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When you think real time strategy (RTS) games, Command & Conquer and Age of Empires are two franchises that immediately spring to mind. Spanning decades of great games and a tapestry of incredible sequels, it's no surprise that both operations have been so successful throughout their time.
So when comparing these two goliaths of the gaming industry, where do you start? You could be logical and start at the very beginning, but that would be too easy. Instead, we'll take a trip down memory lane, my memory lane to be precise and dissect the importance and sheer wonder of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 and stack it against the equally incredible and influential Age of Empires II. I've picked these two as they were both very prominent during my early gaming days, and they're both released in close proximity to one another (less than a year between them) so the comparison is somewhat fair. The crux is this though; I love them both, so how do we separate them?
Sometimes when you pick up a game, you simply know it's going to be great. I had this feeling the very second I inserted my Red Alert 2 disc into my gaming rig; you're met with a voice clip that proclaims “Warning, military software detected, top secret clearance required.” What a fantastic way to get you immediately immersed in the game's atmosphere and world. The loading screen was also interesting, as it recapped the real world history of the Second World War merged with the game's fantasy reality established in the first Red Alert. This all climaxed at one outcome in my mind; “this is awesome.” You know a game is doing something very right when you're hooked from the loading screen. This is continued with a live action prologue that has some familiar faces show up and give it their all in one of the most memorable openings to date. Honestly, look it up on YouTube. It's the right amount of “cheesy” blended with intrigue to get you pumped up for the game.
When you get the game fully installed and all your settings optimized as you see fit, you can either skirmish with the computer, play online or engage in the campaign. Nothing too fancy here, but that all changes once you enter the campaign. Continuing on from the aforementioned introductory story, you're greeted with further live action scenes that propel you into the mission at hand and have you barreling along a narrative that ramps up the action the further you get involved. It's a progressive and challenging campaign that has you wanting more and you can play as both the Soviets and the Allies for completely different story modes, which was a nice touch.
The game play for Red Alert 2 was frantic, fun and actually rather strategic. Resources were finite on the map, so you really had to think about what you were doing before spamming the most expensive stuff you could get your hands on, as if it didn't serve a purpose, it could become a hindrance. Most maps were also relatively small, allowing for quick introductions to action that could catch you off guard if you weren't careful (plenty of times I'd have my based rushed by engineers who would capture all my buildings and leave me with nothing). I could go on and on about the varying strategies, but I think this is best left to the player to discover. Put simply, each country has their own unique hero which adds a varied dynamic to the game. Online warfare is as you'd expect; a true challenge and increase in difficulty from playing the A.I, no matter what setting they're on.
Moving on to Age of Empires, this game had so much variation it's hard to find where you can begin. Not only were there a whole host of different races to pick from, there was also a myriad of maps and game times. Let's start with the factions. Each culture/race had their own unique unit(s), similar to Red Alert 2. However, an added layer of depth was the technology tree, which would alter wildly depending on who you chose. Access to research, units and buildings would be impacted with your decision and you could find yourself at a significant disadvantage depending on the terrain. For example, Vikings were given mastery of the sea with their unique unit, the Viking Longboat, as well as advanced research. By comparison, Teutons had a weaker navy, so could get overrun in this department rather easily.
Even buildings could have varying stats depending on who your race was. There may be 25% bonus of additional hit points, or an increased “heated shot” damage, it really is such a web of possibility it's truly difficult to master every single race. This is also where the great game play exists. The fact that there are so many selections to make and potential scenarios that can occur give the game an unpredictability that is hard to match. A more modern RTS might focus in on four or five races with unique attributes, (such as Dawn of War), but Age of Empires really stood out and still does, for this reason.
In terms of game-play, gathering resources, building a base and generating an army were all fun experiences and this was helped immensely by the unique tiering system; you progressed through “ages” in time and this had a profound affect on not only your units and abilities, but also visually. It was so amazing to see your humble village transform into a bustling age appropriate metropolis. The battles themselves were impressive too. It was usually difficult to just steamroll through an opposition with a handful of units, due to how sturdy structures tended to be. Instead you needed a genuine army to conquer foes and this leads me to where the two games we're looking at today begin to diverge…
So it's established both games are awesome. No debate whatsoever. But how do they differ? Well, let's begin with the battles and overall speed of the game. Red Alert 2 is set to a quicker tempo than Age of Empires 2. Base building is faster and more impersonal; you get a side menu and it's a click and drop situation and the building springs forth from the ground like some kind of garden gnome.
By comparison, in Age of Empires you get villagers, who are masters of all trades it seems, as not only can they construct a castle if you so wish, but also fish, farm and gather other resources. The more you have, the greater you can reap resources, harvest crop and develop your base, but each villager counts towards your population cap.
Which again, is another difference; Red Alert 2 has no population cap, so as long as you have enough resources, you can build to your heart's content. This limiting factor in Age of Empires is not necessarily a bad thing, as generally you can set high limits that will yield in humongous battles and lots of fun skirmishes.
A big difference is also the variation. Mentioned above, Age of Empires had such a plethora of possible match ups that could be discovered, it's honestly hard for me to possibly say I've played as everyone in every combination and on every map, which is literally impossible; the maps are randomly generated, offering such a feel of diversity and range, it's a stunning example of game design.
The emphasis on base building seemed more important in Age of Empires. Walls and structures were a lot sturdier and therefore harder to overrun and as I touched upon above, you need a big army to get over your enemy, whereas in Red Alert 2, a few of the elite tanks could, in theory, demolish a base in short time.
Phew. Let's let that soak in for a second. First of all, if you've read through this article having played neither game then I implore you to remedy that immediately and go and get both games; they're worth every single penny.
Now, on to the final verdict. I adore both games. Both I still play to this day. But, Red Alert 2 will always be my top choice. Maybe it's because it's the first “real” game I played on the PC (not counting things like 3D pinball). Maybe it's because it was the first online multiplayer experience I had. It may even be the quirky story-line, supplemented with sometimes unintentionally funny cut scenes. Whatever the reason, this game will always bring a smile to my face and have a place in my heart.