Supreme Commander 2 Impressions

Chris Taylor talks art, economy, and technology during an E3 2009 demo of Supreme Commander 2.

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If you played Supreme Commander, the excellent PC game, then you know that Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games can make a great real-time strategy game. You also know just how ambitious and massive they can be. Supreme Commander was a complex and satisfying game, and it looks like its sequel is going to be just as massive but will address a number of problems with the original. Better art design, a better economy, and improved pathfinding are just some of the improvements that we can look forward to. We got to sit down with Gas Powered Games' Chris Taylor for a demo at E3 2009, and he filled us in on the details. Want to know more? Read on!

Taylor mentioned at the beginning of the demo that he wanted to explore story and characters more in Supreme Commander 2, but that he also wanted to continue to focus on technology just as much as before. He then showed us our first glimpse of the game, an overhead view of a map called "Illuminate 5." If you've played the same developer's Demigod, you'd be familiar with the art style of the backgrounds. It featured a giant arena hovering over an illuminated city, and its color palate and 3D-on-2D look were highly reminiscent of the aforementioned game. This isn't the only aspect of Supreme Commander 2 that takes its cues from Demigod. The same graphics engine is being used, which makes Supreme Commander look more natural--and run smoother. Expect the game to run on a variety of systems, and to run better than its predecessor. Of course, Demigod is also known for its multiplayer connection issues. Taylor acknowledged the problems, adding that Gas Powered Games has learned a lot from the experience. The developers have yet to settle on a multiplayer technology partner.

Expect Supreme Commander's level of strategic zoom to return in Supreme Commander 2. If you recall, the original allowed for unprecedented zoom levels, letting you pull the camera directly into the action, as well as out to an expansive overhead view that reduced the units to small geometric icons. We didn't get to see the most distant zoom levels in the demo, but Taylor suggested that the process of zooming in and out will feel a lot more natural, and that the transition between fully rendered units and icons will be smoother and more sophisticated. The stronger art style should also make it easier to identify units at a distance.

Speaking of that art style, expect to see fewer generic units across the board. The Aeon faction has evolved into a new faction: The Illuminate. We saw their units in action, and they look more organic than their prior counterparts. All three factions--the new, as well as the returning Cybrans and the UEF--possess more-detailed units, with a stronger overall appearance. We watched as UEF tanks were attacked by Cybran gunships, with lasers flashing everywhere, and though this battle would generally have tipped in favor of the gunships, you'll now be able to use a unit cannon to fling units from the other side of the map and get them right into the action. This lets you bring the proper counters into the battle much more quickly and leads to more flexibility than before.

Actually, flexibility is the name of the game in Supreme Commander 2. In the original, early units were rendered almost totally obsolete as you gained tech levels. Now, tech upgrades affect existing units, and new tech trees will let you outfit units with things such as additional (or longer) barrels, antiaircraft weaponry, and more. These skill trees are another of Demigod's features that inspired Supreme Commander 2, according to Taylor. You will also be in charge of the all-important ACU unit, just as before. Its upgrades also allow for a more flexible approach. For example, you can add artillery to the ACU's shoulders, grant it torpedoes, perform a "core dump" ability should you fall under nuclear attack, or even pop off its head if you need to quickly escape from battle (the benefits of such a move remain unclear). Of course, there are all-new units as well. For example, though experimental units return, there are also mini-experimentals, such as an Illuminate unit that Taylor affectionately referred to as an Ear Canal. These snail-like units look as if they would have been at home in Star Wars: Episode One, and were cool to watch as they moved across the map. We also saw a standard experimental unit called a Cybran-zilla, which looked appropriately draconic. There will also be naval units, but we weren't able to see them in action in the demo.

The economy has been tweaked as well. Energy and mass are still your two resources. However, now you will be able to purchase a unit or upgrade only if you can afford it, rather than queue it up as you could in the original. This means that players are less apt early on to paint themselves into a corner that they can't escape from later. Additionally, you will be able to earn experience by attacking other units. This experience can be used to research upgrades (though so can other resources). This means that if you prefer to turtle up, you will still have access to upgrades, though players who want to get into the action immediately will still be able to tech up as well. Pathfinding has also been improved. According to Taylor, when you have hundreds or thousands of units in play at one time, it's more difficult for a PC's processor to keep up with the pathfinding needs of the game. Newer software technology and multicore processors will now lead to better pathfinding, wherein units will adjust their path even before reaching the object in their way, much as you would notice someone walking directly toward you and move to the side, rather than waiting until you are directly in front of him or her.

What we saw of Supreme Commander 2 looked great. The stronger art style serves the game well; the bland, austere environments of the original have given way to a more interesting, artistic feel. We saw impressive details everywhere, from the smooth animations of mass extractors to excellent lighting and shadows. And of course, the battles were huge, raging across enormous vistas just as big as those in the original. Taylor wants the game to run--and run well--on three-year-old hardware (the first game brought even some then-modern systems to their knees). Sadly, we didn't get to see any nukes, though Taylor assured us that nuclear warfare is back and will remain the most powerful attack in the game.

Taylor also talked briefly about the "neural net," an evolving database that lets the AI adjust for actions that you make during battle. For example, if the enemy spams gunships and you keep taking them down, it will use what it learns from the net to adjust its strategies. Clearly, Gas Powered Games aims to make Supreme Commander 2 just as big as the original while streamlining its complexities in ways that make sense for both veterans and newcomers. We'll have to wait and see if Gas Powered Games can succeed: Supreme Commander 2 is due for release for the PC sometime in 2010. There will also be an Xbox 360 version, developed concurrently within the same studio, though we learned no additional details about that version. We'll bring you more on this hotly anticipated strategy game as details become available.

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