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Large-Scale Warfare Done Right
Published on February 26, 2007 By mittens In Real-Time
Jump to: Introduction :: The Big Picture :: Nuclear Hugs :: Tech of the Infinite War :: Conclusion

War is Fought with ACUs
To say that I have been looking forward to the retail release of Supreme Commander is an understatement of epic proportions. With this game, we have a Real-Time Strategy title centered around large-scale warfare -- such a concept may sound unspectacular on paper until you realize that, while some RTSs certainly have an epic scope in terms of storyline and setting, they very rarely actually live up to such a thing with the actual gameplay. The most recent example of this difference between large environmental scope and gameplay lies within Relic's absolutely spectacular Company of Heroes; settings do not really get much more epic or large-scale than World War II. That said, Company of Heroes does not focus on aerial or naval battles, there is a heavily limited area allowed for building a base, and the unit limit maxes out as seventy-five.

Supreme Commander, however, remains truly epic in the scope of its gameplay and storyline. There is no single definitive battle that will define the turnout of any given match -- there are constant barrages of artillery, tactical missiles, and the occasional nuke that players will have to contend with while they mount (and defend against) assaults across land, sea, and air while still maintaining a stable economy for building new units and upgrading certain facilities as players work their way to the top of the "tech tree" (a traditional RTS term which doesn't apply to Supreme Commander very nicely) to build very expensive, very powerful tech three units and, eventually, constructing "experimental" units like a giant spider capable of wielding a sweeping laser that decimates any units in its path.

Now, before I jump right into the heart of this strategic beast of a game, I think it's worth noting that this is not the first time that I will have discussed Supreme Commander in any great detail on this site. I devoted a fairly hefty chunk of text to both Company of Heroes and Supreme Commander in the fourth part of my near-monolithic series devoted to the Real-Time Strategy genre; I also posted a very teeny-tiny interview with Chris Taylor (Lead Designer/Creative Director of Supreme Commander) within the comments of said article, which can be found here.



The Big Picture
Supreme Commander, in the most filtered and strip-down description I can manage, is a real-time war game. It's not a game about a few choice battles between a dozen or so units from each player meeting and fighting it out immediately outside another player's base. It's not a game where the winner of said skirmish could easily (and quickly) take advantage of the losing player's weakness post-battle to bring about the end of the game in a matter of minutes. Supreme Commander is a game where those kinds of battles will be numerous and, commonly, occurring simultaneously across varying areas of the map -- this is especially true if you're just a single player in a four-to-eight player game in one of the many large maps that ship with the game. Right now, as I'm writing this, I was curious to see just how large these maps got (since I have yet to play one of the more enormous matches), and the range of sizes is... Daunting. There are eight 5x5kilometer maps designed for two to three players, and then there are even more maps of the 10x10 and 20x20 kilometer sizes. And, if you keep looking around the map selection screen, you'll eventually stumble into four 40x40 kilometer maps. And, if you look even further, you'll be able to count two maps which are 81x81 kilometers in size. The two that ship with the game are "Betrayal Ocean," which has two players on each of the four larger islands (along with a bunch of smaller ones scattered throughout) and then you have "Frostmill Ruins" which supports eight players each on their own peninsula of a continent which connects all eight players by a large circular mass of land in the middle of the map.

On a map that large, Supreme Commander truly fulfills its goal: to be one of the largest real-time strategy games to ever exist. Players have access to three races, each with units ranging from low-tech (tech/tier 1), midrange (tech/tier 2), high-tech (tech/tier 3), and experimental levels of complexity and power. The differences between the three races are largely cosmetic compared to a game like Starcraft or Warcraft 3 -- but the United Earth Federation, Cybran, and Aeon races of Supreme Commander are not entirely carbon copies of one another. I absolutely love the "feel" of all three of the factions, but the Cybran, in particular, are appealing to my particular style of play; they have slightly less-powerful units than the UEF or Aeon, but they are slightly faster and have the widest variety of incredibly powerful experimental units. The Cybran also put more of an emphasis on their ability to use stealth generators to hide groups of units (all races have access to immobile stealth field generators for bases and the like) from radar detection which allows for some very ninjaish assaults on enemy fortifications. The Cybran also have a giant mechanical spider with a microwave laser beam attached to its back. If that's not the coolest thing ever, then I don't know what is. I really don't.



I can't begin to describe the core gameplay of Supreme Commander. This is going to be my paragraph-limited attempt. At its core, the game is a fairly traditional RTS: base-building is critical, the management of the two resources (mass and energy), the necessity of a good balance of units, the importance that scouting the enemy location and periodic activity, and the absolute significance of nuclear arms to every diplomatic endeavor. And while the basic components of the game seem fairly standard-fare, the implementation only bears resemblance to Chris Taylor's own Total Annihilation (what is, essentially, the spiritual predecessor of Supreme Commander). The economy is not a rigidly-handled resource-massing game of whether or not you have the correct amount of mass or energy to build something -- it's whether or not you have the necessary stream of resources to build something, as they are continually tapped from the surplus of produced energy/mass or the required components that you have stored. It's not uncommon to have battles waging across land, sea, or air at any point on the map, so there's generally a constant need to be pumping out units -- which you can assign an infinite queue of actions at any point in the game (you can even have units directly out of a factory enter a patrol route). Base-building also differs in Supreme Commander than it does in other games, with the importance of a well-organized and well-defended base playing a far greater role than in more traditional RTSs like Starcraft -- an enemy attack from other units, artillery, or tactile (or nuclear) missile assault could happen at any time, but so long as you're well-defended for a majority of assault possibilities, your ability to maintain a stable economy and continually pump out units should go largely unhindered. And that's important. Because if the enemy breaks through your defenses and tracks down your Supreme Commander -- your primary unit of importance who can be upgraded with whatever options would match your playing style -- within your base and manages to kill him then it's game over. And if you're playing a mode of play that doesn't make the death of the commander a game-ender, then you're just stuck with a giant frickin' explosion (only a notch below a nuclear detonation in terms of the havoc and fireworks it causes) in the middle of your base.

Now, toss in units that couldn't find their way around a brick wall, much less in a given formation, and that's and that's it for Supreme Commander 101 -- if you want a better explanation of the core gameplay, then you could check out the last article I wrote about it, the Wikipedia entry, or the Gamespot review. All that really needs to be said about the core gameplay present in the game is that, while it may overwhelm a whole lot of gamers who are used to your more conventional strategy games, it is really about as well-executed and polished as any game of this kind of scope could be. The matches within SupCom are intense, the three factions are incredibly well balanced, and the variety of styles which a player can choose to employ are about as limitless as any RTS I can think of.

Hugging with Nuclear Arms
There are, really, two primary components to Supreme Commander. There is the single-player campaign set and then there is the multiplayer portion. I played a decent amount of multiplayer games in the beta and then a bit more in the retail version and, let me tell you, the game's online component is absolutely brilliant. SupCom ships with a client separate from the main executable called GPGNet -- this is the primary "gateway" into the online Supreme Commander arena. Through this fairly minimalistic utility you can chat with other players, get involved in custom or ranked games, view stats, and so on and so forth. GPGNet is essentially an out-of-game version of Blizzard's Battle.net. And while I'm sure that some people may have qualms about this functionality being located outside of the main SupCom executable I think it's actually a great choice. It's nice to be able to sit in a channel and just hang around with people before jumping into a game. Basically, if you're interested in Supreme Commander solely for the multiplayer component, and the idea of large-scale warfare seems even remotely interesting to you, then this game is probably one of the safest purchases I can recommend.

It's when discussing the single-player portion of SupCom that the game drops down a notch or two in its overall "awesomeness." There are three campaigns available for a player to begin from the moment the game is started-up for the first time: the UEF campaign, the Cybran campaign, and the Aeon campaign. I like to handle things in order, so I went with the UEF campaign for my first choice as it’s the first of the three shown -- and, when starting the game for the first, I assumed it was necessary to beat this campaign before I could progress to the others (this assumption is wrong). So, I played through the six missions in the UEF campaign and was pleasantly surprised with how well the campaign was put together. The number of missions seem like a relatively low amount until you realize that each mission can take anywhere from one to three hours to complete. Each mission starts out with your Armored Command Unit (ACU) being "gated" into your starting area. You'll be given a simple objective or two and then, upon finishing said objective(s), you won't find out that the mission was completed successfully, but rather you'll see a couple more objectives added, hear "Operation Area Expanded," and then you can zoom out to see that the mission area has been doubled, tripled, or quadrupled. This tends to happen about three or four times per every mission. So, yeah, they tend to take up a nice chunk of time.



The problem with the single-player portion of Supreme Commander is not that any of the three campaigns has anything "wrong" with it. The problem with the single-player portion is that these three campaigns all have almost the exact same flow and story content. You will always start out a campaign in "tutorial mode" where your commanding officer will give you tips about how to get started building a base and will have access to only a handful of units/structures, and then as the missions go you will (slowly) advance up the tech tree until, during the last two missions, you will have most of the possible units available to you. This kind of flow works well for any particular campaign taken on its own merits, but there's no real reason to play the other two campaigns once you've beaten one of them. The storylines do not build off one another, either, so whatever you accomplish in one campaign is basically just one possible route that the plot could go (if you were the commander for that race). This problem does not really apply to the people who are interested in Supreme Commander solely for its multiplayer, but for people like me who, for the most part, get the most enjoyment in an RTS from its single-player options (Warcraft 3 being the primary exception to this), this detail is troubling. I had no problem treading very similar ground within the campaigns for the UEF and Cybran campaigns, but by the time I hit the Aeon campaign, trying to work my way through the early missions was very difficult. Thankfully, the skirmishes against the AI and the occasional multiplayer game remedy this problem with ease.

As strongly as I feel about the poor execution of the single-player campaign, the core gameplay of Supreme Commander is so gracefully developed and well-polished that I know I'm going to get a whole lot of playtime with it between skirmishes against the AI along with the excellent multiplayer. That all said the game does have a few other problems which bear mentioning. Firstly is how misleading the 500 unit limit can be; each unit does only count for one mark in the limit tally, but each structure also counts one point towards the limit (with the exception of walls). This isn't a fact that was immediately apparent to me until I started having a rough time in one of the campaign missions and decided that the best way to build an army was to fortify my base well enough so I didn't need extra units defending it all the time. Imagine my surprise when I heard the neutral announcer tell me "Unit limit reached" when I was only constructing towers. This is not only a fairly annoying thing to have to contend with, but it seems to go against one of my more well-liked RTS conventions: base structures shouldn't consume part of the limited population cap. I think it's an understandable aspect of the game for more offensive-based structures like turrets, artillery, or missile silos, but I can see absolutely no reason to include basic production facilities, power generators, shields, or mass extractors/fabricators to be considered part of the population-using mix.

I also found that the air combat portion of the game is far less fun to utilize compared to the land and naval components of the game. Tech one bombers can absolutely annihilate a base early on in the game if used properly, but the tech three bombers and fighters are essentially useless towards the end of the game -- the defensive tech three turrets simply rip them out of the sky like nobody's business. The only air units that are consistently worth the time and resources to build are the game's gunships -- and the UEF is the only race to possess both tier two and tier three gunships... Which, if used with a dozen or so gunship buddies, can take down a huge tech three destroyer or cruiser (which can take upwards of ten minutes to build) in a matter of seconds, and the gunships can take quite a beating, especially when compared to their other sky-bred relatives. The only reason this aspect of the game stands out to me so much is that both the naval and land combat are so well-balanced and fun to use that the imbalance of the air portion seems to stick out a bit.

Both of these problems can be easily remedied by a patch if Gas Powered Games chooses to do so, but as it stands now they are both a fairly annoying part of an otherwise brilliant game.

The Technology of the Infinite War
Supreme Commander is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the most technologically impressive games that I've ever had the joy to play. The graphics may seem fairly mundane and simplistic at first glance, but this is part of its genius. Since this game revolves around managing the complexity of a real-time strategy game on a scope that is unmatched by virtually any other RTS ever released (though I'd allow partial exception to Rise of Nations, though it's not in the same league as SupCom), it has the be able to display a massive amount of units and special effects for an amount of units within the potential range of its default 500 unit cap per each individual player. And on top of that, players must be able to zoom the map all the way out while still maintaining every piece of information that a player could possibly need for the coordination of his base and whatever assaults he may have occurring at any time. To handle this, Gas Powered Games has created a very customizable and user-friendly interface and engine so that a player can use the main screen for whatever purpose he may desire and use the minimap (if the player considers it necessary -- I actually keep it off) for its basic purpose, or the minimap can be zoomed in to whatever area and level of zoom the player deems fit for a picture-in-picture effect. If this amount of visual information isn't sufficient, the primary viewing screen can be split to allow for two simultaneous views of whatever the player sees fit. And, on top of all of this, Supreme Commander actively supports the use of a dual-monitor display to set up a secondary viewing area on a secondary monitor. This option does, of course, take up more graphics processing power than some computers are capable of, but the fact that the game actively supports such a feature shows you just how impressive the scope of Supreme Commander really is.

When I said that the graphics appearing basic were part of the game's "genius," I meant it too. It's not just the flexibility of the interface and the amount of viewing displays that can be set up that make Supreme Commander so impressive, but the fact that the graphics can still be cranked up to a level that can compete with a very large majority of the other RTS titles on the market right now (Company of Heroes being the primary exception). On my new system (details below) I run the game with all details cranked to the max, with the exception of shadows, and I think the game looks absolutely gorgeous when I take the time to zoom in and pay close attention to each unit's interaction with the environment, or the way that certain units react in battle. I also discovered shortly after starting the Cybran campaign that I could turn on antialiasing with little-to-no decrease in performance; for whatever reason, this fairly simple change to the graphics of the game (all it does it smooth out the edges of the polygons) makes the game far more visually pleasing than it did before. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me why such a mundane operation would have such a profound effect on the game's overall visual quality, but antialiasing really does make a difference with SupCom. The only other game I can think of off the top of my head where antialiasing makes this large of an impact on the visual quality is Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 2142.

Anyway, when you actually take the time to pay attention to the subtleties of the game's graphics, the amount of detail that is given to even the most simple tech one units in the game is stunning. They are modeled well, almost all of them have very realistic animations, and the special effects for their attacks all look incredible. The amount of variation that is present in both design and special effects from unit-to-unit and even more so from race-to-race helps to provide Supreme Commander with a very pleasing aesthetic look. And none of this is even to mention the spectacular texturing work on the units and terrain, the look of the water and the way the surface of the water refracts whatever is below it, the brilliantly-done explosions, and, my favorite part, the simply awe-inspiring nuclear explosions.



All of this graphical quality and, more importantly, the amount of information that must be computed does take a very large toll on the system, though. For what may be one of the first times ever (and for a long time to come), I can actually make a performance comparison of Supreme Commander as it ran on two different PCs. When I first played the beta and the eventual demo of the game, I was running on an AMD64 3500+, 2gb DDR400 RAM, and a 256mb Geforce 6800GT. When I was playing the game on that box, I was able to play a one-on-one skirmish on a small map fairly successfully without difficulty... Though the game did start to chug as the match neared its conclusion. But playing one of the demo's campaign missions showed just how problematic it was going to be to play the game on my system. By the end of the very first Cybran mission (which was one of the two campaign missions included with the demo) I was averaging less than five to six frames per second, and the game became virtually unplayable.

I had been, however, saving up money for a new system for a while, and it was Supreme Commander that was the final straw in my decision to purchase a new computer. So now, on my shiny new Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 (two 2.5ghz processor CPU core), 2gb DDR2-800 RAM, and a 640mb Geforce 8800GTS, I can play Supreme Commander with almost all graphical settings maxed out without any problem whatsoever. Granted, the game still dips into the 20-25 frames per second area (but never below it) on a very large map towards the end of a match when the units for a player begin to max out and there are artillery shells and experimental units flying all about the place. I'd say that the most critical aspect of hardware to take into account is the processor of your system; Supreme Commander was designed around the ability to use multi-threading, so if you've got a dual-core processor in your computer then there's not a whole lot to worry about.

Conclusion
Chris Taylor and the rest of the folks at Gas Powered Games have released what I would already be prepared to call the Real-Time Strategy Game of 2007 if Command and Conquer 3 wasn't due out within the next month. SupCom has some of the most innovative and ambitious features that I've seen in a strategy game in years, and the amount of thinking that it demands of its players is one of its most commendable features. It has three very well-balanced races with a whole bunch of units that can wage war across land, sea, and air (and nuclear missiles!) across maps as large as 81x81 kilometers. The lack of a truly great single-player campaign in what is, on the whole, an absolutely amazing combination of core gameplay, technology, and multiplayer components is what's really holding the game back from perfection, in my mind. I would list the very hefty system requirements as one of the downsides of the game, but for what the game is demanding of the hardware it's being played on coupled with the fact that Gas Powered Games seems to have designed SupCom to be a game as much for the future as it is for the present seems to be enough of a reason to cut it some slack for the hardware it requires.



All things considered, Supreme Commander is one of the greatest Real-Time Strategy games I've ever played and is virtually unequaled in the massive scope of its gameplay. This is the game for anyone who's ever wanted to wage war, as opposed to a handful of decisive skirmishes, in his Real-Time Strategy games. And, for me, one of the greatest metrics of the extent to which I enjoy this game is that I've been working on this review for about four days and the reason it wasn't done after the second day is that whenever I start to write the thing, I can't avoid the urge to play Supreme Commander rather than write about how truly amazing it actually is.
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