Supreme Commander Review
Pentium M 2GHz CPU
2GB DDR2 RAM
GF Go 7800GTX Video
PS2.0, 128MB Video
GF 6800, ATI X1300,
or ATI X800XL video
Strategy gamers have had plenty of treats over the last few months. We got to "play a game" with DEFCON, take control of hordes of swordsmen and archers in Medieval 2: Total War, and then we got to take WW2 tactics to a new level with Relic's Company of Heroes. Now, we're ready to dive into yet another strategy masterpiece. Gas Powered Games has released Supreme Commander, an excellent futuristic RTS title with a massive scale and plenty of depth.
Supreme Commander was designed by Chris Taylor, the brains behind the excellent sleeper RTS game Total Annihilation back almost ten years ago. And with the same style but bigger scope, better graphics, and more options, this truly is a spiritual successor to Total Annihilation. With massive battles and a huge range of robotic infantry spanning land, sea, and air, you'll feel right at home here if you had fun with TA.
It'll help if you've got a fast computer, too. Supreme Commander is the most demanding strategy game to date, and on larger maps no modern computer - even one that costs thousands to build - will be able to handle it when four players all build up and then fight at once. You see, each player can build hundreds of units and then send them all into battle, which generally is a pretty good idea from a gameplay standpoint as there are a lot of rock-scissors-paper fights here. But your computer's horsepower might prove to be the loser for you in a big match if it's not meeting the recommended system, so upgrade if you're serious about this game.
Once you get into it, you'll find that Supreme Commander is a joy to play. Micromanagement has largely been minimized, as you can queue up tech upgrades alongside units with no problem. You can set up a specific build order of troops and then hit a button to have that factory just repeat the full order over and over. Got nearby factories? Click one of them and then right click on another factory and it sets them up to "assist" the building of the original factory's orders. This allows you to quickly set up a highly customized army with the minimum number of clicks - set up 3 tanks for every one shield gen, AA, and mobile artillery unit, punch the repeat button, then set your 3 nearby Land Factories to assist the building. If you change the build orders at the first one, the rest will figure it out.
Little bits of convenience permeate the whole game's interface. Holding Shift allows you to set up waypoints or just queue up orders for units, and you can even set up your transport aircraft to automatically transport any ground units that come near. Just park your transports at the starting spot, click Ferry, then click the destination across the water. You can even set up a rally point for nearby Factories, and troops will automatically be built and ferried. You can queue up tech upgrades or units to build at a factory even while it's still being built, and if you have extra Engineer units they can be set to help out on production at your factories as well (at a cost of more resources). There are a few annoyances I found, like having to micromanage certain small aspects of the game, but overall it's still better than just about every strategy game I've played.
But this game isn't just about fiddling with the interface and admiring the usability. This game has huge amounts of destruction built in and you'll need to know which units beat which in order to pull out a win. Do you send in your gunships first to take out enemy AA guns first, or do you roll your tanks in first and get fired upon while going around sections of wall? Should you park your cruise ships nearby and try to withstand the enemy Torpedo emplacements, or should you quietly send an Engineer nearby to build a nearby tactical nuke launcher on the sly? And this is just the start, as those are only the permanent emplacements. There are a ton of interesting choices and if you make the wrong ones, the game tries to make it less of a matter of frustration and more of a learning experience.
Weapons are calculated and shown to the player as real projectiles, and they can actually miss as well - that's why it's important for your mobile or permanent artillery installations to be set against targets that either move slow or aren't moving. Sending in highly agile fighters to distract the AA guns while your bombers make a run can also be a worthwhile tactic. The whole thing is really interesting, though, because most RTS games consider every attack an automatic hit and some virtual "dice" are sometimes rolled to calculate damage. Here, things hit for a more constant amount if they do hit; it's up to you to make sure they hit, usually by making good choices as to bringing the right units into battle and picking targets more carefully. While units can certainly do plenty of good stuff without any micromanagement, taking manual control allows for some unique maneuvers to make the most out of the "true" weapon physics.
The single player campaign is fun, but you'll quickly find that it doesn't necessarily represent the best of Supreme Commander's action. You can choose any of the game's three races: the United Earth Federation, Cybran Nation, or Aeon Illuminate, who each have six missions that can last an hour or even more. Each of these is a "what-if" scenario to see how each of the three factions might win the war that's been raging for thousands of years. This means there isn't a continued narrative from the beginning to the end of the campaign. Gas Powered Games tried to put in an ambitious story with lots of voice acting and a story with twists and turns, but unfortunately it mostly falls flat. The plot is full of holes and the voice acting is pretty damn bad with plenty of lame posturing and arguing by the three factions - it just winds up distracting you while you frantically are trying to rebuild shield generators and mobilize a mixed force of tanks and aircraft. It's also important to note that during the campaign there are a lot of, well, "scripted" attacks by your enemies that don't nearly show off the AI that the game actually can employ.
That's why it's important to at least move into the Skirmish modes if you don't plan on playing too much Supreme Commander online. You can freely advance your technology (since most of the campaign frustratingly limits you to the first two tech trees) and the AI becomes much more creative and interesting. You also won't be getting warnings on where and when attacks are coming in, so you'll find that Skirmish mode overall to be a much better primer for jumping into play against real people.
The two resources you'll be generating are Mass and Energy. Both are fully renewable resources that never run out, but you'll find early on that expansion is necessary to get more Mass Extractors down onto the fixed Mass positions across a map. Power plants can be built anywhere and generate Energy on their own, but you can put them adjacent to buildings like factories to cut their power costs by a little bit. Eventually you'll be able to build structures to convert large amounts of Energy into Mass, and there's no limit on the Energy you can be bringing in since you can just build more power plants. The real strategy here is that there's a constant flow of mass and energy going in and out - building that tank doesn't instantly eat up 100 mass and 500 energy, and if you don't have that much, it won't refuse to build it. Instead, your factory will start building it and simply use the resources as they become available. What this can lead to is you stretching yourself out too thin, with a lot of stuff being built very slowly while your resources are eaten up as soon as they're generated. It's a good idea to never have a huge surplus of Mass or Energy, but you'll also have to watch your consumption and make sure you don't cripple your construction by building too much at once.
From a technical standpoint, Supreme Commander is a real feat. The ability to zoom the map all the way out is wonderful, and pretty much completely eliminates the need for the stereotypical RTS mini-map. You can turn one on, though, if you like. But it goes past that, too. At the touch of a key you can split up your screen into two separate views of the battlefield, allowing you to keep an eye on production while fighting on a front (or maybe just fix cameras on two battles at once). The detail on your units and the world is pretty good when you zoom right in, but as you play you'll find yourself spending more and more time zoomed out rather than in.
GPG has spent a lot of time making sure that the fully zoomed-out view works well. At this level, the actual units themselves are only barely visible so each one is replaced with an icon - tall triangles are fighters, while short/fat triangles are bombers. Semi-circles are naval units, while ground units are trapezoids and the like. After a while you'll be able to see all this at a glance and immediately recognize your groups of units; this seamless transition from up-close camera to a "strategic" view is something that many RTS games have been unable to do.
One final feature that is really over the top is Supreme Commander's support for a second video card and monitor. Those with SLI or Crossfire video card setups should pay attention here, as you can actually set up two screens to show two views of the same battlefield, much like the split-screen view I mentioned. It's not like the Nintendo DS since both screens are fully usable for even better control. The whole thing might seem a little ridiculous, and as far as I know, this is the first strategy game to ever include something like this. It might only get used by 1% of the players out there at most, but I still think it's an excellent feature and would love to see it from other games in the future.
Once you kick in the mass numbers of units, a great soundtrack by Jeremy Soule, and plenty of challenge from the Skirmish AI, you'll find that Supreme Commander is a great full package. Mod support is in as well, although GPG seems to have left the community with little documentation on how to actually do it. With the success I expect out of this game, though, I doubt that will be a problem. While there have been plenty of great strategy games recently, I think you'll find that Supreme Commander comes in and fills the sci-fi niche perfectly with its huge scale, great visuals and action, and excellent Skirmish and online play.