Version tested: PC
A chilly November evening, and I'm walking home from town. It's a forty minute journey, most of it steeply uphill. It's cold, it's dark, I'm tired and I'm bored. There's probably another ten or fifteen minutes to go when I grind to a sudden halt, and sigh. There's no pleasure in this. Why do I do it? Shouldn't the journey be as important as the destination? A light flicks on in a house just ahead of me. There's a pause, and then an unmistakable guitarline snakes out into the cold, quiet air. It's Sweet Child O'Mine. I half-grin, and start walking again, fingers unconsciously miming Guitar Hero buttons. I can't help but glance in the window of the house as I pass, hoping to see the face of my personal Jesus. The guy in there sees me and freezes, his fingers also mid air-guitar. We both pause in embarrassment. Then he looks at my hands. I look at his hands. He smiles. I smile. And I walk on, still grinning. Woah-oh-oh-oh, sweet child of mi-i-i-iyyyne.
The journey doesn't seem so bad now. Just that little bit of reward en route, no matter how silly, made the struggle so much more bearable. Enjoyable, even. I'll be home soon. Where I'll have to play more Forged Alliance. My smile fades a little.
This standalone expansion for none-more-massive RTS Supreme Commander doesn't want you to stop and have a giggle during its arduous uphill journey. It thinks making the angle of incline ever-sharper is entertainment in itself. It's a fabulous multiplayer game, but in single-player it's cruel and cold. It never rewards you with brief moments of pleasure during its crazy-long levels - it just points up at the yards and yards of sharp slope still ahead of you, and laughs at you. If you played campaign mode in the original SupCom, you'll know the faint horror of the phrase 'Operational area expanded'. Upon apparently vanquishing your foes, the map grows, revealing some hitherto unseen threat on a remote new corner rather than granting you the sense of achievement of a whole new level.
Forged Alliance is even more unforgiving. Its oft-expanding maps are longer - the first one alone took me almost three hours - and it cheats like a bastard to boot. When the game zooms out, it doesn't, as its parent did, merely task you with a new enemy base to destroy. It also immediately throws everything it's got at you, ludicrous waves of drones and tanks and planes and battleships and submarines and skyscraper-high deathbots that'll often wipe-out half of what you've spent the last hour building in one fell, unfair swoop. Your hard-earned victory becomes a desperate fight for survival.
The justified point is that war is big and relentless - this is, after all, Supreme Commander, not Reasonably Big Commander. The problem is that it doesn't ever make you feel like you've achieved anything - all it does is shout orders to keep running up that hill (Kate Bush would surely understand SupCom's trials). It's distractingly artificial - try to analyse why all these guys have been just off-screen, conveniently ignoring you until now, and the whole thing feels utterly ridiculous - as well as punishing. Add to that your superiors constantly bellowing unreasonable orders at you, which if followed tend to result in a quick and humiliating death (hint: ignore them, and attack in your own time), and when the mission's finally over, you won't feel triumphant as much as you will relieved. You've climbed that hill. All you win is another hill.
Which is exactly what long-term SupCom players signed up for - they want war on a massive, challenging scale, not to go through the motions again. From the very start of the six-mission (each taking several hours, remember) campaign, you've got access to almost all the toys in your toybox, with Forged Alliance's shiny new ones gifted to you as the game goes along. So, you're able to employ your preferred strategy, and not, as in SupCom, have to make do with whatever limited death-machines the mission doles out to you. If you're totally familiar with the rules of Supreme Commander, having to survive those rules being broken by your opponent offers a thrilling new test of your abilities that you wouldn't get if Forged Alliance played fair.
Trouble is it's an inconsiderate impasse for new players - surely an intended audience as much as the old hands, given this is a standalone game and not an expansion pack. The campaign's levels don't pull any punches, and its droning, unengaging narrative (short version: the three human-derived races from the first game team up against an alien threat. Long version: yes, very) presumes fairly intimate knowledge of what happened in SupCom. Forged Alliance is a better game in most every respect than SupCom was - if you're new to the series, this is, logically speaking, the game to grab first. Give some of that logic the boot and its weaker predecessor may still be a smarter starting point. At least it offers up a chummy, "Oh hey, you're new here, aren'tcha? Lemme show you around. It's your first day - take it easy until you've learned the ropes."
Over in multiplay and skirmish, you get to see the entire map from the off, so there's no wondering what fresh horror will be unleashed upon your moment of triumph. With a level playing field, the improvements are more obvious. Forged Alliance's redesigned user interface still looks like it's not quite accepted the 1990s are over, but at least it no longer takes up most of the screen, as SupCom's boxy monstrosity of a UI did. You're able to see significantly more of what's going on without having to invest a second monitor (dual-screen remains the best way to play the game), and there's more logical clustering of related buttons, meters, doohickeys and whatchamcallums. The bars for energy and mass resources now snuggled together in one neat corner, for instance, rather than spanning the width of the screen between them.
These modes are also the only place you get to hold the reins of new race The Seraphim. They're purely a foe in single-play, but perversely they're the only race you can command in multiplayer if you don't also own SupCom. Visually flashier than the three original factions, they're immediately appealing to play as. It's like rifling through your wardrobe full of t-shirts'n'jeans, and suddenly noticing there's a white suit and mirror shades in there too. This being a particularly symmetrical RTS, they play almost exactly the same way as the other three, but sacrifice variety of units for each that there is having a little more clout. There's none of the wonderfully silly lolbot value of, say, the Cybran's tottering Monkeylord (or, equally, their new expire mental, the improbably crab-shaped Megalith), but the Seraphim do otherworldly weirdness pretty well - they're all liquidy-smooth surfaces and negative energy beams.
They add more visual cheer to what are often barren-looking battlefields (some token graphical tweaks don't stop SupCom's worlds from looking sparse and clinical), but not as much as the rethought Experimentals. These are Supreme Commanders supremiest units, but previously they took so achingly long to build that games were usually over before they got to haul their giant metal behinds into battle. In Forged Alliance, most are faster and cheaper to construct, so they're more likely to make an appearance. As it should be - seeing two titans clash makes for a far more satisfying climax than simply watching one guy gradually erase all the other guy's power generators. On the other hand, nukes now take crazy-long to build. A shame, as their devastating appearances are now rare, but because the instant game-over they can often spell is more uncommon, again there's more chance of a thrilling giant robot/UFO/battleship wrestling match.
So here's the thing. I think it's a bit of a lousy single-player game (though less so if you're intimately familiar with SupCom), but a fairly incredible multiplayer/skirmish one. It's closer now to the game we all hoped Supreme Commander would be from those earliest screenshots: really, really big war that builds to an impossibly exciting crescendo of sci-fi excess. Ostensibly, it's a traditional expansion (the whole not-actually-being-an-expansion thing aside), focused on doling out generous handfuls of new units rather than reinventing the game in any meaningful way. Really though, the Seraphim and a few new death machines per faction amount to just a fancy haircut to ooh and aah over - far more importantly, the game underneath it has worked on its social skills. It's more presentable now, and it knows that letting people get to the big stuff is essential to a good time.
If you're a SupCom player, think of this as pretty much your dream patch for the game, but with the unfortunate but understandable addition of a price-tag. If you're an RTS fan who hasn't played SupCom yet, this is without doubt a better place to start. It's more polished, it's more varied and, with the Seraphim's big'n'shiny toys in there too, it's wargaming on the most jawdropping scale there is. It's also everything that turned a lot of people off SupCom intensified, and I think that's a bit of misfire if it's serious about winning a new audience - which is why this scores less than the first game did. Why else would it be standalone? Well, perhaps so that SupCom players have to cough up more groats than they would for an expansion disc - but that's tinfoil hat territory. If you're even slightly interested in real-time strategy, you owe it to yourself to play this - but leave that merciless, exhausting campaign well alone until you've made yourself into a war-god with skirmish mode.
8 / 10