Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance

Robots as far as the eye can see.

The jock versus geek war wages even on the most microscopic scale. There have been some accusations, for instance that Supreme Commander can feel a little soulless compared to one of its more accessible peers such as Company of Heroes or Command & Conquer 3 - the jocks of RTS, the cool, popular kids who look purrrretty fine to you even if they're not, strictly speaking, your type. SupCom, by contrast, is the geek - the quiet one with a mighty mind throbbing furiously away behind his acquired-taste looks, but whose questionable social skills make it hard for him to make friends. Standalone expansion pack Forged Alliance hopes to change that. The trouble is, it has negative preconceptions to fight.

Is it because SupCom's armies consist only of machines, the vast majority of which are entirely disposable? If that was your complaint, I'd argue that not being satisfied unless you know that's a living, irreplaceable thing spraying its internal organs onto the ground is more a reflection on your soul than SupCom's. Forged Alliance is a second chance to prove you're more than a bloodthirsty maniac.

Or is it because the game is so often played from the most zoomed-out perspective the camera can manage, encouraging aloof detachment from the carnage below? Indeed, developers Gas Powered Games joke about making a DS version while I'm visiting, one where the hundreds of on-screen units - joined in Forged Alliance by those of a fourth race, the alien Seraphim - never become more detailed than the dancing dot-patterns such maxi-zoom makes them. It's not aloof, it's charming - shaped masses of obedient minions cheerfully trooping off wherever you ask them too, like Fantasia with anti-aircraft guns.

Or is this because, for all its giant robots and cloaking fields, SupCom is a little more truthful about war than more traditional RTS games? One unit rarely makes a difference - though a player may occasionally lament "just five or ten more gunships and I'd have had 'im." This isn't about heroes. This is about managing a war.

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Hot Experimental on Experimental action - including the crab-like Megalith over on the right.

There's a sense that not everyone got this when SupCom made its first tour of duty. Total Annihilation players, already accustomed to tank death by the dozen, treated it like a favourite pair of old shoes, of course. Many others stared at the screenshots of impossibly large-scale future-war and quaked with terror. Forged Alliance, then, is a standalone add-on not purely because that's the current vogue for expansion packs, but also because it's a sort of Supreme Commander 1.5, a second chance to make its point to those who sneered or cowered first time around.

I played an early version of Forged Alliance at Gas Powered Games' sweetie-machine-filled office in Seattle, just around the corner from endless, anonymous-looking Microsoft outposts, and it confused me a little at the time. At first, I couldn't immediately tell what'd changed, though a nagging something at the back of my brain kept me aware things weren't quite as they were. I was playing Supreme Commander as I've always done, surely? It's not until I was back home and fired up SupCom vanilla that I really got a sense of how much more polished Forged Alliance is. It's like your girlfriend showing you pictures of herself from the 80s, all bubble-perm and shoulderpads. It may have seemed perfectly reasonable at the time but now evokes a grimace of affectionate embarrassment.

Of course, the girl underneath hasn't fundamentally changed, beyond being a little older and wiser, but in SupCom's case, a complete user interface overhaul makes a big difference. It sounds petty, I know. For instance though, the impact of now having the bars for your two resource types on top of each other, rather than at opposite ends of the screen is enormous in the heat of multiplay. It's entirely psychological - the eye now glances to a single place, the casual knowledge-is-power of a driver checking his speedometer, then returning his gaze to the road ahead, in a split-second and with minimal muscle usage. Commanding feels more supreme for it.

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