Thursday, March 22, 2007

Supreme Commander Review

Supreme Commander, developed by Gas Powered Games and published by THQ.
The Good: Lots of different feasible strategies, large scale combat, queuing up commands and build orders is very straightforward, innovative campaign mission map expansion, multiplayer matches are easy to join, adjacency bonuses reward good base layouts
The Not So Good: Steep economic learning curve, too easy to turtle as defenses are highly effective, high system requirements, some pathfinding and formation issues, matches can easily stalemate, no auto-saving in campaigns, online performance is very poor
What say you? A deep and enormous strategy game friendly to veteran players but not without its issues: 7/8

Most reviews you’ll read about Supreme Commander will refer to this being the “spiritual successor” to another real time strategy game. Well, not here: I never played the “spiritual predecessor” and I’ve become quite tired of seeing the same phrase used over and over regarding this game. In fact, I’m not even to refer to it anywhere in this review. Take that, Total Annihilation! Oh, wait, dang it! Anyway, Supreme Commander is a large-scale title that hopes to put the “strategy” back in real time strategy by letting you build a whole bunch of units. Will Supreme Commander prove to be the definitive resource-based real time strategy game?

Supreme Commander features a combination of good units and effects, but relatively bland environments. The attention to detail on the units is quite good, showing moving parts and detailed textures on every military object in the game. Of course, since you’re not going to spend much time zoomed all the way in, the attention of detail on the units will go largely unappreciated. The game’s environments look good zoomed in, with nice fidelity effects and variations in terrain, but most of the maps are pretty generic and they lack the stylization present in games like Company of Heroes or Command and Conquer 3. Supreme Commander has high system requirements, due to the combination of highly detailed units and individual physics-based tracking of each shot. This isn’t the best looking game out there, but it certainly is the most demanding on your hardware. The sound is fairly standard for an RTS game. Luckily, there is a lack of voiced unit acknowledgements, as these always tend to get annoying (just a sound effect for each unit type). The weapon sounds are good, and they promote the chaos of war effectively. The voice acting is good enough in the campaign, although it won’t amaze anyone. The background music, while catchy, gets repetitive after a while. Are the visuals and effects of Supreme Commander worth the hardware cost? No, but the game looks decent enough.

Supreme Commander features three campaigns for each of the game’s three factions: Humans, Humans + Aliens, and Humans + Robots. There aren’t a lot of missions in each campaign, but each mission can last quite a long time (a couple of hours each) due the expanding campaign maps. As you complete objectives, the map will grow, giving you additional objectives and more area to maneuver in. It’s a pretty neat approach, and it lends a measure of realism to the campaign. I do wish the campaign auto-saved when you complete each objective, though: having to restart a three-hour mission when you lose at the end is not enjoyable. While the campaigns are a good (and standard) inclusion, I imagine most people will spend their time with the skirmish and multiplayer modes. Setting up a skirmish match is straightforward, and you can set different game speeds and victory conditions (the default being to destroy the enemy commander). The skirmish AI is good for beginners, and they tend to produce effective counters to your units at the most difficult levels. After enough practice, however, the AI will be beaten and you’ll want to move on to more worthy opposition. Joining a multiplayer game involves using GPGnet, a matchmaking application that’s run outside of the game. It’s easy to find games, but GPGnet does not tell you the ping to a host before joining a match, which makes finding a smooth multiple-player match nearly impossible. Once you enter a game, it can move very slowly due to the poor system performance of other players; since Supreme Commander matches can last for hours anyway, this only exaggerates the problem. While playing a two-on-two match, a game second took three real time seconds only twenty minutes into the game. Anything involving more players than one-on-one battles is really frustrating to play when the unit count creeps into the thousands. For a game that emphesizes large-scale strategy, it's sad that most computers won't be able to handle large-scale online games and the contest will slow to a crawl.

The three factions in the game are identical except for their most powerful units, as they all have a similar suite of units at your disposal. The most important unit in the game is your commander, who can build and fight. Once your commander is destroyed, you lose, so most people will keep it in a support role rather than on the front lines. The biggest obstacle to overcome in Supreme Commander, at least for me, is resource management. There are only two resources in the game, mass and power, and they are represented as income rates and stockpile amounts. As long as you have a positive flow of resources (or a stockpile) everything will run smoothly, but the biggest struggle is providing enough mass and power to fuel your ever growing army. I think my problem results from other RTS game where you can constantly crank out as many units as possible from the start; this is not possible in Supreme Commander, as you must be able to support the construction of your army. Mass is more difficult to come by, as it can only be collected at set mass extractor locations (which, obvious, become a focus of the combat) or converted from large amounts of power. Power is generated at (surprise!) power generators that can be built anywhere. I’m always tempted to outpace my mass income levels, but Supreme Commander emphasizes constant growth of your resource collection, rather than building a couple of harvesters and forgetting about it. Adding to the equation are adjacency bonuses, which decrease the power and mass usage of structures if they are located next to a power or mass producer. This is a neat feature of the game as it rewards thoughtful planning of your base.

Once you learn all of the special user interface tricks of Supreme Commander, controlling the game becomes quite easy. Most important is the ability to queue up movement and building commands by holding down shift. This means you can script the initial ten minutes of the game from the start, which greatly reduces the micromanagement that is associated with many real time strategy games. And Supreme Commander lacks a preferred build order (at least beyond the first 30 seconds); this shows that there are multiple way to achieve victory against an opponent. Since most of the battlefields are tens of kilometers across, Supreme Commander gives you the strategic zoom tool. Everyone is bananas over the supposedly innovative strategic zoom, where you can zoom all the way out to see the entire map, but this was already implemented in another strategy game published over a year ago. It is a nice feature, though, and extremely useful with the large maps used in Supreme Commander. The game stresses large numbers of units, and moving large numbers of units can prove to be difficult. Getting your army to move together is quite difficult until you learn to hold down the right mouse button before issuing a move order. Even then, units can (and will) retreat and move in some crazy paths before finally getting in their formation. I was disappointed in the number of formations available in the game, as you’re essentially just given a column and a box to choose from. Plus, moving around mountains will result in your units stringing themselves out: the pathfinding definitely needs some work. But once you discover shift-queuing the build orders and holding down the right mouse button to keep units in formation, managing a large number of units becomes very easy, and once you figure out how ferrying works, automatically transporting units across the map is super-easy.

The units of Supreme Commander, at least the non-experimental units, are fairly generic for a futuristic setting: fast but unarmed scouts, tanks, artillery, anti-air, shield generators, fighters, bombers, destroyers, carriers, and so on. Supreme Commander includes three technology levels; each successive level produces more powerful units and structures that can be built by engineers. The experimental units are really powerful units that are usually a combination of two unit types and very large guns. They, obviously, take quite a while to construct, which can mean that the end of a game can drag on for a while as you wait for the giant flying saucer to finish. Taking out your opposition can prove to be very difficult as Supreme Commander has a strong focus on defenses. Plunking down tons of anti-ground and anti-air turrets is quite easy, and they can easily take out many units when they work in tandem. The occasional pathfinding problems don’t help this situation much, so a lot of multiplayer games can result in stalemates until someone spends the 80 minutes required to build a nuclear weapon. Still, Supreme Commander provides a good amount of strategy and flexibility in attaining victory: there is usually an effective counter to each offensive tactic, and helpful reconnaissance is the key to figuring out what the enemy is doing. Although it takes a while to learn, Supreme Commander can offer up some tasty and addictive strategic gaming that a lot of more superficial and straightforward RTS games lack.

While Supreme Commander doesn’t have the wide appeal of some real time strategy games due to its learning curve, I imagine that it will have longevity with a solid fan base. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what the game has to offer in terms of strategy, and the ability to modify the units means user-made expansions are a definitely possibility. The game does have steep system requirements for only slightly above average results, though, so try out the demo first to make sure you can actually run the game. There are some innovations with the user interface: queuing a number of commands in a row makes controlling a large number of units as easy as possible. The AI provides a good opponent for beginning players, and the battles are truly epic. There are a number of things that hold this game back from a perfect score: pathfinding issues, shortcomings in the matchmaking software, overly strong defenses, and the lack of auto-saving campaign missions. But most of these problems could be easily fixed, so experienced strategy players shouldn’t hesitate to pick up this title, as it offers great strategy gaming and good longevity.