Genre: Real-Time/Turn-Based Strategy
Publisher: Strategy First
Developer: Battlegoat Studios
Release Date: May 12, 2005
Buy 'SUPREME RULER 2010': PC
Experience often tells us that ambition can often be a bad quality in a developer. Any long-time gamer can think of a game that sounded absolutely brilliant on paper, packed full of revolutionary ideas and rich in features… and it made little more than a dull thud upon release. Games that sound too good to be true often are. This is why trusted studios and well-refined franchises are the bread and butter of the gaming industry and revolutionary new games come few and far between (and sadly, many of those revolutionary new games that really are brilliant end up unnoticed by the masses). So when some unknown developer says they’re coming out with a strategy game with the complexity of the deepest turn-based strategy games, but you can play it in real time, and it offers realistic economic and political modeling and hojillions of intricately modeled units and accurate modern army inventories and huge geopolitical-specific research trees and just about every other gadget, idea, notion, or feature a strategy game buff could think of… well, I thought I might want to draft up some sort of contract for getting the developer to reimburse me for the portion of my life lost trying to find joy in the product of their desperate, overreaching ambitions.
Imagine my surprise when Supreme Ruler 2010 delivered on all of Battlegoat Studios’ promises while providing me with the kind of active gameplay that wastes hours in great lumps of productivity loss. This is no dull thud. SR2010 is one of those rare brilliant games that succeeds where so many others failed before. As one of the few gamers out there who can still play games in pixelicious 2D, I’ve tried out many hardcore strategy games that were… unpleasant, to be diplomatic. Supreme Ruler 2010, on the other hand, offers great complexity and a broad array of features without being crippled by overwhelming gameplay or unintelligible game mechanics.
Supreme Ruler 2010 allows strategy gamers to bring territories under their control from small scale regions to full-on global domination. Players achieve this through diplomacy or military supremacy supported by the resources gained through a detailed economic model. Further supporting your successes are the social policies that keep your people happy, healthy, literate and the envy of neighboring countries. And to help manage all of these richly detailed systems, players are given the reins of a thoroughly modeled political apparatus; lead through policy-driven cabinet ministries or directly intervene in tuning everything from healthcare spending and pension funds to what guided munitions get loaded on to which bombers.
Battlegoat Studios’ flagship (and debut) strategy game is set in a near-future world in which a cascading political and economic collapse sundered the countries of the developed world. Many countries have splintered into smaller territories with their own agendas; Vermont forges ahead alone, wearily eyeing Massachusetts, while southern France refuses to let its natural resources be exploited by gluttonous Parisians. Even those countries that remain intact are adrift in an unstable and uncertain world where peace is not a given and old grievances or economic ambitions may manifest in conflict. It may be hard to imagine Sweden having imperial ambitions, but the offshore oil fields of Norway can be mighty appealing shortly after a global economic collapse, a world free of the multilateral agreements and trade relationships of the world we know now. Students of history can easily point to Japan, circa 1930, for a precedent. The dissolution of the world order saw the United Nations supplanted by the World Market, a shadowy organization with the stated goal of seeing all of the bickering regions stabilized, preferably through peaceful avenues but they will support resolution through force. Effectively, the World Market serves as an in-game commodities market and power broker as well as a source for military and economic aid.
Players can engage in single player scenarios in which they play one territory vying for supremacy within a restricted region; the World Market frowns upon conflict spilling into neighboring regions and the last thing a player wants or needs is the ire of the heavily armed, technologically advanced World Market. The regions can vary in scale from very small, such as New England with each of the former states pursuing their own agendas, to continent-wide conflict between the countries of South America or Europe, and up to a global theater of superpowers. Each scenario is meticulously detailed with each territory having unique natural resources, economic infrastructures, armed forces and technologies. Adding to that is a predetermined political climate that may have territories at each other's throats when you are given the reins. Victory may come through conquest or by regional consensus at the polls (unification votes), leading to rather diverse gameplay; on one hand, you may need to build a military juggernaut at the expense of social programs and, on the other, your universal healthcare, low taxes and brisk economy may draw the envy, and votes, of your neighbors if a unification vote is held.
For the truly hardcore and determined players, there is the option of playing a full-bore campaign starting as one of the small territories in any of the scenarios and escalating steadily to the global stage. If you wanted to, you could start out as the wee state of Vermont, unite the U.S. North East, conquer the rest of the east coast, subjugate the remainder of the continental United States, become the grand poobah of North America and then… the World! Just be sure to tell your boss you’ll be taking your two weeks of vacation.
In addition to scenario and campaign singleplayer games, Supreme Ruler 2010 also offers specific missions where players are given control of a specific region and must achieve a specific objective (like taking Paris). But enough of that, let’s be honest… aside from the scenarios or the campaign (which is essentially a chain of scenarios with your progress being carried over from one to the next), the game mode people will be most interested in is multiplayer. Multiplayer in SR2010 is essentially the same as scenario play but with more human players (surprise!) supplanting the AI. While I’ve heard this is quite the rewarding (and grueling) experience, I haven’t had the chance to try it out.
All of this conquering, commanding, and commodity-market cornering takes place in real-time (although purists still have the option of turn-based gameplay). All of the game mechanics that we typically associate with the passing of turns (revenue collection, expenses, unit and facility construction, etc.) take place discretely day by day while unit movement and combat take place in real-time over the intervening minutes and hours. This works really nicely, allowing players to feel like armchair generals commanding their forces in real-time, acting and reacting fluidly to a changing battlefield, while still maintaining the steady progress of the complex turn-based strategy elements of the game. There are three speed settings, plus pause, allowing you to respond to events at your own pace. My only complaint here is that I wish there was a fourth, much faster speed for those times when everything is just peachy and not needing of my attentions and I still have a couple of months before my various projects reach completion.
As I mentioned earlier, the complexity of the game is managed through a political model of cabinet ministries. This ministries are the primary way in which you exert control over your territory. The main interface is divided into panels for each ministry, plus panels for terrain information and news and statistics. Within each ministry, you have various controls for steering your territory. Under Operations, a kind of Chief of Staff/Joint Chiefs hybrid, your options range from changing your DEFCON level to determining your rule of engagement, while under the Treasury you can check your budget sheets and modify tax policies ranging for import duties to pension withholdings and income taxes.
Of course, paying individual attention to every statistic and twiddling with every knob and slider constantly over the steadily changing conditions of your fledgling territory and its tumultuous region would be… well, a bit unreasonable. Helping out are your ministers, political appointees with various statistics and characteristics of their own, ranging from political ideologies to how just plain smart they are. The ministers can be given various agendas to carry out, ranging from “Balance the Budget” for the Treasury to “Discrete Military Buildup” for the Defense Department. The ministers will then try to achieve that objective in their own way. If their approach doesn’t cut it, hire someone new… and if you want to show your people you mean business, maybe imprison the flunky that disappointed you. This political system of management stays consistent with the general theme of being able to choose the scale of your gameplay experience; in addition to choosing the geographic scale of your scenario, you can choose the scale of your involvement in managing your territory.
If you prefer a more hands-off approach, you can generally let most of your ministries run on autopilot after feeding your cabinet the appropriate agendas. Alternatively, you can literally lock your cabinet out of many decisions and do the fine tuning yourself; each panel and many various subpanels or controls have little padlocks that you can click on and off to prevent ministers from changing the settings you choose.
In addition to the various ministry control panels, you can take action from various screens, like the base management screens where you can upgrade bases or individually control unit production and the industry management screens with fairly similar options (after all, the military is basically an industry, just one that does more blowing things up). By and large, though, administering the territory is carried out through the nicely organized and relatively intuitive ministries.
The bulk of your activity outside of the ministries will be playing general. This part of the game really doesn’t differ too drastically from most real-time strategy games. It can be a bit unsettling to move your units across a typically turn-based strategy terrain map instead of the small sandboxes of Warcraft- or Command & Conquer-style RTS games. But after a little bit of combat, it becomes natural to command your troops to attack, flank, or penetrate weaknesses in enemy lines. It can be surprisingly easy when you’re focused on fixing your economy or responding to plummeting polling figures that there is a brilliant wargame in Supreme Ruler 2010 as well. A little experience on the battlefield of Supreme Ruler 2010 and you’ll soon find that the wargame component is as sharp as the ‘Sim-nation’-esque aspect of managing your territory.
Units are modeled on an extensive array of characteristics ranging from spotting distance and travel range and speed to their defense and offense against ground fire, low, medium and high air attack, or indirect artillery shelling. As commander of your armed forces, you can direct them on the field of battle and decide the fashion in which they’ll engage the enemy while combat is resolved in a complex calculation of unit statistics, training and experience, the influence of terrain and other factors, and a dose of luck, good or bad. Unlike many classical wargames where you conquer whole chunks of land at a time (think Risk), the borders shift fluidly as your forces press forward or are pushed back. Along with the shifting borders, your supply lines are affected, resources are gained or lost, loyalties waver, etc. These supply lines are critical, fueling your war machine as it marches forward; without the right logistic support, that Zerg rush of mechanized infantry will fall far short of the enemy capital. The modern paradigm of military supremacy through combined arms holds true in SR2010; relying on vast hordes of your biggest tank will simply see you handed a terrible defeat by aerial strikes and artillery fire while ignoring the seas may leave you open for punishing offshore bombardment. SR2010, by virtue of its complex and richly detailed combat and management systems, really rewards savvy and tactical wargamers.
What impresses me the most about Supreme Ruler 2010 is the diverse gameplay experiences offered by one very robust strategy game. Even through all the scenarios are governed by the same basic rules and modeling, each scenario offers a different experience. Playing as North Carolina in a simple scenario against South Carolina with the ultimate goal of unification, I focused on managing my economy and domestic policy in order to gain support in the regional polls for unifying the region under my government. As Greece, threatened by Bulgaria, I largely ignored the home front aside from bolstering my economic conditions in order to support my war machine and simply crushed the Bulgars through overwhelming force. In each of those two scenarios, I gave different aspects of the game varying levels of my attention and the gameplay experiences couldn’t have been any more different without loading up another game entirely.
Now as this is a game review, I do also need to talk about the various nuts and bolts like graphics and sound. But being totally honest, this is a hardcore strategy game and those aspects of the game, so long as they aren’t completely awful, are ancillary to the gameplay mechanics. That said, the graphics are adequate for the game. You’re not going to get any pixel shaders here. The graphics are clean, consistent and suit the game well, although the game map can be a bit pixelated and muddled when zoomed in to an extreme. The interface is very effective, but can be a little cluttered with a screen packed with units in action. I half wished that I had some obscenely large monitor so I could zoom in enough to get a detailed view of the action but still had enough screen real estate to see what was going on across a large battlefront. The audio is simple and suited to the game. You can definitely hear what’s going on during combat and the various interactions with the controls have a reasonable auditory feedback. The only weirdness on this aspect of the game is that there are a few random places where you’ll actually get verbal feedback like “We’ve captured the capital.” They kind of catch you by surprise the first time because you’re not used to hearing voices in the game and there isn’t a voiceover present in most of the game. These little voiceover tidbits could have been omitted and no one would know they weren’t supposed to be there, but with them popping up out of the blue... it’s just a touch inconsistent.
The controls are more the manageable with a clean interface for mousing through and a plethora of keyboard shortcuts. Thankfully, Battlegoat saw fit to include group assignment (ctrl-#) and selection (#) for units, a feature native to the RTS genre. However, I wish they took this a little bit further and made it possible to use the keyboard to assign batch groupings to units on the unit management screen, the "one-stop" screen for viewing all the units you have in active duty, reserves and construction.
Overall, I believe the technical components (graphics, sound, controls, interface, etc.) of the game more than adequately suit the gameplay, which is the true reason why anyone would buy Supreme Ruler 2010. There are some shortcomings in these areas, but nothing that meaningfully detracts from the gaming experience. There are couple of things I do wish were in the game, above and beyond everything Battlegoat did. The first is the ability to do a thorough post-mortem on a game. After concluding a scenario, I’d like to be able to study what the other countries did, particularly when I get thoroughly whooped. The game offers various statistics and scores but I am left with no way of knowing how one of the other countries managed to get such a high score in a given statistic. This can be particularly frustrating when you lose a unification vote even though you are leading in every metric you can find. Second, I would prefer more detailed and interactive tutorials. Aside from the detailed 152 page manual, Supreme Ruler 2010 offers you some basic, non-interactive tutorials that provide you with some text to describe various displays and the concepts they represent. The lackluster tutorials contribute to a slightly steeper learning curve than necessary. Either some sort of detailed in-game encyclopedia or a more useful tutorial (or both) would make this game a lot more accessible from the outset.
Before I wrap up this review, I want to respond some of the issues raised in reviews by other sites. One criticism I saw was about the diplomatic system and how getting any reasonable responses from the AI was nearly impossible. This may have been true at launch, but it seems that subsequent patches have remedied this and my experiences with diplomacy have been more positive. Another criticism was that the domestic approval system seemed unresponsive to various inputs like social spending but I didn’t find this to be the case. In fact, I had no problem winning several unification votes largely by virtue of my fantastic social programs and the positive domestic approval they produced. In fact, a large number of the very distinct criticisms I read in the review by one major gaming site seemed to be completely contradictory to my experience with the game. Perhaps they were remedied by patching (as with AI diplomacy), but I haven’t seen anything in the patch notes that specifically address those complaints. It kind of mystifies me and I hope that reviewer gives SR2010 another try.
I would say that Battlegoat Studios really surprised me with this game, but that wouldn’t be true since I had the distinct pleasure of previewing Supreme Ruler 2010 as well. I concluded in my preview that SR2010 had the potential to be one of the finest hardcore strategy games on the market. Having seen the finished product, I’d have to say Battlegoat Studios stayed on target. SR2010 is a brilliant, challenging and rewarding game. Of course, I don’t expect it to get anywhere near the top ten best sellers and I’m sure most players will never touch it. This is a game intended for a very specific niche that many players ignore completely. But for anyone who has played games like Civ and wanted even more… more depth, more scale, more options… Supreme Ruler 2010 deserves some attention. Wargamers that thrive on large scale battles across the European continent should set their sights higher and try the full breadth of SR2010. It’s a very well executed game that delivers on every bullet point of its enticing feature list, a rare achievement. However, this is a daunting and challenging game and more than likely not well suited to casual strategy gamers. But for those strategy fans that want the depth, complexity, and challenge and the rewarding gameplay that they entail, Supreme Ruler 2010 is an exceptional choice.
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