I have downloaded and thoroughly stomped through the demo of Supreme Commander. The demo opens with a decent sci-fi intro movie and soon enough gets into the killing. I played through the campaign demo games first as I like to slowly be introduced to units through a story. I could have jumped right into a skirmish game but I didn’t really feel like being lost, especially in a game as massive as this. The campaign seemed fine with some cool map expansion features. As you complete objectives the map area expands to allow you to go to new areas or confront new threats which was very neat. The only thing I didn’t like about the campaign was the stereotypical voices for the people. The voice acting was fine but just because a faction has some communist ideals doesn’t mean they all need to have Russian accents!
Of course, the bread and butter of this game isn’t the campaign or story line. It’s going to be about how the implementation of a massive RTS works. Your standard RTS has several very important facets that must all be unified for a fun game on a casual and competitive level. First off, the interface must be clean and easily read. Secondly units should be balanced allowing for early game rushes and slower technological advances. Lastly the units should be easy to command and should be responsive (or at least acknowledge orders). This is far from the standard RTS though as the focus has been expanded to include entire worlds. Even though you cannot wage war across a world in the demo I can see how it would all work and my verdict on how it would work is: slowly.
The interface of the game is definitely the worst part. It is intrusive and takes up a vast amount of valuable space on the screen. Navigating through build menus is a pain in the ass. Making a control group of units makes a rather large icon appear on the right side of your screen so that when you have five or six control groups (I usually wind up with ten plus a commander and idle workers) you find a significant amount of your screen is dominated by this stupid icon arrangement. This was obviously noted by the developer as they give you an option to just get rid of it. I personally would never play with this on, I just make groupings of units and remember their numbers (1-5 ground units, 6,7 recon units, 8-10 air/naval forces). The rest of the interface is just as clunky and I didn’t see a way to personalize it in anyway. There are no options to redo shortcuts either! Hotkeys are separated by a “build” toggle. You hit the build key and the build hotkeys are enabled. If this “build” toggle is off there are no hotkeys for building units.
For those of you familiar with Total Annihilation you will remember that you start with an extremely powerful commander unit. This unit is able to waste tech one units with ease (especially coupled with his super gun thing). This nixes any direct rush strategies. What this does leave you with is a sort of containment dynamic. I’d like to see how this develops but what with school and all I don’t have the time to get sucked into Supreme Commander as much as I wish I could. Suffice to say that one of the action elements I enjoyed most about Starcraft has been taken out. Other people will love this, I think it is a bit of a loss as games become long slogs even on small maps*.
Unit balance cross faction is hard to determine at this stage of the game as only one faction is available to play. Unit balance between tech levels seems to be pretty good however. You get a significant bump in power as you advance in tech but doing so takes a significant resource expenditure and time investment. Unit power does not grow in a line though but almost exponentially. It would take at least four tier one units to take on a tier unit and possibly up to sixteen tier one to kill a tier three. The experimental units are on a whole different scale as it generally takes swarms of units to destroy them. I personally had the misfortune of successfully containing an AI opponent with off-shore bombardment only to have a giant spider robot thing of doom come striding past my relatively weak ground defences and proceed to level my base (including my commander!). Luckily there was a glitch in the AI of the giant robot bug of doom and my battleships were able to safely dispose of it. So, as promised – super units are SUPER and make a great show of it too!
The last bit I will cover in this review is unit control. Total Annihilation had mass production of units down to a fine art long before any other RTS. The only problem arose that the relatively underpowered machines of that time just couldn’t handle the processing of six hundred units all being commanded to attack at the same time. What’s funny is that problem still exists. Granted I was running this on a macbook pro using boot camp but the game did have a tendency to drag a bit (I meet the minimum reqs). The way point system is excellent and looks great. Large groupings of units will automatically form themselves sensibly and advance at the rate of the slowest unit (this can be overridden quite simply if you want your units to attack one at a time allowing your enemy to easily dispose of them). One of the most annoying things however is the repairing or the recovery of scrap (for energy and mass, the two resources in the game). There is no auto-repair or auto-salvage that I could discover. This is a huge pain in the ass especially in a game where the focus is on massive warfare – do we really want to click every unit that we want repaired? These sorts of oversights seem rather common sadly enough and may be fixed in a patch. It’s also possible that these functions exist but I just wasn’t able to find them.
My final verdict on Supreme Commander is that it will be great fun if you have the time to invest in the game. The multiplayer would be fantastic as long as you had machines that could handle the load and again, don’t mind sitting at the same match for a couple hours. I do hope they have some sort of co-operative version of multiplayer that allows a team of people to command the same side instead of everyone having their own side. The game successfully delivers a massive sense of scale but the controls do get overwhelmed by this same sense of scale. I hope they redo the interface entirely and rethink mass transit of units.
I didn’t cover nearly as much as I would have liked to in this review but this is an incredibly complex game and rather groundbreaking in its scale. Please feel free to comment and ask questions and I’ll be happy to answer with my own commentary.
*As a side note to this, if a containment is done aggressively enough a player may wind up quitting due to being harassed constantly but more likely it will make them turtle.