I was reminded of Supreme Commander by Divinity: Dragon Commander‘s similar emphasis on giant robots and embracing of strategic zoom, and then I realised that I had never actually blogged about SupCom before.
Since I recently bought A Flock of Seagulls‘ self-titled debut album, and I got their greatest hits years ago for crimbo along with SupCom expandalone Forged Alliance, now seemed as good a time as any to skip the main game and go straight to the aliens.
Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance
There are a lot of basic advances that Supreme Commander gave us that seemed to get completely ignored by subsequent strategy games. Maybe strategic zoom and actual projectile ballistics require a lot of extra performance pain, so I’m not expecting those to be everywhere (lovely as that would be), but the command queueing system is pretty much RTS control scheme perfection.
Then again, this is the world where people complained about Starcraft II allowing you to select multiple buildings. Maybe we’re willfully clinging to the past rather than just ignorant of the future.
Yes, yes, I like old games and old graphics for their style, but I won’t shake my head at unambiguous interaction improvements. There’s a big difference between convenient mechanisms making it easy to order giant armies around versus, say, auto-aim removing all the skill from a shooter. (The skill here being giving the best orders rather than the issuing of them.)
Where to even begin? Shift-clicking to queue up a sequence of commands is the oldest trick in the book, but SupCom takes it to a whole new level that leaves you wondering why nobody thought of it sooner. Holding down shift in general reveals all the queued orders currently in play — movement waypoints, building foundations, the lot.
The thing is, that then allows you to move them. How many times have you in, say, Age of Empires II, queued a building in the wrong place? Then you have to unqueue it and start again? Creating a beautifully laid out base is important to me, and one wrong foundation can bring the whole thing crashing down. (Okay, it’s worse in AoE2 because buildings don’t leave space between each other for units to move around — in SupCom, there’s always a bit of blank space to use as an escape route.)
Moving patrol routes around is also a great thing. Hell, even being able to create patrol routes of more than two waypoints is great — guess what, most bases aren’t linear. It’s intuitive and natural to keep shift-clicking until you form a loop right back to the first waypoint and trust your troops run along it.
Unit “assistance” mechanics are also pretty handy. Going back to Age of Empires II, in order to get a team of workers to build a structure you have to tell all of them at once. In SupCom, you can get five engineers working together by telling them all to assist one central unit — meaning you get all the benefits of faster construction without having to keep track of a horde builders.
Or you can do it with factories, get one factory to help work through the build queue of another; again, you only need to keep track of one hub rather than juggle several different barracks. You can even get spare engineers to assist factories to get them to work faster, though that one’s maybe a bit thematically specific — buildings and robots are similar enough that applying more robots makes sense, but I don’t think adding an extra villager will help train a swordsman faster.
Although Supreme Commander does have a “massive” scale, I find it quite hard to relate to the scale. When I first heard about the game, I figured that there would be infantry as well as kaiju, some properly tiny ant-like soldiers to lend the end-game monsters some kind of context. Nope; the smallest units are already the sizes of houses.
There’s a wrestling concept a friend of mine brings up every so often, “selling the move”. We know it’s choreographed and faked to eternity, but as long as the wrestlers act like it’s real we just don’t care. SupCom doesn’t sell the scale.
The worlds, too, lack a lot of features to give them scale — beyond a few trees that are quickly crushed in battle or obliterated by nukes, they are smooth heightmaps. They look really impressive when you’re zoomed out to the max, but when you’re in closer they’re pretty bland.
Design-wise, I came for the giant robots. The thing is, though, that most of the faction units aren’t robots. Indeed, every faction has a completely arbitrary mix of walkers and tanks. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to which units are wheeled and which walk; there’s no correlation between, say, movement speed and legs or anything like that. It’s just that some units are tanks and some are robots.
Which is a bit crap. Tanks are boring — they’re basically blocks, floating along because they’re too small to even see their tracks moving.
Speaking of scale again, buildings also tend to have lines of lights reminiscent of windows — but the lore states that there are no people inside, and the windows actually seem too small for people judging by the size of trees anyway. Hmm.
The design really does start to really fall apart when the aliens come in, though. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore the shiny silver and gold and the columns of bloom — it’s just that most of the units and structures are pretty badly put together.
They’re formed of weirdly curvaceous obelisks with floating bits and it’s generally the floating bits that fall down. I mean, some elements work really nicely, like the airborne builders on factories that drift gently around the build pad as they work, and the tech 2 defence turrets that pivot on columns of solid light are really pretty.
Other elements, though, like the tech 2 artillery, are messes of random floating chunks, while the giant robot Ythotha is so top- and forward-heavy that it loses all sense of physical plausibility. It also has some unnecessary random floaters around its face-laser.
There’s a cohesive design around the textures, the odd curves and floating bits that does make everything feel alien, and that does work, but the subtler details often come across as a bit, well, sloppy.
It’s still pretty addictive and pretty, despite all that. The campaign offers a fair challenge for something strategically inept like me and it is eminently satisfying to finally turtle up and start spewing out the massive experimental units that herald a game-ending steamroll.
The narrative and lore is complete arse, though. I never particularly loved it the first time round, but damn, it’s bad.