E3 06: Supreme Commander Updated Impressions

We take an updated look at this massive real-time strategy successor to Total Annihilation.

LOS ANGELES--In case you couldn't tell, E3 2006 is underway, which means that some of the most exciting upcoming games for this year and next are being shown privately to select members of the press, like us. We took the opportunity to take an even closer look at Supreme Commander, the spiritual successor to what is widely considered to be one of the finest real-time strategy games ever made, Total Annihilation. Gas Powered Games CEO Chris Taylor walked us through a demonstration of the game that covered much of what we had seen previously in our E3 exclusive preview, such as the game's tremendous sense of scale and its continuous zoom level that lets you instantaneously get an extreme close-up on a single unit, then immediately turn right around and zoom your view back up and away from the action, to view the landmasses you're fighting over from a continental view (which causes your units to become colored icons).

Taylor also demonstrated again for us the ability for players to give global "waypoint" orders to different contingents of units, such as naval, land, and air groups, to converge on a flashpoint at approximately the same time. We were also shown how the game will apparently follow the pathfinding course of individual units, with approximately traced-out waypoint paths (so, if you're the sort of obsessive player who must know whether your soldiers will go around the forest or through it, you'll be able to tell with this new system). Taylor reiterated, however, that Supreme Commander isn't a game about micromanaging individual units or focusing solely on tactical battles. To drive home this point, we were again shown a comparison of an incredibly huge battleship to a small squadron of medium tanks. The battleship had to have been at least 20 to 30 times the size of an individual tank, and as Taylor explained, the battleship's greatest strength is the incredible range of its main cannons (rather than simply being able to sustain more damage, as it might have been designed in a different modern strategy game), which would reduce the tanks to ash before they got into range. As Taylor put it, other modern strategy games tend to focus primarily on making games look nice, and on starting the action early; while those games might be about battles, he says, "Supreme Commander is about war."

Perhaps the most striking example of what the studio CEO was talking about was the land/sea battle we then witnessed between two armies, as one invaded from the water while the other charged through a forest, knocking over nearby trees and setting the rest alight with weapon fire. Yes, individual units can be huge, but actual battles will take place between hundreds of different units that can be custom designed by "the one kid sitting in his basement in Utah who discovers something no one else has," as Taylor puts it. Apparently, the game has been designed from the ground up not only to take advantage of modern PC hardware, but also to scale well against differing hardware configurations. Taylor suggests that the game's largest maps will be on the order of about 6,400 square kilometers in size, though they can scale down for smaller skirmishes.

However, if you, like Taylor, want to keep things big, you'll be able to take advantage of some of Supreme Commander's other unique features--dual monitor support, which lets you keep one eye zoomed in on one of the game's huge battles, and the other on a zoomed-out view of the world to keep track of larger developments in the war. And if you have a widescreen monitor and don't care to have the game's interface sitting at the bottom of the screen, completely stretched out, you can instantaneously reconfigure the interface elements to appear on the left side of the screen. Taylor expects that the inquisitive fan community will probably end up monkeying with the interface, among other aspects of the game, because, as the CEO hints, the game may ship with support for editing and modifying its content.

Supreme Commander continues to be consistently huge and impressive each time we see it--and we'll probably end up seeing it at least a few more times before the game's eventual release in 2007.

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