Supreme Commander
TomChick - :60 Reviews - Comments - 05/27/07

Supreme Commander
Almost total annihilation

By Tom Chick

Rating: 3 Ĺ stars
Genre: So close
Developer: Gas Powered Games
Publisher: THQ
ESRB: E10+
Requirements: 1.8Ghz, 512MB RAM, 128MB videocard with Shader 2.0 support

Supreme Commander, aka Total Annihilation II, But Not Officially, is an RTS unlike any other. Total Annihilation excepted, of course. Itís got an incredible sense of scale that spans land, sea, and air. Itís got an in-depth persnickety economic system. Itís got some high-tech high-stakes cat-and-mouse. Itís got an epic set of trumps and counter-trumps culminating in awesome nuclear explosions, gigantic robots, and massive armies sweeping across the map like mechanical Mongol hordes riding down from the steppes. Itís got an interface built for advanced planning rather than moment-to-moment managing. Itís got things that the genre hasnít had for ten years.

Itís also got a lot of explaining to do.

And you areÖ?

Why, for instance, is there no personality here? This is as aggressively bland a game as youíll ever play. To understand the differences among the United Earth Defense Forces, the Cybrids, and the Aerons, or whatever theyíre called, you can play through three inane campaigns. These consist of rigidly scripted missions on maps that that, surprise!, suddenly open hidden areas where you have to do a whole set of other objectives. Talk about mission creep.

You might not even notice that the sides differ visually. Sort of. Some robots have rounded edges, some donít. But Supreme Commander is designed to be played from a long ways off, where you can see everything. Thereís no sexy female voice to tell you when your units are being attacked, and the ďminimapĒ is nothing but a zoomed out PIP version of the full map, crammed with icons and glowing green resource points that choke out any helpful information. If youíre not watching when a bunch of units raid your outlying mass extractors, youíre going to be none the wiser. Supreme Command expects that youíll perch yourself up really high and hang out here.

Ant management

But from up here, every unit is an ant-sized icon. You might as well be in one of those military wargames where x marks the infantry fighting the slashmark tanks and the dot artillery. This battle of icons is like Introspectionís nuclear war game, Defcon, but without the cool detached irony. Supreme Commander is dry, earnest, bloodless, and even soulless. None of the three races of robots really means anything. One guy gets hovertanks that can cross water, another has a lot of shields, and a third can build a giant killer robot. Actually, that description applies to all three sides. For any sort of significant differentiation, youíll have to dig into a spreadsheet (not included).

But you go to war with the game design youíve been given, not the game design you wish you had. At least Supreme Commander tries to get around the demands of situational awareness with some well-intentioned features. You can run the game on dual monitors, or you can split your display into two halves. You can zoom the putative minimap. You can pop your view back and forth with the ĎVí key, or swoop up and down by rolling the mousewheel. This is a convenient bit of technical wizardry, and it should delight the people who complain about RTSs with close-in viewing areas.

But it also makes the case for how much personality you lose when you let the players distance themselves so thoroughly from whatís going on at the ground level. You have to leave the icons turned on at all zoom levels so you can tell whatís what among the robots, tanks, buildings, and ships that all look like each other, rounded or squared edges notwithstanding.

Ultimately, Supreme Commanderís detached approach isnít a problem so much as a design choice, and one thatís handled adroitly enough. But at what price? Youíd be hard pressed to find a blander RTS.

And this doesÖwhat?

Why is Supreme Commander so poorly documented? The tutorial consists of videos. ďOkay, kids, before we play, weíre going to watch about an hour of boring movies about drag selecting, adjacency bonuses, and transport queues. Ready?Ē Beneath the lists of videos Ė because you know youíre just going to close the lists and see whatís underneath Ė youíll find an empty map that looks like the place a tutorial should have been built. The manual is incomplete and occasionally outdated. There are features that are undocumented, and plenty of important nuances that go entirely unexplained. Trawl the official forums and youíre guaranteed about a half dozen ĎGee, I wish Iíd known that!í moments.

Why is the graphics engine so sluggish? Yeah, it looks great when youíre zoomed in on your lone commander building his first power generator because youíve got nothing else to do. This visual honeymoon lasts up through the first few dozen robots clanking out of their factories. With a powerful enough computer, you might even be able to bear up through a skirmish or two. But on big maps, with big armies in big battles Ė in other words, the way Supreme Commander was meant to be played Ė your computer is not enough. Yeah, sure, youíve got lots of RAM, a sweet new dual core CPU, and a $500 videocard. Sorry. Thatís still not enough. Supreme Commanderís graphics engine does some great things, but running well is not one of them.

Are you stupid?

Why is the AI so bad? In the campaigns, itís scripted to do particular things, but itís worthless in skirmish games. Itíll dribble out repeating sequences of units like some automated beacon tapping out Morse code. Bot, bot, tank, plane, botÖbot, bot, tank, plane, botÖbot, bot, tank, plane, bot. At some point, it transitions to building one or more high-level experimental units, and not very well at that. Even on the hardest (ha ha!) level, itís not much of a challenge, routinely fumbling its economy, its defenses, its base building, and most egregiously its attacks. Supreme Commander is a good enough game that it deserves better than stupid units trying to fire through mountains, much less an AI that canít manage the big picture.

Why is the interface so huge? It isnít just huge, itís a huge waste of space. Thereís nothing wrong with a big UI when it provides lots of information and functionality, but thatís not the case here. In fact, unit information is displayed in a tiny strip outside the UI that only pops up when you mouse over a unit. Even then, Supreme Commander is pretty laconic. Itís all good and well to know exactly how many hit points something has, but why stop there? Why not share the unitís speed, how much damage it does, and its rate of fire? These are things the kind of people who play Supreme Commander would like to know. Instead, you get so much pointless trim and empty space that the actual game is seen through a rectangular slot.

Finishing touches AWOL

The million dollar question is this: Why is Supreme Commander so unpolished? There are deep-seated stability problems, broken scripting in the campaigns, and pathfinding glitches. Nothing takes you out of your role as supreme commander quite so much as having to manually untangle a couple of units who insist on trying to walk through each other, or repeatedly giving move orders to some little dudes stuck on the lip of a hill.

There are sad gaps in the otherwise excellent interface. Why canít factories produce units directly into control groups? Why canít you add units to a patrol path? Why donít carriers refuel and repair aircraft like air staging platforms? In an interface built around queuing, why canít you queue modal states, like submarines surfacing, shields being toggled, and stealth generators being activated? Why canít you queue commander improvements or Cybran shield upgrades? Why canít you see how much missiles cost or the energy drain for a charging artillery emplacement? Why is aircraft fuel such a tedious micromanagement hassle that planes seem hardly worth the trouble? Why canít you automate engineer repairs without assigning them a patrol path? Why canít you insert units into a build queue? Why canít a factory rally to another unit? Why is there no way to cycle through factories, or jump to a selected unit? Why on Godís green earth is there no way to ping the map to indicate locations to your allies in a multiplayer game? Why, oh, why, are there so many oversights, shortcuts, and obviously features missing?

Why ask why?

These questions might sound like things that only hardcore players would care about. But this is a game built for hardcore players. Everyone else is going to have a hard time getting past the scope and scale. If you read the above things and think Ďhow pettyí, then youíre not the guy for Supreme Commander. No offense, but Command & Conquer 3 is the next door over.
Supreme Commander is a dozen brilliant design decisions undermined by a half dozen stupid oversights. The mistakes Gas Powered Games has made are in direct contradiction to their design choices. This is a game about automation, about managing battles from a macro level, about fine tuning an economy, about tough choices throughout all the stages of the game, about playing big and wide. They know that. Itís what theyíve created. And itís what weíve showed up to play. So why are we dragged into the trivial so often?

To be fair, theyíve done a great job laying the groundwork. Assuming Gas Powered Games doesnít flake when it comes to the necessary patchwork, the prospects look solid for Supreme Commander turning out to be all kinds of awesome. And even if they do let us down, theyíve at least made the game moddable enough that the hardcore Total Annihilation fans can take up the slack. On the day the game was released, there were already UI and AI mods based on the beta. Thereís even a section built into the game where you can pick and choose which mods to enable (itís telling that Gas Powered seems to have tossed some unexplained junk into here just to show you how this could work when, well, it works).

The game of the future

So with a bit of optimism, itís easy to imagine how Supreme Commander will turn out when itís fixed/finished. One of the easiest ways to do this is to play Total Annihilation and think of what it would be like to play a version that isnít dated. On one hand, Gas Powered Games shows a complete lack of imagination for how slavishly theyíve recreated the ten-year-old classic. On the other hand, Gas Powered Games shows a thorough understanding of what made Total Annihilation special. The lesson of that game was that micromanagement didnít have to be the deciding factor in an RTS. Chris Taylor, the head of Total Annihilation developer Cavedog and Supreme Commander developer Gas Powered Games, introduced planning and preparations. Heís the guy who came along and put the strategy in real time strategy.

But it was a different scene back then, and plenty of games have compromised between Cavedogís bland precision and Westwoodís charming sloppiness. Supreme Commander will be an ungainly sterile mess for a lot of RTS players.
But for those of us who love the genre for its many types of experiences, this is potentially an Important Game. Itís undeniably a work of considerable insight and talent, offering unique thrills. The question you have to ask yourself is whether this is the sort of game youíd like to play, and if youíre willing to wait for Gas Powered Games to do the work it takes to make it as good as it should have been when it was released. Because if so, this is really the only place you can go.

More :60 Reviews by TomChick

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