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.
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.
The other major focus of Forged Alliance is balance, aiming to please the fanbase by further trimming away much of what little asymmetry there was between the factions. To that end, new force the Seraphim (an alien race that SupCom's original three human factions must, uh, forge an alliance against) feel instantly familiar.
Sure, they look different -many of their units are a lot flashier than the often boxy approach of the Cybran, UEF and Aeon, the splendid glowing, spiky ACU in particular looking like he escaped from the Transformers movie. Until they hit Tech level 3 though, they're almost indistinguishable in play from their forerunners. This is the nature of SupCom - no player has any advantage beyond the strategies their brain can devise. 80 units in total for the Seraphim (the T3 sniper bots, with immense range and capable of spotting for aircraft, are immediate stand-outs) and 10 new apiece for the three older factions will certainly make SupCom much more visually interesting, a constant spectacle of different lasers and missiles flinging from the screen's pole to pole, but they're not going to significantly alter the nature of the game. Nor are they intended to - they're there to make an already big game even bigger.
In contrast to this is fan-love for the Experimental Units, the towering mega-bots, UFOs and walking cannons that got everyone excited about SupCom in the first place. These really need to feel distinct from each other, and because they come into play at a point where each player's base and strategy is fully established already, there's less need for them to be exactly equal.
The Seraphim Experimentals demonstrate where Gas Powered are most actively toying with new ideas. The aliens' strategic missile launcher, for instance, takes two anti-nukes to bring down, otherwise it usually spells the end of the match. Their experimental assault bot, meanwhile, is as much a menace in death as in life, trashing foe and friend alike with a murderous energy beam released as it goes down. There's also the Ahwassa Bomber, a giant-but-fast aircraft that can cause untold damage if it successfully reaches an enemy base.
To compensate for such extraterrestrial excess, the three existing factions each gain an additional Experimental. The Cybran get the Megalith, a crab-like amphibious robot equipped with a full dozen torpedo launchers. The UEF are blessed with the Sub-orb ital Defence System, a building that spits out satellites capable of relentlessly bombarding the enemy from orbit, unstoppable unless the host building is taken down. The Aeon's approach is entirely different, the Quantum Resource Generator very simply producing insane amounts of mass and power, thus enabling constant troop and defence construction. If it's taken out though, it'll bring anything around it down too. Great discretion is called for in its placement, as it's bound to become a honking great target symbol for canny players. The SupCom hardcore may demand perfect symmetry, but the fact the new Experimentals aren't simply a further contingent of giant robots with giant guns prove Gas Powered themselves crave variety.
One thing I wasn't able to get much of a sense of was the singleplayer campaign. In all honestly, this was where SupCom vanilla most fell down, telling a not always interesting story and terrifying more casual players by regularly expanding the size of the map and introducing further overwhelming odds whenever they thought they'd finally beaten their indefatigable AI foe. It was exhausting, sometimes feeling like it was heaping punishment rather than reward upon a successful general's shoulders. Well, apparently Forged Alliance's singleplayer maps are even bigger than those in SupCom, in a campaign spanning some 20 hours, so it's hard to gauge whether this really will have greater appeal to less experienced players than the original did. I'm told a new quicksave function makes it easier to take a break from the escalating intensity, though whether being able to press a single button rather than clicking menu - save - ok really takes the pressure off seems doubtful. Personally, I'd have split the campaign into a larger number of smaller maps, giving players a more regular sense of achievement, but perhaps that's just my weak fleshling brain getting the better of me. GPG are concerned with getting Forged Alliance out to folk who didn't think SupCom was for them, so appealing surprises may yet be in store for the singleplayer.
For instance, an improved narrative will give a greater sense of purpose to the ultra-war. As the storyline concerns the three human factions teaming up to repel alien invasion, there should be a much more direct sense of why you're now fighting; often, after all, SupCom's narrative imperatives didn't amount to much more than "you need to kill these other guys because, um, they're the other guys." This time, you're battling for the survival of humanity.
Soulless? Not a bit of it. Gas Powered love their game, and what might look detached to a casual glance is actually about the unadulterated joy of things constantly exploding. One of GPG's designers remains, even after several years of development, so enthusiastic about SupCom that he requested to save the replay of a particularly nail-bitey grudgematch I played against a journo-peer. He scuttled excitedly off to watch it almost immediately, returning a couple of hours later to babble about how awesome a back-and-forth battle it was. Playing Forged Alliance, I understand his glee. It's less an add-on, and more a rejuvenation for Supreme Commander.