The Most Bastardly Game of All Time

By Richard Wordsworth on at

One thing I don’t like in a game is the lack of opportunities to be a bastard. I am an out-and-out bastard in video games and resent anything that tries to make me play fairly, or cooperatively, or with any sort of honour. So it’s saying something when I tell you that no game in years has made me feel like as a much of a bastard (or introduced me to such examples of underhanded bastardry) as playing Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 against human opponents. It’s like the Myers-Briggs test with airstrikes.

Since I know not everyone has been playing Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 for the past 15 years, here’s a potted history of the campaign: after Albert Einstein invents a time machine and assassinates Hitler before the Second World War, the Soviet Union becomes a dominant military power instead of the Nazis and then invades the United States. As top military commander, your job is to build up bases and armies of exotic tanks and soldiers and smash the forces of encroaching Communism (or of the decadent West, if you side with the Reds). It’s knowingly hammy twaddle and it’s brilliant. Just look at the game’s intro cinematic:

Until quite recently, however, the single-player mode was all I could do. When EA re-released Red Alert 2 for free on Origin a few months back, the company slyly failed to mention that the multiplayer portion of the game wouldn’t work, as the servers went offline many, many years ago. Even when the game came out in 2000 – a time when players connected to each other through GameSpy and taut bits of string – I could only ever play against one other person in 640x480 resolution. Anything more taxing and the internet caught fire.

But a month back I did some Googling, and found CnCNet.org. Somehow, the good people over there had built a multiplayer client for a 15-year-old game with dead multiplayer. You download the client, point it at your Red Alert 2 install directory, and poof! It just works. You open it up to a lobby list of games and players, find a suitable pairing of both, and off you go.

And it’s great: playing against proper people is a completely different experience to what I’m used to after years of knackering the charmingly dim and predictable computer AI. It’s a masterclass in trickery and subterfuge, of observing the enemy’s weaknesses and ruthlessly exploiting them for profit.

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For example, I like maps with lots of water, because it means I can build an early Navy SEAL. SEALs are pricey infantry units you unlock quite early when you don’t have a lot of money, but in the hands of a bastard, they can be a lethally effective investment. They can swim, have a gun that wipes out platoons of infantry in seconds and – most bastardly of all – they can put bombs on buildings that instantly blow them up. I like to have mine swim to opposite corners of the map, scampering into any poorly defended bases they find and crushing an opponent before they’ve even got going. Cue a delicious deluge of furious all-caps protestations.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll build some Spies. Spies are defenceless, and their only ‘attack’ is to slip into the uniform of whichever enemy infantry unit you target. Once disguised, your doppelgänger won’t be attacked by enemy units, and can slip into most of your opponent’s buildings for a unique reward. Get your Spy into a Barracks and all your future infantry get a stat boost. Into a Refinery, and he’ll nab half your opponent’s money. Get him through the door of a Battle Lab and you’ll get the ability to build a Navy SEAL that can teleport, which is the most horribly unfair (and therefore the best) unit in the game.

Of course, the enemy will be suspicious if they see what appears to be one of their soldiers ambling into their base from outside, so the trick is to feign an attack to get their attention, then slip the Spies in while their focus is elsewhere. Usually, I do this by attacking their Ore Miners.

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Attacking people’s Ore Miners is my absolute favourite thing to do. Miners are slow, largely defenceless trucks that drive onto patches of gold or gems, hoover them up, then bring them back to a Refinery, which converts ore into credits. Take away an opponent’s Miners, and you’ll slowly bleed them of resources until, in most cases, they rage quit – that sweetest of victories.

I like to use Black Eagle fighter jets for this. They’re a unique unit for the Korean side (Red Alert 2 has nine sides, each with a special unit), and pack more firepower and armour than the standard Allied Harrier. This means I need fewer of them to spoil my opponent’s game. I watch for the enemy Miners leaving the base, call in the jets, wreck one, then repeat. Sometimes I blow up the Refinery, so the enemy has to spend credits building another one. Credits he doesn’t have, because I’ve blown up all his Miners. Once, I let all the opponent’s Miners get to an ore field across a bridge, then blew up the bridge. For comparison, the most evil thing I’ve done in Fallout 4 is steal a settlement’s potato crop so I could make some extra glue. They didn’t even get cross.

Clearly, then, everyone disappointed with Fallout 4 should stop playing immediately and come and play Red Alert 2. War has changed: it’s become too nice – too much about building settlements, picking crops and getting people to like you. Red Alert 2 has none of that, but it have a machine that lets me teleport enemy Ore Miners into the sea.

Download the client here.