Review: Supreme Commander 2 (PC)
Chris Taylor, lead designer of Supreme Commander 2, has said, “People are like, 'Oh did the 360 mean that we had to dumb down the PC?' and I said, 'No, it was the opposite.' The 360 version has made a better PC game, in so many ways."
Turns out, Chris Taylor’s a lying bastard, or at the very least has lost his edge as a game designer (author’s opinion). Space Siege was a big clue to Taylor’s demise, so I’m not entirely surprised. Simply put, everything that made Supreme Commander brilliant and inspiring was savagely gutted from the series when they produced Supreme Commander 2, and the resulting product is nothing more than another bland RTS with little that sets it apart. It has been, in every possible interpretation of the term, been dumbed down.
Supreme Commander was a brilliant RTS that revolutionized the genre and actually gave me hope for the future of game design. I’ve been playing these games since Dune 2 back in 1992 and until 2007 I stopped expecting any real innovation in game design. Warcraft and Starcraft changed little things, but mainly their strength lay in using that tired old RTS formula and giving it a new coat of paint. The same could be said for newer titles like Dawn of War. Supreme Commander took the elements these older gamers where built upon and redesigned them as well as how we interact with them. Sadly, Supreme Commander 2 does everything in its power to make up for the success of its predecessor.
18 years later and we're still getting Dune 2 clones. Sheesh!
While the innovative “Strategic Zoom” feature (the ability to zoom out to a satellite view of the map with the mouse wheel then zoom in wherever the curser is aimed) still remains from Supreme Commander, that’s about it. The user interface has been greatly simplified and the maps have been shrunk significantly. While maps in Supreme Commander could be massive things thousands of square kilometers in size, the maps in Supreme Commander 2 are small enough that even on the largest of the multiplayer maps you have to wonder how units can’t see each other from the opposite corners. Similarly the selections of units and buildings in Supreme Commander 2 have been neutered. In Supreme Commander there are about 50 different UEF units to choose from and about the same number of buildings. In Supreme Commander 2 the unit list was cut down by half as was the building list. The numbers are roughly the same for the other main factions in the series. That roughly comes out them reducing the unit list in Supreme Commander 2 by around 150 different units and buildings. Look at it another way. Starcraft had around 48 units and buildings all together, and that’s including the iffy, non-units like the Zerg Larva. They cut enough units from Supreme Commander 2 to fill 3 Starcraft games!
There have also been a few changes to how the units are balanced. Anti-aircraft vehicles are apparently now useless as a squad of the mobile AA guns doesn’t have a chance in hell at taking out an equal number of bombers. And while Supreme Commander 2 boasts a larger list of top-tier experimental weapons, they now suck. The UEF experimental mobile factory, the Fatboy, has lost its shields, its anti-aircraft guns and its ability to act as a factory. The giant Cybran supersub, the Kraken, can be taken down by a squad of tier 1 subs. The AI’s a pitiful mockery of what it once was. In the campaign, I’ve experienced a number of moments where I would select a group of units and command them to all attack a target. While any units within range of the target would open fire, any out of range would just sit there, rather than actually moving into range and then attacking. In the single-player campaign the enemy AI will also make some dumb decisions that you can easily exploit. The way to beat a mission in the campaign is to rush the enemy base with a horde of whatever you can build. The same goes for skirmish mode. The complex strategies and maneuvering required to win in SC are gone. Innovation and brilliance have given way to the banality of the generic RTS.
Objects in image may suck more than they appear.
I’ll admit that while there are fewer units and buildings now, what’s left is a lot prettier than the art in Supreme Commander. That’s exactly what I look for in a complex and engrossing RTS; pretty tanks. If you compare the UEF ACU (your giant robot avatar in the game) in Supreme Commander and Supreme Commander 2, the newer one has a softer, cartoony look with a bright yellow and blue paint job, while the older one looks like a rough, scratched up piece of military hardware. Meanwhile CGI in the cut scenes looks soft, cartoony and like something off of a bad kids’ show on Cartoon Network. This childish CGI is further enhanced by voice acting reminiscent of a bunch of uninterested interns reading lines.
Nothing says awesome military might like a bright sunflower yellow!
Let’s step away from the actual mechanics of gameplay and approach an issue that grated across my soul like a dirty disc sander; the single-player campaign. Unlike its predecessor, Supreme Commander 2 was produced by Square-Enix, a company I’ve long associated with linear drivel starring annoying, androgynous, and stereotypical characters (author’s opinion). There is a great quote from an interview with Chris Taylor on Joystiq.com.
“Well, one of the things that we took as a queue from Square Enix was the way they embrace character and story. We were all into that, so that was easy. When we asked them, "How should we develop our game to work with their philosophy?" They said, "Don't do that because we want you to do what you do. You make games for the Western market and we're interested in making games for the Western market." So, if we changed... we would be missing the point.”
Well Chris, looks like you missed the damn point.
Supreme Commander wasn’t about the characters or the story. No one gave a damn about the “Infinity War” or the politics involved within each faction. All the fans wanted was an excuse for why the blue guys are attacking the red guys this time. After Total Annihilation, no one was expecting anything along the lines of Kerrigan getting kidnapped and turned into something out of a furry’s nightmare. We liked the gameplay, that’s it. Nor did anyone cared about the plot to Total Annihilation for the same reason. So why would I suddenly be interested in this conflict now?
The story follows a UEF commander who becomes deeply enmeshed within the return of the millennia long Infinity War of the first game. As far as I can figure the excuse given for the return of war after 25 years of piece is “Because.” That would be fine if they immersed players in the setting and made them care about these anime rejects. Why does the UEF military leader go crazy and declare war on the Illuminate? And why is every UEF commander other than the main character an evil, one dimensional, sociopathic monster who is willing to liquidate orphanages on command? And why are they referring to Cybran units as “Charlie?” Did this become a Vietnam War game at some point and I just missed the announcement? Note to Gas Powered Games: character development is not your strong suit. Dungeon Siege, Supreme Commander, Demigod, and Space Siege: these are not games known for their deep, multifaceted characters. Please don’t try to make us actually care about your characters. We enjoy your games for their gameplay, so focus on that.
I would like to talk more about the campaigns for the other factions, but I can’t. The single-player experience follows to old RTS fallback of making the players complete the faction campaigns in a specific order. Simply put, you can’t start a faction campaign without completing what goes down in my books as the most annoying tutorial in gaming history.
In addition, Quantum Visionworks (a fake company in SC2) made Navi from Ocarina of Time bearable. I quit right before the final UEF mission, and while the game might get better and the plot might start making sense later on, it’s not enough to make me want to play through the shitty UEF campaign. While Supreme Commander shined in multiplayer and skirmish modes, the Supreme Commander 2 single-player campaign had depressed me so much that I was only willing to give skirmish mode one shot. Needless to say I was disappointed afterwards.
I’ll end on the one strength that I felt this game had. Your access to advanced tech in Supreme Commander 2 is limited not by the buildings you make or by buying a linear series of power-ups. Instead of those tired old tropes, the player is given a number of research points. As the game progresses you slowly earn more points, though this can be sped up by building research buildings. Points are spent on different research trees via a special menu. From there, the player is able to choose how his army’s tech will progress. If you devote your points to the air tech and build a powerful air force, you can eventually access the experimental aircraft. However you’ll do so at the risk of neglecting your land forces and your navy. In the single-player campaign, your choices are somewhat limited as certain research trees are just inaccessible.
On the hand, it’s easy to see how this could influence multiplayer in exciting ways. You’d be able to anticipate your opponent’s decisions and direct your research accordingly, creating an arms race in each match. Though to be honest, what I fear may happen is that since you can’t see you’re opponent’s tech choices (other than by seeing special units showing up on the map) players will end up investing all of their research points into certain tech trees only to learn to late that their opponents went with something completely different, negating any element of strategy involved. Or they’ll just do the smart thing and dump all their points into the nuclear missile silo and bomb their opponents back to hell. There’s no real defense against this tactic as the missile silo also acts as the missile defense system. So I anticipate matches either being won by Zerg rushing opponents or nuking them into oblivion. Then again When it comes to multiplayer I’m a pessimist and I expect to see surface nothing but the worst humanity has to offer (blame x-box live). The Supreme Commander 2 research system is cute, but it’s not going to save this game.
All in all this is a crushing disappointment and it’s yet another shard of my soul ripped loose and cast deep within the abyssal depths of hell itself. I really wanted to give a game a good review for once and that’s pretty much why I picked up Supreme Commander 2. Well played Chris Taylor, you’ve once again raised my hopes up high only to dash them against the pointy rocks of despair.
This review was based off a retail copy of the game.