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In 1997, the now defunct Cavedog Entertainment released Total Annihilation, a massive real-times strategy game which could have (but didn't) revolutionize the industry. Unlike other games in the genre, Total Annihilation focused on large-scale combat featuring hundreds of units, including a full compliment of land and naval units like stealth fighters and battleships. The game's maps were massive, dwarfing the battlegrounds of games like Starcraft and Dark Reign. And some famously powerful units, such as the Big Bertha long-range artillery cannon, allowed players to direct incredible amounts of firepower against their foes. The game also included an amazing physics engine which allowed cannon-fire and explosions to act realistically. For example, laser-based weapons were often useless in areas where obstacles blocked their direct line-of-fire, and it was entirely possible for a low-firing aircraft to accidentally be shot down by an artillery cannon placed on a hill.
Unfortunately, there were also problems with the game. These included system requirements which could bring high-end PCs to their knees years after the game was released and a poor online match-making system. As a result, the game became a cult classic rather than a genre-changing hit. But like many PC cult classics, its influence has now been resurrected as the inspiration for a new "spiritual successor" known as Supreme Commander.
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Gameplay: New Games, Old Problems
Supreme Commander's ancestry is immediately apparent when the game is loaded. Numerous elements of the game are similar to that of Total Annihilation, including the use of a commander unit to build your army. Now called the Armored Command Unit, this unit is all you start a match of Supreme Commander with. The ACU is no slouch, however. The ACU is not only the most effective individual construction unit in the game, but is also an incredibly effective combat unit, capable of taking down numerous foes. Upgrades can further increase the abilities of your ACU, making it on par with the game's most powerful super units. Yet, in spite of the ACU's unique role, Supreme Commander is clearly a macro-oriented game, focused more on troop movements then the tactical use of individual units. Building units in Supreme Commander is quick and easy - you'll likely have a larger army in the first ten minutes of Supreme Commander than in an entire game of Dawn Of War. As a result, the basic feel of Supreme Commander remains similar to that of Total Annihilation. The decisions to keep a full compliment of naval and air units in the game reinforces the similarity, although naval units feel tacked-on.
Unfortunately, Supreme Commander stumbles far short from perfect. The largest problem is that while the game provides an incredible rush when its strength - the possibility of massive combat involving multiple players and hundreds of units - can be experienced, these moments are far to rare. While the game makes attempts to prevent rushing, including the option to add a no-rush time limit, these attempts to increase the game's length often fail. High-level ranked matches of Supreme Commander are short, and the game's simplistic and disappointing low-end units means that such short matches never compare to games like Dawn Of War or even Starcraft, which are designed with short matches in mind. The game also suffers from a lack of balance, which in some cases mirrors imbalances that plagued Total Annihilation. Air units, for example, are far too deadly - having the most powerful airforce nearly guarantees victory.
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Graphics: Pretty, At A Price
Supreme Commander's graphics are undoubtedly different than anything else in the genre, thanks to an extremely easy to use camera which can be zoomed close enough to view a single unit or far enough out to view the entire map. The versatility of the camera comes as a shock after playing other RTS games, which typically refuse to allow the player an easy way to view the entire battlefield. As a result of the flexible camera, you'll be able to focus more easily on your strategic planning. With proper use of radar and scouting, you can easily come up with long-term plans for defeating your enemy, such as building a stealth base behind your opponent with the aid of radar jammers, or surprising your enemy by landing air transports full of tanks on an undefended beach-head.
The downside however, is the game's performance. Total Annihilation was a challenging game for computers in its time, and Supreme Commander makes the problem worse. Only the most powerful computers will be able to handle a full 8-player match which lasts past an hour. This is a major blow, because full 8-player matches which last well past an hour are the game's forte. Because all players are forced to play at the same speed as the player with the slowest computer, the speed of large games is glacial. There are times when it is possible to get up, use the bathroom, make dinner, and then return to the game without having to worry about anything significant changing.
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Sounds: The Appeal Of A Blender
Total Annihilation was often bashed for units which sounded uninspired, and praised for a soundtrack of epic classical music which was worth listening to on its own terms. Supreme Commander keeps the uninspired unit sounds, but lacks the epic soundtrack, and as a result the game isn't much to listen to. While the large battles are impressive to your eyes, closing them will result in an undoubtedly under-whelming experience. The game's sounds are simply too generic, and the soundtrack is completely forgettable. While this is not as severe a problem as the gameplay issues plaguing Supreme Commander, it is indicative of the game's lack of polish.
Oh, and about those uninspired unit sounds - they're awful. I didn't mind them in Total Annihilation, but that game is now very old. I'm not a major fan of the argument that good unit sounds give the player a more personal connection to their units, and in a game like this, a personal connection would sort of miss the point. That said, it would be nice to have some form of feedback beyond grinding noises. It is very easy to lose units in combat, and having distinctive, loud unit noises would help confirm that you've selected the proper group.
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Supreme Commander can be a very, very good game - but only under controlled circumstances. When four or more equally skilled players, with good computers and an agreement not to end the game early by rushing, are joined together in a match on one of the game's better maps, Supreme Commander is easily one of the best RTS games ever made. But those requirements are hard to meet, and when any of them fall through, the game quickly unravels.
It would seem, then, that Supreme Commander is destined to follow the footsteps of its predecessor - some dedicated fans will likely be playing this game years from now, but for many gamers, the appeal of this game will be lost.