Chris Taylor, the game design guru behind Total Annihilation, is returning to the real-time strategy scene with a game so immense that "supreme" might be too delicate a word. The modern RTS, Taylor asserts, has been moving inward: in games like Warcraft III you deal up close with individual units or small squads. Taylor wants to move outward. Real strategy happens before the battle, he claims, when you're managing an economy, evading the enemy, gearing up a massive war machine, finding out about your opponent's armament, and striking hardest where it'll hurt the most. Like Eisenhower in World War II, in Supreme Commander you'll be commanding fleets and armies on the grandest of scales. Although Supreme Commander clearly takes a page from Total Annihilation's book, this is an all-new franchise on a scale that dwarfs any other RTS on the market.
On its own, each unit in Supreme Commander is graphically detailed. Little wheels roll, guns swivel, robot legs walk, gunports open and close, all in splendid 3D with all the latest lighting effects. When you're zoomed in and dealing with your forces on the tactical level, you're in for a real treat to the eyes.
But the scale of the bigger units really sets Supreme Commander apart. With so much map to play with, there's no reason that giant units can't loom over the smaller ones. Take, for instance, the air transport unit. It can carry a couple of tanks or up to 14 smaller robot fighters. Your robot infantry will all lock into the underbelly of the enormous transport. When the transport lands in enemy territory, it swoops down under heavy fire. Landing gear emerges from side ports, anti-air guns blaze, and each individual robot it's carrying fires independently at ground targets below before releasing itself and dropping to the ground. Seeing it in action is pure insanity.
Ranks of robots step off of an air transport while taking (and returning) heavy fire.
Similarly, "Experimental" units that can be constructed by each of the game's three different factions dwarf ordinary ground forces. Example? The "Spider," a robotic monstrosity that can step on tanks with any of its six legs. Its primary weapon is a heat laser that scorches trenches along the landscape, obliterating anything it touches. As it walks along, crushing trees, little tanks and other vehicles scurry around under it, trying to angle their guns upwards in order to hit it.
No weapon of mass destruction is too "over the top" for the minds at Gas-Powered Games. They're filling Supreme Commander with all manners of vehicles that make modern military armaments look like children's toys. Imagine a flying aircraft carrier, or a tank factory that can roll along under the surface of the ocean, or a submarine aircraft carrier that can surface just off your coast and unleash a payload of fully-functional fighters and bombers. Supreme Commander is filled with enormous units that boggle the imagination.
Of course, that doesn't mean that all the weapons are science-fiction nightmares. The old-fashioned standbys are there, too. "You gotta have nukes!" Taylor chortles, selecting the nuclear option and clicking his mouse near a naval fleet. Assuming a nuclear missile isn't intercepted by anti-missile systems, the devastation it causes is unreal. The epicenter vaporizes what seems like miles of terrain in a single brilliant flash, and then the shockwaves radiate out. The first one is brutal, but stronger units can survive the rushing arc -- fast units can even escape the blast. The second, slower-moving shockwave creeps along devouring nearly everything in its path, creating tsunami waves at sea and scorching a ring of earth on land. In the center of the devastation the expected mushroom cloud slowly rises -- soon to be followed by many more if your opponent retaliates in kind. When several nukes go off at once (and Taylor demonstrated this by gleefully blowing up most of the planet), the effects are cumulative -- for several seconds you almost couldn't see the map amidst the white-hot glow of a dozen miniature suns.
Nobody ever said war was pretty. No, wait, on second thought, we're saying it -- it looks awesome.
Large and In-Charge
So how can one person build and command so much? Although the interface is still being tweaked, Taylor and his team at Gas-Powered Games are focused on making sure that combat this massive is still manageable. Zoom out far enough and your forces are represented by colored icons. When you give them movement or patrol orders, you can set the game to show you the waypoints, complete with curvy arrows showing the line of advance and time stamps to let you know when they'll reach each waypoint. Want to arrange a coordinated assault? Simple, just click on your different forces, select a destination, and all the units will move in such a way that they all arrive at the destination simultaneously.
Base building is also on a massive scale. Supreme Commander has only two resources to collect -- mass and energy -- but the game throws a few twists your way. For instance, by chaining buildings together in clusters, you increase their efficiency. But, a cluster of buildings is a tasty target for the enemy -- and when one goes, it'll damage the buildings packed around it! So you have the balance the desire to build huge clusters with practical defensive concerns.
All of your factories can be turned on to simply build units indefinitely, so long as your mass and energy supplies are holding up. The computer will assist you by calculating average build times and the like so you can quickly see where your economic shortcomings are as you build up your war machine. And as with Total Annihilation, you can queue up a zillion orders for your construction vehicles secure in the knowledge that your base is being taken care of while you attend to other things.
Automation is everywhere. You can set your fleets of airships to bomb areas, or to patrol, and they'll fly back on their own to repair and rearm. A few clicks can send a wolfpack of submarines to harass up and down the enemy coastline without any further micromanagement from you.
And then there's the "Base Commander," one of our favorite new features. Once you've amassed enough power to make the transfer, you can teleport in a character who can manage your base for you. You'll simply highlight his or her area of control, assign construction vehicles, and then you can rest assured that the commander will finish all outstanding building projects and will repair damaged parts of the base to the way they were before the attack, all without prompting. As Supreme Commander, you can focus on overwhelming the enemy, not endlessly mucking around back home.
Numerous terrains will be avilalbe, from Martian-style landscapes to swamps to forests and beyond. Here, tanks claw their way across a frozen tundra.