Review: How does it feel to wield supreme command?
Supreme Commander 2, the new real time strategy from Gas Powered Games, is for old school RTS fans; the guys who grew up playing Starcraft, Command and Conquer, and most importantly, Total Annihilation. If you remember Total Annihilation, then you've probably heard SC2 is its spiritual successor. You might know that Chris Taylor, designer of both TA and the Supreme Commander games (as well Dungeon Siege), started Gas Powered Games way back in 1998. While Atari, his previous employer, owned the Total Annihilation name, the release of Supreme Commander proved Taylor owned everything else.
So does Supreme Commander 2 make good on this storied legacy? The simple answer is yes. SC2 is hands down a fun RTS full of strategic potential. It's greatest success is its scale which is, well, supreme, to say the least. First off, there's the gigantic unit cap. The game lets you have up to three hundred units at a time, and unlike other games, where a soldier takes one unit space and a big battleship takes twenty, all units in SC2 are created equal. This means you can have three hundred of the game's most massive unit, assuming you have the means. Importantly, SC2 has an interface capable of wrangling these huge forces. Zoom the camera out far enough and the map divides into a grid, making it easy to deploy your massive forces, or even drop nukes, on the enemy. In addition, the keyboard shortcuts are clever enough that you won't be forced to hunt and peck through your teeming force.
There are three factions to play as in SC2, the militant UEF, the enlightened Illuminate, and the computer enhanced Cyrbans. All three are nicely balanced and feel distinct from each other. The UEF are reminiscent of modern military forces, composed of tanks, battleships, and bombers, they have the heaviest armor. Illuminate troops are speedy heavy hitters, and have a sci-fi, spaceship sort of look. The Cybran units can repair each other, go into stealth mode, and have a creepy cool insect aesthetic. Your average Starcraft player is probably thinking, ?Yeah, Terran, Protoss, and Zerg, I've heard this before.? So they aren't the most original characterizations, but they are distinct, and most importantly, they play distinctly.
Each faction has its own land, air, and naval units, as well as gargantuan experimental units to be unlocked. Upgrading your army is essential, and each faction has a tech tree to climb. Taking down the enemy always requires a mix of forces that compliment each other; support heavy land warriors with spry air units, transport slow moving units in dropships, etc. Groups of units can easily be assigned to escort a single unit or a group. Your forces also gain veterancy and become more effective, giving you an incentive to keep them alive. Also, in one of SC2's most unique aspects, you, the commander, are present on the battlefield, cruising around in a high-powered mech called the ACU (Armored Command Unit). This unit is your king, lose it and it's game over. However, the ACU is not just a liability, it's a speedy engineering unit and can be upgraded into a powerful warrior.
When they made SC2, its obvious Gas Powered Games focused on gameplay, not story telling. The game makes almost no effort to catch players up on the events of its predecessor. The story is broad enough that a newcomer to the series can follow it somewhat, but a sort of ?Last time on Supreme Commander? catch-up cinematic would have been welcome. While we're on the subject, the cinematics were none too impressive altogether. Things are smoothly rendered, but the lip-synching is bad and human characters look like beady-eyed dolls. They aren't exactly action packed either, usually just some bad dialogue that sets up the next battle. This is all forgivable, in light of SC2's awesome gameplay, but this is a genre known for its cinematics. SC2 wants to tell a space epic like Starcraft, but it ends up campy, and not the good, self-aware kind of campy like Command and Conquer.
While Supreme Commander may have graphics on par with any modern RTS, the art design is really quite tame. Everything is giant robots, spaceships, or mechanical bugs, and none of it looks terribly original. When you're looking at your army, it's impossible to tell one land unit from another or one plane from another unless you zoom in ridiculously close. And there's no reason to get that close, none of the units are that aesthetically interesting. Bottom line, this is not a Blizzard game, and things just don't look that cool, but once again all is forgiven in light of the gameplay.
There's no better way to perfect your build order than online multiplayer against real opponents, and SC2 comes with twenty maps to do it on, against up to eight opponents. The multiplayer is well integrated into the reliable Steam service, which means solid matchmaking and server browsing are a given, as is an expansion pack or two down the road. There's no map editor, but the modding community should be getting on that about now. Given all that, SC2 has plenty of replay value.