In 1997, designer Chris Taylor helped create Total Annihilation, which is revered to this day as one of the greatest real-time strategy games ever made. But aside from a Total Annihilation expansion in 1998, he hasn't made a real-time strategy game since. That will change next year, though, because Taylor's company, Gas Powered Games, is working on Supreme Commander, a real-time strategy game that has many earmarking it as the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation. We had a chance recently to visit Gas Powered Games' offices in Redmond, Washington, to get an early look at Supreme Commander. And from what we saw, this is a game that takes some of the core concepts of Total Annihilation and applies them on an unprecedented, awesome scale.
Supreme Commander is set in the future, one in which humanity has split into three warring factions. There's the United Earth Federation, regular humans armed with futuristic versions of modern-day weapons and vehicles, such as tanks, aircraft carriers, submarines, and jets. Then there are the Cybran, humans with microchips implanted into their heads. The Cybran use mech-style robotic units, ranging from two-legged walking tanks to the gigantic mechanical spider seen in the screenshots. Finally, there are the Aeon, humans who have adopted alien technology and believe that they have to cleanse the world of the warmongering UEF and Cybran factions. While Gas Powered hasn't revealed the Aeon yet, Taylor hints that the faction believes in simplicity. "They'd be the ones who would design the iPod if they could," he said.
Having three distinct and unique races is fairly par for the course for a real-time strategy game, but it is how they fight it out in Supreme Commander that makes the game stand out from the rest of the pack. Taylor is a fan of history, and when he compares real-time strategy games to actual wars, he finds them lacking. His problem is that the genre thinks too small. Battlefields in real-time strategy games don't really feel like battlefields, due to the sense of scale. "They don't give you a sense that you're fighting in this big place with waters and mountains," Taylor explains. And he's right. Tactical concepts such as distance and time are irrelevant in most real-time strategy games, as you usually have two bases on opposing corners of the map and just enough room in the middle for a big battle. Supreme Commander, on the other hand, is all about distance and time.
To give an example, he showed us a naval engagement featuring battleships and destroyers slugging it out with an enemy naval force. When zoomed up-close, you don't even see enemy ships on the screen, since it's a long-range engagement. You do get a sense of scale, though, as the battleships are considerably larger than their smaller escorts; they also convey a sense of power, as they're armed with multiple turrets and weapon emplacements. Yet when the camera was pulled back to show the entire map, the naval engagement took place on an incredibly remote part of the map. Far to the south of the battle was the main land mass, where all the action was going on. You could have multiple large-scale battles going on in this map, and there would still be plenty of room to maneuver units. This is important, because to Taylor, far too many real-time strategy games confuse tactics with strategy. Tactics are what you employ when your units are in battle, but strategy is the movement of units on a large scale. In Supreme Commander, you'll be able to conduct sweeping movements with hundreds of units, and you'll get a sense of being a real military commander.
If this sounds a bit complex, don't worry. Supreme Commander won't be mistaken for a wargame. It's very much a real-time strategy game with a science fiction feel to it. As with any real-time strategy game, you'll gather resources and build up a base to support a large army. The resources in this case are mass and energy. While you'll be able to place generators in your base to produce energy, you'll only be able to mine on certain areas for mass, and these strategic points will become very important in the game. (Or, if you get really desperate, you can also turn energy into mass, but this is a very costly method.) Your primary construction unit is your "supreme commander," a huge robot that also serves as a mobile command center. However, you can also create smaller construction units when you construct a factory.
Once you have a functional base going, you can build hundreds of units, ranging from tanks, robotic infantry, transports, warships, and more. Like with any good strategy game, you'll have to make decisions as to what kind of force you want. You can create lots of cheap, low-level units, or you can build a smaller number of more powerful units. It's up to you. In addition, you can tinker with units to make them more useful. For instance, if you put a mobile shield system onto a transport, it'll be more survivable on a battlefield. Or if you load up that same transport with mechs, it'll turn into a mobile gunship as sorts, as the mechs can fire from the sides of the transport.
Fog of War, Heat of BattleSupreme Commander will have full fog of war, meaning that while you'll see the terrain, you won't see enemy units unless they're in detection range of one of your units. This means that you'll have to put patrols out to scout wilderness areas, especially since there's so much room to maneuver out there. An enemy with a lot of patience could mass units in a remote valley and then unleash them when you least expect it. While the map that Taylor showed us was easily larger than most anything we had seen before in a real-time strategy game, it was only one-sixteenth the size of the largest map in the game. In fact, it wasn't even average size, as most maps will be up to four times larger. We're talking about maps that will easily be hundreds of square kilometers in size.
Controlling all these units over such a huge space and maintaining a big picture on things is what the "theater of war" is for. Basically, this is a strategic view of the map where you can focus on strategy. You'll be able to issue orders to units using the theater of war. Waypoints and unit paths will appear on the map, as well as arrival times to destinations. But what's really helpful is that the artificial intelligence is going to be smart enough to do things without your input. For example, if you give multiple groups the order to attack a certain point on the map, those groups will adjust their speeds so that they arrive at that point at the same moment, a key military concept known as synchronization. This means that they'll more likely to overwhelm the enemy, rather than arrive at separate times and be carved up piecemeal.
In addition to the theater of war, there will be a lot of automation built into the game to reduce the micromanagement burden. While you've always been able to designate rally points for new units to converge on in other real-time strategy games, Supreme Commander goes even further. You can set it up so that ground units automatically load onto air transports, and then those transports automatically deliver those units to a distant point on the map before returning to pick up more ground units. Or if you issue an attack on an enemy base, your units will mow through the base like a lawnmower, rather than converge on a single point in the base, like armies tend to do in other real-time strategy games. Even the way you input commands will tell the game what to do. Clicking once on an enemy tells your units to attack it, but they'll also engage any other threats that come into range. If you encounter an incredibly high-value target, such as a nuclear missile silo (yup, nukes are in the game) and you need to destroy it before it can send up a missile, clicking frantically on the silo tells the game that you're alarmed about something. Your units will respond by focusing all their firepower on that target.
The combat in Supreme Commander looks great, and since everything in the game adheres to the laws of physics, you get what game designers call emergent behavior, or the idea that you can have complex, unexpected behaviors that occur as a result of a few simple rules. For example, battles can almost seem unpredictable, because everything in the game is simulated, right down to the trajectory of shells flying through the air. We saw hundreds of tanks rolling through a forest, knocking down trees left and right. Then, during a battle, the forest caught fire, sending choking plumes of black smoke into the air, obscuring some of the action. The action can look downright cinematic, especially when huge armies meet. Tanks and ground units maneuver wildly while jets and other aircraft scream overhead.
Meanwhile, Taylor doesn't believe in simple rock, paper, scissors game balancing, where every unit has a clearly defined weakness or counterunit. Instead, if you have an incredibly powerful unit, then it's going to bulldoze everything in its path, just like you'd expect it would. This includes the huge mechanical spiders that the Cybran use to the huge mobile factory that the UEF employs. These super units bristle with weaponry and can engage multiple targets at once. While it's possible that you can take one out using waves of conventional units, your best option is to build a superunit of your own. It's that, or you can try relying on nuclear missiles, which pack some of the biggest punches in the game. However, there is also antimissile technology in the game, so nukes might not guarantee a win, after all.
We didn't get a chance to see the multiplayer portion of the game (Gas Powered is keeping that a secret for now), but even without multiplayer, Supreme Commander remains an incredibly impressive game. It's also safe to assume that this is one of the biggest strategy games of 2007. Yes, we have to wait until next year for development to finish. Still, we can't recall a real-time strategy game that approaches Supreme Commander in terms of scope and scale.