The long anticipated unofficial follow up to Cavedog's Total Annihilation is finally upon us, and it turns out to be a truly mammoth real-time strategy experience. We've had the final build in the office for a few weeks now, and have been regularly eschewing normal work duties to get in just one more skirmish. Along with Supreme Commander's dizzying depth and balancing comes a significant learning curve, something that may unfortunately turn away the casual gamer. If you're an RTS fan at all, you really owe it to yourself to check out the strategic juggernaut Gas Powered Games has created. Though its single player campaign is far from spectacular, the multiplayer and skirmish modes in Supreme Commander deliver some of the deepest, most refined RTS gameplay in recent memory.
If you've played the demo released a few weeks back, you'll know what you're in for. Gas Powered Games created a mob of units for each of the game's three factions, the Cybran, United Earth Federation, and Aeon. Though each may seem similar at the lowest technology levels, there still exist a number of differences. As players proceed through up to the maximum tech level 3 (T3) and beyond to the experimental units, more variety becomes apparent. A few Aeon units can hover, for instance, letting them traverse the watery canals snaking through many of Supreme Commander's maps. The Cybran get T2 naval units that can sprout legs and march across land, albeit extremely slowly. The UEF get one of the most powerful non-experimental units, the T3 gunships, which boast devastating air-to-ground attacks as well as anti-air defenses. Despite their ferocity on the battlefield, can easily be wiped out by a force of T3 air superiority fighters or a battery of SAM launchers.
Even though there's an effective defense for every attack, including against nukes, the only way you're going to make proper use of them is to gather intelligence. A victory in Supreme Commander isn't all about massing giant forces to toss at your enemy, it's much more about precise reconnaissance and intelligent strategic planning. Given the staggering scope of the abilities of units, artillery batteries, point defenses, missile launchers, naval units, and experimental monstrosities, knowing exactly where your opponent is and what he or she is up to is of much more importance than in less sophisticated RTS games.
That being said, it's not like creating a sprawling troupe of units to mount an attack is a bad idea. It's actually highly entertaining, and one of the great payoffs of this game to see the fruits of all your technology upgrades, delicate resource management, and build queuing mature into a rumbling mass of robotic assault bots, boats, and planes moving with the singular purpose of obliterating your enemy. Getting to that point is a beast of a process, however, something the hardcore strategy gamers will be sure to appreciate, whereas more casual players might not be willing to invest the time.
Resource management, for instance, approaches near scientific heights when trying to balance rates of mass and energy accumulation, along with adjusting your storage capacity for each. At a game's outset you'll be striving to capture as many mass extraction points as possible, while setting up a big energy surplus. As T3 is reached, your advanced engineer units can set up power plants that yield much more significant energy bonuses, and can also construct what are known as mass fabricators that convert energy to mass. Since each unit in the game requires energy to run and mass to construct, keeping your resource reserves properly stocked is vital for producing your attack and defense forces in a timely fashion. It means nothing if you've pumped all your resources into erecting a T3 artillery station when it causes everything else in your base to build five times more slowly.
With such a focus on base building and handling resources, you're going to need some especially utilitarian construction units. Supreme Commander's engineers fill that role very well. Available in T1, T2, and T3 versions, every engineer has a vast range of abilities and build options. They can reclaim trees or other debris littered around maps, repair your forces, capture enemy structures and units, speed up build times at the expense of extra resources, and accelerate the rate of tactical and strategic missile construction and technology upgrades. Given such a broad functionality, these units would be unmanageable without an intuitive, dynamic interface to govern their actions. Again, Supreme Commander does not disappoint.
Effectively controlling the battlefield is achieved chiefly through the all-powerful Shift key. By pressing and holding, players can queue up unit movements, build orders, patrol waypoints, and combine move and attack orders. Should you decide to change movement patterns or build locations while the action is already underway, hitting shift again brings up an interface where you can drag around the waypoints as you see fit. Every unit construction factory can be given build order while it's still being built. Even after telling it to upgrade to the next technology level, you'll be presented with the next set of build options so you don't have to keep checking back in. Different types and amounts of units can be queued in the same construction facility, and a repeat build order function lets you move on to something else once you're happy with a factory's production pattern. Since you'll find a significant amount of water and hilly terrain across the game's many maps, there's an unusual emphasis on air transports. Thankfully these units can be set along ferry routes, where they'll automatically scoop up waiting units and drop them off wherever you so designate. If you set a factory waypoint to the starting point of the ferry route, units will automatically be ferried as soon as they roll or crawl off the production line.
These kinds of accommodations for unit production and defense construction automation become increasingly important as the map size increases. Since you can build a base anywhere on a map, which you should certainly be doing with a lot of available terrain, you'll need to keep track of a near overwhelming amount of information. For anyone thinking Supreme Commander's scale and powerful experimental units are the finale of any game experience, you're wrong. An Aeon Czar, a giant flying saucer with a devastating air to ground laser, can be taken out in seconds with adequate SAM defenses. With proper base shielding, T2 point defenses, and a supporting force of T3 assault bots and artillery, nearly any ground based attack can be pushed back, assuming the Cybran Monkeylord or Aeon Colossus doesn't get close enough to disintegrate everything with their sweeping energy beams. Since base construction and defense is just as important as what kind of assault units you're building, a multi-pronged attack is often most effective. This means sending in the land force only to distract your opponent from the massive battleships moving into the other side. It can mean sending in a squadron of interceptor planes to divert SAM defenses from your T3 bombers arriving to rip up resource production farms. It's a game that forces you to consider nearly every unit available, which is in large part why this game's learning curve is so high, assuming you never experienced Total Annihilation.
Playing skirmishes against the AI and multiplayer matches on large maps can easily take over two hours, assuming you know what you're doing. With eight players on the game's largest battlefields, you could very well be in for a four hour long or more experience. In case the notion of frantically strategizing for such an extended period of time makes you want to take a nap, it's entirely possible to pull off a game in between a half and full hour on the smaller maps, so Supreme Commander in that sense offers something for everyone.
As excellent as Supreme Commander online is, the single player campaigns suffer. In short, it takes too long to get to the entertaining missions, and the narrative is nowhere near compelling. With six lengthy missions for each of the game's three factions, you're in for around a 20 to 30 hour single player experience. Since you're limited to only T1 and T2 units for the first few missions, the experience grows stale rather quickly. Unlike Company of Heroes' emphasis on highly versatile handfuls of units, Supreme Commander's focus on large-scale combat means the units don't have all that much flexibility. Tanks shell ground units. Artillery attacks from afar. Bombers bomb. Missile launchers launch missiles from long range. At higher levels the units' individual functions start to diversify by more significant amounts, but at lower levels most units are strictly straightforward in their abilities. When you're limited to mounting an attack force restricted T1 and T2 during the course of a mission lasting more than an hour, it gets boring, plain and simple. The single player campaigns only really pick up during missions five and six, when significantly more powerful T3 options finally open up and you can amass more interesting assault forces and construct better base defenses. Had the story been less derivative and contained sympathetic, rounded characters that elicited more of an emotional response on the player's part, these early campaign doldrums could have been alleviated to a degree.
A few more issues pervade the game, specifically when trying to issue formation orders, and especially when dealing with naval units. By pressing and holding the right mouse button with units selected, you can scroll through a number of unit formations by clicking the left mouse button. When released, the units seem to get confused, and move much more slowly than they would with a standard move order. If they happen to pass through other parts of your forces while attempting to properly orient themselves, this confusion seems to be exacerbated slightly. Though it's only a mild irritation with land units, naval units seem to be utterly perplexed by formation move orders. On numerous occasions we discovered groups of frigates and battleships that were ordered to line up along shore for base bombardment had turned around and actually started moving in the opposite direction, back towards our base. In a game like Supreme Commander where your mind is occupied with so many variables, having to take the time out from base management to baby-sit your boats is an unfortunate source of aggravation.
If you're turned off by the single player yet too timid to experience the intensity of online play, the game offers up a substantial skirmish mode. With variable unit caps, win conditions, 40 well designed maps, and the ability to load in mods, the skirmish mode is highly customizable and entertaining. After a while you'll find a single Supreme AI (the most difficult AI setting) opponent is toppled easily enough, but drop in four or more and you'll be engaged for hours. Once in a while we noticed the Supreme AI had a strange tendency to march their commander unit out into the midst of our forces, seemingly on a suicide run. This didn't make all that much sense a few times, since they still had significant resources on hand as well as numerous factory setups. During longer games AI experimental units became stuck next to structures, like Monkeylords stalling underneath naval bases, at which point they were quickly wiped out by torpedo defenses. For online play, you can either compete over LAN/IP or match up with others through Gas Powered Games' feature heavy but somewhat clunky server list and chat program, where lifetime statistics are tracked for each player.
It certainly helps the overall package that Supreme Commander is gorgeous game, though you'll spend curiously little time admiring its beauty. The strategic zoom is responsible for this, which quickly allows players to dart in and out of the action at any point of the map. It's one of the game's best features by far, greatly facilitating battlefield management, though it has the unfortunate side effect of hiding all the wonderful explosions and intricate unit designs. When fully zoomed out, all the units in the game take on the aspect of small geometric shapes. After spending some time with the game, you'll notice each shape corresponds to a specific unit type. For instance, a diamond with a dot in the middle is artillery. A diamond with a curved line is an anti-air unit. A triangle with a curved line is an interceptor. If you see a circle, you'd better shore up your defenses because an experimental unit is headed your way.
Though some may argue the robot designs are generic, zooming in close enough reveals an excellent attention to detail on the units, structures, landscape, and water. You'll see trees pass a fire along to each other if there's been an explosion nearby, boats slowly sink below the waves, and all sorts of moving parts activate on units as they enter battle. The user interface itself may be larger than most are used to, but you'll eventually get used to it and appreciate all it has to offer. Even if you don't own two monitors, you can split a single screen in half with the Home key to gain even more control over the battlefield, and widescreen monitors will be able to move the interface to the side of the screen, opening up more screen space for gameplay. Taking advantage of all this graphical beauty is going to require a powerful rig unfortunately. Though anything built within the last few years or so should be able to handle Supreme Commander, even the most powerful computers will likely have issues with eight player online battles. We ran the game on max settings with a Pentium 4 3.40 GHz processor, 2 GB RAM, and a 512MB Radeon X1900, and had a generally smooth experience, though it really started to bog down as more participants jumped into the fray.
The music tracks you'll find in Supreme Commander are top notch, really driving home the notion of an epic conflict. In addition you'll get crisp mechanical creaks and squeals, slick laser blast effects, and absolutely booming explosions. The only aural drawback is the voice acting, which definitely falls into the category of cheesy and overblown. That can be overlooked, however, with such an otherwise striking science fiction soundscape.
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