Those of us who remember playing Total Annihilation recall what was easily one of the most unique Real Time Strategy experiences in digital gaming history. Total Annihilation was an ambitious game with dynamic base building, expansive resource collection, a heavily detailed unit roster, and a physics simulator that was ahead of its time. It was the closest thing to war simulation that the technology of the 90s could bring.
Gas Powered Games, now formally Wargaming Seattle, made Supreme Commander to be the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation and in this they succeeded brilliantly. Supreme Commander continues to capture the epic scope of strategic warfare that Total Annihilation first envisioned. Hundreds of air, land, and naval units clash in small or large engagements in an attempt to assault bases defended by gun emplacements, artillery cannons, and shields. A large unit roster features scores of units encompassing nearly any conceivable combat role. Each of the game’s three factions utilize the same unit types, but subtle differences in design give each faction its own strengths and preferences in combat style.
Coming to grips with the staggering number of units and the different faction abilities is perhaps the chief purpose and accomplishment of Supreme Commander’s single player mode. Each faction’s campaign encompasses six separate missions with each mission progressing in stages of increasing difficulty and scope as the player completes objectives. Often the player has to start with little more than their Commander unit, a strong but critically important mech unit with tremendous construction capacity, with which they must construct a fortified base to begin driving back the enemy. Base building and map expansion can take several hours per mission leading to over twenty hours of gameplay in single player. This is a two-edged sword where Supreme Commander is concerned. The first half of the campaign limits the technology tiers, of which there are three plus the mighty Experimental units, that the player can access and thus the units available. This slow progression gives the player a chance to get familiar with units and structures as they become available. Yet the slow pace of each mission can leave players impatient for higher technology tiers.
Although the campaign’s scripted fortifications and unique terrain features can lead to impressive clashes it is in multiplayer and skirmish that the combat becomes truly dynamic. Forty different maps capable of supporting up to eight players offer a wide range of options for multiplayer and skirmish matches. Some of these maps are quite large and allow for multiple combined arms conflicts; while smaller maps make quick victories possible by forcing two or three player matches into close quarters. The game’s online performance is surprisingly lenient given the large numbers of units generally on the map making most matches seamless on a wide variety of speeds. However the enormous numbers of units that can appear with six or more players can lead to a general decrease in speed without higher end machines.
Supreme Commander’s skirmish mode is very well developed for a modern RTS. Four different levels of AI difficulty can be chosen and the AI’s personality can be further customized with options like Turtle or Rush causing the AI to focus on specific strategies and their appropriate unit types. While this can make the AI predictable it also makes a wide range of battles possible allowing players to determine what sort of war they are interested in fighting.
A special mention should be given to the game’s expansive zoom ability which allows players to move from up close unit examination to a map-encompassing eagle eye view. The system is perfect for managing battles on the scale that Supreme Commander delivers and is meticulously designed for easy control and management. The only tragic aspect of this system is that when the action heats up players tend to spend more time gazing down on a world of dim terrain features and unit markers instead of watching the colorful explosions and dramatic unit destruction.
Supreme Commander is the success story that Total Annihilation deserved to have in the modern gaming community. With an expansive single player aspect and high potential and reliability in multiplayer it caters to any level of RTS preference. The game features a rather high management learning curve for new gamers but its single player campaign and skirmish customization options allow players to become accustomed to the game at their own pace. Supreme Commander isn’t perfect and suffers from unit-pathing issues, particularly among naval units, as well as a weakness for large slow operations. Yet it is a welcome addition to the modern RTS community and a necessary experience for any dedicated RTS player.