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.
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.
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.
It's a weird one, and as distant as you can imagine from, say, the OMG experience of spending command points to go up a doctrine level in Company of Heroes. Instead you're flinging points at the tree constantly, a +10 per cent to aircraft health here, a +50 per cent to sonar distance there, and only occasionally enjoying the satisfying payoff of saving up the mass of research points required to unlock an experimental unit.
As a system, it doesn't seem to sit quite right. The advances are always useful enough that it's worth bringing up the research menu and tossing your amassed research points into the void, yet only rarely are the advances very exciting. Perhaps the tree might feel a little less like a hungry mouth to feed if bringing it up didn't mean obscuring your view of the action proper.
What I do like about the tree is that it will allow for a variety of sneaky plays in multiplayer. While some of the upgrades you can acquire cause subtle visual changes to your units, by and large you only realise that your opponent has been shunting all his points into aircraft when you end up on the receiving end of them.
Likewise, the prerequisites required to unlock nukes or a top-level experimental are largely statistical upgrades, so if you're careful you'll be able to build them unexpectedly. It's nice. A little bit of guile and bluff to go with the first game's blunt economics.
It's good there's something to look forward to on the multiplayer front, because now I need to make a public service announcement about Supreme Commander 2's single-player campaign. Gas Powered Games are trying to tout Supreme Commander 2 as a treat for single-player gamers, right? With a strong, human, character-driven plot?
This is the first game I've played in a very, very long time with writing so tedious I've recoiled from the screen, and in my preview code (still a chance for this to be fixed!) most of it plays out during unskippable cut-scenes.
Also, I'm not going to replay a 30-minute long single-player mission to check, but I'm near-positive I heard a Cybran commander use a big word incorrectly as he fled the battlefield. As in, the script-writer had an incorrect understanding of what it meant.
(Update: On Gas Powered Games' recommendation I did play the mission again, just to check. He wasn't speaking nonsense! He was just quoting a passage from Shakespearean tragedy Titus Andronicus! We really regret this error. Sorry, Gas Powered Games.)
Other gems you can look forward to include this heated exchange between your commander and his opponent during a mission:
"Guys like me eat guys like you for breakfast!!"
"Well, that explains the foot in your mouth."
It's annoying, because I've read a lot of people griping that since Square Enix are publishing Supreme Commander 2, the plot's obviously going to be terrible. I was hoping for the chance to knock those guys back. [For the record, I think that foot mouth joke is amazing. Pre-ordering. - Ed]
In any case, disappointment about the plot aside, even this yet-to-be-finetuned preview code feels like the superior game to the original Supreme Commander, and it would be crazy to ask for anything more than that. That would be like asking for a fifth wheel on your car, or something.
Supreme Commander 2 is due out for PC on 5th March, with an Xbox 360 version to follow.