When Chris Taylor’s Supreme Commander was released on the PC over a year ago, it received a warm welcome. Its main characteristic was its unbridled ambition. Most real time strategy games are overly concerned with resource management and creating specialty units, but for Gas Powered Games the key was replicating total war. In order to do this, you need a proper sense of scale – preferably more in the direction of big rather than accurate. The two key factors to making things feel big? Hundreds of on-screen units and a camera that trades in the typical bird’s-eye view for that of a satellite. Combine those two components with massive maps and you’ve got a game with a very distinct identity.
At launch, the game was doing a lot of PC firsts – such as supporting dual and quad core processors as well as enabling multi-monitor support. But, does that experience scale down appropriately for the home console? The effort is appreciated, but the execution is not. This Xbox 360 port suffers from constant technical hiccups and a control scheme that just can’t match its PC brother.
Like many RTS games, Supreme Commander tries to keep you interested in its story by stringing together the tale of three different factions. The United Earth Federation is made up of humans; the Cybran Nation is composed of symbionts – humans with computerized brains; and then there’s the Aeon Illuminate – an alien race. They’re all engaged in what the game terms “The Infinite War” and it’s your job to bring it to a close. Quick question: if the war is infinite, how can you stop it? Doesn’t the word “infinite” imply it would theoretically go on forever and ever, no matter what you do? Oh well. The game’s main story is composed of 18 missions, but you have to pick a particular side, splitting the game into six missions per go-’round.
Let’s be honest; most strategy games aren’t about great narrative – it’s merely a means to carry the actual gameplay forward. Before you dig into the game’s tech tree, we’ve got to get some basic economics out of the way. Two resources rule the day: mass and energy. Mass helps build structures and units, while energy powers the aforementioned groups. Once you start raking in these two resources, you can finally get to building units and deploying your force. Only one problem: this is when you encounter the game’s clumsy controls.
It’s truly hard to beat a keyboard and mouse setup for RTS games and Supreme Commander illustrates this quite well. To be fair, the game does attempt to implement a wheel system for queuing up units and structures, but it never feels comfortable. The majority of commands are mapped to the D-pad and it works well enough when you’re at the first tech level, but once you get beyond level one, it becomes a cumbersome process. EA LA’s console RTS approach (used in games like Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath) just feels better – their idea of using the right trigger combined with a thumbstick feels more solid and, in turn, swift. In Supreme Commander’s case, relying on the D-pad in conjunction with the thumbstick never feels second nature. Plus, you have to select each building before you can build the appropriate unit, whereas with the EA LA setup, you can build any unit from a main menu. Supreme Commander does get one control idea right: its waypoint system. Using the right bumper, you can setup a series of points for a vehicle to follow. It’s a comfortable mechanic that helps quite a bit.
Since scale is a big part of the game (you’ll literally see hundreds of units on-screen), a strategic camera is a must. It’s too bad it works so poorly. You can zoom in and out to varying degrees, but there never seems to be a happy medium. If you zoom in too close, you can’t get a proper read on the action; if you zoom way out to the satellite-like view, you can see all the units, but then they all look like colored blocks moving around the screen. Trying to rotate the camera is also a frustrating process. Yes, it can be spun around a full 360 degrees, but it always snaps back to its original location.
Scale manifests itself in one other way: the game’s overall strategy. In the first mission for the United Earth Federation campaign this becomes clear. All you have to do is take out a series of enemy base structures and a mechanized robot. However, the only way to do it is to build a ridiculous number of units. For the overall mission, you probably need over 100 tanks. Sure, it looks impressive scrolling across the screen, but does it really emphasize strategy? It almost feels like the developers spent so much time hyping up the scale of battle that they forgot to fine tune the overall balance.
Supreme Commander may have heavily taxed PCs, but it was worth the price of admission: the game looked fantastic (especially considering the size of the maps and number of units it was rendering). However, the Xbox 360 doesn’t seem made for this game. Textures look blurry and most on-screen objects suffer from an extreme lack of detail. Even when zoomed in, it’s hard to tell what units your cursor is hovering over until the text box explicitly tells you. Perhaps the biggest culprit is the terribly inconsistent framerate. At no point does the game approach a solid clip. In fact, even with just one unit on-screen the game seems to jitter back-and-forth. This never lets up. While this may be passable in, say an RPG, for an RTS – where timing is everything – it’s unacceptable. The lag-like qualities don’t stop there. Just saving the game takes a half-minute. The audio department slips up as well. For some reason, the cinematics have decently mixed audio, but in-game effects like explosions and unit movement are harsh – they have an almost tin-like quality and sound like they’ve been so compressed they’ve lost their original fidelity.
Online play may be the game’s saving grace. The Xbox LIVE matches tested for review connected quickly and exhibited no lag. However, the same framerate problems from single-player carry over, so serious competitors will probably opt for the smoother PC port.
Sometimes platform segregation is a good thing – it would have served Supreme Commander well. The game stood tall and proud on PC, but this port (with its underlying technical issues and wonky controls) doesn’t translate the original’s epic nature.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.0 Graphics
Don’t get too close or you’ll notice the lo-res, blurry textures. Combine that with terrible framerate issues and it’s not a pretty picture. 2.3 Control
This game was made for PC controls and it shows – simple tasks like building and managing units are awkward. 3.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The sound department during cutscenes comes together rather well, but in-game effects like explosions sound tinny and compressed. 2.3 Play Value
Yes, there is a decent-sized, single-player campaign and multiplayer, but with terrible controls and constant performance hiccups, it’s not the same experience it was on the PC. 2.4 Overall Rating – Poor
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.