A supreme commander?
February 13, 2007
The real-time strategy game, or RTS, is a pretty venerable genre in computer gaming, in which the player commands an army versus the computer. Although these games arguably began with Westwood Studios’ Dune II, many gamers were introduced to RTS via the second, more popular generation of these games, which included Westwood’s sophmore effort, Command and Conquer, and Blizzard’s Warcraft. Both were real gems: Command and Conquer had delightfully campy movies in between missions as well as great MIDI techno music, which made commanding little pixel men incredibly compelling and visceral, while Warcraft was artful, featuring an engrossing story and lavish detail, both of which have become synonymous with Blizzard’s productions.
Command and Conquer’s Kane and Warcraft’s typical protagonists
Both of these games followed Dune II’s model, in which the player acquires resources, builds production facilities, churns out units, and hopefully crushes their opponent. However, as the years went by, the two studios and an array of of newer studios released a bevy of sequels and similar games with varied success. This up-and-down response from the consumer wasn’t simply because there was a glut of games in the market; rather, it was because most of these games, even the veteran works by Westwood and Blizzard, were incredibly similar. As the years went by, the improvements and variation in gameplay remained incremental, and whenever a new feature was included in a successful game, every other game simply released a sequel with the new feature, whether they were setting waypoints for units or including more factions within the storyline. Yet the basic gameplay remained unchanged: most missions consisted of hording resources, building a massive army, and repeating, with tactics overshadowed by mass-production. Blizzard remained partly immune to this simply because of its adherence to fine detail; as a result, Blizzard games were released far enough apart to contain many improvements from their previous iterations, and they simply had enough polish to keep gamers captivated for a much greater period of time.
Thus, the RTS’s of today are graphically advanced, but they would be immediately recognizable to someone who had played their last RTS in 1995. It is with this dose of skepticism that I take a look at Gas Powered Games’ upcoming Supreme Commander. Although SC has a unique story and presentation, it is essentially a spiritual sequel to Cavedog Games’ RTS, Total Annihilation. When it was released, TA was hailed as a break from the stagnant RTS formula, offering fully 3-d units and maps in an industry where full 2-d was standard, and allowing gameplay on a much larger scale, with hundreds of units. Although the game still has its partisans, it wasn’t the salvation that it was promised to be. The game did implement the promised improvements, but it had a non-existent storyline, poor production values, and truly brainless AI; making it moderately successful as a multiplayer game, but a dismal failure at singleplayer, wherein storyline and AI are king. Thus, it was with great suspicion that I began my playthrough of SC.
After playing through the first few missions, it is soon clear that Supreme Commander isn’t this generation’s Total Annihilation. It is too good to make that comparison any longer. SC successfully adds a number of new features to the RTS formula, such as much larger battlefield sizes, a very wide selection of units, a physics-based simulation of projectiles, and a system for directing and transporting units that is head and shoulders above any other RTS. However, it does all of this while avoiding the deficiencies of TA: it has a reasonably good, albeit, brief storyline, and the AI offers a decent challenge.
That having been said, as much as it is more than an incremental improvement to the formula, allowing for a greater use of tactics, it’s still a formulaic game. SC is a game of building massive armies and ultra-powerful experimental units in order to crush the opponent’s army and static defenses, and almost the only way to do this is to have the biggest, baddest economy that you can muster. Although there is a place in this for tactics, they are of a very blunt nature; the emphasis is on understanding the peculiarities of individual units and trying to outmaneuver the enemy’s entire army; diminishing the importance of real-life tactics such as setting up ambushes, flanking manuvers, or effective raids.
So is SC worth playing? Overall, yes, particularly if you’re a fan of RTS’s. However, if you are a casual gamer, and are looking to try the genre, I would highly recommend playing Relic’s Company of Heroes or Dawn of War: Dark Crusade, or even Blizzard’s older Warcraft III before you try SC. All of these games are less expensive, and have much more developed campaigns. However, as the online SC community grows, and the game is modded and patched, it may improve considerably… just as Total Annihilation did.