E3 2009: The Five: Supreme Commander 2
What's this about? 2008's Supreme Commander was a huge, complicated, finicky real-time strategy game that the hardcore audience loved to pretend it understood. The sequel tries to keep the Supreme-ness while making it easier for you to Command.
1. No Crays necessary this time. Where the first SupCom game really pushed the hardware most gamers had available, Gas Powered Games is aiming to make the game more available to the average RTS fan. Company founder Chris Taylor boasted that the demo was running on a two-year-old PC, not the top-of-the-line hardware that is traditionally used to show off new products. Pathfinding optimization is the big cause of the power gain: The developers have moved to a group-flow model of mass movement instead of tracking every individual unit.
2. Much of the redesign in SupCom 2 makes it more like a traditional RTS. They've dumped the system that caused your dozens of first-generation soldiers to become obsolete as soon as you jumped to second-generation technology. Now unit upgrades are applied across the board to whatever troops you already have out there, just like in almost every other RTS. And the economic system won't be so heavily reliant on proximity bonuses and remembering when you could use deficit spending.
3. Gas Powered Games will make it easier to see the cool stuff early on. Since the real draws are the giant robots, you will be encouraged to use your master robot (the Armored Command Unit) as a powerful assault weapon. The very cool-looking experimental units have been distributed across the tech levels, so you don't have to spend the first two-thirds of the game with a bunch of boring tanks. Yes, the coolest vehicles are at the end, including a colossal bipedal monster, but even the lower levels of technology give you something that will fill your heart with metallic joy.
4. The story-based campaign will be more character-centered. Since the most memorable RTS campaigns try to give you a narrative in which you can immerse yourself, SupCom 2 will tell the story of three brothers in arms on opposite sides of a terrible civil war. Gas Powered Games compares it to a war movie instead of a war documentary -- it follows the men and their adventures, and tries to give you a feel for what they are going through.
5. The factions are more distinct from each other this time, too. Though many of the basic units will still be similar from one side to the next, each faction has a different style. How extreme are the differences? One of them can't build naval units! Drawing these lines may be another concession to traditional RTS design, but it's also a way to bring gamers into the world more tightly, helping them know the players on a map without a program.
The Crispy Forecast: Supreme Commander was easier to admire than it was to appreciate or embrace. Gas Powered Games wants to keep the core of what makes the game so appealing -- that hardcore edge -- without scaring off the more casual RTS market. It's a tough line to walk, but Gas Powered Games is making all the right moves -- I hope it finds its base is willing to play along.
This preview is based on a developer-driven demo of the game at E3 2009.