The name Total Annihilation probably means nothing to gamers who aren't in their 20s and 30s, but back in late '90s, it was one of the most important real-time strategy games in existence. Aside from being one of the first in 3D, it also allowed gamers to easily create their own units and share them with others – something still being done to this day.
Sadly, this is the major feature missing from its spiritual sequel, Gas Powered Games' Supreme Commander (SupCom) . This will no doubt disappoint people familiar with TA, but what the game lacks in that regard is more than made up for in other areas.
The Forever War
Like Total Annihilation, the scale of the setting is enormous. Far into the future, humans have not only colonized vast swaths of the Milky Way, they've mastered matter and energy – space travel is nearly instantaneous, and a single soldier can conquer an entire planet. It's because of this, of course, that the Infinite War has lasted a thousand years. Three sides are party to the slaughter: the UEF, who want to reunite the galaxy at any cost; the Aeon, who are waging a holy war; and the Cybrans, who are simply cyborgs persecuted by the other two factions.
Most importantly, the epic feel extends to actual gameplay. One of the first things you'll notice in the game is the immense size of the battlefields, which are larger than in any RTS title to date. Where it might a minute to encounter enemy troops in a game like Dawn of War or Rise of Nations, it can often take several minutes in SupCom, at least when using ground or naval forces. This can cause the pace of the game to drag at times, but it also presents an unusual freedom. Instead of being forced into linear head-on skirmishes, players can use genuine military strategies, such as flanking, combined ops and forward bases. You finally feel like you're winning a war rather than a minor dust-up.
Correspondingly, you lead many, many more units. It's not uncommon to field 100-200 units for a decent assault force, and even then you need a homeguard, and you may lose both forces several times over before you eliminate the opposition. Things are further complicated by the range of units available, which let you choose between options such as rapid strikes or strategic bombardments, the latter of which can include nuclear weapons. There isn't much variety between the different factions, unfortunately - a UEF tank is functionally similar to an Aeon one - but each side does get a unique "experimental" unit, capable of laying waste to virtually anything in its path. The Aeon have a giant flying saucer for example, while the Cybrans get a slow-moving spiderbot with a sweeping, instantly lethal laser beam. Taking out an experimental feels like an accomplishment.
The game isn't simple to play, as you might expect. The main interface feature is the ability to queue complex unit and building orders, and believe me when I say you will be making use of this constantly by the second mission. There are so many things to control, that you can control, that it would be ridiculous to issue orders one at a time. You can for instance tell a bomber squadron to attack an area, follow a specific exit path, and then assume patrol over a canyon; if you're worried about enemy aircraft, it's not hard to order your own interceptors to assist. Engineers and the ACU can be ordered to either build structures or assist factories in speeding up production. Effectively, a skilled player can all but make the game play itself.
Because of its scale and flexibility, SupCom feels a lot "deeper" than any of its rivals. It may occasionally be slow and bewildering, but the tradeoff proves to be worth it.
The sound and graphics of the game are a mixed bag, though it's mainly the latter. The sound is actually fantastic, generally - there are many original effects, such as loud, bass-heavy explosions, and the score is by TA composer Jeremy Soule. Though I don't think it's his best work, it's a quality soundtrack you'll want to hear at least once. It's not often that games get the full orchestral treatment.
Graphics on the other hand could stand some improvement. The art design is fine, but it's somewhat shocking at times how plainly things come across in the renderer. Terrain has detail such as beaches, vegetation and debris, but it never really feels natural, like it might in Battle for Middle-Earth. Similarly, many of the units and buildings have a low polygon count, and there are also instances in which units will move right through smaller objects. While this is understandable given skirmishes with 500+ individuals, it's still a let down considering impressive early screenshots.
All the more so because of the sheer demand SupCom places on hardware. Somewhat unexpectedly, the issue isn't video performance, but rather the number of cores your CPU has. While a high-end video card helps, reports seem to indicate that jumping from one core to two produces a world of difference. The game is apparently calculating so much under the surface - paths, AI, physics, etc. - that for once, the CPU is carrying most of the burden.
Serious complaints are few but worth bearing in mind. Though the AI is smart enough to attack at range first, and target troops before buildings, it's otherwise tactically braindead. Unless you assume control, units will simply move into minimum range and sit there firing until they, or the enemy, are destroyed. Their being robots notwithstanding, it would be nice if they attempted to flank their enemies, or find cover when taking damage.
And once again, the pace of the game can sometimes be lethargic. It becomes intense whenever two armies come into contact, but this is ignoring the inevitable building and rebuilding periods, which can last 10 to 15 minutes if you want to do it right. Command & Conquer players may be bored to tears, and even patient types like myself can become distracted. Single-player missions can be sped up, thankfully, but there's often so much to build that it's impractical. Automated construction options would be a great boon for a sequel.
Pace is even more of an issue in online matches, where it can only be adjusted by the host. One of two situations is likely to occur: you will either be subjected to a protracted, one- to two-hour grind, or the match will be over in a reasonable time, but at the cost of anyone who isn't intimately familiar with the gameplay. The game is not forgiving of newcomers or bad strategy, especially when you're facing the creativity of a human.
SupCom is almost a throwback to the era of turn-based games from the late '80s and early '90s, when strategy was frequently dominated by grognards - the sort who took Advanced Squad Leader very seriously. You didn't play the games for excitement so much as the satisfaction of a job well done, and as a result, mercy was for the weak.
This game isn't nearly so harsh (or bland), but neither does it hold you by the hand or litter every mission with a dozen cutscenes. It's meant to challenge you, such that all the explosions and epic battles are nearly incidental next to winning. Nearly. Supreme Commander is still mountains of fun; it's just that the gratification is delayed, instead of instant. I think this should be commended.