Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance (PC)
In the opening movie of Supreme Commander, we are briefly introduced to the Seraphim, an alien race that adopts a group of humans as worshippers and then is wiped out in a genocidal campaign by the United Earth Force. (This war crime spawns the Aeon as a religious fanatic faction.) The original campaign ends with allusions to the return of this alien behemoth, ready for revenge on the universe. I guess the lesson is that genocide is a bad thing, more so if you don't do the job right the first time.
Forged Alliance, the stand-alone expansion to Supreme Commander, gives us the Seraphim, and -- surprise -- they are just like everyone else. Same Commander system, same building structure, same unit types. It's as if this alien race decided to go native and fight the war with the tech that almost destroyed their civilization. If you can't beat 'em, copy 'em.
The title refers to the between-game events. Faced with the overwhelming threat presented by an invading Seraphim army, the three factions from the original game team up to save the universe. Betrayals, assassinations and a civil war amongst the Aeon fanatics all happen in the campaign world before you even load a map. Then you get more betrayals as you work your way through it.
I usually wouldn't spend so much time on the backstory of the campaign for a real-time strategy game, but in this case it exemplifies the missed opportunity of Forged Alliance. Given the chance to really shake things up and create a new faction, Gas Powered Games just gives you the same robots, airplanes and defenses you had before. After writing a truly interesting story about how enemies must come together to fight a common enemy, they decide to start the campaign after all the interesting stuff has already happened.
This is part and parcel of Gas Powered Games' plan for Supreme Commander. At the 2007 Game Developers Conference, Chris Taylor told an audience that the game was for hardcore RTSers, i.e., the multiplayer community. As long as the game provided the level of challenge and depth that the online gamers demand, his job was done.
Since Supreme Commander is designed for that hardcore audience that likes to figure out the fastest way to get their super-duper experimental weapons out, adding a fourth faction in Forged Alliance means 33 percent more analysis. The Seraphim get a new experimental bomber, as well as an assault bot and strategic missile base that can devastate enemy forces. All experimental units get built faster, making them a more practical option for the endgame than they were in the core game. Experimentals are still a considerable investment, but because they have quicker deployment times, the cost/benefit analysis falls in their favor more often.
Having the new faction means you get a little more variety in appearance in those big multiplayer games, but the Seraphim don't really force many new calculations. A radical reimagining of who or what the Seraphim were would upset that precious balance, and in the online world, balance will always win over flavor. Your old build order will still work fine, the templates you have hotkeyed won't need to be changed much, and you will still have to assemble those huge armies and monster weapons that only Supreme Commander can give you. Forged Alliance keeps all that was good about Supreme Commander and gives you -- frankly, not a lot more for the $40 asking price, a full 10 bucks over your standard expansion costs.
There is some recognition of the casual RTS world, though, and if you skipped the game when it came out last winter, Forged Alliance is a great place to start. First, the interface has been noticeably improved. It takes up a lot less space on the screen, a crucial thing in a game where victory depends so much on strategic awareness of the map. It's funny to think that smaller could be so much nicer, but it is. The Commander upgrades are laid out in a more sensible manner, as well. It's not that the original interface was bad. This is just better.
The artificial intelligence (AI) of the computer opponents is much better, too. It can put up a reasonable challenge on Normal, at least for newcomers, and is much more interested in expansion across the map. Though it still likes to trickle units in as opposed to going for that one big push, it trickles earlier and more aggressively, forcing you to choose between finishing that second factory or getting some turrets up and going. Because it is more of a challenge, the expansion is, ironically, a better teaching tool than the core game. You have to learn how to optimize your matter/energy production early and get those first units out there. You have to time that upgrade from tier one to tier two properly and still keep the army coming. The somnolent AI in the original game couldn't help you with that, since there was no way to lose against it once you knew the basics.
The single-player campaign is only playable from the Alliance side, so you only get to play with the Seraphim in this skirmish mode. The campaign looks pretty short -- only six missions -- but considering how long it takes to finish a single mission, it's still pretty generous. With every scenario taking well over an hour -- some over two -- for a cautious player, this campaign will take more of your time than any of the three mini-campaigns in the most recent Age of Empires III expansion, and you can play it as any of the three Alliance factions. Of course, since the subtle differences between the largely similar factions will be lost on anyone who hasn't devoted a lot of time to studying the game's ins and outs, this is a dubious distinction.
Forged Alliance is ultimately best recommended for the curious. If you've played Supreme Commander but found it a flavorless world of chrome beasts and ideal conditions, then Forged Alliance gives you nothing that will force you to re-examine that position. If you're a fan who has already invested a lot of time in the multiplayer component of the original, Forged Alliance isn't going to shake you up, but get it if you're still active and everyone on your friends list has it.
If you missed Supreme Commander, then Forged Alliance is a good place to start. You lose nothing from the original game by buying this instead, and since the computer is a better opponent, you can get up to speed for the still active online community. Forged Alliance could have been much more than it is, but it remains a vivid example of real-time strategy design done right.
This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.