This one has been top of many people's "one to watch" lists for a while. Designed by Chris Taylor, Total Annihilation extraordinaire, Supreme Commander has promised the world from the get go. Offering you a sense of scale that's unmatched on the marketplace, the game looks to set itself apart from the rest by "putting the strategy back into real time strategy", offering the player massive war zones, a fully scalable camera and the freedom to execute whatever strategic manoeuvres they wish.
Supreme Commander has a scale of warfare the likes of which has never been seen before. At any time during play, simply by scrolling the mouse wheel, you can pull the camera right back as far as you'd like, giving yourself an incredible view of the territory below you. While it may sound gimmicky, this feature is the engine in Supreme Commander's war machine and it really affects the way you play. Allowing you an incredible level of control of your armies, the view lets you plan waypoints and sweeps, organise co-ordinated attacks and execute grand strategies across a landmass the size of an entire continent. The only flaw is that you'll often find yourself playing fully zoomed out, as it's the only way to keep track of what's going on. There isn't much of a middle ground that lets you view a large portion of the battlefield, yet still see your units - instead, the camera's either too close, or too far away, leaving you to play in the 2D zoomed-out view far too often. However, as games such as DEFCON have proven, you can still have an enjoyable RTS that's played purely from a 2D tactical view, and the ability to zoom in here is an added bonus.
There's really no way to describe in words just how enormous the terrain you'll have to cover is; even the word enormous doesn't begin to explain. With a scale as vast as Supreme Commander's, it was always going to be a challenge to make the scope seem convincing but every last detail fits into the battlefield perfectly. Hulking battleships crash through the seas as sneaky submarines glide below them; your gigantic commander unit crashes through a forest, scorching everything in sight with its microwave laser as hundreds of tiny mechanised infantry units run underneath him to assault the enemy base. Everything looks and feels just like it should and, for once, your units actually seem proportionally sized. When you first catch sight of the enormous experimental units crawling towards your base, you'll instantly know that your time on this earth is coming to an end, just by the sheer size of the thing. This allows for some awe inspiring cinematic face-offs, as thousands of your units valiantly defend your base as a giant enemy ominously lumbers over a hill.
As you may have already guessed, unit caps and squad limits are a thing of the past in Supreme Commander. Each vehicle here has been designed to be mass produced - without an army that's at least a hundred strong, you won't last very long past the first few levels. Getting your head around the fact that you no longer have to build units in groups of about ten can be quite a challenge, and it takes a while to realise just how insignificant and weak some of your units are when they're on their own. Thankfully, there's even a shortcut to order units in groups of fifty and factories can be set to repeatedly churn the same units out, fuelling your frontlines with a never-ending supply of fresh blood. You can also set your factories to produce, say, fighters, which then automatically circle and protect your base - a very useful thing when you find yourself under constant attack. To this end, the running and defence of your base can almost be automatic - even your engineers let you queue numerous build orders for them, making manual construction a thing of the past. Simply hold Shift, design your base and go and do something else as your engineer constructs the buildings for you, one after the other. In a brilliant touch, once all your buildings have been constructed, you can set your engineers and commander to assist one of your factories in the construction of units; a feature which speeds up the building process immeasurably.
A lot of emphasis has been put on resource management in Supreme Commander, an aspect of the RTS genre that's been taking a back seat in other titles as of late. There are two resources on offer here that you must balance: energy, and mass. Mass is harvested both through building mass extractors on mass deposits, which are scattered across the map, and through sending engineers to harvest trees, rocks, and carcasses of enemy units; whereas energy is generated through building power generators. Creating a healthy balance of the two resources is a delicate process and one of the first stumbling blocks you'll have to get your head around as you start out. If you build a power generator next to a unit that uses energy, such as a factory or a shield, the building will receive a discount in power usage, making it more energy efficient. High power usage objects, such as shield generators, can quickly drain your energy supplies, meaning you really need to think about how you build your base, and where you place your resource generators and stores, to ensure a healthy and steady flow of energy to all your buildings.
There are three main unit types that can be created: land, sea and air. Your utilisation of these unit types is key to your survival in Supreme Commander, so much so that you'll find yourself regularly having to pause the game to issue orders, as you try to keep track of your troops on all three levels. Gaining and maintaining superiority on at least one of these fronts is essential, and achieving it can be a foreboding challenge on even the smallest of maps. Each unit type has a dedicated factory to produce it, each of which can be upgraded to one of four different tech levels - the standard I,II, III and the "experimental" level IV. For the standard tech levels, it's pretty much business as usual, with each level giving you access to similar units, just stronger, faster, and more powerful. It's when you get to the experimental level IV, however, that things get interesting. It's here that the monstrosities you'll have seen in the screenshots and demo videos can be produced, from the spiderous "Monkeylord", to the UFO "Czar", each of which is as deadly and devastating as the last. Having one of these under your control can sometimes guarantee your victory on a map (as they are incredibly powerful, if a tad unbalanced), and just sitting back and watching as they trash your enemy's base is a very rewarding experience.
There are three main races to play as in the game: the UEF, a group of fragmented humans from Earth; the Aeon Illuminate, a cult of humans who follow a mysterious religion known as "The Way"; and the Cybran Nation, a faction of symbionts, which is basically a human with bits of robot implanted into its brain. On paper, these three factions sound incredibly varied and, indeed, their storylines and missions are as individual as can be. The only problem is they all look the same. Between the three factions, there is precious little difference between any of the units produced, land, sea, or air; even the commander units look incredibly similar. While this doesn't affect the gameplay too much, it certainly harms the aesthetics of the game, occasionally making battles feel bland, as well as making it nigh on impossible to tell units from two sides apart. Each of the sides has access to similar technology, at similar levels to each other, and base design is pretty much standard across all factions, with the only real difference being the experimental units each side has access to.
The missions in the campaign mode are impressively varied and offer a wide range of different objectives. No longer are missions simply "destroy the enemy base" or "capture points on the map", instead, you get set a series of increasingly varied objectives, from search and destroy, to flying an engineer to a base before a core explodes and then escorting vehicles as they evacuate the planet. Each and every objective has several ways to accomplish it and the decisions you make will rely heavily on how strong your forces are on each front. As an example, let's take the second mission from the UEF campaign. The second half of the mission, after the map expands, sees you having to escort and protect several civilian vehicles as they attempt to reach a base on the opposite side of the map. How you escort them is up to you. If you have control of the ground, you can attempt to slot them in between a mass of tanks and friendly units to distract fire away from them; however, there's every chance a flight of enemy bombers could fly over and wipe them out. If you control the skies, you can attempt to airlift them straight to the base. Whilst this may be a quicker method, it leaves your forces open to attack from the ground - the vehicles look very precarious dangling underneath one of your gunships - and all it'll take is a few shots from a mobile AA gun, and you'll have a lost a truck full of civilians.
Each method is possible and you could even have a subtle balance between the two, either giving the vehicles on the ground air support or sending ground forces to protect the airlifted vehicles. It all depends how you want to do it and how you want to execute your strategies. Missions regularly last over two hours, with mission objectives constantly changing and forcing you to adjust your strategies, always keeping the action feeling fresh and new. However, the one thing that did get on my nerves was the incredibly steep learning curve - if you don't build your bases spot on or balance your forces perfectly, there's every chance the computer will just trounce you effortlessly. For added humiliation value, this usually won't happen until it's far too late for you to do anything, as the map expands for the final time, revealing a huge enemy base you didn't know about before, brimming with ready built units, waiting to decimate your own dwindling forces. Forgiving, Supreme Commander certainly is not, but experienced RTS players will likely savour the challenge.
Played over a LAN or the internet, Supreme Commander comes into its own and should prove to be popular with fans of TA. Giving you the ability to play against up to seven other human players (or a mixture of human and AI opponents, if you so wish), battles can be hotly contested, especially when each team has hundreds of units on their side. The maps have all been well designed for maximum multiplayer carnage and there is a huge variety to choose from, in a wide range of sizes for a variety of maximum players. Battles online can become absolutely manic, and balancing resources on all fronts whilst fending off attacks from seven human players is an adrenaline rush in itself. All online games have to be played through Gas Powered Games' own GPG.net front-end, which makes finding a game and playing a match a doddle, as well as hopefully preventing cheats from accessing and ruining any games.
After the many things Supreme Commander does right, it's somewhat upsetting that when it comes to graphics you'll need an Über machine to really appreciate them. Whilst it is possible to make it run smoothly on older rigs, turning the graphics down by even one level will make the game look below par when compared to other titles on the marketplace. That's not to say it can't look great; on a modern gaming rig Supreme Commander is at the top of the genre, but so few people will be able to see the game running as the developer intended. Dual-monitor support is another nice feature, but it's another one that simply won't be used by the majority of players.
Graphical capabilities aside, possibly the most disappointing visual aspect of Supreme Commander is the interface. Clunky, and distinctly "old-school" when compared to the sheen found in games such as Company of Heroes, the interface here feels positively primeval and takes up much more of the screen than you'd imagine. While it is possible to turn it into a side-bar or even remove it altogether, to have access to the full feature set you really need to have the menu set at its most intrusive, and this is a big letdown.
While Supreme Commander may not change the way you play strategy games forever, it is a unique and robust title, with many inventive features and a fantastically imaginative single-player campaign. Its main innovation, the superb camera, while not without its flaws, offers you many strategic possibilities that simply aren't possible in any other RTS games, and the ability to zoom the camera out as far as possible is indeed revolutionary and one that will be sorely missed in other real-time strategies in the near future. With incredibly inventive mission objectives, a spectacular sense of scale and an overall feeling of strategy that puts other real-time strategies to shame, it seems the RTS wars are starting to heat up. With Supreme Commander having just fired the first, devastating, volley, it'll be interesting to see how C&C 3 can mount its counter-offensive.