The real-time strategy is a genre that is truly built for the PC. It has so much depth due to macros and intricate commands that it requires the versatility of a keyboard and mouse to really grasp it all. Publishers and developers have made a strong effort during this console generation to make an RTS game fully functional on a home console, despite the limitations of the control scheme. Strangely enough, the Xbox 360 has been blessed with a decent amount of RTS games, and it's also the one console that doesn't support a mouse/keyboard combination like the PS3 or has free pointer support like the Wii. Simplified controls have been the order of the day and, for the most part, work well on the console, making games like Halo Wars and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 more tolerable on an HDTV than ever before.
The original Supreme Commander would have been another good example of how to do an RTS on the console due to its simplified but powerful control scheme. Unfortunately, a myriad of bugs, technical glitches and abysmal frame rate made it an example of what not to do for a console RTS game. Two years have passed since then, and a lot has changed. Not only is a new publisher involved this time around, but the game engine has also been tweaked significantly for the sequel. The result is Supreme Commander 2, a tighter and more technically proficient sequel that is a completely fun experience from beginning to end, despite some shortcomings.
The plot is much simpler than it was in the first game, though there are some similarities. Approximately 25 years have passed since the end of the Infinite War, and an uneasy peace has kept the three factions from tearing each other apart. However, with the new president becoming the victim of an assassin's bullet, the civil war has started up once again. Three commanders, once classmates in the military academy, are now forced to fight each other in the name of their respective causes. For UEF commander Dominic Maddox, it's all about his family as he protects them from the potential threats caused by the war. Illuminate commander Thalia Kael fights to bring her faction back to the glory it once had before the Infinite War occurred. Meanwhile, Ivan Brackman of the Cybran army fights under the orders of his father, the army commander from the first title who is now nothing more than a brain in a jar.
Truth to tell, the plot presented in Supreme Commander 2 isn't going to be a driving force into getting you to play through the single-player campaign. Those who played the first game will no doubt see the plot twists happen in each campaign long before it happens. The fact that each faction comes together near the end for one common goal also feels like a plot point that's been transferred from the first game to the second one. The only reason people will go through the campaign is because they'll be able to try out every unit in their faction, from the common tank to the experimental units. Since freeform battles with others will rarely give players the opportunity to play with those units, players will go here just to see them in action. Unfortunately, not all campaigns are open at the beginning, which is fine since it makes you go through the tutorial before playing, but if you were more of a Cybran player in the first game, you'll have to go through all of the UEF and Illuminate missions before you can finally play what you want.
The mechanics for Supreme Commander 2 are different from most RTS games. Just like the first game, both your engineer units and your commander are responsible for fixing any damaged units on the field as well as the constructing any and all buildings. While both of those units can travel to the battlefield, only your commander can defend itself. Despite the size of the commander unit, its importance in the battlefield is paramount since the death of that unit means the end of the game for you. Units in all three disciplines can be built so you can have yourself a good mix of land, sea and air units to fight with. Illuminate armies are different in that some of their land units can also traverse the water. Like any RTS, you need resources to build your units, and in this game, your resources revolve around mass and energy. Energy plants can be built anywhere, but mass plants can only be built on certain spots. It can feel limiting at first, but the absence of making units to harvest these resources means one less thing to worry about protecting when getting into a fight. Also, the sense of scale is really emphasized in this title. Other RTS games also make you worry about the whole battlefield as opposed to specific portions of it, but giving the user the ability to zoom in and out of the whole map drives home just how large the combat area is. For a game that boasts the ability to have one fight take place between hundreds of units, it's really important to convey just how massive these fights can get.
There are a few things that Supreme Commander 2 does differently from the first game. For one thing, there are fewer building types to construct. The same goes for standard units, making you focus on making more of the same, powerful unit as opposed to more diverse but less powerful ones. As a trade-off, users get more experimental units to play with this time around, and the experimental units are much more fun to play with than the standard ones. Another big change has to do with the tech tree. There is only one research tree for each of your unit types, with varying focus on building units faster, cheaper and with more firepower. This time, though, any research done automatically applies to units on the field and units yet to be built, meaning you never have more powerful units being forced to mix in with less powerful versions. Like the rest of the game, these changes were made to streamline the experience instead of complicate things. While this would underwhelm a veteran PC RTS player, these changes actually make a console RTS game more appealing, since the simplicity means more time fighting and less time being confused.
There are two separate modes for the single-player experience. The Campaign mode consists of a total of 20 missions. There are two mandatory tutorial missions as well as six missions apiece for the three factions in the game. The other mode is Skirmish, which lets you play any faction of your choosing on any of the 20 available maps against up to three CPU opponents of any faction and intelligence level. Skirmish mode gives you three different battle modes to choose from. Supremacy follows the standard rules of other RTS games by asking you to completely annihilate all of your enemy forces and buildings. Assassination mode only asks that you kill the enemy commander in order to win the game. Finally, Infinite War gives you no goal at all, making it the closest thing you'll get to a practice mode. Just like the Campaign mode, the CPU opponents range from being pushovers on easy difficulty to a nightmarish force on hard and are certain to give the player a good challenge.
Multiplayer is an exact copy of Skirmish mode, except that the CPU opponents are replaced by humans instead. Infinite War mode isn't available here, but both Assassination and Supremacy are as well as all 20 maps. Both public and private player matches can have up to four players, but ranked matches restrict the fighting to one-on-one battles. Those worried about potential lag will be happy to discover that all of the matches encountered during the review period were completely lag-free among different connection ratings. The only problem is that you might not find too many people playing online, as evidenced by the lengthy amount of time it took to find a match. Still, it is good to know that once a match starts, no other technical issues will hamper your online experience.
The controls were one of the few good points from the first game, and they're made even better in Supreme Commander 2. Unlike other games that grappled with the control pad, this one gives specific menu functions to specific buttons, as opposed to making one button go through several menu layers. For example, the X button only issues commands while the Y button only brings up build options. The left bumper accesses research, while the left trigger only does selected unit abilities. Both analog sticks control camera zoom as well as panning, the A button selects units, and the B button cancels menu and unit selections. As complicated as it sounds on paper, the control scheme is rather simple and somewhat intuitive after a few minutes of holding the controller. It works out better than expected and helps the player worry more about strategy than controls. What will throw some RTS vets for a loop is how they can't create their own specific groups. There are options to select just one unit or one type of unit, and the right bumper specifically lets you select all of your units on-screen, but there's no specific way to select a mixed group of units like you can in other RTS titles. Also, selecting all of your units doesn't mean that engineers or your commander get selected as well. In a way, it makes sense since the death of your commander means your game is over, but it also becomes annoying if you want your engineers to back up your units to repair any damage.
Graphically, Supreme Commander 2 is miles better than its predecessor. The environments look great, and while it doesn't go too heavy into providing extra graphical touches to make it more lifelike, it doesn't feel as bland as some of the other console RTS games either. Effects, like explosions, do an above-average job but don't look spectacular. They also scale very well, so the destruction of enemy units still feels gratifying whether you view it up close or from miles above. Units move fluidly, though they still have that familiar RTS feel, meaning that their movements and turning radiuses make them feel more like board game pieces rather than individual units who move along in formation. The feeling is limited to ground forces more than air or sea units, but it does creep up from time to time.
The overall theme that you can glean from the graphics is that the engine feels more optimized. No longer are you experiencing freezes from the game or single-digit frame rates while doing something as simple as watching your commander move a few steps in the battlefield. You can still expect the game to take a frame rate dip with about a hundred objects on-screen, but the range is somewhere in the low- to mid-20s now. On average, the game stays consistent at 30 fps, though it can sometimes hit 60 fps with little to no action on-screen. That, in and of itself, gives gamers a reason to celebrate. What does need some improvement, however, are the cut scenes. Having slightly stylized characters is one thing, but making their lip movements barely nonexistent is another. Those same complaints are amplified during battlefield communication, where the images of the speakers go into the same choppy animation routines anytime something is said. It also doesn't help that battlefield communications have image and text boxes that disappear after every line, making it more of a distraction rather than anything useful.
The sounds fares a little better this time around, but not by much. The music is done well and has the same orchestral vibe you expect from sci-fi movies and games nowadays. It's not exactly memorable, but you won't turn down the speaker volume when getting into combat or general gameplay. The same can be said for the voices. The performances are delivered without the need for overacting and are convincing enough. None of the performances are grating, which is something you always pray for from a game. What really suffer are the effects, which are fine but seem to be going through a filter that muffles them greatly. Explosions and gunfire, for example, don't sound as powerful as you'd expect. Worse yet, the same distance bugs from the first game reappear. You can expect the effects to completely cut out at various points in a level, depending on how much action is happening and how far the camera is from said action. It's something that players were hoping would be fixed, and the game suffers from its presence.
Supreme Commander 2 ends up being a very competent RTS console game. The graphics and sound, while not the best the genre has seen, are certainly leagues better than those of its predecessor. The controls are very much improved and simple enough that newcomers to the genre can handle them without too much difficulty. More importantly, the streamlined gameplay mechanics and map design make it a very accessible RTS for gamers of almost all skill levels. For die-hard console gamers who interested in the genre, Supreme Commander 2 isn't a bad game to start with.
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