The Supreme Commander series is the spiritual successor to lead designer Chris Taylor's superb Total Annihilation.
The real-time strategy genre is in a state of flux. The old ways - the mind-bending resource gathering, complex base-building and gargantuan army management of yesteryear - are falling out of favour with modern tastes. Replacing them are squads of units, levelling up and fast-paced, story-driven action pioneered by the likes of Relic's Company of Heroes and Dawn of War series. "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
And so is Supreme Commander, for many the last bastion of the hardcore RTS. With the upcoming sequel, due out next month on PC and Xbox 360, developer Gas Powered Games is affecting a change that should make the over-the-top sci-fi metal on metal smash-em-up more palatable to modern tastes. But, and this is an important but, Gas Powered Games is doing it without compromise.
So, while the number of units you have to play with has been reduced, the scale of Supreme Commander 2 still stands out as huge. Resource gathering - in this case extracting "mass" - is an easier process, but by virtue of it merely existing, the game differs in comparison with so many recent rivals. The same can be said for base building - again, streamlined - but at a time when so few RTSs even have base building, SupCom's spirit is still strongly felt. In short, SupCom 2 is still SupCom. There's no need to panic.
For example, SupCom's trademark "Strategic Mode" has been faithfully retained. In the game, scrolling down with the mouse wheel zooms out, as it does in all RTS games, but you can keep on going… and going… and going… until your units are mere blue blips and missiles are nothing more than slow-moving pixels. As your base and army grows and the battle expands to span multiple fronts, SupCom 2's strategic brilliance comes to the fore. At a time when the genre seems obsessed with reducing the number of units players control, Gas Powered Games has been brave enough to stick to its guns.
Really, there's nothing quite like Supreme Commander's Strategic Mode. The feeling is one of desensitisation; it's a minimalist aesthetic - certainly basic in graphical terms - that rekindles memories of Introversion's Defcon and Modern Warfare's iconic AC130 gunship level. When you zoom in for a spot of micro-management - really just to check everything's going according to plan - the destruction can shock. For some reason death doesn't seem real when you're thousands of miles up. Up in the clouds, being a supreme commander feels like you're playing a video game.
In short, SupCom 2's fundamentals mirror the first game's. You begin a skirmish or multiplayer match with an Armoured Command Unit (ACU) - basically a building-sized mech - and two engineers. You'll normally be near some "mass deposits", which provide you with mass, the game's currency. To gather the resource, all you have to do is order your ACU or one of your engineers to build a "Mass Extractor" on the deposit. Building a few "Energy Generators" then provides you with the power to keep everything up and running. In the blink of an eye, you have an economy. Simple.
From there, you have a clear choice: which of the three factories should I build? One of SupCom 2's more interesting features is that you can build all three types of units from the get-go. The Land Factory produces Rock Head Tanks and Titan Assault Bots, for example (if you're playing the United Earth Federation faction), whereas the Naval Factory produces ships (unless you're playing the Illuminate faction, which doesn't have access to sea units). Or, you could build the Air Factory, which produces flying death dealers. This early and influential choice allows you to quickly tailor your overarching strategy to combat your foe.