Sunday, June 08, 2008

Supreme Ruler 2020 Review

Supreme Ruler 2020, developed by BattleGoat Studios and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Complex and detailed economy and production, lots of military units, generally intelligent AI advisors can automate as much (or as little) as you desire, better organized interface, worldwide map, Internet play for 16 players
The Not So Good: Learning curve for novices, thorough gameplay might not be for everyone, the fastest speed setting is still fairly slow which means games can drag, some crazy alliances and wars
What say you? The most comprehensive near-future world simulation: 7/8

The very first game I reviewed here at Out of Eight was Battlefield 2, which has absolutely nothing to do with this review. However, the fourth game I reviewed was Supreme Ruler 2010, a comprehensive but almost impenetrable grand strategy game that had you control a small, independent nation after the U.S. broke up due to high oil prices (yeah, like that's plausible). The updated version is now here in the form of Supreme Ruler 2020: First Blood Part II (I made that up; the full title is actually Supreme Ruler 2020: Baby Geniuses 2: SuperBabies). So, what has three more years of improvements wrought? And is what has wrought worth playing?

While the graphics of Supreme Ruler 2020 are certainly improved over its predecessor, there is some room for improvement. The game uses real satellite images that look great when zoomed out, however when zoomed in the detail level stays the same so the surface features become blurry. The maps are also in 2-D, so elevation changes are just pictured on the map instead of being represented as truly tall mountains. Supreme Ruler 2020 does not have Google Earth-level detail, especially when you are close to the surface, but having real-world images instead of artificial maps does add an air of authenticity to the game. Supreme Ruler 2020 also includes 3-D units (before they were 2-D sprites): from the buildings to the military units, everything on the surface has a detailed model. The models are well-done but generic, as most units of the same type (artillery, tank) use the same exact design. The game does perform well on a wide range of systems, so anyone with a computer that has a Pentium III should be able to run this. Supreme Ruler 2020 features some region-specific music to go along with the killing, but the rest of the sound effects seem identical to Supreme Ruler 2010. Overall, though, the presentation of Supreme Ruler 2020 is better, thanks to a realistic map and 3-D units.

Supreme Ruler 2020 is a complex game that simulates every major aspect of running a modern country. Because of this, it can be difficult to learn how to play, so the game includes several tutorials. These do not go into much detail and only teach the very basics, but it does convey how the interface works. You are required to click on things so it is interactive (make sure you click on anything circled in red!), which is better than simply reading. Between the tutorials and the manual (and simply playing the game a couple of times), you can overcome the initially steep learning curve if you are at least somewhat accustomed to grand strategy games. Speaking of the interface, the game is well-designed and everything is only two clicks away. This is much better than the series of windows that Supreme Ruler 2010 used. Single player gameplay in Supreme Ruler 2020 consists of sandbox campaign games and objective-based scenarios. There are three campaigns to choose from: a standard world, a shattered world where major nations have broken up, and a high-hostility map for aggressive players. You can choose from over 250 different nations; this results in very high replay value, since each country has its own concerns. The sandbox campaign modes don’t come with any objectives (like the manual states), but you can customize your victory conditions and gameplay settings. In addition to the free-form campaign mode, there are ten more directed scenarios, involving unification votes (in America, Canada, Europe, or Italy), escort missions, and military engagements. All of these scenarios and campaigns take place on the same global map; Supreme Ruler 2010 restricted the game to a regional view with a maximum of 16 nations (and usually 5-8). Having one real-world map makes conflicts more interesting and the game ultimately more realistic and enjoyable. It should be noted that all of the nations involved in a unification vote scenario are allied to begin with, so there will be almost no emphasis on military action. This is the polar opposite from before, and I enjoyed having to worry about my neighbors and potentially dealing with them with force rather than passively increasing my domestic rating. Now, all of the unification scenarios are more peaceful. And by more peaceful I mean more boring. Supreme Ruler 2020 has the same support for mods and future enhancements through patches as the previous version of the game. While there isn’t a scenario editor per se, all of the scenario files are either text files or spreadsheets that are easily edited. Since all games of Supreme Ruler 2020 take place on the same world map, you don’t need to create a new one, just customize the starting relations and game rules and objectives. It looks like Supreme Ruler 2020 should have the same high level of post-release support, through both official and user-made content, as before.

Supreme Ruler 2020 gives you a lot of options to customize the game your way. You can put a time limit on the game, from 6 months to 10 years, and allow for complete, capital, capture (a single unit), unification (vote), or a score (total, diplomatic, economy, technology, approval, or military) victory. Or you can go on forever and just see what happens. I liked the progressive campaigns from before, where you started out as a single region and eventually grew larger and larger after each unification vote, but the open-ended nature of the campaign mode with optional objectives is a decent substitute. You can customize the difficulty of Supreme Ruler 2020 for each aspect of the game (economy, military, diplomacy) if you aren’t as adept at one area; this is better than an overall difficulty setting. There are also advanced rules you can introduce, such as fog of war, line of sight, spotting, in addition to enabling nuclear weapons and setting initial funds and resource levels. There are also multiplayer games, including an Internet browser for 16-player action. I did not have time to test the multiplayer aspect of the game, since I got it before it was released to the public (I am cool like that).

It can be hard running a country, so a number of AI advisors are present to help you along. There is an advisor for each of the game’s six departments (production, research, finance, state, operations, and defense) and you can give the AI advisors specific goals (such as reducing taxes or researching military units) or allow them free reign. Alternatively, you can lock the advisors out of doing anything if you want to control that portion of the game yourself. This is a really nice feature, especially for beginners, that lets you tailor the game to how you want to play. I can imagine there are some players who will only want to worry about military action (so the game plays more like a real-time strategy title) and let the AI worry about the budget and resources. The AI advisors do a decent job sticking to your objectives and making reasonable adjustments along the way. One feature that has been removed is hiring and firing advisors: now, everyone is equally competent and you don’t have to worry about hiring exactly the correct person. Honestly, this was just another thing to worry about during gameplay and didn’t really impact your country much. Easing into Supreme Ruler 2020 is a smoother transition thanks to the advisor system.

Supreme Ruler 2020 allows you to build six structures per hex; Supreme Ruler 2010 was restricted to one structure per hex, so cities were unreasonably spread out. Here, you need to have the appropriate complex (industrial or military) in order to build a specific building, so you can’t put a barracks and a coal mine in the same place (sounds reasonable enough). Supreme Ruler 2020 has a host of map filters that show resource locations and terrain for planning and strategic purposes. You can also construct roads and rails for faster transport across your wonderful country. Supreme Ruler 2020 does not have a simple farms-and-mines or taxes-only economy. Instead, you have to worry about eleven resources (agriculture, water, timber, petroleum, coal, metal, uranium, electric power, consumer goods, industrial goods, and military goods), all of which are interrelated and used by different facets of your population. Supreme Ruler 2020 uses bar graphics to represent how much you are producing and using, giving a quick glance at your overall production. No nation is completely self-sufficient, so you will need to trade with other countries in order to meet demand. You can put your surplus goods up for sale and purchase shortages automatically or trade with specific countries. The market fluctuates according to supply and demand: it’s not always a good idea to sell all of your excess coal, since it will bring in less money because there is so much of it. If your economy is too dependent on trade, an overabundance of a key resource could spell bad news. Typically, if it costs less money to produce a resource than the buy it on the market, then export away! The game provides a list of top producers, consumers, exporters, and importers so that you can evaluate potential partners. You will also need to balance the budget by tweaking social spending in eight areas (health care, education, infrastructure, environment, family subsidy, law enforcement, cultural, and social assistance) and taxes in eight areas (low income, high income, corporation, small business, sales tax, unemployment, property tax, and pension tax). Obviously, the lower the taxes and higher the social spending, the more your population will like you (a good thing for voting scenarios). You can also gain money from tourism and issue bonds.

You will have relations with the 200+ countries around the globe (diplomatic relations, of course (I did not have diplomatic relations with that country)). You can enter treaties for trading resources, mutual defense, alliances, and sharing technologies, to name a few. Alliances can get really out of hand (especially in the Melting Point scenario), with non-sensical wars (Illinois vs. Botswana, anyone?) that will never actually result in any real fighting. This is caused by your 20 allies having 20 other allies (and so on), and all that results is increased expenses due to a raised DEFCON level. This is a problem we saw in the first couple of Europa Universalis games, and Supreme Ruler's expansion to a world-wide map is to blame. Supreme Ruler 2020 has a large sortable scoreboard that has everything from casus belli to current tech rating to overall score. You can also read national news, peruse a list of allies and enemies, observe standings with the UN (a bad organization to anger), and religious orientation (a good cause for poor relations). If you don’t trust your neighbors, you can send in spies (although this tends to make them very mad), send up spy satellites, and mark hotspots for your AI military advisor to target. Supreme Ruler 2020 lets you research a disturbingly large number of technologies, from warfare to medicine to specific unit designs. Research can be a bit overwhelming, especially since a lot of the units are very similar and some of the techs aren’t completely intuitive, but giving your advisor an area of focus usually produces good results.

No strategy game would be complete without building units to kill people. Supreme Ruler 2020 allows you to tweak the spending levels and military preparedness (expressed as DEFCON) to fit your budgetary needs. Supreme Ruler 2020 comes with “a whole bunch” (technical term) of units, and giving you a list of each unit type makes my review longer! Land units include infantry, recon, tanks, anti-tanks, artillery, air defense, and transports. Helicopters, fighter/interceptors, fighter/bombers, multi-role fighters, strategic bombers, patrols, and transports take to the air. The ocean is full of subs, carriers, destroyers/cruisers, frigates/corvettes, patrols/support, and even more transports. And you can even build missiles for land, air, naval, submarine, and silos. There are a bunch of historical and near-future units in each of these categories, letting you have a region-specific military with a large variety of units. Each unit has a bunch of stats for attacking and movement that probably mirror real-life stats; this level of detail is very impressive. It is easy to construct units thanks to the infinite queue: once you construct a unit, it will appear at the bottom of the queue, ready to be built once again. This is really awesome as it lets you set your desired composition in the queue and then forget about production until new units are researched. You can, of course, turn off repeating queues if you’d like, but the option reduces micromanagement drastically and is excellent and most welcome.

After you have made your military, it’s time to use it. During peacetime, you can keep a majority of your units in reserve (to reduce costs), but once diplomacy breaks down, you can start blowing stuff up. You can set overall rules of engagement for your units (either as a whole or for individuals and groups): speed, route, initiative, and loss tolerance. In addition, you can issue advanced orders (like patrol and bomb) that can keep units in formation or move them all to a single destination. Using transports is not automatic, so that takes some micromanaging; taking units long distances is probably the least appealing part of the game. The inclusion of garrisons reduces the steamrolling present in a lot of games: the attacking nation will have to take their time venturing across enemy territory. The AI is generally good, especially when you consider that it’s responsible for controlling 200 nations. It is not as active in diplomacy as I would like: they hardly offer anything other than formal alliances and resource trade, and the resource treaties are always cash for goods, never goods for goods. They will accept military-based treaties if you offer them, however. The AI does have the habit of constantly offering goods you don't need (resulting in a lot of rejected proposals) and proposing insane counter-offers that request large amounts of cash from you for little in return. Still, the AI does provide a dynamic world in which to play and while it's not quite as aggressive or smart as I would like, it'll do.

While Supreme Ruler 2020 is a complex game, I found it easier to adapt to when compared with Supreme Ruler 2010 thanks to the improved interface. The game does move methodically: a year will go by in about two hours, which isn’t terribly slow but I’d like to speed though portions of the game where you are just sitting around (1 second for each game day would produce a more exciting pace). Assuming you manually control most of the game, you can be kept busy with trades, diplomacy, military production, research, managing your production, and balancing your budget. If you choose to have the AI control most things, then (not surprisingly) you’ll be sitting around watching nothing happen, so that can obviously get boring. However, those looking for an all-inclusive reproduction of the modern world can’t go wrong with Supreme Ruler 2020.

Supreme Ruler 2020 is a clearly improved version of Supreme Ruler 2010. The streamlined interface makes handling the game’s complexity relatively straightforward, but still gives you all of the hard data required to run your nation. While the tutorial is light on the details, the AI advisors can handle anything you wish to ignore when running your country. From the world-wide sandbox mode to more specific scenarios and multiplayer, the over 200 countries in Supreme Ruler 2020 offer different challenges and goals that provides a lot of replay value. In addition, the game is easy to modify and future patches will probably include additional scenarios. The satellite map is nice from a distance, and the 3-D units look good. Production is comprehensive without being overwhelming: constructing additional factories or importing goods is presented in a straightforward manner. Balancing your budget and tweaking your spending is a game in itself (and has been, on occasion). Supreme Ruler 2020 also includes a large quantity of military units to research, produce, and catch on fire. Once you get past the initial shock of having so many options at your disposal, managing your nation in Supreme Ruler 2020 becomes easier once you learn where everything is. Supreme Ruler 2020 is seemingly realistic (or as realistic as you can reasonable expect), with almost enough content to keep you constantly busy. Despite the developers’ best efforts, I can still see Supreme Ruler 2020 being overwhelming to new players, so it’s not for everyone. But strategy veterans will find a very comprehensive and satisfying experience with high replay value and pleasing realism.