During our demo (and brief hands-on time) with Supreme Commander, by far the unit that stole the show was the Battleship. As mentioned in our preview, it dwarfed land units. It was massive. It bristled with guns: 4 AA guns, an anti-air phalanx machinegun, and multiple turrets bristling with cannons intended for shore bombardment. A battleship could fire it's explosive ordinance several miles inland -- you did not want one of these lurking off the coast near your base.
This led us to believe, initially, that sea combat in Supreme Commander was simply a matter of being the first to crank out Battleships. Wrong ... wrong. There's a whole naval simulation at work here, and there's various strategies with regards to how you'll compose your fleet.
Let's take that Battleship, for example. The cost of building one is phenomenal, and it'll take a lot of time to get one into the water. Once there, it has very little defenses against submarines and torpedoes. And its main guns, while among the most powerful in the game, have a slow firing rate that may not be ideal against smaller ships -- other ships would be more cost-effective. No, the Battleship isn't the end-all of naval warfare: it's more like the ultimate artillery piece, super-powerful against certain targets but something you still need to protect.
Sharing the sea with the Battleship are cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. Each carries a different weapon compliment, so just like in real life they all have their own uses. Cruisers, for example, are mobile missile platforms: use them to target specific targets far inland or as an anti-aircraft screen. Destroyers carry more depth charges than the other ships, so it's ideal in anti-sub warfare.
The original game design called for both minelayers and minesweepers, but the team recently removed them from the game because they slowed down the action too much. Supreme Commander is about grand strategy and over-the-top destruction, not slowly clearing a channel of explosives before moving in.
Of course, aircraft carriers also make an appearance. These enormous ships are important because (as explained in our section on air combat) aircraft in Supreme Commander need to land and restock periodically. By parking your aircraft carriers close to the enemy shore, you'll be able to project your airpower deep into his territory.
Submarines? Oh yes. A whole compliment of subs is available, each with different armaments. Attack subs are monstrous beasts who can deliver heavy torpedoes into the hulls of ships. Anti-sub subs are smaller, cheaper, more maneuverable submarines whose armament is designed to take out attack subs. Supreme Commander is a simulation, so there's no reason you couldn't send the cheaper anti-sub submarines against ships, but their light torpedoes likely wouldn't do as much damage before the destroyers blew them out of the water.
Next: More on Submarine Warfare...
Speaking of finding enemy submarines, sonar works underwater similar to the way that radar works above land. You can have your subs emit sonar pings to see other objects, but these pings will give away their location to any listening devices. As with everything else in Supreme Commander, keeping your force hidden until you use it is one of the most important strategies in the game.
Of course, there's also nuclear submarines. A nuclear sub can build and carry a whole array of nukes. It's one expensive piece of hardware! But just as in real life, it allows you to project nuclear force nearly anywhere on the map from a platform that the enemy has a real hard time tracking.
Naval warfare is made even more interesting with the addition of structures that can be built on-- or under -- water. The design team hinted at floating or submerged factories or power plants. Although the specifics are still being worked out and play-balanced, the crew at Gas Powered Games is playing with the idea of basically allowing a player to build almost his entire base underwater. Suddenly ruling the waves takes on a new importance.
Because Supreme Commander takes place in the far far far (far) future, the team is also able to play around with bizarre technologies. For example, several of the Cybran ships can partially submerge -- they drop most of the way down into the water, creating a lower profile that's hard for other ships to hit. Of course, when they do this, they're bigger targets for Torpedoes. Other ships can actually lift themselves up onto skids and hydroplane across the water. This has the opposite effect (making them a bigger target for other ships), but allows them to move many times faster than a conventional navy.
And finally, you have the experimental super-units. A submarine aircraft carrier?! Yes, you can build it. Imagine having a couple of those surface off of your coast behind your defenses, open up, and spew out armadas of fighters and bombers. Ridiculously over the top? Oh yes -- welcome to Supreme Commander!