It's often said that the more things change the more things stay the same. This rule at least holds true when it comes to the type of things you can put in sci-fi strategy titles. When we pare it back to the basics, the genre has two primary options. You’ve got either aliens, or robots.
The Supreme Commander franchise is no stranger to the sci-fi genre, and a quick glance at the DVD cover shows what side of the fence they fall down on. Supreme Commander has been all about the robots (or robot-tank-boat-plane derivatives) since day one. The first title drew heavily from the groundbreaking (and fondly remembered) Total Annihilation and gamers with elephant memories will instantly recognise shades of Mech-Warrior in the title's art direction. Supreme Commander 2 sticks closely to the format of the original but adds some tweaks and smooths out some of the edges. This massaging of the game mechanic is both Supreme Commander’s greatest draw card and its biggest flaw. Gamers will most likely be split over whether Gas Powered Games’ tinkering is a good, or a bad, addition to the series.
But first, what are we dealing with here? We are dealing with a strategy game that takes the sci-fi strategy format and injects a big dose of metal and steroids. Those familiar to strategy games will be right at home. You construct buildings that produce units, and you pay for it by extracting ‘mass’ and building power plants. Simple. Understandable. Recognisable.
So far, so good.
The narrative is fairly unoriginal; the story is set twenty five years after the actions of Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance (the original’s stand alone expansion). The uneasy truce that had existed between the UEF, the Cybrans and the Aeon Illuminate has been shattered by a politically motivated assassination. This comparatively minor act has big consequences. Pretty soon the gloves are off, the knuckle-dusters are back on and everyone’s gearing up for another tripartite tussle. Gas Powered Games has attempted to inject a shot of characterization by enabling you to play as an up-and-comer from each race. These soldiering heroes are pitted in every mission against a trash talking foe – some of who are a little bit naff. The unintentionally offensive depiction of the lispy, camp, Cybran enemy ‘Gauge’ (or should we spell that gay-ge?) was cringe worthy.
Small pockets of bad writing aside, if there was one word to describe the ethos of this title it would be: mammoth. The scope of Supreme Commander 2 is big. Very big.
Unlike other sci-fi games that expect you to use your imagination when it comes to massive rampaging armies, Supreme Commander 2 lets you build hundreds and hundreds of units to send into the fray. Thankfully it does this all without burning your system to a crisp. Even with the screen filled with explosions, speeding assault bots or marauding battleships the frame rates are pretty decent. This may be the product of a rather hefty update (that steam frustratingly forces you to download before you can play), but it’s a frustration that’s worth it, without decent frames this game would be unplayable. If even after the update your rig can’t handle the ‘maximum settings’ jandal don’t be too worried; Supreme Commander 2 plays well enough at lower resolutions, but doesn’t look nearly as good. There’s nothing quite like the sight of robot armour reflecting in the morning.
But if the glinting is too much for your precious eyes, or your gargantuan armies are too big to fit the screen then Supreme Commander 2 provides a great solution. Using the scroll wheel players can zoom out to the meta-level, getting a glimpse of the entire map. At this extreme birds-eye view level your units are reduced to symbols on the screen – helpfully providing a great way to observe the strategic cut and thrust of your multiple enemy engagements. This is especially important as each mission builds on the one beforehand and as you progress more of the map is revealed to you. This results in both a flowing story and some really big environments. Those who run dual monitors are in for a treat as Supreme Commander 2 continues the brilliant innovation of the original. The game displays on both screens, and each is independently controllable. This novelty is super cool, and practical. You can now have multiple perspectives of what’s happening on the battlefield.
Unfortunately, while you can still build lots of units, the types of units you can develop has reduced. Gas Powered Games has significantly simplified the original’s tier system, and in its place is now the ability to construct research buildings that provide you with upgrade points. These can be used to kit out your units with special weaponry or fancy shields. These simplifications definitely set this title apart from its predecessors. One criticism often leveled at the original Supreme Commander was that it was too complicated and difficult. Sure, its learning curve was steep, but it was meant to be – its complication (both in its tactics and in its strategy) is what made it a fun and interesting title. In making the sequel more accessible to the casual gamer, Gas Powered Games seems to have stripped too much out.
The best example is the changes made to the way the in-game economy now works. The first Supreme Commander was original because the economy operated like a real one. You could begin to build or queue up units before you had the resources to pay for them, and their success in being built depended upon how efficient your resource extraction was. This has all been done away with. Now you can only buy things when there is money in the bank (or in this case, mass in the warehouse). To diehard fans this will seem like a betrayal, and in some respects it is. But to the casual gamer picking up this title for the first time – it means a much easier learning curve.
Thankfully there are some redeeming features. What made Supreme Commander great was the introduction of ‘experimentals’ – specialist units specific to different factions that were truly massive. These things were absolute leviathans; we are talking one hundred story walking steel spiders, or artillery pieces so large that could fire across an entire map (and remember, these maps are big, big, big). Now there are even more of these brutal contraptions available. Watching them obliterate everything in their path is truly a sight to behold and is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Overall, Supreme Commander 2 is an adequate successor to the original and its expansion. Diehard fans of the franchise are going to be disappointed with the way that Gas Powered Games has dumbed down the game mechanic. But while this results in a game that is in many respects a shell of its former self, it’s still a fun and exciting title that has a compelling narrative and solid game play. Plus you get to indulge yourself in robot battles and the destructive dominance of hilariously over the top super-units. What true strategy gamer could resist that?