There are two possible reactions to any mention of Supreme Commander. Yes, just two. Don't pull that "how dare you force the entirety of human experience and attitude into just two boxes" stuff with me. Two! If it turns out there's more I'd have to axe this entire introduction, and then where would we be? We'd have a preview without an intro, and there'd be anarchy. Killings would be necessary. So: two possible reactions.
Number one! "Oh yes, yes, the only true real-time-strategy game of recent years - none of this dumbed-down experience points and tank-rushing stuff."
Number two! "It's too complicated, it's boring, and the entire genre is doomed etc."
The problem being that making a game for a very specific audience - i.e. dyed-in-the-wool strategy gamers raised on Total Annihilation back in the 1990s - means the rest of the world curls its lip at you. SupCom 2 isn't taking any such risk. Yet at the same time, creator Gas Powered Games seems determined not to lose any of SupCom's ferociously dedicated existing audience. It's tempting to blame the lack of boat-rocking on GPG having made a right pig's ear of their last two games: Space Siege by being dreadful, and Demigod by being a multiplayer-led game whose multiplayer didn't work. They need a hit, in other words.
Nothing about SupCom 2 suggests fear or compromise, though. The number of unit types has been sliced in half and resource-gathering has been made easier, but it's still huge and lavish in a way that no other combat-only RTS has tried to be. The aim isn't to lower the complexity significantly so much as to show its working this time around - to introduce players to all its tanks and planes and submarines and enormous cyborg lizards gradually and coherently, rather than throwing everything at you and expecting you to work it all out.
At the same time, speaking to GPG's boss Chris Taylor (full interview to follow soon!), it's clear he's trying to push this as much more of a single-player game. Always a tricky thing for an RTS to do, but if this is more than mere marketing speak it's quite a big step for GPG to take. SupCom had a very rambly story and far too many talking heads in its campaigns, but really it was a multiplayer game - existing more for titantic tests of online will and skill than for narrative satisfaction. GPG is really leaning on storytelling for the sequel - focusing in to character-led familial drama, with the far-flung robo-war between three future-Earth factions as a backdrop rather than taking centre stage itself.
In practice, this seems to mean lots more cut-scenes and talking heads, so the writing and acting needs to be pretty damned sharp to pull it off. Personally, I haven't been terribly engaged by the cut-scenes I've seen, so I'm a little worried I'm going to be reaching for the Escape key in half of them, but then it's early days and the somewhat-droning chatter I've heard is very much out-of-context. It's surely not an easy task to make players relate to a guy who pretty much spends the entire game sitting in a big chair inside a building-sized robot's cockpit, which is why they've also included characters such as a talking brain in a jar. So, hopefully a big dollop of sci-fi silliness is going to make SupCom 2 a bit of a romp too.
Especially as the silliness extends to the units. The Experimentals - the super-units of the first SupCom - get a little more time in the sun this time around, increasing in number as well as in ease of availability. Minor Experimentals are smaller but no less crazy ones you can deploy fairly early in the match, or there's the option to "half-bake" a big'un: kick it into the world before it's even finished, but with a high chance of its grinding to a halt every few seconds.
The idea is that it's no longer just a game of indistinguishable tanks having at each other from great distances, but one where robotic colossi trade stand amidst and over this ongoing teenier warfare. There are 27 Experimentals in all, and only a few have been shown so far - an enormous UFO, a machine that speed-builds armies then lobs them at a distant location one-by-one, like some kind of apocalyptic Pez dispenser, the Illuminate Space Temple - a teleporter - and, most excitingly, the Cybranasaurus Rex.
Or "the big bloody dinosaur", as you'll doubtless refer to it. SupCom's has always been a cold, all-metal world, so the sudden appearance of something fleshy (albeit with enormous robotic implants and guns all over it) is a revelatory sight. The machine world comes alive at last: that's the kind of personality the developers are trying to get into SupCom 2 to leave behind that dead-eyed distance of the first game.
There's also a little more autonomy now, which should help with that. Instead of sitting around waiting for orders, your ever-vital Engineer drones can now patrol, for instance, auto-collecting any scrap metal lying around and fixing any friendly units they pass. It's one more flicker of visible life to the game, and also one less thing to micro-manage in the heat of battle. It's one of many small changes designed to make the game more accessible, so you can think about grand strategy rather than the constant holding of tiny hands.
Some will grumble, inevitably, but the point of SupCom has always been Massive War: when you're a little more free to throw your vast army at another vast army, things can only got massiver. (Microsoft Word tells me "massiver" isn't a real word, incidentally, because Microsoft Word has no joy). It's all set in a brand-new (well, more or less - bits of Demigod seem to be in there) engine, too, so the fiddly blockiness of SupCom 1 is left behind in favour of something a little softer, a little more cartoony, almost.
Flashier but more personal. Complicated but more accessible. Bigger but smaller. Supreme Commander 2 may be steadfastly saluting the flag of strategy tradition, but one thing it certainly hasn't done is to take the easy road.
Supreme Commander 2 is due out for PC and Xbox 360 this spring.