Supreme Commander 2

Robot rock?

So, Chris Taylor wants to take us all down, down to robot town. He wants to make Supreme Commander more accessible and less unwieldy, pushing a kind of technological miniaturisation. Same product, just a little smaller, smoother, shinier and more refined.

Supreme Commander was a traditional RTS (read: Total Annihilation) with the single defining feature being its ridiculous scale. 300 different units, three different levels of land, sea and air factories to push through, mammoth maps, nuclear warfare and comically big "experimental" robots that took an age to appear in any match. And for the sequel they're... reducing the scale?

In practice Supreme Commander 2 works well despite its tactical reduction, and that's not as surprising as it sounds. For one thing, the scale still dwarfs any other RTS out there and you still have the opportunity to fling hundreds of robots at your opponents like a child upending his toybox on his kid sister.

For a second thing, Chris Taylor is a right-winger of the RTS genre. In his interview with Eurogamer a few weeks back he actually compared innovation in RTS games to either putting a fifth wheel on a car or taking a wheel off.

Placing to one side the fact that anyone who can call the ideas present in Company of Heroes, Sins of a Solar Empire or World In Conflict "putting a fifth wheel on a car" needs a stern talking to, Supreme Commander 2 represents Taylor playing to his strengths. In reeling back what was outlandish about the original game, he's supervising the creation of a game he's more comfortable with, and it shows.

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It's a less turtle-friendly game this time around. No walls, less artillery, smaller shield generators, more squealing as enemy bots puncture your flimsy defenses.

Here's what I'm talking about: in massively reducing the number of units from 300 to 120, each one plays a simpler, more comprehensible purpose. In removing the different levels of each type of building (you now only get one type of land factory, one mass extractor, one anti-air turret and so on) you get a better grip on how to construct your base.

In reducing the scale of the single-player missions, they no longer play so drearily when you've set up adequate defenses against the AI, and in making lots of smaller multiplayer maps available you encourage a less stilted, more rapid pace of play (something also aided by adding units which teleport or shoot smaller units across the map).

From a personal perspective, I always felt Supreme Commander was big in an awkward, tedious way, probably because of its traditional micromanagement-heavy framework. I wanted to get good at the game, but it didn't want to help. It was embarrassing for both of us.

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You can, however, now upgrade factories with indirect turrets. Seems Gas Powered Games is pushing for tense base defences without the drudgery of knocking down walls.

That's not a feeling I get with Supreme Commander 2, and I haven't even touched on the engine yet. It's prettier, but also markedly smoother than the original game. You can still expect a painful frame-rate drop if you zoom in during the ridiculous 100 vs. 100 scraps (i.e. when you want to enjoy the visuals most), but broadly it's a neat technical improvement and it does feature a much-requested improvement in pathfinding.

The final big change to Supreme Commander 2 is the new research tree, which I'm in two minds about. The way it works is you now amass research points by constructing research facilities in your base, or, more nonsensically, by blowing up enemies. At any point you can bring up your research menu and go shopping, spending these points on upgrading your existing units or structures or unlocking new ones.

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