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Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Supreme Commander [Lurks]

I thought it might be entertaining to examine where it came from since it has it's roots in a ten year old game, a game which many including myself regard to be the finest real time strategy game ever made. I was going to write a review of Supreme Commander but I don't think that's particularly useful for anyone. What might be more interesting to write is a look at this game, where it comes from and what, if anything, it means longer term.
Supreme Commander is a game made by Chris Taylor, the creative bloke behind an RTS called Total Annihilation released back in September 1997, near on ten years ago now remarkably. Chris Taylor was a game designer that worked for a now-defunct game developer called Cavedog Entertainment. 1997 was an interesting time, a highly vibrant time for PC gaming being as it was the major gaming platform in the world at that point. 3D acceleration was a new fangled thing. RTS games in generalwere known and loved so the release of yet another RTS game was pretty cookie cutter at the time.
I worked on a gaming magazine which at that time sold more copies than today's leading PC gaming magazine. It was interesting times. Total Annihilation arrived at about the same time as another RTS game called Dark Reign. This was a new fangled RTS in that it was 3D accelerated while Total Annihilation was not. Reviews of the pair both called each game superb, ground breaking, real advances of the RTS genre. Some people prefered TA, some prefered Dark Reign. Both were streets ahead of the fake 3D terrain of the likes of Starcraft released a year later, although that was much more highly polished, distinctive and had better marketing and became more of a commercial success than the RTS heavyweights of Dark Reign and Total Annihilation.
However as we gaze back, one can barely remember Dark Reign while Total Annihilation has taken up a top ten slot in anyone's ultimate list of PC games. The reasons for that were several fold. Firstly TA was written to be modified and third party mods (also a huge thing back in 1997) really took off. People could design their own units for their RTS game and then play them against eachother in multiplayer. Secondly, the software engine didn't look as swish as other games but it did something that 3D accelerated engines generally don't do, it scaled with your PC. I played Total Annihilation only a couple of years ago and it's a very different beast from the original with huge packs of hundreds of extra units, scaling the engine up to handle a thousand unit cap and with battles where vast sums of troops are manufactured and are killed by single hulking goliath super units. It's an scenario which impressed people I showed it to even as late as last year. We're so used to the 'Quake' effect of the number of enemy on our screens scaled back to single digits with 3D acceleration versus the Doom-era when games used to throw armies at you.
Cavedog went on to make Total Annihilation: Kingdoms which was a fantasy setting RTS game. Chris Taylor, however, had moved on. TA: Kingdoms was hotly anticipated but turned out to be a pretty mediocre RTS game which had pretty much nothing to do with the original TA. Much has been made of a proper TA sequel over the years, at one point there was even a Korean company said to be working on it. Matters were compounded with Cavedog going belly up and GTI also, I'm not sure who owns the actual brand now but for whatever reason Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games decided not to use it when making Supreme Commander.
It was being pitched as being a new RTS game but after playing it for a few days I can say categorically that Supreme Commander is basically Total Annihilation 2. In every way that's important, this game is TA. Ten years later though, with very sophisticated 3D acceleration at our fingertips, Supreme Commander has moved on a bit when it comes to the engine. Much has been made of the scale of the game but actually TA also played on very very large spaces it's just that you scrolled about rather than zoomed in/out with the mouse. Taylor has appeared to understand the scale and what it means though, correctly calling anything beyond standard artilliary range as being of strategic importance and anything under that as being tactical.
Unlike Starcraft, in TA and SupCom the factions are basically the same - rather like Command & Conquer. The differences are subtle with only the end-game super units and different strengths and weaknesses on the broadly equivalent air, ground and ocean going units. Starcraft had very few units per fection for this reason, TA and SupCom has a good deal. SupCom has diversified further in that there are definite strategic differences betwen the UEF, Cybran and Aon factions and the units do look quite a bit different. A Cybran tech 3 spy plane has Sonar, for example, but an Aon equivalent does not - forcing the use of alternative means.
I would say the designers goal has been to make the UEF a powerful mobile force with hard hitting aircraft and a super unit that includes the ability to get around the huge terrain and set up a new base easier than the other factions. Cybran have powerful defensive emplacements and bad ass super units like the awesome Monkeylord you will have seen crawling across the battlefields in the trailors. Aon are a bit of a dark horse with the most 'different' look. The ability to build a massive airfleet and transport the entire thing around in a big-ass mothership seems to be the order of the day. So you'd recognise the basics when playing a faction for the first time and this stuff will become clearer as you become more expert at the game.
Here's something worth talking about to, TA was all about that. You could click like a C&C noob but there was also creating unit groups, setting patrol patterns and having aircraft self-repair and construction units roam and repair structures automatically. Shortcuts which enabled the move onto a strategic footing without having to micromanage every troop action on the ground. This was so lost on the original TA that a second mission pack was released called TA Tactics which included a pile of missions to demonstrate how complex things really were if you wanted to get your teeth in.
And here, sadly, is where SupCom starts to disappoint. All the basics are there and even some refinements such as being able to set groups up, patrol paths and even drag the waypoints afterwards, which is nice. The dev team appear to have seen the mechanism CoH use to set up troop formations (the right click-drag) which is an excellent idea, but it doesn't work quite as well as you'd hope. In fact a theme of SupCom is that things are all a shade simpler. Initially I had that fear of disappointment creeping up but I began to realise a good many of the changes were simply removing things that aren't necessary.
For example, in TA you would set up some factories and control-number them to create groups and then order those groups of produced units to do things. You can't in SupCom but what you can do is just double click on units of a type on your screen and select all of them, it's faster and doesn't need a group. You can also, like TA, select all of your air, ground and naval units and any of the unit types and give them fresh orders, which is a shade better than TA did it. Vitally the engine flaws which plagued TA are largely gone. Units don't get caught up in your base, they walk between built structures. No more TA clog-ups.
The way radar and stealth is handled and visual contact etc is also a simplification but ultimately an improvement on TA. It's simple, if you have radar coverage and enemy units are in range, your units will fire. In TA they inexplicably would not. Not until you installed an end-game unit from the Core Contingency mission pack called the targetting centre which was an 'I win' button largely. Now in SupCom you have stealth and you have radar jamming. You can be invisible visually, or invisible to radar, or bring up spurious radar contacts or all of the above. However there's a tech 3 structure called the Omni sensor which sees through all of that crap up to a specific range, making this a prime target to locate and destroy obviously.
SupCom also adds shields, which is very interesting. You can build your base how you like then slap shields down and place defensive equipment within. This is a good game mechanic really because it provides you with a second chance after being targetted by something bad ass like, say, a super unit, some bombers or even long range artilliary. Time enough to try do something about the enemy's action, although perhaps not if they strike hard. There's even mobile shields, which is quite fun.
There's some new for SupCom stuff like the upgrading of units. It's kind of restricted to your sub commanders, which are very powerful units which get summoned in so you can't just assist factories to build them faster. They can be upgraded to be pretty bad ass offensive bots or they can be upgraded to be base homies, faster building and even rape in resources. The commanders themselves have different abilities on faction, UEF can build tactical and nuclear missiles on his while others have personal shields and stuff like that.
So while I was a little rankled with seemingly some controls not being there or working as I expected, in fact it freed me up to consider the strategic situation. I found I had more time to engage in intelligence gathering to work out what the enemy is up to. I feel a little more automatic ought to be possible with upgrading sub commanders in general, it's tedious to have to click through the little pages. In fact, the interface really ought to scale with resolution as well. It's designed, typically, for some shit low res screen so it's a tiny thing on the bottom left of my 1920x1200 display.
SupCom also does some mad stuff like support dual monitors and dual core processors. In my experience performance wise, it's graphics performance that will likely hold you back mostly. I managed to make it stutter when I flew some stuff over bases with huge armies amassed underneath the glistening shields. Not surprising really. Pathing also uses up quite a lot of CPU juice but I can't tell how well the multi-threading works in SupCom to help that but it does appear to be using both cores quite happily.
I've only tinkered with the dual screen stuff for now but it is handy. It's not quite as refined as it could be though but it's a very nice touch and will definately deliver a competitive advantage in multiplayer. Again, though, if the interface scaled properly it wouldn't have been necessary at all because the little overview minimap would be bigger than a postage stamp.
So far I've played through some single player missions. There's three stories, one for each faction. It seems a little redundant to have to introduce you to the basics of doing anything at all three times over. It would have been better to make one large campaign and play the different factions in it just as other games have chosen to do. That said, this does introduce you to the differing capabilities of each faction right from a tech 1 standpoint. Playing the single player on hard has been quite the challenge actually, and very enjoyable. The story telling is also quite pleasant in a competent way.
Skirmish mode is, to coin an overused phrase, a mixed bag. Here I found an AI flaw which is the same in most RTS games. If you upset the AI's path finding abilities by simple obscuring any path to your base, the enemy AI will basically just sit there not knowing what to do. It will go into 'attack' mode if you have some troops in the middle though. If you sit tight though, what you can expect is the lone super unit showing up periodically, which is a bit lame really. Send me an army including a super unit, not waves of standard units and the odd super unit. It also doesn't appear to go after your resources at all, which is the biggest flaw. On the demo map I learned that. I would get my construction bots off to the islands right away, build up there and the AI would leave those alone all game and thus gimp itself on resources. It needs to consider resources as a prime goal to attack and capture if it is to put up even a mild game without resorting to cheating.
Super units themselves have been designed well to be proper end-game solvers. They're very hard to build and you need a tip top economy to do so. They're also a hell of a lot of fun but require considerable planning and skill to use effectively. So multiplayer is all about harrassing the enemy's economy so you get them first. Or you can opt to duke it out with super units, have a winner and then carry on to annihilate the enemy if you win. Your strategy here depends on your faction really so the type of game you play is largely dependent on what factions you're playing. Which is also a good thing.
Niggles? There's some. Units do inexplicable things like patrol far away from where you've told them to (getting construction units killed as they wander out of your base for example) and I've yet to work out how to get a Monkeylord to actually fire on what I would like it to fire on, watching uselessly as it gets taken out by another Monkeylord because it just doesn't seem to feel like firing. Frustrating that. Also, only second mission in on the UEF campaign and it bugged out and wouldn't recognise I had troops in the target zone ready to escort friendlies. I guess I'll need to wait for a patch or just replay it and hope it works.
This is patchable stuff though and that brings me to the final point, what will ultimately decide if Supreme Commander sits on the same pinnacle as TA. TA wasn't especially notable (beyond being a 9/10 game) when it came out really, it just shone afterwards. Supreme Commander is so well polished and executed as a pure strategy game that I can see this game being used in pro-gaming. Which would be great! It has everything it takes, it just requires some after market TLC.
However 2007 is different than 1997. As the years march on, end-user authored content dies bit by bit (a tragic bugbear of mine and consumer society). Just as there's bugger all mods around for first person shooters these days, I suspect that the party of people modding up and making units for Supreme Commander will be far less than TA ever had. Which is a shame, really, because that's where I think this game can become all it can be. It's got the polished engine, all it needs is a couple of patches to fix minor things and extra third party units. Then it will claim the crown of the new God of RTS games.
TA with it's squillions of units always had you guessing at the precise nature of the threat from the enemy. SupCom is less so like that and more of an overall strategy game. I would like it to be both and that's where the third party units will come in oh and the game is in dire need of new multiplayer maps too. The ones provided are remarkably bland.
The multiplayer execution side of things is competent, largely because they farmed out the lobby to a specialist outfit, but it's a shame that the manual talks about clan functionality which doesn't appear to be implemented yet. Rest assured though, I'll keep my eyes open and when it appears reserve that Eat Electric Death SupCom clan slot. Oh yes.
So all in, a big thumbs up for a worthy successor to Total Annihilation. However it's still too early to tell if this is going to be merely a great game which one will play for as long as the recent and similarly great Company of Heroes, or whether it will become the multiplayer phenomenon I hope it will be.


  1. After a few more days of Supreme Commander, I have some further things to add. Firstly, the campaigns are actually pretty damn cool. There's little of the kind of spoonfeeding of units/tech levels as is kind of traditional in RTS game single player campaigns. Sure it does that but on the third mission in, you've got a fair whack of the stuff unlocked. It's also proper challenging, after failing something several times on hard I was eventually forced to do it on normal and it still wasn't easy. Quite enjoyable so far too.
    There's only two things that have really developed as significant annoyances. Firstly patrolling units wandering way out of their patrol path. The worst are engineers who cannot be told to simply wander around under your shields and repair the front line defences, they will happily run off and reclaim a tree in the middle of the enemy base. Secondly units when specifically told to fire at a target or maneuvere in some way, often don't. Again the Monkeylord is the worst of all, many has died without even pointing it's turrent in the right quadrant as the enemy. There's also some minor bugs concerning aircraft flying around out of fuel when there's plenty of air staging points. This sounds like patch material to me.
    The next thing is the multiplayer. This basically works exactly as it should do and ought to be held up as an example of this sort of thing. Seriously, you hit the LAN/IP game button - exactly what it should be - and you hit host. It defaults to an auto-port thing, presumably uPnP, but people who aren't morons and hence have uPnP disabled, just untick that and you're given a port number which you can change. Then just go into your router and map the port.
    Whammo, it works on domain names and IP addresses. Muz joined me in the lobby, chat works, change the maps and rules, ping is displayed. Set up the rules and away you go. We chose some 2-on-2 action versus AI and it worked flawlessly. Interestingly I killed the game to set up the next one and Muz carried on! Next game we chose a really big map and it was a pretty epic battle that unfolded. The diplomacy stuff allows you to share resources and hand units to the other guy, it's all great stuff.
    Also the scale of things was getting a bit mad but it wasn't slowing down, which makes me think the massive four player (human vs 3 AI) skirmish slowdowns are some sort of anomoly. Eventually my partner in crime had to leave to go to beddy byes (the pussy) but he gave most of his stuff to me and left for me to carry on for another hour long epic battle before finally sealing victory. Roar! Course he forgot the sub commander I had handed him previously, which handily exploded when he left the game, taking out an entire farm of tech 3 power generators and causing my main shields to fail...
    All in all a flawless multiplayer experience but that's perhaps of no surprise since Gas Powered Games farmed out the tech to some Canadian outfit that specialises in this sort of thing. Good job guys.
    I'm now more hopeful than ever of third party stuff arriving and taking this game forward. There's no other RTS game that works quite as well as this. If it's as moddable as it's supposed to be, hopefully we can look forward to all sorts of additional maps, units and even total conversions. Happy days. Now all we need is some more to play with us!
    P.S. Muz still isn't very good.

  2. The first game I played when I bought my 30" screen was TA. It rocked. I've got to get a copy of Supreme Commander now after reading this! Matt, you do realise that you've written a more comprehensive review than most gaming sites? The only thing you've missed out are screenshots :)
    Hope to hassle your economy soon...

  3. I finished the UEF single player campaign. It's pretty short but I keept doing skirmish and multi. The last mission actually has you try to defend a land mass with a massive amount of incoming bad guys from both opposing factions and I have to say it was an enormous amount of fun. I ended up using nukes as a defensive measure on my own soil!
    There's also a patch out which is pretty much a mega patch, integrating a whole development branch into the game. Lots of stuff is fixed and, vitally, it seems like it's faster too although SupCom is a bit weird like that. Sometimes it's fine and sometimes it snails. Still, we played 4 players versus 4 AIs and it was fine. The game speed dropped though, I think and when that happens the humans have a chance to really catch up on what the AI is doing, making the whole thing easier. I'm thinking if we do that again I might need to up the gamespeed slightly to compensate.
    I think the game could also benefit from built-in voice comms. The reason built-in would be better than teamspeak is just because you could talk to your team as well as making public smacktalk comments. We might be able to solve that by using some of Teamspeaks private 'whisper' features but it seems a bit of a faff. More likely you'd use it public so you can chat away in the boring first part of the game and just type to teammates.
    There's a new skirmish/multi option which gives you the first four mass extractors, power plants and a land factory which I think is a great idea since basically this is wasted time when everyone is doing the same thing. There's also a new mini UI which is actually good. The original SupCom UI is absolutely shite, it must be said, using up loads of space with pokey little buttons and icons. The mini UI is actually very good. It doesn't provide a little minimap but that's so small it's useless, better to zoom out. Multi-monitor support would be a bit more useful if the game would let you alt-tab when you have it enabled. As it is, it's pretty much a show stopper.
    What was interesting in our big/slow game we played was that the other guys on my side were pretty good at getting shit up and running as well as I was. That makes me think slowing down the game a bit might be a bit of a leveller when it comes to multiplayer. Might be worth a go. Another flaw is the fact that you can nuke team mates. Really I can't see how they'd stop you from doing this but if you're playing co-op can anyone reasonably expect me not to nuke teammates when we're at the end? I mean come on, it's basic human nature surely! :-)

  4. Just beat the single player, The mission your refering to needs specific units to be in the escort zone, if you mouse over th objective top left it shows 1/12 20/20/ 4/10 or someting to that effect. you need to fill it withthe repsective units, although I cant rember what those units are now. easy fix, put one of every unit in sideescort zone till u see the 3 kinds that register. Over all its a fun game how ever playing 1v1 on direct IP i find the game lags like a mofo, it compensate for sync by slowing down. we are both running 3ghx cpus 2 gig ram and its a bear.

  5. Fancying some RTS action, and finding myself in HMV last weekend, I grabbed a copy of this and have whacked it on the lappy.
    I'm not a games meister by any stretch and I have to say, my first thoughts were "oh jesus, it really is just TA+" but after a goodly few hours of skirmish, there are many neato things in this title that make it worth the hours you seem to spend on it (inadvertently of course).
    Transport ships that can ferry betwixt point A and B without having to be continually told what to do... A+
    An interesting yet balanced melange of units across three races... A+
    Dual screen support. You may think "pah! pooey! waste of time!" but it's genuinely useful and the max zoom out (global map) allows you to quickly issue commands across your entire fleet/army/airforce. A+
    The maps are a bit poo if I'm honest, and the music is nowhere near as good as TA which was John Williams-esque in it's righteousness, but these are triviata.
    It's jolly good fun.
    Of course, I should caveat this whole blog entry by pointing out that I'm really quite shit at it, at this stage. I spent ages building a nuke facility, and then inadvertently nuked myself - the explosion was devilishly pretty in a Nagasaki type way, but the end result was... total (self) annihilation.
    Oh how circular these games can be :)