ways.

Our recent top 20 strategy games list has galvanised my interest in Westwood’s wonderfully unbalanced ’90s RTS. When I was younger, I always had a thing against the Allies because they were total ass compared to their Soviet rivals. Particularly in skirmish mode where they lost exclusivity rights to Tanya, the deadly one-person building-wrecker, which could take out an entire base in about 30 seconds providing there were no unitzapping Tesla coils nearby.

I gave Red Alert another go with the goal of playing as the Allies in skirmish mode and actually beating the Soviets, which I’m fairly certain I managed zero times back in the day.

The problem is firepower. In no part of the game do the Allies have an advantage. Where they have light medium tanks, the Soviets have heavy tanks and the mighty HP-recovering mammoth tanks. If you’ve played Red Alert before, you know what I’m talking about – it’s like watching a chihuahua try to take on a cat. Not gonna happen. If an RTS was released with those sorts of balance issues now, the developer would have that shit patched on Steam in 24 hours.

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I start the game in the top-right corner of the island-based map (it’s called Island Wars, there are bridges, you may remember it). Quickly I build up my base towards landing a tech centre, which grants full coverage of the map by launching a satellite after a certain time. I’m building as many medium tanks as possible. Intimidatingly, within five minutes, I can hear two armies going at it in the shroud. I send one ill-fated machine gun guy down to investigate, and sure enough, two Soviet armies of about 15 vehicles apiece that vastly exceed my powers are exchanging fire. If one of them wins, I’m close enough to be next.

That doesn’t happen, though. As my satellite launches into the air minutes later, it turns out the Soviet armies are both depleted after the scrap. I drop a nuke on a barracks to kill some of their remaining soldiers, and later dispatch Tanyas to their base in an APC flanked by medium tanks to clear out their remaining buildings. I overwhelm them and the Tanyas do their thing. It turns out my big scary enemies with the better units peaked too early. The biggest threat is a red-coloured Allied army in the south which is relatively untouched and swarming with similarly pathetic units to mine.

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Now it’s my turn to break Red Alert with unbalanced units. I nuke the red Allies then send in two Allied cruisers, by far the best unit my side has. I toast my victory by sending in some of my tiny tanks to wipe out the remaining units. The key to beating the Soviets in Red Alert? Let those assholes wipe each other out.

Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.