Supreme Commander PC Review

Supreme Commander has been referred to as the spiritual successor to 1997’s Total Annihilation; a game way ahead of its time and one of my favourites. TA was made by the Cavedog who are no longer with us, but after their demise lead designer Chris Taylor went on to found Gas Powered Games. I was overjoyed two years ago when I heard the news of Supreme Commander and have been looking forward to it ever since. Supreme Commander has finally arrived 10 years after TA and expectations are extraordinarily high.

A great intro video sets the scene well and introduces the sides. United Earth Federation (UEF), Cybran Nation and Aeon Illuminate. The infinite war is near its end and the missions allow you to play it through in story mode. There are 6 long missions for each side that will probably take you a few hours each as a completed objective expands the map further. Between missions you have brief mission briefings with humanoid looking CGI characters; they are fairly believable in the way they act though the script is somewhat dry and predictable. The story is okay but the focus is clearly on the action. Some criticised the lack of a decent story in Total Annihilation, with its faceless adversaries Core and Arm. This left most to the imagination and perhaps this is why it was so memorable for me. In Supreme Commander, events are presented much more up-front and they have a humanoid factor; the presentation is fine I think it’s sometimes best to leave some room for the player to visualise the characters themselves. When all’s said and done the missions are lengthy, fairly entertaining and will keep you busy for a few weeks, and the conflicting agendas of each side leaves a lot of scope for debate.

When you gate to a new world you only have your ACU – the Commander, with whom you can build your base. The commander is pivotal to your strategy and must be kept from harm as his death results in a huge explosion capable of taking out a huge chunk of your base. In skirmish/multiplayer you can choose to play assassination, where the death of the Commander means defeat, or annihilation where you must destroy all of a player’s units. As the game draws on, you can build some powerful structures such as long range artillery, which literally can shoot miles across the map, albeit at the expense of accuracy. You can build nukes, which are massively destructive, but can be shot down en-route by an anti-missile defence system. Having a counter to most units is a real treat and you never end up with the shallow superweapon scenario seen in Command & Conquer games where it’s impossible to counter. This leads to longer and more unpredictable games, with multiplayer matches often lasting an hour. Supreme Commander also has far more realistic build times and it takes a lot of time and resources to build the powerful units, timing is crucial and establishing a good enough economy to build key units whilst holding off the enemy is what makes the gameplay so deep and eventful.

A new feature not in Total Annihilation is the introduction of energy shields. These can be built and upgraded to shield parts of your base from attack. After sustaining a certain level of damage the shield goes down temporarily to recharge. This means there’s a way to defend against long range artillery, but if someone is bombarding you with multiple units it will bring a single shield down. The balance between powering multiple shields and building units to attack the enemy is a constant balancing act that adds to the excitement.

Each of the factions has a vast selection of units you can build – 3 tech levels in fact – and after that you can even build a few giant experimental units, though you won’t see these till the last mission or in multiplayer. Every unit feels worthwhile and it has its uses, balancing is very good and the fully fledges air, land and sea factories lead to limitless tactical possibilities. Planes will automatically battle it out with rival aircraft, the scale of the naval units is highly impressive and defensive structures pack a real punch. A small criticism I have is the lack of level 3 ground units, I think some big tank-like vehicles would have bridged the gap between the small level 1/2 units compared to the experimental. This is something Total Annihilation did not suffer from but there’s no question the early-to-mid game units are much more balanced and well thought out. If there is an expansion I expect more tech 3 units to feature. Any criticism is minor in comparison to what is on offer here; you can even build walls, something long forgotten by most RTS games.

The first change you will notice is a switch from a 2D engine with 3D units to a full 3D battle environment. The camera looks down on the action and can zoom and pan around the action to your heart’s content. As was found in the original Total Annihilation, you can track units by pressing T, allowing you to watch your spy plane in cinematic view as it sores over the landscape below. It’s worth noting the PC hardware requirements since resources for Supreme Commander are very high so you’ll need a powerful new PC, but this is one for the future that will age well. The extra requirements allow for great levels of detail and getting really close to the units adds to the atmosphere and sucks you in, but the most important feature in the game is the strategic zoom – a real innovation for the genre. Using the scroll wheel you can zoom all the way out to see the entire battlefield on the screen. This is highly effective as the landscapes are vast and dwarf what we’ve come to expect in other strategy games. When at maximum distance the units are replaced with minimal icons of their class and are easily selectable. It takes some getting used to but after extended play you will feel right at home. There’s an optional mini-map similar to what you’ll see in other RTS games but I never felt the need to use it with the strategic zoom on offer. There’s a lot of attention to detail in Supreme Commander and the overall interface is excellently integrated with proceedings. You can overlay different sensory information on the battlefield, such as radar range and weapon shot distance to see how far your artillery will shoot before you build it etc. Aside from the standard assigning units into groups it’s even possible to assign a name to your unit. Your commander bares your username but visibly naming other units is a chance for humour in multiplayer.

Economy relies on you mining two resource types – energy and mass (formerly metal in TA). You build mass extractors, fabricators and energy generators, all of which have different incarnations over the tech levels. Engineer units can assist each other when building but you have to ensure your outgoing energy and mass don’t drain your resources too much. It’s a great economy system and when taking part in multiplayer team games a ‘shared resources’ option allows you to automatically share your surplus resources with your ally. The gameplay experience is highly flexible and comes with an expertly implemented waypoint and queuing system, enabling you to queue up units with multiple instructions. Patrol routes are a couple of clicks away, as is setting up an automated transport ferry to move your units around.

The soundtrack is of a classical nature and fits the game well, with the music changing subtly as battles commence. It continues to grow on me more and more though at this stage it’s not quite as memorable as the astonishingly brilliant one in Total Annihilation.

Supreme Commander has vast gameplay depth and the multiplayer is one of the best gaming experiences there is. On the whole it’s remarkably similar to Total Annihilation, which is a good thing, whether you played the original or not. It’s full of nice touches, like the wreckage left by dead units, and the level design is among the best you will see. Competing in multiplayer will never get old and so the lifespan may last for years, not least because of continued developer support and custom made maps and mods from the community. An essential purchase for any PC gamer.

Reviewer’s System
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E6300, RAM: 2GB DDR2 PC2-6400 RAM, GFX: XFX DDR3 7600GT 256MB 1440×900.

A game you will keep coming back to.

9.2 out of 10

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