If there is one genre that console gaming has failed to get to grips with, it’s real time strategy. Mostly due to a combination of the clumsiness of a control pad (in comparison to the smooth flow of the trusty keyboard and mouse) and the general complexity of the menu systems, console RTSs have either been too convoluted and fiddly for the novice to grasp, or needlessly dumbed down, forsaking complexity for accessibility.
The follow-up title to 2008’s spiritual successor to the seminal Total Annihilation, Supreme Commander 2clearly aims to slot somewhere between the two, appealing to both the layman and the hardcore strategist. For the most part, however, it fails to succeed.
Whereas the PC version original SC was roundly praised for its epic feel, the later Xbox 360 port, due to a combination of wonky controls, severely below-par graphics, and a broad cut in the size of the game’s maps, was critically mauled, and understandably so.
A few of those issues have been addressed in this sequel, the most noticeable being the visuals. While obviously not up to the standards of the PC version, the graphics are vastly superior to the first title.
However, the main gripe with SC2 is with the interface. The gameplay is typical RTS fare: defend your base against enemy attacks by spawning troops/weapons/defence mechanisms and deploying them when and where you see fit. Via your ACU (a Transformers-esque giant robot that helps build your military apparatus) mass extractors and power generators, construction is controlled through a standard menu system.
Overall, the system (highlight which items you wish to generate, press A, wait, repeat) should be relatively straightforward for veteran RTS fans. However, those unfamiliar with RTS conventions may find things particularly perplexing, especially when it comes to things such as building shields and other such paraphernalia to protect your factories. There is a tutorial, but it lasts approximately 30 minutes, attesting to the game’s inherent confusion over whom it may be aimed at.
It also doesn’t help that the controls are still a complete pain. Rather than have each flick of the analogue stick highlight a different rank, vehicle type or building (arguably a much quicker and more convenient way to handle battle on a console) you select your battalions by moving a curser across the screen. Without the smooth flow of a mouse, the curser moves at a painfully slow and uneven pace, meaning selecting the appropriate group of fighters to send off to battle can prove incredibly frustrating, indeed.
Unlike the PC version, the game’s camera refuses to zoom out so the whole map can be viewed on screen at once. This means that, if you are attempting to control two skirmishes taking place at opposite ends of the screen, you have to drag the agonizingly sluggish curser between fights, leaving you more vulnerable than you need to be.
In order to obtain new weaponry and vehicles, as well as to upgrade your existing armaments, SC2 employs a research system. This is effectively a pseudo-RPG-style upgrade system in which the more experience you gain in battle, the more points you earn to acquire new items. This is easily the games standout feature and, with perhaps a little more care with implementation, could eventually prove to be exactly the sort of thing that is needed to make RTSs more accessible to console players.
Although the first few battles are arguably far too easy, even for newcomers, the difficulty curve smoothes out rather evenly, increasing incrementally with each fight. Also, despite the aforementioned clunky controls, the game still somehow manages to create an atmosphere of mounting tension, thanks in part to a surprisingly affecting musical score.
However, despite being a significant improvement on the first game (which, let’s be honest, isn’t saying much), and despite several flawed attempts at innovation and accessibility, Supreme Commander is the perfect example of why real time strategy will never truly work on consoles.
Supreme Commander 2 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.