Time Ex­tend

On Supreme Com­man­der, the RTS that chal­lenged its genre to go big or go home

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY GRA­HAM SMITH

Pic­ture a land cov­ered al­most en­tirely with glow­ing build­ings. In the small gaps be­tween them sit ro­bots, which are fir­ing lasers into the struc­tures to boost their ef­fi­ciency. Above the base hov­ers an enor­mous fly­ing saucer called the Czar. It’s fir­ing a thick laser of its own to­wards the ground, but this one is de­stroy­ing ev­ery­thing be­neath it. Yet time is run­ning out and there’s a quicker way to achieve its goal. A self-de­struct but­ton is pushed. The saucer falls from the sky. What few build­ings be­low sur­vive the ini­tial blast are de­stroyed when the Com­man­der – a par­tic­u­larly tall, bipedal robot – ex­plodes with the force of a nu­clear blast. Wel­come to Supreme Com­man­der.

When de­sign­ers ap­proach the re­al­time strat­egy game, they all seem to ask the same ques­tion: how can we make it smaller? Let’s re­move the base-build­ing, they say, or make it about a squad of only a hand­ful of units, or bet­ter yet just about in­di­vid­ual hero char­ac­ters. Per­haps the player could just place tur­rets while the en­emy ad­vances along a fixed route. Or if play­ers fight one an­other, then the win­ner can be de­ter­mined by who­ever has the best ‘mi­cro’.

Supreme Com­man­der’s de­signer, Chris Tay­lor, asked a dif­fer­ent ques­tion: how can we make the re­al­time strat­egy game big­ger? The an­swer be­gins with enor­mous maps and hun­dreds upon hun­dreds of ro­bots.

SupCom, as it’s ab­bre­vi­ated, has three fac­tions, each of which has its own unique set of units, and each unit comes in three flavours of power un­locked by up­grad­ing your fac­to­ries to dif­fer­ent tiers. This stretches from sim­ple dif­fer­ences – light, medium and heavy tanks, for in­stance – to vastly dif­fer­ent tac­ti­cal op­tions within a sin­gle fac­tion. You can shoot for an army made up of hun­dreds of tier-one as­sault bots cou­pled with some mo­bile shields, or an army fo­cused around just a few tierthree De­mol­isher ar­tillery weapons. You can ig­nore land units en­tirely in favour of dom­i­nat­ing the skies. You can fo­cus your strat­egy around up­grad­ing your Com­man­der, the sole unit you start out with, which es­sen­tially rep­re­sents you on the bat­tle­field. In the stan­dard game mode, to lose your Com­man­der is to lose the game, but if you want you can still up­grade him with weaponry and send him walk­ing slowly across the bot­tom of oceans to reach your en­emy head on.

Why does scale mat­ter? Be­cause it of­fers va­ri­ety. SupCom is a game you can play steadily for a year and still be en­coun­ter­ing units you’ve never seen be­fore.

Con­sid­er­ing its scope and size, it’s re­mark­able SupCom re­mains leg­i­ble. That’s thanks, first and fore­most, to its zoom func­tion, which lets you smoothly tran­si­tion the cam­era from down near the ground to high above the en­tire map. Reach the far­thest ex­tent of the zoom and the world turns to icons like an en­larged ver­sion of the min­imap. No mat­ter how enor­mous the area you’re fight­ing over – the largest span 81 square kilo­me­tres – you can al­ways eas­ily and quickly see ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pen­ing on the bat­tle­field.

And there will be a lot hap­pen­ing on the bat­tle­field. Among the afore­men­tioned fac­tions and tiers, SupCom fea­tures land, sea and air units. Some can tran­si­tion be­tween the two, such as boats that sprout legs to stomp over shore­lines. You’ll have to fight on all th­ese fronts to ex­pand across each map, set­ting up for­ward bases and cap­tur­ing re­source points to fund your econ­omy. There are neat pieces of func­tion­al­ity to help you do so, in­clud­ing fly­ing ve­hi­cles that can carry smaller units, and set­ting au­to­matic pickup points to han­dle not only the pro­duc­tion of units but also ship­ping them off to the front­lines.

Again, why does scale mat­ter to an RTS? Be­cause it gives you more to oc­cupy your strate­gic brain. What­ever SupCom can’t phys­i­cally en­large, it makes more com­plex. It’s a game that ex­pands in the mind as much as on the screen.

It’s the econ­omy that will re­quire most of your brain­power. There are only two re­sources – en­ergy for pow­er­ing build­ings and mass for con­struct­ing build­ings and units – but where most strat­egy games let you start build­ing only what you can af­ford in full at that par­tic­u­lar mo­ment, SupCom lets you start con­struc­tion of any­thing at any mo­ment. That’s be­cause your re­sources are mea­sured not only as a col­lected pool, but also in terms of in­come per sec­ond.

So long as the cost-per-sec­ond of the unit dur­ing the build process is lower than what you’re earn­ing per sec­ond, you’ll be able to build units even if you don’t cur­rently have enough to fund it out­right. If the re­source con­sump­tion is greater than your earn­ing rate, how­ever, then you’ll run out of funds, your econ­omy will crash, and all pro­duc­tion will halt across your en­tire base.

This one small change rip­ples across the de­sign of the en­tire game. Pre­vi­ously bi­nary de­ci­sions about whether to build some­thing be­come a kind of gam­ble, as you start pro­duc­tion on a unit far larger than you can cur­rently af­ford with the hope that your planned eco­nomic ex­pan­sion can keep ahead of it. You might go even fur­ther and launch ex­per­i­men­tal units – the game’s ul­ti­mate su­per­weapons, such as the afore­men­tioned Czar fly­ing saucer – be­fore they’re com­pleted. There is a chance they will fail and crum­ple or fall limply out of the sky be­fore reach­ing your op­po­nent, but there’s also a chance you can rush them out and use them to de­stroy your en­emy be­fore they have a chance to get on their metal­lic feet.

Like most strat­egy games, keep­ing your econ­omy fed means cap­tur­ing nodes across the map and, here, plac­ing mass ex­trac­tors upon them. Un­like most strat­egy games, there’s lots to con­sider about how to set up your base. Mass ex­trac­tors op­er­ate faster when ad­ja­cent to power gen­er­a­tors, for ex­am­ple, and faster still when ad­ja­cent to four power gen­er­a­tors. They can also be boosted fur­ther by telling your small builder units to fire their laser at them. It’s a valid strat­egy to be­gin your match by build­ing five fac­to­ries and ded­i­cat­ing each of them to pro­duc­ing noth­ing but the most ba­sic worker unit, so that those units can in turn su­per­charge your fac­tory’s pro­duc­tion of all fu­ture units.

All of this would just be pleas­ing brain fod­der were there not worth­while op­po­nents to fight against. SupCom’s AI pro­vided a chal­lenge at re­lease, par­tic­u­larly when you pit your­self against the hard­est dif­fi­culty lev­els in the game’s Skir­mish modes, where it had the abil­ity to cheat. It was also heav­ily flawed, how­ever. Op­po­nents would fre­quently mis­man­age their own econ­omy, gath­er­ing far more re­sources than they were spend­ing. This would even­tu­ally be fixed via a mod, So­rian AI, that is now the only way any­one plays the game. De­vel­oper Gas Pow­ered Games later hired Mike Rob­bins, So­rian’s cre­ator, to work on fu­ture games at the stu­dio.

So­rian makes your op­po­nents ruth­lessly ef­fi­cient and fright­en­ingly re­spon­sive. Build long-range weaponry within range of a So­rian AI’s base and they’ll build shield domes to pro­tect them­selves. The bases they build are de­signed for max­i­mum ef­fi­ciency. They’re won­der­ful to look at, like bee­hives made of metal and lasers, and a de­light to pit your­self against, though you might want to bring a friend for help. On the high­est dif­fi­culty lev­els of the So­rian AI

THIS IS SUPCOM AT ITS BEST, SIT­TING AT THE VERY LIM­ITS OF WHAT YOUR BRAIN CAN REA­SON­ABLY KEEP TRACK OF

mod, they’re likely too much for a sin­gle per­son to han­dle.

This is SupCom at its best. In skir­mishes, with the AI, the hun­dreds of units, the size of the maps, and the com­plex eco­nomic model, it sits at the very lim­its of what your brain can rea­son­ably keep track of at any one mo­ment. You’ll be fight­ing bat­tles on mul­ti­ple fronts, zoom­ing and scan­ning across the map, fran­ti­cally try­ing to keep up. One mo­ment will be spent de­fend­ing your home; the next you’re es­tab­lish­ing a new for­ward base. Then you’re in­creas­ing power ef­fi­ciency and build­ing an ex­per­i­men­tal unit, then keep­ing track of your en­emy’s progress. To sug­gest that Skir­mish mode is

SupCom at its best might im­ply that the sin­gle­player cam­paign mode isn’t up to much. Let’s make that ex­plicit, then: the cam­paign is dread­ful. Its early mis­sions func­tion as a ca­pa­ble tu­to­rial for the game’s con­cepts, but its mis­sion de­sign is ul­ti­mately too re­stric­tive, in that it pre­vents you from build­ing at the scale at which the game thrives, and too repet­i­tive, in that a sin­gle mis­sion might ask you to build a new base again and again as it ad­vances. When cou­pled with a non­sense story about the war be­tween its three fac­tions, there’s lit­tle rea­son to play it when you can just skip di­rect to the Skir­mish mode and play with the game’s toy­box to your heart’s con­tent.

SupCom was a spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to an­other game, To­tal An­ni­hi­la­tion, and was fol­lowed by a stand­alone ex­pan­sion called

Forged Al­liance. This added a fourth fac­tion with all-new units, new units to the ex­ist­ing three fac­tions, and ex­panded the scale even fur­ther by in­clud­ing or­bital weaponry. With the So­rian AI mod in­stalled, it’s the best way to ex­pe­ri­ence SupCom’s max­i­mal­ism to­day. There was a se­quel, but while

Supreme Com­man­der 2 is a ca­pa­ble strat­egy game, it throws away most of what made the orig­i­nal am­bi­tious by shrink­ing the scale and sim­pli­fy­ing the eco­nomic model.

Un­for­tu­nately, SupCom was not a huge com­mer­cial suc­cess. Few games have fol­lowed in its foot­steps, and none have done so suc­cess­fully. The stu­dio has since been ac­quired by Wargam­ing.net and is now known as Wargam­ing Seat­tle, but it’s yet to re­lease a game of its own. It’s a sad end for a com­pany that sug­gested a more ex­cit­ing fu­ture for the RTS than came to pass.

The ter­rain is mod­i­fied by nearly ev­ery ac­tion, from craters be­ing formed by fall­ing ro­bots to foot­steps mark­ing beaches

Supre­meCom­man­der’s maps are so vast that they re­quire you to set up troop­trans­port routes to ferry your units to the front­lines

The scale meant it was easy to lose track of units. That could spell dis­as­ter, as planes like th­ese would hope­lessly at­tack stronger op­po­nents

SupCom’s ex­cel­lence ex­tended to its trailer, sell­ing the game’s scope in four min­utes and fea­tur­ing this spi­der­bot at its cli­max

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