For fans of real-time strategy, 2007 couldn't arrive fast enough, and now that the New Year is here, the eagerly awaited Supreme Commander is that much closer to arriving. Supreme Commander is a sci-fi real-time strategy game from Gas Powered Games and THQ. It's also the brainchild of creator Chris Taylor, who also created one of the most popular real-time strategy games ever made with 1997's Total Annihilation. However, even without that impressive pedigree, Supreme Commander would still be on many anticipated lists, thanks to its vast scale and promising gameplay. You'll command armies that consist of hundreds of tanks and robotic war machines, air forces that consist of nimble fighters and strategic bombers, and navies that feature battleships and submarines, as you fight for control of alien worlds. Supreme Commander is currently undergoing an open multiplayer beta test, but we had a chance recently to check out part of the single-player game.
Supreme Commander is set in a distant future. Humanity has colonized the galaxy and splintered into three warring factions. The United Earth Federation (UEF) represents the old order, cybernetic humans have banded together as the Cybran Nation, and an alien-influenced faction has organized as the Aeon Illuminate. This translates into three single-player campaigns that will let you fight as each faction, as well as skirmish and multiplayer modes. We only had access to the UEF campaign and a few skirmish missions in the work-in-progress version of the game that we played. Still, this gave us our first solid hands-on with the single-player portion of the game. It also gave us a chance to get a feel for the gameplay and the scale of the action.
The UEF campaign centers on your role as an up-and-coming commander in the UEF military. Hard-pressed on multiple fronts and battling both the Cybran and Aeon, you'll be quantum teleported from planet to planet to hold the line. Each mission starts off with a bang--literally--because your arrival on each world is welcomed with an explosion, which is a result of the quantum teleportation. In the midst of the smoldering crater is your armored command unit, otherwise known as a supreme commander. The ACU is the keystone unit because it not only houses you, but also lets you create, from scratch, a sprawling base and a mighty military with which to crush your enemies.
Because the game is set in the distant future, humanity has figured out how to replicate matter out of energy and energy out of matter, which is an important concept in figuring out how Supreme Commander's resource system works. The two key resources are mass and energy. The former can be recovered from certain spots on the map where mass extractors can be built. You can also turn energy into mass by using mass fabricators, but this is an energy-intensive process. Energy is generated mainly by energy and fusion generators, which can be constructed anywhere. The goal is to maintain a positive flow of energy and mass, because if you run a deficit, you'll eventually drain whatever reserves you have and find yourself suffering from slowdowns in your economy.
The beginning build order might look something like this: Place mass extractors on the handful of mass-extraction sites on the map, then place energy generators to provide power. With those basic building blocks in place, you can then put up a land factory to provide ground units, an air factory for air units, and a naval factory for warships. While the ACU can construct most basic buildings, you'll need to construct specialized engineer units to access the more specialized structures, such as sensors that can detect distant units and more advanced forms of defensive turrets.
While you have plenty of room to build a sprawling base, location counts. Specifically, proximity does wonders for production. If you build a factory without placing other facilities near it, it'll manufacture units faithfully; but if you build energy generators next to it, you'll get a production boost from the proximity of those generators. This means that you'll want to concentrate your facilities together, though the downside to this is that you're putting all your eggs into a very small basket. With one nuclear blast, much of your production can get wiped out. Even if your opponent doesn't use a nuke, it's still fairly easy to watch your base get flattened by a mass air attack, so defenses count.
All of these initial structures are what the game calls "tech level 1," which means that they also produce "tech level 1" units. These are the most basic units in the game, and they're good for the initial phase but can become obsolete as the tech level advances. As you reach tech level 2, you'll unlock new structures and new units, and you can upgrade existing buildings. The maximum tech level is level 3, at which point you get access to the most powerful buildings and units. If at tech level 1 you were playing with light tanks and small attack aircraft, at tech level 3 you'll be able to construct heavy tanks and strategic bombers. You'll also have access to some of the most powerful weapons in the game, such as strategic artillery, which can hurl a shell across vast distances, as well as nuclear weapons.
Future WarfareThe more powerful or important a building, the longer it takes to construct. A nuclear missile silo can take more than an hour for a single engineer unit to construct. Thankfully, you can assign multiple engineer units on each project, cutting down construction time considerably, but it'll still take a while to put up some of the high-value structures. At the same time, the more valuable or expensive a structure is, the greater amounts of mass and energy are required to construct it, which means that your economy can be put under great strain simply because you're trying to construct something like strategic artillery. This puts an emphasis on continually building up your economy by constructing mass extractors wherever possible and building expensive energy generators. These require considerable amounts of mass and energy to construct as well, and you can see just how the economy can balance the game. While it might seem that you have limitless energy and resources, you can find yourself suddenly facing all sorts of production issues as you try to pay for everything you need.
While you're busy doing all of this, you'll also need to fight a war. Much has been said and written about Supreme Commander's impressive scale. This is a staggeringly big game at times. The smallest map in the game is still as large as the largest maps in most real-time strategy games, which is good news if you want a strategy game that offers plenty of room to maneuver armies. On some of the larger maps, you can play hide-and-seek with opponents by shifting forces secretly around the battlefield, which makes it all the more important to constantly scout and patrol large portions of the map. Geography also plays an important role because bodies of water, mountain ranges, and more will dictate your strategy.
The UEF is a faction that bears more than a passing resemblance to today's militaries. Even though the game is set thousands of years in the future, to keep things relatable, the combat is essentially based on modern-day warfare. You have tanks (traditional and walking), fighters, artillery, missiles, bombers, submarines, destroyers, battleships, and more. There's some exotic stuff as well, such as energy shield units, but everything pretty much fits in a combined arms strategy. The key to success is balance. If you build too much of one unit, the enemy will build the counter to it, and you'll have to start over from scratch. But if you throw a balanced force at the enemy, you can overwhelm it.
The first missions gradually ease you into the many different concepts of the game, but you'll still find yourself with your hands full. In the beginning mission, your task is to establish your first base on a planet and build attack groups to neutralize an enemy outpost to the west. Once that's done, you'll have to go on the offensive to rescue a settlement under siege from Cybran forces. The good news is that if you can capture an enemy power station located to the southwest, you'll secure enough energy so that the besieged defenders can bring their artillery into the fight. After that, you must attack and destroy the enemy's ACU, and the easiest way to do that is to send a group on a flanking attack. The key is to bypass the formidable line of fortifications and destroy enemy air defenses in their rear. Once those are down, you can send attack aircraft after the enemy ACU.
We were impressed with the performance of the artificial intelligence, and one of the things that we noticed is that the AI doesn't appear content to do the same things over and over again. For example, in one battle, the AI correctly recognized that our main base was lacking in air defense after the bulk of our mobile air defense units were moved away to protect armies in the field. Just as we launched a huge offensive on the enemy base, a fleet of aerial gunships appeared to ravage our base, forcing a withdrawal. In another battle, we raced to construct nuclear missiles first, only to discover the enemy countered with antimissile defenses. Because both sides were separated by a large body of water and enemy air defenses were so heavy, our solution was to build strategic artillery to try to knock out the antimissile defenses and then let the nukes fly. However, the enemy also built strategic artillery and both sides exchanged shells. We also made the critical mistake of neglecting to build our own antimissile defenses, at which point an incoming nuke wiped out our main base. In other words, the AI performed solidly.
You can build hundreds of units before you hit the level cap, which means that some of the battles can get quite crazy as large masses of ground and air forces mix it up. The action is incredibly fast-paced at these times, and before too long, the burned-out hulks of wrecked vehicles litter the battlefield. One of the nice things about Supreme Commander is that this wreckage doesn't disappear over time, but it remains, so you can always recognize the sight of a huge battle.
Trying to maintain perspective on such a huge battlefield would be problematic in most real-time strategy games because the cameras in those games don't let you pull back far enough to get a view of the entire battlefield. This is not the case in Supreme Commander because you can keep pulling the camera back to the point that units are replaced with military-style icons, and you can see the battlefield in its entirety. This strategic view also lets you retain full operational control over your units. It's fairly easy to select icons on the map by simply clicking on them or dragging them, and giving them movement or attack orders. In fact, you could almost play the entire game from this perspective, which gives Supreme Commander a cool "war room" feeling. It's easy to imagine yourself as a battlefield commander, analyzing the map and figuring out a plan of attack.
While the large scale of the game is impressive, it naturally raises concerns about the system requirements. The good news is that on our fairly high-end test machine, the game ran smoothly for the most part, though the graphics stuttered a bit during huge battles. Keep in mind that Gas Powered Games probably still has optimization and tuning to do before the game ships, as well. The visuals look great with all the graphical options turned on, but even if you tone down the detail for better frame rate, they maintain a solid look. This is a huge game in both scale and gameplay, and the sheer amount of strategic depth is exciting. This is certain to be one of the major strategy games of the year, and we won't have to wait too much longer for it to ship. Supreme Commander is scheduled for release in the first quarter of the year.