What a strange beast the console real-time strategy game is. Sometimes you wonder why developers even bother. 'Just stick to making it work on the PC', you think. Don't waste your time forcing round PC pegs into square console holes. It's never worked, and it never will.
This well-worn argument suffered a severe dent on the release of Halo Wars, the Halo-themed Xbox 360-exclusive RTS; the intuitive radial menu and stripped down gameplay made controlling multiple units with the 360 pad feel less like holding a bunch of thorns than previous console RTS games did. SupCom 2's Xbox 360 incarnation doesn't quite match the excitement of Halo Wars, nor does it include anywhere near as comprehensive online functionality, but it does a great job of making real-time strategy on console intuitive.
The crux of developer Gas Powered Games' effort with its sequel is to make SupCom's huge mech-tacular scope and scale less complex - that much is obvious. There are fewer units, the levelling up system has been chucked out in favour of a tech tree in which you spend research points to upgrade your units and structures, and the user interface is more accessible and easier to manage. But SupCom 2 is still bloody huge as far as RTS games go. You still have to gather resources - in this case "mass" and "energy" - build bases, and make the most of the strengths and weaknesses of the three playable factions: UEF, Cybran, and Illuminate. Best of all, though, the brilliant Strategic Mode, which lets you zoom out - all the way out - and view the battlefield as if some kind of god looking down on little blobs shooting each other with smaller blobs, makes the cut. SupCom purists may baulk, but what made the first game great - loads of robots blowing the crap out of loads of other robots in huge battles - is faithfully reproduced here.
SupCom 2's about metal, metal and more metal. It's a game that's packed with more mechs, tanks, planes and giant stompy robots than perhaps any other. It's a game where armies of literally hundreds of units pew pew each other into oblivion, where explosions and twisted metal shower the battlefield. It's a game that can snatch victory away from you with a single nuke, one that tears through the air and slaps your base in the face with a radiated glove. Given all the carnage that goes on, you'd think that SupCom 2 would be a thrill-a-minute experience. It's not. It is, in fact, the opposite: a strangely considered, thoughtful RTS that distances the player from the coalface. As its title suggests, you are a supreme commander, not some battle-scarred squad captain.
What's impressive about the Xbox 360 version is that it's pretty much exactly the same as the PC version. You can't have as many units at once, and the multiplayer is down from 4v4 to 2v2, but in pure gameplay terms it holds its own. Everything you can do in the PC version you can do here, from quickly building structures and units to sending them off to engage the enemy on multiple fronts. Setting engineer units on "patrol mode" makes the job of micro-management easier, leaving you to concentrate on the exciting job of reducing your enemy's base to rubble. Groups of the same kind of unit can be controlled in isolation, or you can select all of the units you've got with one button press and send them off to cause some havoc. There is a degree of automation in SupCom 2 that you're just going to have to accept. This, for some RTS fans, will give them the fear, but at a time when the likes of Relic are evolving the RTS into squad-based dungeon crawler territory, SupCom 2's detached perspective is a refreshing tonic.
Of course, no console RTS will provide the speed and precision a mouse and keyboard offers, but playing SupCom 2 with a 360 pad feels surprisingly natural. Moving the reticule over any unit automatically selects it, leaving you the easy job of bringing up build options via a radial menu and dish out attack or move orders all at the push of a face button. Pulling back on the right stick zooms the camera out thousands of feet into the upper stratosphere, allowing you to quickly send your huge armies off to enemy bases and other skirmish points; crucially your ability to "cope" with the challenge of the enemy AI, which isn't too taxing, isn't restricted by the controls. All other menus, including SupCom 2's interesting research upgrade tech trees, are accessed with the shoulder buttons. And the action hurtles along at an impressively smooth frame rate, even when there are more units on screen than you can possible count. In a way, SupCom 2's transition to the Xbox 360 is aided by its structure, but credit must go to Gas Powered Games for smoothing the process.
Unfortunately, the game's let down by a somewhat lethargic campaign, with cliché-ridden voice over and uninspiring mission objectives. We know how good RTS campaigns can be - Relic's Dawn of War II series has shown us the way, with spectacular set-pieces and memorable characters, but SupCom 2's campaign doesn't include either, and fails to break free of the shackles of being little more than a multiplayer tutorial. The predictable plot makes soldiering through the 18 missions (six for each faction) somewhat of a trudge. It's hard to imagine how a SupCom campaign could be better than what we have here, given the nature of the series' gameplay, but it's impossible to ignore the fact that it is at times boring.
So, multiplayer's where it's at. Unfortunately, it's here that Gas Powered Games has let itself down. While 1v1 ranked matches and 2v2 custom matches are possible, it's impossible to deliberately team up with a mate and play against two random players. All you can do is join a quick match and hope that your mate, who is perhaps trying to do the same thing, ends up in your game and on your team. The only true way to play with a friend is to set up a private game, but then you need to fill the other two slots manually by inviting. This decision had already led to an outpouring of anger on the game's official website. With no word on a patch at the time of writing, we can only hope Gas Powered Games invests in this crucial aspect of the game's multiplayer experience. SupCom 2 is a fun, often spectacular game to play with mates, which makes the lack of proper party matchmaking support all the more disappointing.
As far as ports go, SupCom 2 on 360 is a middling success. Controls wise, it works well, which is great - at least as well as Halo Wars. Indeed it's a better balanced and more in depth strategy game than Ensemble's effort. It's also a marked improvement on the 360 version of the first game. But it falls down in some crucial areas: the single-player campaign, ever more crucial to an RTS' appeal, fails to sparkle, and the online experience, while fun, lacks an essential feature. We're delighted the 360 port exists, but Gas Powered Games could have tried harder.