Of course, this doesn't mean you can't micromanage individual battles if you want to. Zooming in to alter the course of a heated firefight or to oversee your massive invasion plan in all its graphical splendor is a big part of the game's appeal.
Many units, for instance, have both a primary and a secondary attack. You might use either, depending on the circumstance and if you're willing to take the tradeoffs. Example: one faction's infantry bots can use jetpacks to rocket into the air for short leaps, firing down on enemies from above. This enables them to get over walls or rough terrain, but while in the air they're susceptible to antiaircraft fire. Is it worth it to vault your light infantry behind the walls even if your tanks can't follow? These are the kind of cool tactical decisions you can make when the fighting starts.
With such huge maps, sprawling bases, and massive armies, a whole new element of warfare comes to play that few RTS games have explored. Chris Taylor calls it "warfare of information." The key to winning is knowing what your opponent has built, where it is, and what he's doing with it. Similarly, you don't want anyone else to know what you're up to. Hiding your base and shooting down any nearby aircraft is one way to make sure that the enemy doesn't find anything about you. And be smart! On a forest map, if you drive your tanks through the trees in a straight line from your base, you might as well draw an arrow onto the map for him.
Similarly, radar and sonar are powerful tools but they come at a price. The designers are exploring the idea of having both active and passive sonar and radar. "Active" means that the radar is sending out pulses and reading the reflections -- this means you can see any non-stealth metal targets in the vicinity, but you also make your presence known to any nearby listening stations. "Passive" radar means that you don't send out any pulses of your own, you merely listen for the radar of the enemy to see if he gives away his location. For this reason you might not want your radar towers near your base. Or, you might risk a single radar pulse to see what's out there before going silent again. It's the same with subs and sonar. With such powerful weapons of mass destruction at your disposal (artillery can nearly fire across the map), finding out where the enemy's forces are while keeping yours hidden is half the battle.
Simulation, Not Rocks & Scissors
"Rock paper scissors" seems to be the mantra of most real-time strategy game developers, who seek to balance different units' strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes it's taken to the extreme (Empire Earth II's 'rock-paper-scissor' pyramid had something like 16 sides and required a slide rule to figure out.) But for Taylor and the team at Gas Powered, they steer clear of artificial balancing mechanisms: Supreme Commander will be pure simulation.
Here's what that means: when a tank rolls over a hill in Supreme Commander and fires its cannon at a moving target, it's not an instant hit. The trajectory of the shell is computed as it whirls through the air. Hitting a moving target from a moving platform is hard -- the AI might not be able to compensate, especially if the target suddenly switches direction or vaults in the air. For this reason, tanks may not be the best choice against fast targets (as opposed to a vehicle that fires lasers or guns.) They also work better when stationary. This isn't because the designers are futzing with numbers behind the scenes: It simply how tanks work.
Similarly, you can build air superiority fighters in the game. These are small, light, fast-moving aircraft with machineguns mounted on the wings. Against ground targets they're relatively useless -- not because the designers say so, but because machinegun strafing at high speeds means not a lot of bullets hit their target. However, these aircraft are perfect for taking on other aircraft, because they can stick to their tails like glue and plaster them with machinegun fire. But why would you build one of these when a full-service fighter that can launch missiles at ground targets is available? For the same reason you would in real-life: they're cheaper! You can have a phalanx of cheap air-superiority jets clear the skies for you before sending in your bigger (and more expensive) fighters and bombers to lay down the heavy scunion. This kind of tactical thinking emerges from a rich simulation with tons of units. That's what Supreme Commander is all about! See our separate features on land, sea, and air combat for more detail.
You can smoothly pan in and out of the action. When zoomed out, your vehicles are represented as dots. Note the sheer number of vehicles wiped out by a single nuclear blast....
Multiplayer and Co-Op
Taylor and his team are still being tight-lipped about the online options for Supreme Commander, but we were able to get a few details. For one, multiplayer will definitely be in there: the huge maps are perfect for team games or free-for-alls. It's also almost assured that downloadable units will be available, although nobody is promising the "new unit every week" that Total Annihilation fans enjoyed.
Interestingly, Supreme Commander plans to offer cooperative play within the single-player campaign. This is a great feature that's long overdue: you and a friend can both tackle the plot together. There are three separate single-player campaigns, one for each faction. Several different missions will take place on each planet, and the base you build for one mission on a planet will carry over to the next mission -- that should speed up the action considerably.
Supreme Commander is slated for a 2006 release, so it's got a long way to go. While the game is far from finished, the engine is working and the graphics are amazing. We were able to plop down a flotilla of ships and armies of land units, and we could watch them duke it out with explosive fury. Already Supreme Commander is taking destruction to a new level -- we can't wait to bring on the devastation with the final release. Stick around GameSpy for details!