Supreme Commander 2 is a broad and bold real-time strategy game that might surprise fans of the 2007 original. Don't worry: If you loved Supreme Commander, the sequel still offers the tactical flexibility and enormous scope you were expecting, albeit tempered by a bit of economic streamlining. But SupCom 2's not just a retread of what's come before; it's a slick retooling of classic gameplay that happily and successfully embraces both complexity and user friendliness. This is an inviting package for both veterans and newcomers--intricate enough to keep your mind nimble but welcoming even to those daunted by the original's magnitude. Most importantly, it's great fun, letting you play with a variety of interesting units and giving you lots of room to experiment with all the tactical possibilities. The strategic joy doesn't go unhindered; pathfinding headaches and predictable AI keep Supreme Commander 2 from having the sharp cerebral edge of its predecessor. Yet, while not quite as special as its fantastic forebear, it still stands out for its fluid gameplay, excellent multiplayer maps, and the thrill of emerging victorious after an hour-long battle of wits.
One thing you'll notice right away is Supreme Commander 2's clean and slick aesthetic. The original was an astonishing technical powerhouse that rendered hundreds of detailed units at once, but it came at the expense of consistent performance. The sequel is clearly less visually impressive; sharp textures and rich lighting have been dulled in favor of stability and speedy frame rates. Yet, while your first impression might be how surprisingly dated SupCom 2 looks, you'll soon grow to appreciate how smooth and supple it feels to move about the battlefield. You can still zoom all the way out to get a godlike view of the proceedings, but you aren't likely to encounter any visual hiccups when you do. And, on three test systems, Supreme Commander 2 performed fluidly even at maximum settings. That the original looks better than the sequel makes the trade-off seem somewhat drastic, but the upside is silky camera movement and overall responsiveness. It's breezy and enjoyable to zip about the map, issuing orders and checking in on the skirmishes in progress.
The game may not push many polygons, but it does sport lots of personality and verve. You battle in misty mountaintops connected by a series of bridges and fend off hulking robots within towering industrial complexes, and the environments benefit from a distinct sense of place. The art design won't floor you, but Supreme Commander 2 has more style than its predecessor, which took a more matter-of-fact approach to its visual flourishes. The story also boasts added personality, following three military commanders that met during training after three warring factions--the United Earth Federation (or UEF), the Cybran Nation, and the Illuminate (formerly the Aeon Illuminate)--formed a coalition to destroy the invading Seraphim. The character models that appear in cutscenes and within talking-head story updates have a stylized, almost cartoonish look that sometimes seems at odds with the dignity and drama of the main story. (Some campy dialogue and hammy acting don't help matters, either.) Nonetheless, these characters provide an intimate view of the conflict that puts an end to the tenuous treaty, and they're appealingly scrappy, which makes it easy to root for them.
You get to know them as you make your way through Supreme Commander 2's good-sized single-player story, which features 18 missions--six for each faction. There's a nice sense of forward momentum to the campaign, which opens up features and units to you over time, but it does so without holding your hand every step of the way. The first couple of missions for each faction might take you 20 minutes or so, but the biggest ones might last well over an hour and keep you occupied on multiple fronts. It's an excellent campaign, getting you into the fray quickly and letting you focus on strategy rather than on the "take these few units over here" objectives that all too often invade real-time strategy games. It's a smart, top-level approach that highlights the game's strategic flexibility. If you play on normal difficulty, don't expect too much challenge until you reach the Cybran missions, however; the AI usually sticks to some noticeable patterns and rarely veers from its comfort zone. (Veterans should go for the harder difficulty straightaway.) However, there is always a lot going on, with some missions throwing enemies at you from the get-go and others forcing you to build a base from scratch.
Regardless of your mission objectives, Supreme Commander 2 is a whole lot of fun because it gives you room to play with the units at your disposal. Each faction's units are similar, but they aren't exact mirrors. For example, while the UEF boasts multiple land vehicles that meet specific needs, the catch-all antimissile/antiair Cybran adaptor fulfills multiple roles at once. The UEF and Cybran factions possess capable naval units--but Illuminate players do not get a navy at all, though their hovering ground units won't leave them landlocked. The differences are sometimes subtle, but they're palpable enough to make each faction feel unique. You won't find the factional variety of a game like Universe at War or even StarCraft, but the upside is that factions are beautifully balanced and don't require a complete shift of gears when moving from one faction to the next.
As before, each faction uses similar methods to accumulate resources: by collecting mass from predetermined nodes using mass extractors and by building generators to produce energy. There are some notable changes to the formula here. In Supreme Commander, your available resources didn't limit your build queue; you could essentially order up new units and structures "on credit." Now, you can only spend the funds if you have them, which is a change that may disappoint some SupCom loyalists. The other major difference is the complete removal of unit tiers. Units are upgraded via research points that you accumulate by building research centers; the more you build, the faster you earn those valuable points. Your research trees are divided into multiple categories (air, ground, structure, and so on) and follow multiple paths that let you unlock new units and structures, as well as improve existing ones. For example, you can add an extra barrel to your tanks and a personal shield to your gunships. Most significantly, you can also gain access to the all-important experimental units and, yes, the nukes that caused you so much joy and heartache in the first game.
The economic changes aren't for the worse or even necessarily for the better, but they do place the focus squarely on moment-to-moment battle decisions in favor of convoluted economic tweaking. You spend less time speeding up production times with engineers and more time spreading your units around and reacting to your opponents' actions. Matches might last for well over an hour, giving you a chance to play with different ideas and a reason to use every unit at your disposal. If you like turtling, shield generators and long-range artillery will buy you time to amass a large force. If you like harassing the enemy, stick to the air and put your bombers on a patrol route. Your base building isn't restricted to a specific region, and the research trees are generous and robust, so there's plenty of room to be creative. And this is where Supreme Commander 2 shines most brightly. The flexibility leads to a ton of fun because on the best maps, no game plays out the same way twice. An intense battle may erupt when you least suspect it, or you might foil your nemesis' plans with a well-timed artillery barrage. And if you can't decide whether to be conservative or aggressive, spread your forces quickly and be both at once. Imagination is often rewarded with shocking and exciting victories, though crazy strategies may naturally lead to soul-crushing defeat as well.
The game-changing experimental units give you even more flexibility and can change the flow of battle in awesome ways. Some of them, such as the UEF's returning (and slightly tweaked) fatboy and the gigantic King Kriptor robot, are offensive powerhouses and as subtle as a destructive blast to the forehead. Others, however, take a bit more skill and produce much more unexpected and enjoyable results. A well-considered placement of the Illuminate's loyalty gun will convert invading experimentals to your cause, so that a hulking Cybranosaurus might end up mowing down its previous comrades. The space temple teleporter helps you take your enemy unaware, and using it multiple times in a row may lead to several concurrent scuffles. If you want more dramatic invasions, however, you can build some ground units within the UEF's land cannon and shoot them across the map into enemy territory. It sure beats a boring old transport ship.
Rarely would you ever call Supreme Commander 2 boring, however. The net result of the changes--the adjusted economy, the speed at which you can earn experimentals and upgrades--is that you don't need to wait a long time to get the fun units in play. It takes time to unlock high-cost experimentals, but the less-expensive ones are fun to watch and fun to use, and you can put them in play early on. This is a game in which you can pit colossal robots and hulking metal dinosaurs against each other, and the pace of the campaign is excellent, keeping you excited to see what toys the game is going to give you next while making it fun to use the ones you have. The game's conventional but rousing soundtrack and excellent sound effects enhance this drive forward, and the resulting tension is constantly relieved by massive explosions and frenzied masses of tangling aircraft.
After you cut your teeth on the single-player campaign, you can easily jump into online play to challenge human opponents. The GPGNet interface has been jettisoned for a clean in-game multiplayer interface that lets you get into a match quickly or join and host games in a more traditional manner. There is a healthy number of great maps; some of them are pulled from the original Supreme Commander, and conflicts can include up to eight players. Online matches perform as smoothly as offline skirmishes and let you tailor the game using multiple specifications, from speeding up the tempo to removing nukes from the equation. Online play provides the game's finest pleasures, mostly in the broadly designed maps that smartly avoid a lot of chokepoints and narrow walkways. A seemingly staid opponent may suddenly launch nuclear death from above, teleport in a couple of powerful assault blocks, or take out all of your air units with a few antiair experimentals. Everything can go from cerebral to stimulating within a moment's notice.
The narrow walkways of other maps highlight Supreme Commander’s most notable problem: pathfinding. Ground units may have trouble figuring out how to arrange themselves or get through not-so-narrow gaps, even performing occasional dance routines as they attempt simple move orders. An experimental might get stuck on a defeated unit's charred remains or your armored command unit may wedge itself between structures, though most pathfinding flaws are far less problematic. These moments might happen even when you've taken care to avoid them, and micromanaging units just to get them to where you need them to go is not a welcome diversion. These frustrations aren't common, but they are noticeable nonetheless.
Whether you're a newcomer or a veteran tactician, you'd do well to overlook these flaws and enjoy Supreme Commander 2 for how entertaining and exciting it is. The game maintains a difficult balancing act, providing the scope and flexibility of the original Supreme Commander with a user-friendly makeover that lends some freshness and personality. This is the kind of game where you glance at the clock and discover that hours have passed and you're still waist-deep in assault bots and antiair turrets. Do yourself a favor and get lost in the fun and flash of it all.