Review: Supreme Commander (360)

Supreme Commander was originally released for PC in February 2007 and was well-received as an ambitious attempt to push the RTS genre forward. A new sense of scale was experienced, where the player had command over huge numbers of on-screen units able to clash in conflicts spanning continents. Only high-end PCs could handle this power-hungry game, but now, after a long wait, Supreme Commander is available for Xbox 360 owners. But have the impressive graphics and quality tactical gameplay of the PC original been translated to its new format?

The game is set in the far future when humanity has the ability to travel huge distances across space in ‘quantum gates’ and create and enslave half-human, half-cyborg ‘Cybrans’. Throw in the genocide and extinction of an alien race that results in a mass cult and you have yourself a three-way infinite war of insane proportions.

While storyline is not big a attraction of this game, layers of strategic depth and the balance of competitive battles are. Unfortunately, unforgivable frame-rate drops mar the enjoyment of nearly every aspect of this game.

Each mission you start with a single armored command unit (ACU), a powerful combatant with the ability to build basic structures. Lose your ACU and it’s game over. Developing your forces follows a familiar base-building and rush for resources pattern. Mass must be obtained to build units and structures, and energy generated to power them. Mass extraction points are located across the map, forcing you to venture outside of the comfort of your base.

The right analog stick controls camera rotation and the “strategic zoom," which allows the player to seamlessly change the camera’s proximity to the battlefield from a view encompassing the entire map to a close up on a single unit and everything in between. This feature is impressive and fun to play around with, but adds little to the game that a classic map in the corner does not. Rotating the camera to obtain satisfying views of your hard work coming to fruition will be snatched away from you within seconds as the camera rapidly self-rights to a default north-is-up setting. Not only does this effect ruin any “wow” factor of being able to play around with the camera, but it’s actually slightly nauseating.

All commands are accessed through overlaid, circular menu screens, the navigation of which is quite complex and can be a little frustrating, distancing you from the action while the oh-so-frequent frame rate drop can cause you to select the wrong option, or fail to issue the command by missing the target with your cursor.

If you have the patience to persevere with the control scheme and stuttering technical issues, you will find the advanced commands work nicely, the AI is good, and there are some nice little features. Unit patrol orders work well and a nice graphic of the designated path can be viewed; transport ships can be programmed to ‘ferry’ units (key in winning on the larger maps), and the ‘assist’ command allows friendly units to speed up a number of tasks. Considerable thought has clearly gone into how to make controlling such a large army manageable using an Xbox controller instead of a mouse and keyboard.

Graphically, Supreme Commander is distinctly rough around the edges compared to its PC counterpart. Incredible graphics are not an essential ingredient to a great strategy game, but visual clarity and the ability to easily distinguish between different unit types are. Even on the highest zoom, I often found myself holding the cursor over units to find out what they actually were.

Three single-player campaigns are available, each of which put you in control of a different faction fighting in the “infinite war.” Plot is dispensed in unavoidable pop-up boxes during missions, instructing you destroy, protect or transport various objects of strategic value. Once an objective is completed, the map is expanded — often substantially — which cleverly makes you appreciate the scale of the maps and gradually prepares you for the final conflict. With three campaigns and the option to play against computer-controlled opponents in skirmish mode, Supreme Commander offers a substantial amount of single-player content. The ability to save at any point during a mission is welcome, especially as the game is prone to crashing. Supreme Commander caused my Xbox to crash twice; as a point of reference, that’s twice more that Grand Theft Auto 4, twice more than Halo 3, and once more than when I tried to load Wii Sports.

Online multi-player is available over Xbox Live for up to four players, and free-for-all and co-op options are available. There’s a colorful selection of maps to choose from and various game modes with different victory conditions. Entering an online game is simple and once you’re in, you will not experience any more lag than in the single-player mode. At the time of review, the lobbies are distinctly under-populated — I appear to be only one of a few people in Europe stupid enough to buy this game.

There is a wide range of land, air and sea units available to build and their relative strengths and weaknesses create a classic "rock, paper, scissors" dynamic. Leave a group of land units with no anti-air protection and soon enough enemy bombers will be on the scene. Large battle cruisers are able to bomb opponents from long rang, but leave them without back up and submarines will make short work of them using torpedoes. There is a range of shield, radar and missile systems to be constructed and countered for those willing to explore the depths of the tech trees. Various approaches to defeating your opponents, include rushing to build energy-sapping nuclear arms or opting for an anti-nuke defense system and focusing your efforts on mass-producing a particular unit type.

Ultimately, the potentially excellent strategy elements and impressive scope of Supreme Commander are not tainted by technical flaws but ruined by them. The feeling of accomplishment in directing a huge military force to victory is outweighed by the frustrating experience of getting there.

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