Aren't do-overs great? You know, when you can take a second swipe at something that wasn't quite perfect the first time around. Now, Chris Taylor's Total Annihilation was hardly a failure when it debuted a decade ago. It was one of the most influential real-time strategy games ever made, and thanks to thousands of mods and user-created maps, the game still commands a loyal following.
But, what if? What if the game were bigger, the graphics flashier, the maps and units more epic, and the conflict global? What if you could take everything that was so compelling about Total Annihilation and bring it into the 21st century? Supreme Commander is the resounding answer to these hypotheticals, as well as an answer to the question, "Do I really need that 30" monitor?" Yes. Yes, you do.
Supreme Commander doesn't do much of anything in a terribly new way, so much as an incredibly refined way. From production queues to pathfinding, from the chess-like balance of the units to the strategic, dual monitor view, the game is a real-time strategy wish list fulfilled.
Story and Gameplay
I suppose, at this point in RTS history, it is virtually impossible to come up with a plotline or backstory that doesn't feel like a re-tread of either World War Two or amped-up Jules Verne. It is rare that game design attempts something like the subtle shadings of the real world, where every nation or race can either be the "good guys" or the "bad guys," depending on one's point of view. Supreme Commander is set in the distant future, during an "Infinite War" and humanity has split into three competing factions. The United Earth Federation (UEF) represents order and empire, the cybernetic Cybran fight for independence, while the alien-enlightened Aeon seek to liberate the universe. The three single player campaigns tell the story from the viewpoint of each faction, with no attempt at tying the three campaigns together. Single player missions, though not many in number, are long, multi-stage affairs that take hours to complete and range through a variety of tactical and strategic situations as they wind their way to completion.
There are two resources to gather and manipulate--mass and energy--and, like everything about Supreme Commander, the manner in which the collection and transformation of these elements is handled is streamlined and brilliantly refined. Automated construction queues allow the player to set a long and complex series of commands for building structures and units, and then forget about them. All RTS games require some degree of micromanagement, but Supreme Commander allows the player to set the wheels of construction in motion and focus attention on the battlefield.
Even the smaller maps in Supreme Commander are large, and the truly massive battlefields take a great deal of strategic planning and excellent resource management to win. Because the maps are so large, and unit balancing so precise, the player must make many tactical and strategic decisions about which units to build and where to deploy them, where and when to expand into new territory, and how defensively or aggressively to play. Of course, these decisions are common to most RTS games, but in Supreme Commander they really matter, and they are constant. Rarely will a SupCom match be lost in the first few minutes, although following an errant strategy (for example, building nothing but air defenses and neglecting land units) too blindly is a recipe for disaster.
In short, the truly strategic gameplay and depth of possibility make Supreme Commander an RTS player's dream come true and more than fulfills the promise suggested by Total Annihilation.
Graphics, Design, and Sound
As engaging and complex as the gameplay is, I was less impressed by the overall look and design of Supreme Commander. While each of the factions' units have a distinct look, they function exactly the same, up until the fourth, "Experimental" phase of construction, when each faction unlocks a unique series of superweapons. While units are relatively detailed, with lots of little animations, the maps are bland and often vast expanses of unadorned landscape with glowing symbols indicating resources. This kind of artificiality takes me right out of the game. In fact, one of the biggest gripes I have about Supreme Commander is that, thanks to the generic unit design, featureless landscapes, and lack of any sort of infantry units, the game feels very cold and emotionally flat. While I appreciated the enormous scale and power of some of the units, I just didn't find any of them that interesting visually.
One of the game's touted features is to be able to use two monitors, one for a strategic view, where all the units appear as icons, and one for a battlefield view; you can also play it split-screen. While I didn't have an opportunity to try the dual monitor set-up, I did try the game on a variety of monitor sizes, and if you are looking for an excuse to buy that Dell 24" monitor, or that 30" Apple Cinema display, this game is it. The GUI takes up nearly a third of the screen, and on a 19" monitor I found it nearly impossible to set the camera to a comfortable distance. Zoom out to strategic view and the icons are very small; zoom in to battlefield view, and tactical control becomes an exercise in frustration. Of course, with the ability to control thousands of units on a large display comes the need to upgrade videocards and CPUs. This game really demands a dual core CPU, 2 or more gigs of RAM, and a top-shelf graphics card to run it without hiccups and stutters.
The game's music, by composer Jeremy Soule, is appropriately militant and occasionally eerie, and unit sound effects are very well done. However, since you will play much of the game zoomed out to strategic view, you won't hear those sounds most of the time, another factor that makes the game less emotionally compelling.
Like most RTS games, playing through the single player campaigns and skirmishing against the computer can teach you the function of the units and some basic tactics but playing against human opponents is always another, and often surprising, matter entirely. Multiplayer matches can be short and brutal or protracted, exhausting matches that have a real ebb and flow. Mutliplayer matchups are handled through a separate application that works well.
Supreme Commander is Gas Powered Games' version of a dream RTS--bigger, richer, longer, and more complex than just about any strategy game ever attempted. It is an audacious exercise in game design that in the main, works really well. It isn't as emotionally engaging as some games, but it does demand actual strategy and tactics, and it is a game that will take a very long time to master.