Sometimes I am taken by the oddest notions. I never played Supreme Commander 2 at the time because, well, it didn’t exactly get rave reviews, and I’m on the fence about Supreme Commander itself anyway.
For some reason, however, the thought of it entered my head recently. And once I get a thought in my head, there can be only one answer.
Supreme Commander 2
The thing is, I love big robots, big guns and big explosions. Where SupCom fell down for me was that the robots rarely actually felt that big — the maps across which they strode had the merest hints of forest to lend them scale, and the factories and towers they built had no human markers against which you could compare them.
So, yes, the big face-laser Galactic Collossus felt huge because it towered over the normal bots and tanks, but the normal bots and tanks were themselves still supposed to be pretty big, all trundling over trees with wild abandon — if everyone is big, then no-one is big. Especially if all you’re fighting over is a terrain heightmap with some mild texturing, and very little actual decoration or prop-work.
SupCom 2 has shrunk the scale. It seems like your heroic personification, the Armoured Command Unit, is now merely the height of a large tree, rather than three or four times taller. That means little decorative cranes and crates can almost — almost — give you a sense of how big these vehicles and factories actually are. The levels are much more detailed, with thick forests that cannot be traversed, rocks and buildings, and even huge superstructures that let you walk all over them.
Some of the levels, I cannot deny, are absolutely gorgeous! You know I love a good super-structure, especially one that disappears into the fog far below the level surface — zooming out to strategic range is now a real visual treat, as huge background structures and hazy foothills come fully into view.
While the units might be smaller in scale, they’re also much more detailed. Instead of structures simply phasing into existence over time, little construction gantries appear to help them along. Tanks will drive out of factory doors that open, and experimental units get constructed in huge exposed sub-surface chambers, only to rise out when ready. Every piece of research that adds a new unit feature and every building add-on is represented by a physical change to the artwork. Yesssss.
The factions are more unified in theme too. All of the factions in SupCom were a weird and mostly arbitrary hodge-podge of walkers, tanks, hovertanks and all sorts, with an arbitrary mix of anti-air or anti-sub capabilities that never really made much sense. But here? The UEF are mostly treaded tanks and bipeds. The Aeon are mostly hover tanks, to the point where they don’t get boats at all. Cybran walkers are all tripedal and up, and thanks to the miracle of research, every single one of their boats can sprout legs and walk on land — instead of this fun feature being limited to a single mediocre cruiser.
However, the more detailed units and levels are a double-edged sword in gameplay terms. It can be quite hard to parse your smallest vehicles out of the visual noise, meaning that I frequently forgot about piles of tanks that were waiting outside factories to be sent into battle. The scale change is definitely a factor here: most units are smaller, so of course they blend in with the vibrant terrain much more easily.
It also frequently leaves me with a kind of scale whiplash, because I feel like the relative scale between units and the landscape varies per mission. Some structures have windows and what would appear to be human-sized doors, but these don’t always match the size a person is implied to be relative to an ACU’s cockpit. And while tanks and ships retain the slow acceleration and wide turning circles that imply they’re huge, putting them next to trees makes many even seem to be human-sized, or at least car-sized. Which means that in some highly mechanical levels that are constructed entirely of pipes and gantries, it can feel like you’re playing with toys rather than building giant robots.
Perhaps the biggest departure from the first game is the trading of the “tech tier” mechanics in favour of a research “tech tree”. Instead of upgrading factories and replacing engineers with better versions, in order to train the next tier of better units, you have a single set of units that can be enhanced directly by various tech choices. Techs are locked behind prerequisites, and bonus unit types and special abilities are smattered behind basic numeric boosts, so you can advance along whatever paths suit your needs (all Land units, all the time). Fairly straightforward stuff.
One of the nicer parts of this is that it means you get access to some big fun experimentals much sooner. A traditional mission in the first game involves turtling for three hours until you finally unlock all the endgame fun stuff, while in SupCom 2 the Cybrans, for example, can get access to the six-legged Megalith II within about 20 tech points — in some campaign missions, you start with that many points available. Sure, I’m still turtling like mad because that’s what I do, but realistically, you’re here for the big guns and being able to access some of them at a more measured pace is definitely an improvement.
The removal of the tech tiers also means that approaching the end of a mission doesn’t leave your factories full of icons for shitty T1 units that nobody cares about anymore. You don’t end up with sixteen T1 power generators that are utterly insignificant next to the T3 power station you just built. And so on.
On the other hand, now that my base has only a few original generators souped-up by research, I have ever-growing fields of Research Facilities to pump out those precious tech points instead. Needless to say, you somehow forget all of your technological progress between missions and have to start from scratch each time.
There are some other more peculiar choices. One of the mechanics that I loved in SupCom is how you could chain engineers together, so you could give orders to a single unit rather than having to juggle several, but they’d all work on the same project. However, in SupCom 2 only one engineer can build a building. This is most excruciating if you should dare to select more than one engineer at all — the ability to give construction orders disappears entirely!
There are other streamlinings that I guess I can take or leave. There is no adjacency bonus for structures — for example, placing a factory directly next to a power generator to reduce its energy requirements. There is no need for storage buildings to contain spare mass or energy, you can just keep stockpiles of as much as you like forever. Indeed, the whole income/outgoing model seems to have been shaved off, reverting to a traditional “you cannot start building this thing until you have enough resources” setup. Given how long in SupCom missions I tend to sit with huge swathes of structures and units building at snail’s pace because I can never balance my income with my outgoings, this is probably an improvement.
So! A perfectly decent time in the end, though a mixed bag of changes over its predecessor. Prettier, but perhaps at the cost of some of the original fantasy of ultra-massive robots towering over the landscape. Faster paced, but maybe more evenly interesting. I haven’t even mentioned the story — it has more boisterous characters and much, much snappier dialogue. The unit selections and less arbitrary and the faction identities are much more distinct.
On balance, absolutely worth a punt for a few quid. All that’s missing is the wall of shiny chrome and gold class that the Seraphim brought…