Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Best RTS that I never want to play again

In the months leading up to Supreme Commander’s February 2007 release, I followed the previews and first-look features like a cultist watching a comet. The game was impossibly ambitious, promising an RTS experience that would make everything before it irrelevant and everything after it inferior. If it worked.

Well, it worked, and it worked beautifully. It delivered the experience I wanted – but I was mistaken in wanting it.

Ten years before Supreme Commander, GT Interactive published a game called Total Annihilation, an RTS about humans fighting robots in space. Command & Conquer, Warcraft II and Red Alert had already established themselves as princes of the genre, making lesser clones scuttle about the shelves below them. Total Annihilation, developed by Chris Taylor and Cavedog Entertainment, blew them out of the water. Its emphasis on large-scale battle, combined land, air and sea tactics and intelligent use of terrain made its peers look like simple minded point-and-click action games. It cleaned up critically, and garnered a devoted following. In 2004, Gamespot named it the best RTS of all time, leaving Starcraft pouting in second place.

When Taylor announced a follow-up in 2005, one can imagine the pressure. The genre had been carpet-bombed with sequels, spiritual successors and expansion packs in TA’s eight year absence, and while Taylor’s game still held the moral high ground, he know that he would need to upstage his genius efforts of yesteryear, and then some.

Brace for superlatives: Supreme Commander delivered the biggest, most beautiful, and smartest battles in RTS history (excepting the excellent Total War series, which is a different thing altogether). In any given battle, at any given time, several clashes occurred on several fronts. Say, for example, one: enemy forces are rushing your defenses, so you’re building tanks at your land factory and ordering your engineers to construct walls and turrets. Two: an enemy raiding party is attacking a remote resource extractor. You send your bombers, but they stumble across a flotilla of cruisers and get smashed by Surface-to-Air Missiles. You send torpedo bombers after the warships, but a squadron of interceptors has taken notice, and exception. Three: remember that strike force you snuck behind enemy lines? Well they do, and now you either have to risk your transports in a rescue mission or sacrifice several very expensive assault bots. All this is happening on a map scaled 81 kilometers by 81 kilometers. Also, you don’t know this, but a giant spider robot is scaling the hills behind your base right about…now.

It’s the ultimate RTS, providing the depth and complexity that you’ve craved for years. And if you’re playing this at 60 frames per seconds on top settings, congratulations! You own technology that doesn’t yet exist.

I’ve never owned a great gaming rig, and thus have surrendered myself to fuzzy textures, aliased lines and elementary shaders. I take it stoically – if I ever need something pretty, I’ll fire up Half Life 2, which still looks good after four years and will run on anything faster than a Commodore 64. But Supreme Commander is merciless. I’ve seen top-end hardware stutter at 20 frames per second on SupCom’s “high” settings. And if you throw hundreds of units onto the screen, well, I hope you like slideshows.

There’s no excuse for SupCom’s poor optimization. The Total War series displayed thousands of units on screen without breaking a sweat – okay, maybe a little sweat. It glowed. Supreme Commander drips with effort. But when you ask a computer to crunch the tactical sum of the Russo-Japanese War (with with more colors, and more robots) into a three-hour game, what else do you expect?

And yes, that’s three hours. Larger multiplayer or skirmish games will take that long. In order to support a war machine capable of contending for land, air and sea, you need a resource infrastructure robust enough to rival WWII-era America. This means an easy hour of building power plants, resource extractors/fabricators, and defenses to protect them from enemy attacks. Your ability to produce the more powerful units in a reasonable amount of time depends on your resource pool, and if it’s insufficiently deep, forget it. You’ll be building that spider robot for forty minutes. And the enemy will throw everything they have at your resources– I’ve seen literally hundreds of bombers sacrificed in an attempt to take out one extractor.

Once you get there, it’s glorious. Chris Taylor made a game for nit-picking, micromanaging Obsessive-Compulsive Disordered freaks such as myself – I know this, because buildings queued up for construction display an Estimated Time of Arrival, as do strike missions. When two separate groups are told to attack a single target, the game urges me to right-click again to synchronize their attacks. I could weep. The precision maneuvers I’ve longed to execute were finally possible. My landing party will touch down at the exact moment my: Bombers strike the power grid; cruise missiles smash the defenses; spider-robot rises from the sea like a leviathan, and marches onto the enemy’s shores. Attempting this in Command & Conquer is like recreating Hamlet with sock puppets.

But in order to manage such a carefully-choreographed opera of death, you’ll spend the game at a stratospheric zoom level, where the units are reduced to icons made of circles, squares, triangles, and other polygons. The flash, smoke and fire of war are happening hundreds of miles beneath you. It feels sterile. Cold. You spend hours like this.

When the distant, smoke and fire have faded, what are you left with? You built a bunch of stuff, told it to go somewhere and kill some other stuff. Yes, your flanking maneuver was very pretty, and yes, it was well-timed to your artillery barrages, but the key to your success was still overwhelming, indomitable firepower. You will never see an inferior force triumphing through tactics and guile – in SupCom, bigger is better, and bigger always wins. In this way, Taylor’s opus is no different than Westwood’s original Command & Conquer, released in 1995.

Supreme Commander is the best RTS ever made, period. It looks great on paper, and performs brilliantly – it is the class overachiever. But its beauty is tragic. It lacks the personality of the simplistic, corny, and admittedly lesser games like Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars. After a few sessions of SupCom’s icy, aloof detachment, you’ll want to warm yourself by the arcade-like gameplay and campy humor of Red Alert 3.

It gets lonely in the ivory tower.