Format: PC (version tested), 360
Release: Out now
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Gas Powered Games
The sins of the father, in Supreme Commander 2’s case, cannot be visited on the son. The first game, genuinely unprecedented in scale, was over-complicated to all but the most committed generals. In scaling Supreme Commander 2 back from a similarly huge scope, Gas Powered Games has dulled the spectacular impact of its sequel – but has lent it the punch its dad lacked.
In tightening its belt, the bloat that marred its predecessor is out. Matches take around three quarters of an hour – if they slip over this period, it’s down to one contestant artificially extending the tussle. A game against a worthy adversary feels like you’re both pushing against opposite sides of a door – as soon as one of you gets the space and time to marshal your strength, pushing forward hard enough will always flatten your foe. This finality, once a suitably lethal attack is composed, is emphasised in the destruction of a foe’s Armoured Command Unit. As soon as an ACU is hit with enough firepower, he’ll burst into nuclear flame, immolating nearby units and factories, usually – but not always – crippling a war effort.
Pulling together a force powerful enough to excise your opponent from the game is a simple affair. Unit-producing structures are split into three: land, air and sea, and almost every offensive unit can be spat from their neatly animated gates, with vehicles of varying specialisation – weakly-armoured rocket launchers, lightning-quick assault mechs – unlockable through research. Mixed forces fare well, but quickly finding and exploiting pairs of overlapping strengths is a satisfying test mechanic. Some, like the fighter and bomber tropes, fit together perfectly; others – the shield generator and assault bot – make sense through testing and re-testing.
Research points accumulate throughout the game, sped on by destruction of onrushing units or the erection of specific ‘research stations’. These points are plugged into the game’s tech tree, which in turn unlocks access to a variety of boosts, buffs and extras that vary according to team. Following the ‘air’ path of the UEF, for example, yields weak air-to-ground helicopter gunships after a small outlay; the Cybrans, after a little longer pumping points into their tech-tree equivalent, get the Soul Ripper: a hovering weapons platform.
Supreme Commander 2 has three banners under which players fight. The UEF are real-world army analogues, operating with chunky armour and partial to large artillery. They’re joined by the cyborg fetishist Cybrans (ruled, perhaps unwisely, by a brain in a jar) and the alien-worshipping Aeon, whose anti-gravity vehicles mean they have no need for seafaring research. Each is well-balanced, but tinged with indistinction: it took us around 20 hours of play to note that the Aeon benefit more from the general ‘training’ upgrades the tech-tree provides than the other sides, the game having not provided this information explicitly.
In trimming the fat from the first game’s quivering form, Supreme Commander 2 generates a consciously focused game. Notably, the economics are simplified: mass and power exist as the only resources with which players need to contend, and with enemy AI rarely going out of its way to disrupt supply lines, it’s easy to survive a match with minimal expansion. With your war machine’s monetary matters demoted to the back of your mind after a certain point in each match, it becomes much simpler to concentrate on a specific plan.
After all, ambling around on the tech-tree without a focus is suicide against human opponents, or the tougher, ‘cheating’ level AIs. Open about the toys you can play with in the final stages of research, strategy in Supreme Commander 2 is pure – worked out before the battle begins and maintained as a line under your tactical moves. Attempting to react on the fly to your foe’s onrushing force is near impossible, with comparatively lengthy build times, but finding your enemy pricked on the lasers of your anti-air batteries – foolishly having pumped their resources into fliers – is a meaty, concentrated thrill. Holding your hand back until ready to strike with a premeditated scheme, it’s the same thrill of rock, paper, scissors – or robot, paper, scissors, if you will.