Take an exclusive look at the early campaign, gameplay, and some of the powerful experimental units of this epic strategy sequel.
Prior to 1997’s Total Annihilation, no one had ever tried to take real-time strategy on a truly large scale–the game implemented a radar system so that reconnaissance could play a larger role on the game’s large battlefields. Some years later, the game’s designer, Chris Taylor, headed off to the rain-drenched Pacific Northwest to found Gas Powered Games and design 2007’s Supreme Commander, an epic successor to Total Annihilation that featured enhanced versions of Taylor’s original ideas of large-scale strategy and radar scouting along with impressive new technology that let you zoom your view all the way out–far enough to turn the heated battles between the game’s three futuristic factions into colored blips on an all-encompassing strategic map.
Now, the studio is hard at work finishing Supreme Commander 2, a sequel that will attempt to improve on every aspect of the previous game by offering streamlined gameplay and research, a very thin and clean interface, faster-paced matches with action that heats up more quickly, and a brand-new single-player campaign with a much more-intimate story.
Taking our first look at the sequel in some time, we found it hard not to zero in on the powerful technology under the hood. According to Taylor, most of Supreme Commander 2’s tech has been overhauled, if not simply torn apart and rewritten from scratch. You can expect plenty of new graphical bells and whistles in the form of a new rendering engine, new water shaders (a surprisingly important addition to a strategy game where naval battles are a very real and important part of the experience), and a new lighting system that casts multiple shadows in real-time (units can be shadowed by nearby mountains, as well as by nearby larger units, all while casting shadows themselves, and all simultaneously). The sequel’s water, in particular, looks outstanding, since it not only reflects and refracts light as it should, but it also breaks up in a realistic gush of foam particles any time a submarine emerges from the depths or a ship gets sunk. In shallow enough water, you’ll even be able to make out the wreckage of a sunken ship (and harvest its mass as a resource if you’ve got some spare engineer units lying around).
In addition, the studio has created “flowfield pathfinding” based on theories explored in a recent research paper from the University of Washington. This is an entirely new kind of unit pathfinding which, as we saw from a demonstration, will let units easily negotiate bumpy terrain, cluttered battlefields, and even ranks of opposing troops headed right for them. We watched several demonstrations that showed two massive battalions of infantry troops ordered to march right through each other, which they did without so much as missing a step, much less breaking formation. Yet surprisingly, both this improved pathfinding and the shiny new graphics are being optimized for lower-end computers, since the game was planned for development on both the PC and the Xbox 360 from the start. Because the team found that it had to be more aggressive about optimizing for the console version of the game, the PC version benefited by having streamlined graphics loading that should run, according to Taylor, just fine on a five-year-old machine. (The studio is currently stress-testing the game on machines that go as low as a 2.8GHz processor with a single gigabyte of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce 6800 graphics card.)
Units in Supreme Commander 2 will automatically form up into logical marching orders whenever they’re near each other–a new functionality that will go hand-in-hand with another of the sequel’s useful new features, “strategic mode.” As mentioned, the previous game let you zoom way, way, way out from the action to essentially turn the battlefield into an abstract map with units represented by tiny markers that could be given orders to group up and traverse this or that sector of the map as part of your offensive–and if you had a dual monitor setup, you could keep the zoomed-out map open on one monitor while running a zoomed-in view on the second one.
You can still use a dual-monitor setup in the sequel, but strategic mode will also tune out all battlefield sound effects and replace them with radar monitor bleeps and beeps to look and feel like an actual commander’s view. In addition, nearby clusters of friendly units will automatically be labeled as numbered groups on your strategic map, and can be given move and attack orders with a few mouse clicks. Taylor quickly pointed out that you can still create the usual real-time strategy control groups by group-selecting your forces and pressing the CTRL key plus a number key to assign them to a group. But the creative director also explained that he hopes strategic mode’s automatic group assignment feature will mean that most players won’t even need to use control groups, in the same way that strategic mode’s fully zoomed-out view make a minimap obsolete (though there will be a minimap in the game, too, for those who can’t live without them).
Aside from the impressive technology that powers the game, Supreme Commander 2 will also offer an extensive single-player campaign which, like in the original game, will offer a total of 18 operations. “Operations” is the term used for Supreme Commander’s single-player missions, but calling them “missions” seems to sell them short, since they take place on huge maps that expand in size over the course of each operation as you uncover various enemy plots in other sectors or are tasked to push forward and explore or conquer new hotspots.
However, even the campaign is being modified to provide a more consistent experience. Yes, the 18 operations are divided into six missions per each of the game’s three factions, the UEF, Cybran Nation, and the Illuminate, but they’ll take place along a single, linear story path, rather than branching off into three different endings. In addition, when your field of view does expand in any given operation, it’ll push forward in ways that make logical sense with your updated mission objectives, rather than simply expanding in all directions as it did in the previous game, which could occasionally be confusing to new players who left themselves exposed to attacks from different sectors they weren’t even aware of.
Supreme Commander 2’s campaigns story will be much more-personal in nature. Yes, the game will still take place in the same universe after the events of the Forged Alliance expansion pack for the original game–Gas Powered Games has a full-on “bible” that includes page after page of story and setting details to keep everything consistent. However, this time around, Supreme Commander 2’s conflict will be less about a war of ideologies between the imperialistic UEF, the freedom-loving Cybran Nation, and the alien-influenced Illuminate, and will focus much more strongly on human relationships between key characters.
The Illuminate campaign, for instance, will tell the tale of a brother and sister embroiled in a rebellious war to subvert the new Illuminate faction and restore the Aeon faction of the previous game to power, while the Cybran Nation’s story will be about the interplay between Ivan, one of the newest models of Cybran cyborg, and his “father” and creator, Dr. Brackman (who is himself a brain in a jar that has remained awake and sentient for centuries). The UEF campaign will tell the story of commander Dom “Migraine” Maddox, a human military officer and pilot of the ACU mech who is fighting to defend UEF holdings a long, long way from home, and from his wife and young son. Gas Powered Games hopes these very intimate stories, which will focus on the tensions, rivalries, and bonds that result from these very human relationships (aside from that whole brain-in-a-jar thing), will be even more engaging for players who want deep stories and interesting characters with their real-time strategy.
For the rest of us, there will be plenty of explosions, huge battles, and high-level strategy to engage us. Like in the original game, you’ll start out with an ACU mech, essentially the Supreme Commander unit, and a few engineer units, and be tasked to develop a wartime and research economy by seizing nearby mass deposits on the map and constructing mass extractors, though you’ll also want to construct energy generators to produce the game’s second resource, energy. While your first few steps in just about any match seem to be quickly getting an economy going, the game balloons out to higher-level strategy almost immediately, since after you get your economy going, you’ll be clear to create one of three basic military structures to churn out either land units, air units, or naval units (which are not available on maps with no oceans), while at the same time, you’ll be accruing research points automatically (and may gain them faster if you construct research centers).
Research points can be spent on developing a variety of different improvements for your land, air, and/or sea forces, as well as for your structures and your ACU unit. These improvements all appear in a technology-tree-like in-game interface that lets you pull up the branching research tree in-game and spend your points on various improvements. Research improvements include bonuses to your existing units like weapon upgrades or personal energy shields, unlocking newer units to be constructed at one of the three types of military structures, various economic bonuses that may help you gather and store more mass and energy quickly, as well as powerful enhancements for your ACU unit that can be defensive, such as an escape pod enhancement that launches the head of the ACU (while the body collapses), letting your Supreme Commander make a hasty retreat, or instead, power up your ACU to make it strong enough to actually go toe-to-toe with the highest-end experimental units in the game and win.
Speaking of experimentals, Supreme Commander 2 will have 27 of them, including “minor experimentals” like the AC-1000 (a futuristic imagining of the modern-day AC-130 gunship) on up to heavy-duty “major experimentals,” like the King Kriptor mech, a gigantic humanoid robot that dwarfs the average ACU and is basically made entirely of huge guns (no, that’s not an exaggeration). There’s also a huge variety of experimental units, including land, sea, and air vehicles that act either as heavy-duty attackers or as humongous troop transports, as well as defensive stationary emplacements like the Illuminate space temple–effectively a two-way teleporter once you’ve built a secondary beacon, though your enemies can use it too; or the UEF Noah-Unit Cannon, which is a long-range artillery emplacement, a unit-generating struction, and also a unit quick-transporter all in one (this massive cannon pounds the target area with gigantic shells that contain units of yours that it builds).
Given the great variety of major and minor experimentals in the game and their wide range of uses, it’s clear that they’ll come in handy for just about any style of player, including defensive “turtle” players who prefer to hide out at their base long enough until they can drop a nuclear warhead on their opponents. Oh yes, nukes are back and they’re more devastating, and look more spectacular than ever, and leave an ominous gray mushroom cloud that just hangs there, shifting ever so slightly in the wind.
Supreme Commander 2 is clearly intended to be everything the original game was, and much more, and better all around. The sequel will offer more depth, more research, more devastating experimental units to obliterate your enemies with, and powerful and great-looking new technology that’ll both make each gigantic battle look spectacular while also letting you seamlessly zoom out to a wide strategic view without a single framerate hitch. This is an impressive-looking sequel from an ambitious development studio, and definitely a game that strategy fans should keep an eye out for. The game is scheduled to launch in March on both the PC and the Xbox 360.