As far as life goals go, I'd say that being a dictator who rules with an iron fist and crushes his neighbors underneath the heels of his goose-stepping armies is pretty high on most of our readers' lists. I mean, who doesn't want the opportunity to be absolutely corrupted by absolute power? Just thinking of the narcissistic excesses is enough to make me smile.
Enter Battlegoat's Supreme Ruler 2020. This follow-up to their original game of world conquest, Supreme Ruler 2010, recreates the same near-future geopolitical turmoil that scored such a big success the first time around. Fortunately, the team has included a number of improvements, both in terms of functionality and AI, that make the game easier and more rewarding to play. Unfortunately, many of the first game's problems have also found their way into the sequel.
To begin with, Supreme Ruler 2020 follows a model popularized in Paradox's long-running Europa Universalis series. You take a map of the entire world, fill it up with armies, governments, trade goods, cities, religions, and all the other stuff that makes the world a compelling place to live. Then put players in charge of one of the countries and start the whole thing running in real time and watch as the pressures of competition and cooperation drastically shift the balance of power for or against you. The big difference between Supreme Ruler and games like EU or Hearts of Iron is that Supreme Ruler takes place in the near future of our own world.
There's a basic backstory behind the 2020 setting, and it's worth reading simply because it's well thought out and offers some compelling and chilling hints at the direction things might actually be moving for us in the "real" world. Fortunately, you don't absolutely have to immerse yourself in the backstory to enjoy the game. The small intel briefing you get for your country at the beginning of the campaign should be enough to get you going.
The map of the world here is probably the best global map we've seen in a game. Not only does it make use of NASA satellite imagery to create a high-resolution super-detailed geographical map of the world, but the political aspects are just as accurate. Containing thousands upon thousands of cities (even my hometown -- big points there) and nations from the US and Russia to Jamaica and Luxemburg, Supreme Ruler is impressive at both ends of the scale.
But all this detail takes a toll on the game. Let me say at the start, that players of games like this often take a perverse pleasure in the fact that their games are just too complicated and incomprehensible for most players to appreciate. I count myself in that category. Given the mass-market design that's bleeding over from the consoles to the PC these days, this may not be an unhealthy response. But I think games like Supreme Ruler (and Paradox's other global sim games) can and should do more to streamline the access to controls and information.
Fortunately, Supreme Ruler 2020 takes some satisfying steps in that direction. To begin with, the information that you're given is laid out in a much more intelligible format and you won't have to hunt around for it quite as much as you did previously. For such a stat-heavy game, it helps to be only two or three mouse clicks away from the important numbers you need. There's definitely a lot more that can be done in terms of pop-ups and context menus, but overall, the management of information is refreshingly easy. Well, maybe not easy, but at least more attainable.
In addition to better information presentation, Supreme Ruler 2020 also introduces some refreshingly competent ministers. Since you'll never be able to control everything for a given country (especially the larger ones), you'll need to rely on specific subordinates to manage the day-to-day operations. These ministers have their own political leanings, which will shift their policies to the left or the right, but you can also set specific priorities for them so that their actions don't depart too far from your overall vision for the nation.
You might, for example, find yourself facing a war, so you'll want your production minister to start stockpiling consumer goods and your research minister to stop trading away your technologies. Your finance minister can start to put a hold on inflation, while your state minister begins to seek alliances and your operations minister actively starts trying to steal new technologies. Then you'd simply tell your defense minister to start a discreet military build up and modernize your army. Over the next few months, you'll see things start to shape up along those lines and at any point you can step in to take over full control over any or all of those departments. You can even set priorities for a minister and then lock out certain decisions that you want to make yourself. In all it's a very flexible system that benefits from great AI and tremendous flexibility.
The real disappointment is that Supreme Ruler 2020 does almost nothing to help players learn how to play. Yes, there are a number of tutorials but these are largely passive affairs that merely point out where certain features are on the interface without bothering to explain their relevance. It's like telling you how to activate something without ever telling you how (or why or when) to actually use it. There's a lengthy and helpful section on overall strategy in the game manual, but it speaks more to policy than actual practice. In the absence of any meaningful instruction you're forced to learn how to play the game through trial and error. Do you have access to coal? How do you turn it into a useable resource? Who wants to buy coal and how can you sell it? If you want to take a neighbor's coal, should you declare a military hot spot? These are all questions that the designers feel you'd be better answering on your own.
It's particularly aggravating because the game ships with a number of shorter, more limited scenarios that introduce some of these gameplay concepts in ways that are less intimidating. Playing a smaller mission with a scripted goal that forces you to focus on diplomacy or social welfare is a great way to ease into the main campaign, but the game never really introduces these scenarios appropriately to let players know how to tackle them.
Once you join the scenario things get very intense very quickly. The resource shortage at the heart of the game would be enough to spark a big enough fire. Add in a worldwide economic recession, nuclear powers in the Mid-East, and a number of other political surprises and you have the makings for a first-rate world war. Indeed, within the first few years of our games, the world divides up into two large blocs, ensuring that even an isolated conflict in some far corner of the world will likely drag in all the major players. Within a year of starting our first game China, Vietnam and India had been absorbed by their neighbors. Playing as the Germans, we allied with France and readied our military to march to take the Scandinavian oil reserves, only to find ourselves attacked by our neighbors to the east. Within two years even Switzerland and Luxemburg were getting in on the act.
As you can see from the screens, the game won't win any visual awards. The map is certainly the best of its kind we've ever seen, but there are far too many assets on it for it to be all that readable. When cities and units and explosions start piling up, things can be a real mess, both in terms of visual quality and overall performance. Still, during peace, the map gets the job done in terms of laying out all your cities and industries and giving you a good look at what's where. The sound is also at the level of just getting the job done. The explosions and effects aren't terribly impressive but they do add just a bit of context to what's going on. If nothing else, once you start hearing those explosions, it's a good time to start scrolling around to see who's blowing up your cities this time.
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