Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Gas-Powered Games
Release Date: February 20, 2007
One of the stated goals of Gas Powered Games' development team in creating Supreme Commander was to create a "massive gameplay experience." In that, they certainly succeeded. Whether or not you enjoy their final product, everything about it — from the vast armies you can control to the huge maps and the dizzying array of controls — is undeniably gargantuan. This is one of those games that will delight die-hard RTS fans but may obfuscate more casual gamers due to its complexity. Prepare to spend several weeks, if not months, mastering the mechanics. The payoff for your time investment is the cerebral satisfaction that will result from developing and applying your skills in the science and art of military leadership and emerging victorious.
In the year 3844, the United Earth Federation, Aeon Illuminate, and Cybran Nation have been fighting for superiority for 1,000 years, and it's up to you to end the Infinite War. (At that time, the Infinite War will have to be renamed, but that is not your problem.) There is a rough outline of a story, but the story is of secondary importance. Your mission is clear: Destroy everything in sight.
Each side's forces are led with an Armored Command Unit, which is equipped with an all-purpose "proto-crafter" — the future's equivalent of the ubiquitous "wrench" that engineers in so many games use to accomplish impressive feats ranging from repairing a smoldering tank to building a bridge. Likewise, the ACU can use its proto-crafter to craft just about anything: structures, engineers, anti-air turrets, giant artillery cannons ... you name it.
The opening cinematic cut scene that introduces you to the ACU is awesome, especially if you have a subwoofer connected to your computer. In the cut scene, the ACU appears as an enormous walking tank, shattering everything in its path. When you first see your ACU in-game, however, you are likely to be disappointed with its puny size. It reminded me of one of those little LEGO people.
Presumably, its gigantic size is meant to be appreciated by comparing it to other, tinier vehicles on the battlefield. When you build a tank, for example, don't expect anything resembling the fearsome Tiger from Company of Heroes. What you will see instead more closely resembles a cute ladybug, especially if you are playing as Cybran Nation (the "red" team). When viewed next to an entry-level "Tech 1" tank, the ACU does indeed look huge, but I couldn't shake the feeling I was playing with tiny models of things that should appear much larger on the battlefield.
There are only two resources, mass and energy, but maintaining them at satisfactory levels can be a complicated affair. "Mass," the essential "building block" of every unit and structure, is collected in three ways. The primary means involves building "mass extractors" at designated mass deposits. As you progress from the basic "Tech 1" building ability to the highest "experimental" tech level, you create more and more powerful mass extractors. A second way to collect mass is to "reclaim" it from the charred remains of destroyed units and buildings, and yet a third way is to build a mass fabricator, which converts energy into mass.
Energy is acquired primarily from power plants and power generators, which also exist at various tech levels. Maintaining your economy requires that you keep a careful eye on your mass and energy levels. Each decision you make to build a unit or structure will have an impact on your overall economy. If you run low on a resource and your economy stalls, construction slows considerably until you make the necessary adjustments and replenish your resources.
The basic controls are fairly intuitive, but there are a lot of them. There is a command mapped to virtually every key on the keyboard, but fortunately, you don't need to memorize them all and can do most things using only your mouse. Executing commands with the keyboard will save time, which is valuable when playing against a live opponent, but it's a lot to memorize if you're not a frequent player. I found it made sense to memorize the most common commands, like "P" for "patrol," and not bothering to learn more obscure keystroke commands like Ctrl-Shift-F1 for toggling the UI on and off.
SupCom features several thoughtful innovations that are so useful you will have a hard time playing any RTS in the future that lacks them. The greatest of them all is the ability to form a queue of your orders, whereas the traditional RTS only allows you to issue one order at a time. When you need to issue orders to multiple groups of squads, the inevitable result is a lot of idle time among the squads who complete an order but have to wait around doing nothing until they receive their next commands.
SupCom eliminates this problem by allowing you to issue multiple orders at once, so the recipient of your orders will have plenty to do for a long time. For example, you could tell your Armored Command Unit to repair your perimeter defenses, assist a group of engineers constructing a land factory, build a power generator, move north, and then move east to attack an anti-air emplacement found there. The possibilities are endless. While your ACU is busy for the next 15 minutes or so, you can focus your attention on other areas of the battlefield, knowing that your ACU is hard at work and that no time or manpower is being wasted. This is a tremendous benefit.
You'll still need to check back on the status of your orders from time to time, because there are generally no announcements when an order has been completed. In case you forget what you told a particular unit or squad to do, you can hit Shift and see a nice graphic that reveals what you have ordered previously.
Another design improvement is the ability to zoom the camera way out to a strategic view, then quickly zoom in again. This makes it unnecessary to have a separate, tactical map that must be consulted from time to time as in other RTS titles. Any time you want to view the entire battlefield, you can simply zoom out. Your structures and vehicles will still be visible, albeit in icon form. Strategy purists may even prefer to play the entire game in the zoomed-out view, though I suspect most of us would prefer to zoom in from time to time to watch the fireworks as they unfold.
In SupCom, you have several tools at your disposal to organize and coordinate planned assaults. Whereas you may be limited in other RTS games to issuing a basic attack order, SupCom lets you move large numbers of units in a variety of formations and even attack in that formation. You can call in a transport ship to carry in reinforcements from another side of the map. You can direct a squad of vehicles to approach the target with any path you choose (and it doesn't have to be a straight line). You can even order different types of units, from any point on the map, to attack a target simultaneously in a coordinated attack. When properly executed, the results can be glorious.
Powering all of this will require a lot of computer muscle. GPG recommends a 3.0 GHz Intel or equivalent AMD processor and at least 1 GB of RAM. If that is all you have, however, be prepared for stuttering frames during most of your battles. I was able to get acceptable (but not dazzling) framerates with a 3.6 GHz processor, 2 GB of RAM, and an X1900 XTX video card. On medium detail settings, I was able to maintain at least 30 frames per second except during the fiercest battles. Still, dipping below 30 fps in an RTS is not nearly as frustrating as it is with first-person shooters, because slow framerates in an RTS usually do not mean the difference between life and death.
Attempting to take advantage of the wonderful split-screen feature, which allows the player to focus on two areas of the battlefield at once, my average FPS rate was cut by more than half, I'm sorry to say. If your rig can handle it, however, this is a fantastic feature, especially if you have a widescreen monitor (which SupCom supports).
The graphics are decent but not cutting-edge. While the maps are enormous, the terrain is bland and lacks detail. The battles are pleasing to look at, but the vehicles are not rendered with startling realism as they are in Company of Heroes. Most of the vehicles in SupCom look like they were taken from a Saturday morning cartoon for small boys. To be fair, they are more detailed than vehicles in most other RTS titles, but Company of Heroes set the new standard for visual excellence in this genre, and SupCom's graphics fail to impress when measured against this heightened standard.
I was disappointed with the sameness in appearance of many of the game's vehicles and structures. Perhaps the unavoidable result of having the ability to construct so many different kinds of vehicles and structures is that many of them will look almost exactly the same. (Q: How can you tell an enemy's mass-storage units from its energy-storage units? A: While generally the same size, shape and color, the mass-storage units have sloping edges near the top.) Having no inclination to study and memorize the characteristics of dozens — perhaps hundreds — of units so that I could recognize them all by sight, I found myself having to frequently hover my mouse over a structure and rely on the resulting pop-up text, rather than on visual identification, to tell me what I was viewing.
The developers obviously paid attention to keeping the visuals current, but the emphasis here is on gameplay. The battle scenarios are usually very challenging, and it is up to the player to devise a plan that will make the most of existing conditions and enable him to marshal his troops to victory against seemingly overwhelming odds. In the early levels, the best strategy is often to simply meet the enemy with the largest number of vehicles you can churn out of your factories. However, it's not long before you come to realize that each new map calls for a new strategy, and that while strength may come in numbers to some extent, spamming tanks is not going to carry the day. SupCom forces you to think for a minute and actually focus on strategy.
You will have numerous decisions to make as the game progresses. Do you want to build a nuclear missile silo and decimate your opponent's base? That would be fun, but where are you going to get the energy resources that will be necessary to maintain it, and what if you don't have time to build it? Where are the ideal locations to build a radar tower or sonar scanner? What if your enemy has built a stealth generator to make his units invisible to radar? Or a radar-jamming device capable of flooding your radar installation's readout with false-positive hits? Each gaming session will play out differently, depending on how you deal with each situation with which you are confronted.
Replay value is exceptionally high. After you have completed the single-player missions (or before then, if you wish), you can still play a number of skirmish maps against A.I. opponents, or play against other humans in multiplayer mode. Unfortunately, despite multiple attempts, I was unable to connect to GPGNet, the necessary gaming service through which all online play is arranged, even after shutting off my firewall.
Supreme Commander is intelligent, polished, complex, and difficult. For many, of course, this will be reason to avoid it. The user manual is 70 pages long and probably the thickest of its kind that I've seen. RTS aficionados, on the other hand, will appreciate the satisfaction that comes from successfully harnessing the complexity to lead a massive force to victory against a formidable opponent by utilizing the vast array of tools at your disposal. Those in the latter group will find a gem in Supreme Commander.
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