Chris Taylor, formerly of Cavedog and now of Gas Powered Games, creates beautiful, complex, and epically scaled real time strategy games. Think of him as the Thom Yorke of gaming—you either love or hate his pretentious anti-pop approach to designing. Now imagine what it would be like if Yorke tried writing a sequel to Radiohead’s OK Computer as a tween-centered Jonas Brothers-esque pop album.
That’s the feeling you get when you play Taylor’s Supreme Commander 2, the sequel to a extremely epic, complex, and esoteric game that instead of becoming more ornate, instead takes a sharp turn towards approachability. Instead of being Taylor’s opus, Supreme Commander 2 (ported to the Mac by Virtual Gaming) is the kid-version of Supreme Commander.
But first, some back story: Chris Taylor was lead designer of Cavedog’s Total Annihilation, one of the most underrated games in history. The first real-time strategy game to offer 3D graphics, its scale and impressive array of units were beyond anything else at the time, and the numbers of strategies meant that you weren’t funneled to the same tactical choke points of Blizzard or Westwood’s franchises. Simply put, Total Annihilation was a brilliant, underrated game that some critics actually preferred to Starcraft.
When Total Annihilation’s Cavedog went under in 1999, Chris Taylor later went on to Gas Powered Games where he helped design 2007’s Supreme Commander, the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation. Disappointingly, Supreme Commander never made it to the Mac. Instead, we get 2010’s Supreme Commander 2 only months after it launched on Windows.
It’s important to understand the back-story on the game because traditionally speaking, this is a series of games meant for a very specific, dedicated real time strategy audience.
So, yes, fans of the series will be disappointed. Supreme Commander 2 cuts out many of the units from the first game, simplifies the research system, and even manages to reduce the scale all the while being less graphically complex. While the game still looks great and on my iMac i7, never hiccupped even when engaged in full-scale battles with hundreds of units, it’s disappointing to see that the maps are generally smaller and the battle systems so genuinely altered.
For a series that is built on balance and flexibility, there are also some strange design choices that reduce your strategy options. Now since research points can be allocated to the tech tree of your choice, you can essentially “research rush” a specific force (land, sea, or air) and have an unbalanced, but tactically superior force in no time. I also have no idea why the designers chose to eliminate the Illuminate’s (one of the three factions) entire naval force. Any map with a body of water now makes little sense to play with the Illuminate.
Now that I’ve spoken like a true bitter fan boy for the first part of this review, let me explain why Supreme Commander 2 is still an exceptional game.
Gas Powered Games has always been unafraid of scale. The Supreme Commander series still puts the “epic” in real-time strategy. That 200-unit cap you see with other sci-fi RTS? Pfft. Try a 500-unit count. While other games will present you with a mini map of the entire battlefield, with Supreme Commander, you can zoom in and out and actually see the entire battlefield from a God-like vantage point or zoom in and see individual units attack and defend. You also don’t have just one build unit, but can train slews of engineers to build your armies and bases in no time.
This of course means that build-orders and micromanaging are extremely important in Supreme Commander 2, even more so than in games like Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty ( ) or Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars ( ). All three factions start with an ACU, which is a building unit/mech that has a great defensive system but is often essential to keep intact in order to win any mission. There are also tanks, robots, air units, naval units, hovercraft, experimental units, amphibious units, nuclear bombs, and experimental structures. You’ll be doing your fair share of resource gathering by extracting mass and producing electricity, but you can only extract mass from specific, tactically-important sources.
You’ll likely be assigning engineers to build defenses while others build factories that are churning out dozens of units all the while you’re assigning research points and deciding on the viability of experimental units (high priced but ultra-powerful units that can often only be built one at a time).
So while fans of the series will find this game has been made into Supreme Commander lite, it’s still one of the more complex and epically scaled real time strategy games you’ll see this side of Starcraft II. Multiplayer battles can last hours and the campaign missions require patience and the churning out of hundreds of units in order to beat.
Supreme Commander 2’s story focuses on three commanders from the differing factions and their personal struggles to see justice done in a galaxy at war. But without larger contextual cutscenes, everything feels like designed battlefields. You start as the UEF commander Maddox who ends up rebelling against the oppressive and bigoted faction in order to protect his Illuminate wife and family. Next you play as a rogue Illuminate brother and sister who are angry at their own government for what they see to be its oppression. Finally you play as Ivan Brackman, a cybernetic composite of several people who is trying to help his friends and still fight for his “father,” the leader of the cybernetic Cybran nation.
While the missions are challenging and take hours to complete, the characters, voice acting, and story are all forgettable. If there has ever been a flaw to Taylor’s games it’s that there’s too much uniformity to the units and not enough emotional weight to the story. The units are all futuristic robots fighting each other—you won’t see any blood or organic matter (save some grass) in the entirety of the battlefield. Similarly, the characters are all morally ambiguous people living in giant space suits with no real urgency or importance given to each faction. The Cybran are robotic/cybernetic people with insect like units. The Illuminate are religious fanatics with more round-looking units and the UEF plays like any other kind of futuristic, militaristic society. The units, frankly, don’t look distinctive and due to the large scale, rarely can any single one decide the fate of a conflict (with the exception of an experimental). The result is that you’re sending your mass of robots at another players and get to sit back and watch the explosions.
Macworld’s buying advice
Gas Powered Games didn’t exactly throw the baby out with the bathwater, but that baby definitely lost some limbs. I actually like the new research system as it gives players the freedom to adjust their focuses at their discretion; but right now the system is too easy to game so you can get an insurmountable advantage over your opponent in multiplayer. You wish the series would have evolved to perhaps give players more tools to control their units, and hey, more units, while still keeping the basic core economic principles in play—and for that lack of evolution, or rather, outright devolution, Supreme Commander 2 is disappointing. For those who were hoping this would be a challenge to Starcraft II, well, be content that the scale is still epic, the units are still numerous, and there are naval battles for at least two of the factions.
[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]