When it comes to real-time strategy games, few developers have followed the philosophy that bigger is better. As such, the scale of RTS games has stayed mostly the same over the past decade. The battlefields never feel that large, and the focus is more on economics and tactics than it is on actual strategy. Well, Supreme Commander isn't that kind of game. Instead, the long-awaited strategy game from Gas Powered Games is everything that was promised. This is a game that's less concerned with the aesthetics of combat than it is with capturing a sense of awesome scale, though it does look amazing when armies clash. It's real-time strategy supersized. Instead of raising one battle group and racing across a small battlefield, you can raise multiple air, land, and sea battle groups and toss them at the enemies, or ferry an army via air transport around their defenses and land them in the rear, or send wave after wave of bombers to cripple their strategic defenses and then unleash nuclear hellfire upon them, or do much, much more.
Supreme Commander is set in the distant future, and humanity has split into three competing factions. The United Earth Federation represents order and empire, the cybernetic Cybran fight for independence, while the alien-enlightened Aeon seek to liberate the universe. The single-player campaign is divided into three smaller campaigns, letting you battle from the perspective of each of the factions. Unlike those in most other RTS games, where all three campaigns would usually be tied together in a linear fashion to tell a bigger story, the campaigns in Supreme Commander all stand alone. Each faction fights for what it believes in, and hence, no side is really "evil." It's a nice touch, because that mentality captures the essence of war.
The game's biggest asset is its sheer size, which is measured in virtual kilometers. Though you can battle it out on "small" maps that are a mere 5km-by-5km, the average maps are 20km-by-20km large, and the largest maps weigh in at a whopping 81km-by-81km. And while the units you command are a bit oversized, this still translates into giant battlefields that give you plenty of room to maneuver. You no longer have to worry about a single chokepoint like you do in most RTS games. Instead, you have the freedom to experiment more. This also means that you need to be wary of enemy attempts to slip around your defensive points. But that's the nature of war. The entire sense of scale is exciting because you can finally experiment with tactics. Meanwhile, real-world concepts such as reconnaissance become even more important. Thankfully, Supreme Commander makes such tasks easy with the ability to queue up commands for all sorts of units. Scout planes can be ordered to patrol the periphery of the maps, engineers can be given build commands to keep them busy for a long time, and armies can be sent on a zigzag path deep into enemy territory, all with a few clicks.
Often during the campaign, you'll achieve a set of objectives only to watch the map then double in size, and then double again after you've achieved the next set of objectives. Each time the map grows, it unlocks more room to maneuver and more strategy. Size translates into open-ended depth in this game. For instance, assume you're battling a heavily entrenched foe. How you take the opponent down is up to you. You can try raids to cripple the other side's economy by destroying mass or energy facilities. You might find a weak spot in the defenses and send bombers through it, then target antiaircraft positions to open the way for further air assaults. If you're building nuclear missiles, you might build artillery positions to take out any strategic missile defenses, and once those are out, unleash nuclear missiles. You can pretty much open up the entire playbook and experiment with different tactics and different combinations of units. And these tactics apply to all of the factions equally, because aside from visual appearance, factions basically mirror each other. This equates to a general lack of personality to each faction, as well as to the game as a whole, which is disappointing because each of the factions has an interesting backstory.
You can try and overwhelm your enemy with sheer numbers, build fewer numbers of high-quality units, or do a mix of the two, with cannon fodder to draw fire away from the heavy hitters. There are three "tech levels" that feature different units, buildings, and vehicles, and at the lowest level you'll have basic units such as light and medium tanks, fighter interceptors, submarines, and bombers. At higher levels, you'll gain access to naval destroyers that can sprout legs and walk on land, siege assault bots, ballistic-missile submarines, and much more. Your engineers can also build gigantic artillery pieces that hurl shells across the map to soften up enemy defenses.
In most real-time strategy games, the act of building a factory on the battlefield is an act of utter contrivance, though in the fiction of Supreme Commander, it makes sense. As the game is set thousands of years in the future, humanity has figured out how to transform matter and energy in a way that's similar to the replicators on Star Trek. That means that a single Supreme Commander can take the raw materials of a planet and quickly build factories that churn out war machines. It also simplifies the resource system to the most rudimentary concepts. In Supreme Commander, there is only energy and mass. Both are critical to building a strong economy to churn out hundreds of units. While energy can be obtained through various generators and power plants, mass is restricted to a handful of points on the map where you can build mass extractors that mine the planet's core. The geographic distribution of these mass-extraction points will result in desperate battles to capture and hold large amounts of territory.
At the same time, it's also possible for defensive players to "turtle up" by building layers of defenses, ranging from walls to ground- and air defensive turrets to energy shields. In that case, the game can often come down to an artillery duel, as both sides attempt to knock out the other through the application of sheer firepower. However, that's what experimental units are for. Experimental units are hugely expensive and time consuming to build, but they're potential game changers. For example, there's the Cybran Monkeylord, a gigantic walking tank armed with a devastating laser; the UEF Fatboy, a mobile factory armed with battleship turrets and an energy shield; and the Aeon Galactic Colossus, an enormous bipedal war machine. One of the most frightening moments in Supreme Commander is when you've set up a good position and think you have the upper hand on the enemy when all of a sudden an experimental unit appears and you realize that while you were building other things, the enemy was concentrating on one of those. Then it's a desperate fight to survive.
The single-player campaign will slowly introduce you to the many concepts in the game, which is good since Supreme Commander has a fairly steep learning curve. The basic concepts are easily understood, but there's so much nuance in the game that it might take a while before you realize the importance of such subtle things as building mass-storage structures around mass extractors to gain a bonus or concentrating engineers on one task to speed production of units at factories. While the three campaigns have only five or six missions each, keep in mind that these are huge missions and you'll average anywhere between two and three hours on each one. In fact, missions can go on for so long that the one thing the game sorely needs is some kind of autosave function, because if you manage to get to the end of a two or three hour battle and lose at the last moment due to a stupid decision, you'll have to start over again from scratch if you forgot to manually save the game midway.
One of the really impressive things about Supreme Commander is that everything in the game is simulated. This makes combat interesting, because inadvertent things can happen. Shoot down a bomber, and it may crash in a forest, setting it afire. Or, take out the Aeon CZAR experimental unit, an enormous flying saucer, and you may briefly cheer before you realize that the flaming wreckage is going to take out half of your base. While the pathfinding gets a little confused at times, the performance of the artificial intelligence is solid, particularly as an opponent. At the medium setting, the AI is fairly passive, though at the more challenging horde and supreme settings, the AI is fairly aggressive and knows how to attack. One particularly nasty tactic that it uses is to set up heavily defended outposts in your territory, fortify them, and then set up artillery to pound your positions.
However, if you practice against the AI, you won't be much prepared for a human opponent, because the AI isn't as nimble or as aggressive as a fellow human. The single-player campaign and the skirmish modes serve as a lengthy tutorial to the concepts of the game, and you'll really have to apply all the lessons and tactics that you learn to compete in multiplayer, which is fun, brutal, and dynamic. Supreme Commander's gameplay lends itself well to the multiplayer realm because it's so wide open. For every move that you can come up with, the enemy can develop a counter. For instance, create a solid defensive line, and the enemy might bypass or simply fly over it, sending gunships to raid your economic base. Focus too long on building an experimental unit, and the enemy might send nuclear missiles or heavy artillery your way. Gas Powered Games' multiplayer browser is fairly robust and makes finding and setting up a game easy, though it'd be nice if it wasn't a separate application. As it is, you must quit Supreme Commander to launch the browser, and the browser automatically launches the game when you join a match.
At the highest detail levels, Supreme Commander is incredible to look at. Seeing dozens, if not hundreds, of air, land, and naval units battling onscreen is amazing, and large battles are littered with smoke trailers, particle effects, and explosions. Meanwhile, watching a nuclear detonation slowly expand, with the shock wave destroying everything in its path and setting off a chain reaction, is bliss. Even more impressive is the ability to pull the camera back far enough to see the entire battlefield. Limited zoom has always been one of the primary frustrations in many RTS games, because you never could feel like you were getting a grasp on the battlefield. But in Supreme Commander, you can pull the zoom back far enough and feel like you're really sitting back in a command bunker somewhere as you watch the military icons that represent your units move and fight onscreen. If you have two monitors, you can keep one zoomed in on the action while the other gives you the strategic view, and it's very cool, though you'll need a fairly advanced video card to support it. The good news is that if you have just one monitor, you can do a split-screen view with one half zoomed on the action and the other giving you the strategic view.
The downside is that Supreme Commander can bring the most modern PCs to their knees. Since the game is keeping track and simulating hundreds of units over such a large area, it doesn't take much before the frame rate will start to stutter. On our test machine with a dual core CPU and 2GB of RAM, we experienced slight pauses on the humongous 81k-by-81k map. On smaller maps with a larger set of AI opponents, the action slowed to a virtual crawl as the system strained to keep up with the action. It's doubtful that a PC has been built yet that can run Supreme Commander's largest map with a full set of AI opponents at high graphics detail. Thankfully, you can adjust the graphical settings quickly and without having to restart the game, so if the battle starts to chug, you can simply go to the options menu and lower the visual detail to smooth out the frame rate.
Supreme Commander's audio seems a bit muted, though that's probably because you're always watching the action from a considerable distance. The units make all the futuristic whirs and machine noises that you'd expect, though the highlight of the game's audio is the martial music that changes tempo whenever something dramatic happens onscreen.
Still, despite the hardware headaches, Supreme Commander is one of the most impressive real-time strategy games in recent years. This is a game that dares to be big, and it succeeds because it understands what strategy is about. Strategy is more than overwhelming the other side with sheer numbers. Strategy is about maneuvering, it's about applying the right weapon at the right place at the right time, and it's about rewarding creative thinking, and that's what Supreme Commander does.