In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today Sam turns exterminator in Red Alert's secret ant level.
The ant missions were the stuff of legend when I was a kid. Load Red Alert’s Counterstrike add-on, a friend at school told me, then shift-click on the speaker in the top right corner of the game’s menu screen. This, supposedly, would unlock a sequence of missions where the Allied forces would go to war with enormous ants. Yeah, right. Kids talk a lot of bullshit when they’re ten or eleven. When I got home, I clicked on the speaker and it was like Bruce Wayne’s bookcase sliding away to reveal the entrance to the Batcave. I was instantly obsessed.
Activating the mission strand triggers an FMV sequence with an enormous ant atop a pile of human bones, complete with the heading ‘It came from Red Alert!’ in a kitschy horror poster font. The first mission is a completely different slant on Red Alert—you start with just a few soldiers and a ranger jeep, tasked with looking for an abandoned base where giant ants are rumoured to have been sighted. When you find the base—if the ants don’t get you first—it’s a wreck, and you’ve got no construction yard, meaning there’s no way of replacing buildings if they’re blown up. Then the ants arrive. They’re deadlier than any other unit in the game.
On my first playthrough, the ants closed in and destroyed my defences almost immediately. In the midst of horrible screeching sounds and human death, they took apart all my buildings before rounding on my remaining men and wiping them out. I was eleven, and sad. I’d finished most missions in Red Alert prior to this, but for the first time I was playing a survival RTS. The first ant mission takes all of your most precious and powerful toys away. You’ve got nothing but jeeps, riflemen and grenadiers to help you put up a defence—no tanks, no aircraft, no Tanya. Basically, you’ve just got the C-team. It’s brilliantly tense.
The ants can wipe out one soldier a second. I must have lost that first ant mission about ten times when I was a kid. These days it’s still tricky, but I’ve memorised exactly how to do it: you spread tons of rifleman to each entry point on the map, and make sure each outpost is topped up with cannon fodder. This is a mode about barely staving off defeat, rather than bombastic military victory. That’s what I love about it.
The map expands for the second level, which involves rescuing civilians from two nearby villages and ensuring they get safe passage to the island in the north. Problem is, there’s a nest between the two locations, which infinitely spawns red ants. The way to keep the civilians alive is to cut off three bridges that lead to the island containing the nest. You’re sending tons of slightly crap tanks and grenadiers to certain death as they try to blow them up. The ants swarm to protect the bridges, and failing to destroy them will mobilise them all towards your base. Worse still, gathering ore to build more units is risky as hell: an ant can destroy your expensive ore trucks within seconds. If this happens, the cannon fodder tap turns off and you’re done. Get the civilians out, though, and overcoming the odds with so few resources feels fantastic.
In the third mission, you’re gassing nests to stop them spawning, and in the final mission, Extermination, you go underground into these tunnels where the creatures came from. In Aliens style, you seek out the queen ant, who is a giant static structure that zaps you with electricity like Red Alert’s tesla coils. Destroying her and the accompanying larvae completes this mini campaign.
This neat angle on Red Alert would almost certainly be sliced off and turned into £6.99 DLC if it was released today. People tend to bring it up almost right away when I talk to them about the game. Imagine a big developer today bolting-on missions that radically remix what their game’s about while adding an entirely new side to the fiction, and then hiding all that in a menu screen. This was a special one-off from a very specific era of PC gaming.