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Posted on Mar 6, 2007 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Supreme Commander – Game Review (PC)

By Andrew Summersgill

Passed Inspection: A vast game with a myriad of options should keep players entertained for some time.

Failed Basic: A slightly clunky interface blocks a large amount of the screen.

Veteran RTS players will probably recall a game from about ten years ago called Total Annihilation (or simply, TA). At the time, it was a groundbreaking game, featuring Newtonian physics, terrain that affected line of sight/weapon fire and 3D models in a genre that had so far been limited to 2D sprites. This particular writer was hooked on the look and feel of the game even before it came out, with previews of game play and unit interaction whetting the appetite. When the game hit the shelves, I was one of the first there to grab my copy, and I’ve never looked back. TA’s strength is demonstrated by the fact that it’s still played to this day, indeed I have it installed on my current PC. Imagine my joy when it was revealed a new game was under development by Chris Taylor, creator of TA – called Supreme Commander. This new game was said to be the "spiritual successor" to TA and would redefine the RTS game for a new generation.

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Well, it’s here at last – will it be my RTS game for the next ten years?

At first glance, Supreme Commander (SupCom) might just seem like a normal RTS. It is true that resources must be managed to produce units for battle, and the aim of the game is to grind the enemy into the dirt, but this is no Command & Conquer. Featuring vast maps and fielding enormous numbers of different units, SupCom takes all that TA ever was and ups the ante to the Nth degree. The storyline is suitably simple; in the far-flung future the Earth Empire collapses into civil war, and three unique factions rise from the ashes to fight for control of the galaxy. What more does a good fighting game need?

In the future, warfare has advanced to the stage where a single unit may be sent into battle. The Armoured Command Unit, or ACU is a vast bipedal robotic behemoth that towers in the sky. Equipped with generators to manufacture structures and advanced weaponry to deter attackers, such ACUs are able to travel between Quantum Gateways and make planetfall, whereupon they can construct buildings to begin to churn out weapons of war to fight other ACUs for domination of the battlefield. To begin with, only basic Technology 1 level structures can be thrown up – these include Land Factories, Air Factories, and Naval Factories. Such buildings can themselves build new units, such as Engineers, which can assist the ACU in building a base of operations whilst the Factories upgrade themselves to Tech’ levels 2 and 3 or produce tanks, aircraft, ships, or battledroids to attack the enemy.

But to build an army, one must also manage the resources intelligently. Unlike C&C type games where just one resource is available, SupCom requires Mass and Energy to generate the war machine. Mass can be acquired from specific areas of the map where rock formations appear. By constructing Mass Extractors, one can literally "pump" the mass from the ground to make use of it. At the same time, Power Generators are built to, well, generate power. As with many RTS games, the fancier the gear, the more resources are needed – forcing the player to constantly keep their economy at peak efficiency.

Where SupCom comes into its own is in the sheer number of options available to all Armchair Generals out there. For example, Tech’ level 1 alone allows construction of no less than four types of aircraft; this is increased as players upgrade their facilities. Each unit has different strengths and weaknesses, and the number of strategy options this presents is impressive. The types of fixed installations will also have an effect on strategy. Should a player decide to play "Turtle" and hole up in their base whilst building weapons of mass destruction? Or would an early advance on the enemy base prove more effective in the long run? Should a player adopt a naval strategy and strangle the economy of his adversary? Or should he instead play Air Marshall and bomb the enemy ACU into the stone age? Options options…all of them equally valid, all of them equally capable of being countered by a canny enemy.

The other determining factor is of course the terrain – and it is here that SupCom sits above everything else. The sheer scale of the largest maps is insane. Players can choose to fight in frigid arctic type conditions, desert plains, or tropical jungle. Games can be limited to pure ground affairs, or vast naval campaigns. Unlike typical RTS type games, players are not funneled down choke points or restricted in their movement. With the number of strategic options open to a player, the world is their oyster – and it’s always possible to approach a battle in a different way.

The fun lies of course in determining which units are the best in a given situation. It might be a jolly wheeze to crank out a hundred amphibious tanks, but when the enemy base is 50km away, it’s going to take a long time for those tanks to drive across the sea bed to get there. Equally, it might be easier to airlift an army into position, but if a player hasn’t got air superiority, then the way is effectively blocked. Furthermore, given the resources available at any particular time, is it really wise to begin long-term construction of a strategic missile launcher in favour of a point defence network to defend from any surprise attacks? And if defence is the order of the day, should one build now or wait until more powerful guns become available?

For players with resources to spare, it’s possible to build massive experimental units. Such items are only capable of being built by a Tech’ 3 Engineer, but introduce a whole new dimension. As with every unit, the experimental units are unique to each side that fields them – indeed often there is no direct equivalent of a given unit in the other "team’s" armoury. They range from walking factories, producing equipment as they move into battle, to submersible aircraft carriers and beyond. Nothing quite beats the fear in the pit of one’s stomach at the first sight of a truly gigantic enemy SpiderBot approaching the lines – complete with its enormous laser cannon that tears across the landscape in anger, destroying all before it. The only downside is that these units take a LONG time to produce – over an hour of real time in some cases! There is an option to speed or slow the game, but when it comes to the experimental units, this makes little difference.

It’s true to say that SupCom is essentially TA:2, the game play is almost identical and many of the units are incredibly similar to their ten-year old counterparts, but this is no bad thing. SupCom improves on the earlier game in spades. Graphically of course it’s at the cutting edge. Units cast realistic shadows and tank tracks churn up the ground and knock down trees as they head to their assigned positions. Forest fires can start from the most innocuous spark – spreading from tree to tree as you’d expect in the real world. Ships sink to the bottom with a slow grace, deeper and deeper and deeper until they finally vanish from sight. Vast explosions shake the ground and lasers and shells fill the air as battle is joined. The whole experience is immersive and entirely realistic thanks to the physics of the game. Of course this comes at a cost – a fairly high-spec’ PC is required to run the game.

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