Supreme Commander PC Review - 18/02/2007

Supreme Commander is basically the most technically advanced game available to test your Windows Vista Dual Core PC. However, more than physics and graphics are required to make a good game, especially a good RTS, but Supreme Commander succeeds in all but a few departments.

While a few years ago PCs were the home of the first person shooter, now they appear to be welcoming the best real time strategy games onboard, and Supreme Commander is right up there with the best. The game introduces a host of new ideas and concepts to the genre, and pushes even Dual Core computers to their very limit in doing so – that said, the game is playable on lower spec PCs, but isn’t nearly as enjoyable.

Coming from Chris Taylor, the man behind Dungeon Siege and Total Annihilation, for which Supreme Commander is described as the spiritual successor to, this had a lot going for it from the off, and as such had gathered much hype before launch.

The key idea behind the game is the ability to control units precisely with one part of the screen, and then monitor progress in battle or construction with another. The view is divided up with a bar taking up about a fifth of the screen either down one side, or along the bottom of the view. It seems a little obtrusive for what is empty most of the time, although the game does support dual screen support excellently, and is a much better option if your setup supports it.

The game revolves around Armoured Command Units or ACUs. These are the behemoths of the mech world, virtually unstoppable with anything less than a gigantic army. The basic story of the game follows the usual sci-fi setting, with an army of cyborgs – robots with human brains, that inevitably decided they wanted freedom for themselves, lead by their human creator. These two factions fight over earth, with the other faction, the Aeon Illuminate, coming from the remains of a war-torn alien race, determined to spread peace throughout the galaxy in order to prevent the same thing happening again, but ultimately getting involved in the battles because of it.

In some ways, Supreme Commander simplifies a lot of the things other RTS’ complicate. Resource collecting for example is incredibly important in SC, but, there’s only two types of resources – energy and mass. Energy is gained by building heaps of power generators, which can be shift+clicked to create huge instalments of them; and Mass is collected by building Mass Extractors on designated points on the map. This means setting up the base for your resource collection is very easy and straightforward, however it all gets far more in depth when you want to start churning out units and upgrading your tech tree.

Every single thing you do has an effect on your total amount of Mass and Energy. Upgrading your ACU for example, is hugely expensive, and can bring your base to a standstill for ten minutes just to install an extra laser on one arm. All your factories require Mass and Power to work, and they will only work at their fastest when they have been fully upgraded and your Mass and Energy production is at 100%. This is handily shown to you on the interface, but you have to keep building power generators almost non-stop if you want to create a big enough base, or network of bases, to sustain your army.

The ACU itself is transferred through a Quantum Tunnel, to the battlefield. If a battle is happening on another planet, or in another system, it is required to get an army there as quickly as possible, instead of taking weeks or months. When the ACU lands you’re treated to an explosion and crater, before the unit rights itself and you can get down to building. The ACU can build at incredibly quick speeds, and relating to the story of the game, it carries technical schematics of all the faction’s units, so it can build a new army at every location. It is also an immensely powerful military unit, and the general idea behind every skirmish is to weaken the enemy’s defences just sufficiently to let your ACU go and wreak havoc with the remainder of the army.

Playing through the tutorial videos I have to say I wondered what all the fuss was about with Supreme Commander. While PC gamers will no doubt have been salivating over the release of this since E3 last year, I am primarily a console gamer, and only come back to the PC for the very best RTS and FPS games. So, while I was very impressed with the graphics, the early movement of units and camera control system didn’t do much for me. Then however, the strategic zoom was introduced.

This allows you to zoom out to a bird’s eye view, thousands of feet above your units with just a roll of the mouse wheel. Similar in a way to how Civilization IV lets you zoom all the way out to see the entire globe, complete with clouds, (although Supreme Commander doesn’t take you quite as high, and it’s all in a flat, land based view) the execution is much the same. When zoomed out you see all your units in symbol form. All the particle effects, trails and fancy textures are still visible, but you’re just looking at them from a long way away, which is perhaps why SC is such a system hog. You can even zoom in with your minimap, from the usual red and blue symbols of friendlies and enemies to beautifully rendered environments in the heart of battle. Rather than downgrading textures and effects as you zoom further out, it’s all kept at a continually high quality.

The construction part of the game is also hugely important. Another part of the tutorial that made my heart leap was when they explained how to construct multiple units at once. One click gives you one unit they said, a shift+click gives you five, and alt+click, gives you five hundred. Five hundred units pouring out of a factory at once! When your base is working at its most efficient, and later on in skirmishes this is very possible, and you can be commanding literally tens of thousands of units at a time. Because of the strategic view, this never gets overwhelming. While other games let you have production queues continue endlessly, this would not be possible in Supreme Commander, because you have to monitor your energy and mass so carefully, that eventually, your base would grind to a halt if you didn’t stop the churning out of units to go on a strike against the enemy.

You can build land units, ranging from tanks, to anti-aircraft guns, to huge robots; sea units, from cruisers, to destroyers, to more huge robots that can travel over land as well; and air units, from scouts, to bombers, to even more huge robots. As you progress through the tech levels, which involves you upgrading your factories (very mass and energy expensive) and producing higher level engineers, you get some truly awe inspiring units. All the units in the game look brilliant up close, as you’d expect, and are in fact really diverse in both their attributes, and their appearance. Shield Generator units are also hugely useful, and look great against the war tarnished backdrop, play on a snow level and you’ll reminisce about Star Wars and the battle on Hoth. No doubt when you first play Supreme Commander you’ll be happily building a battalion of tanks, only for a huge land destroyer to come and pillage your base, rape your robot workers, and burn down your metal huts. Perhaps not quite as dramatic as in historical RTS games, but for sci-fi fans the amount of lasers, sparks and technology, as well as the sheer scale of the battles, can not be overlooked.

There are three campaigns in single player, one for each faction, and it is one of the most story-based options ever in an RTS. Cut scenes are good, and while the voice-overs are a little forced, the struggle based plot does get you involved with each faction, although there’s little betrayal, family based vengeance, or enemy clones of the main character hell bent on destruction, but it serves to portray the fight between the three factions well, all distinctly different in their own way. In each campaign mission the map expands further and further as you unlock more and more objectives, starting with a tiny plot of land at the beginning of each mission, and it’s a memorable experience to think how your empire and army has expanded from the start, to monolithic battalions of super soldiers.

The usual skirmish mode is in place again, and while the maps are often inspired with the textures and layout, they are also fairly bland and empty – it would be nice to have a real structural presence on the maps, perhaps burned out cities or craters – just a sign of life. Although with that said, once you engage in a battle with the enemy (there is a rather redundant Diplomacy tab for forging alliances or buying more time to put off death for as long as possible), all of this is forgotten.

Online you will find plenty of activity, and a vibrant Command and Conquer like community is bound to be established with the unit diversity. Games can become huge, with eight players the limit – meaning massive brawls can occur, and while an even more powerful PC will be needed here, the speed of the game is lowered to cater for players with slower computers. You get so involved in each and every tussle with enemy humans that you just don’t want to put the game down until you have annihilated them. The nature of the gameplay also means that it takes a serious amount of concentration to completely wipe out an enemy, and many well thought out attacks will fail miserably before you manage to make a break though, if that occurs at all before everyone eventually has to give up through tiredness and mental strain.

Like in many RTS titles, but perhaps never employed so effectively, every unit has a weakness and strength. A single turret or certain type of enemy can take out dozens and dozens of your troops if you’re too careless and don’t plan your attacks well. The enemy AI is also hugely clever - if you send twenty tanks with five anti-aircraft vehicles for cover, thinking intelligently, the enemy aircraft will target the AA guns first. Bombers are very effective against anti-aircraft units, and so the enemy will always use them quickly to take out the immediate threat – it won’t waste time on your tanks, which pose no direct risk to units, but instead will bombard the threat, and once that is eliminated, will pick out the tanks with ease. You will curse for not bringing air fighter craft on the attack with you, but again, if you had have bought them, the enemy would select the biggest threat and group on them. A carefully selected squad of fifty units can often defeat hundreds of poorly thought out enemy targets – as you play more and more Supreme Commander you get to know what works, and what doesn’t.

Graphically, the game is of course top notch. On the highest setting it’s nothing short of mindblowing, especially with thousands of units battling it out. With Vista, Directx 10 and a strong Dual Core processor, the game will run well and comfortably – however, as very few people have that set up, Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games have enabled the game to be playable on lower spec PCs. Rather than the entire game slowing down, units just have staggered movement. It’s certainly noticeable, but it doesn’t chug or slow down so you’re sitting twiddling your thumbs waiting for units to move. The graphical downturn from High to Medium settings isn’t too bad either, it still looks good, although not great, but once you get lower, which many people will have to do, it goes into single colour textures and bland unit models, which means you may as well play the game solely in strategic view. The units still often stagger along on this setting as well, even on just a year old PC.

Play on a recently updated or new computer though, and the footprints of soldiers, exhaust trails, particle effects, crater marks, beautiful scenery and the biggest battles ever in an action orientated RTS can almost forgive the huge system specs. Like I said – it’s playable, and if you love the genre and concept of the game enough, it’s worth it, providing your PC still comes a good way above the minimum requirements. It’s almost playable in the strategic view actually, moving squads of units around the map and using the strategic zoom is a joy, and will no doubt be stolen by other games in the future – but as a complete package, Supreme Commander is unparalleled.

A problem for the developers is that non-RTS fans won’t understand the concept of the game. The balance of units, the ‘boring’ strategic view which to anyone experienced in RTS games is actually a beautiful looking godsend when compared to 2D, bland minimaps, and the seesaw of balancing Energy, Mass and unit production, are all likely to put people off who aren’t prepared to put the effort in. Once your base is set up and churning out vehicles, Supreme Commander becomes RTS heaven, and is a blend of styles that is employed brilliantly.

So many things it does well, that the negatives can hardly tarnish the final score. However, that such a small amount of gamers will be able to experience Supreme Commander in its true glory, surely means the graphics don’t stand for much. Maybe a release in a year’s time would serve Gas Powered Games better, although virtually all gamers with Vista should buy this and be able to enjoy it to the full. It’s also a bit difficult to get into the game if you’re not a hardcore RTS fan – you can’t just play the game and have fun – you have to work for it, and that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, with all that said, this is still one of the best RTS games out there, and a real testament to what DirectX 10 and Windows Vista can potentially provide.


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