Killer robots from outer space. From Isaac Asimov's foundational works, to Ronald D. Moore's "re-imagined" Cylons, the theme has been covered millions of times over. Fictional robot wars are such a ubiquitous concept in mainstream media, that the mere thought of another synthetic-filled universe runs the risk, fairly or unfairly, of being cliché right from the outset. Supreme Commander 2 jumps head first into this milieu and, unfortunately, emerges drenched in cliché, both the killer robot kind and the standard-fare RTS kind.
Upon skimming the manual, in an effort to steep myself in the lore of this new universe before diving into the gameplay, I found the same tired mish-mash of backstories that most science fiction settings suffer from. The first playable faction presented is the UEF, composed of all of the stereotypically "negative" qualities of current day America, such as an out-of-control military-industrial complex, evil corporations, and a ruthlessly imperial mindset. Next we have the antithesis of the UEF, the Illuminate, which is composed of an almost Taoist (complete with a guiding philosophy called "the Way"), supposedly peace-loving people. They act as the first "wronged" faction which the UEF exploits. The other "wronged" nation is the Cybran, a formerly enslaved race of cybernetically enhanced humans. As you can see, this is well-trodden sci/fi territory and, unfortunately, a sign of things to come.
I started my foray into the game with the tutorial, which did an adequate job of showing me how just about any current-day RTS operates. Other than the fact that you can salvage scrap metal from the wreckages of destroyed units and buildings, I was somewhat disappointed by how very generic everything seemed. The tutorial also served to bring two visual problems to the forefront: the lack of detail and personality and the distorted sense of scale.
The first word that came to my mind when I laid eyes on my "commander" unit was "Legos", and not even the cool space-themed Legos. I'm talking about the blocky, multicolored variety pack that you're given as a toddler. The developers, in what I'm assuming was an effort to differentiate between teams at wide zoom angles, colored the campaign UEF units in bright, electric blue and yellow. The UEF also hosts a fleet of tanks and artillery that, likewise, looks like something a kindergartner would assemble with blocks before nap time. The other factions fare slightly better, with the Illuminate adopting a softer, rounded motif mixed with chevron banners and the Cybran really embrace the arachnid style. But even with the latter two, you can pretty much replace the word "Legos" with "Erector Sets" and get the same bland result.
Gas Powered Games really wants you to feel like you are inhabiting a universe filled with giant, monolithic machines. The commander unit, for example, is supposed to be around six stories tall. The largest units are meant to feel like skyscraper-sized, laser-spewing monsters. But for whatever reason, whether it's the constantly zoomed out angles, the lack of unit detail, or even the exclusion of some actual humans running around as a reference point, the large units read as being average-sized and the small units come off as walking peashooters. It's ironic that in a game devoted to mammoth robots, most of the units make your army feel very puny. Even the nuclear explosions seem like scaled down versions of their real-life counterparts.
Continuing on with the singleplayer Campaign, the blandness persisted. You take on the personas of three different commanders, each belonging to one of the factions. The story eventually ties all of the commanders together in a fight against a common enemy, but it does so in a formulaic, boring way. I'm not sure I can necessarily fault an RTS for half-assing the story, since most strategy games hardly bother with one. The best you can say about Supreme Commander 2's attempt at a narrative is that it gives you a sufficient reason to advance to the next map.
At this point I can imagine the masses shouting, "Who cares about the visual style or the story? It's all about the gameplay!". Fair enough, but I warn you, it's no bed of roses in that direction, either. The copy-and-paste formula of building a base, collecting resources, constructing an army (or a navy, or an air force), and steamrolling over your opponent is alive and well in Supreme Commander 2.
The raw materials needed to do anything in the game are mass and energy. Mass extractors can only be built on pre-determined pads but energy reactors can be placed anywhere. This dynamic is a hold-over from previous Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander games when balancing a delicate economy was almost its own game-within-a-game. But in simplifying the economy for Supreme Commander 2, Gas Powered Games neglected to ask themselves if the old resources were still relevant to gameplay. Mass is always the only actually valuable resource (given its rarity on the map) and energy always flows in abundance. Most games, I end up with tens of thousands of unused energy points, meanwhile I've constantly been eyeing my mass meter, waiting for it to rise so I could build that next batch of units. Yes, you can eventually convert unused energy into mass, but that smacks of the developers applying a Band-Aid to an imbalanced economy.
The three factions, while retaining a few key differences, remain largely similar. It's almost as if the developers wanted to diversify but were struck by a wave of timidity regarding game balance, and decided to hedge their bets, instead. For example, the Illuminate lack a navy but it doesn't really matter since most of their land units can hover over the water. When you look carefully, the only thing you find is the illusion of uniqueness.
Research is another key area of gameplay and turns out to be one of the few truly interesting parts of the game. The process is simple in its design but extremely flexible in its application. You accumulate research at a steady rate (augmented by the number of research buildings you choose to construct), and spend those points in branching tech trees covering land, sea, and air units, buildings and your commander. You can choose to distribute them evenly but the far more interesting approach involves specializing in one direction or another to enhance whatever play-style you favor. In this way, you can quickly bulk up your air force to provide an impenetrable umbrella overhead. Or you could turn your commander into death-dealing juggernaut. The variations are numerous and research alone can provide variety and fun to an otherwise by-the-numbers RTS.
Since the days of StarCraft, players have classified themselves into two basic RTS play-styles: rushers (those that blitz the enemy hard and fast, forgoing defense) and turtlers (those that build an iron curtain of defense and slowly amass a giant invasion force). Supreme Commander 2 bends over backwards to make turtlers happy. Every faction has extensive ways of shielding whole areas of the map or even mobile armies. Also in everyone's arsenal are numerous artillery options, including some huge stationary cannons. In observing a few multiplayer matches, I noticed that the games almost always devolved into a long-range bomb-on-shield affair with both sides competing in an arms race under heavy cover. Rushing is certainly possible, but extensive and cheap defenses, combined with clever research choices, can end a rush attack seconds after it begins. While some may not like this approach, it does result in some pretty impressive slug-fests, with some matches lasting over an hour.
The multiplayer portion of Supreme Commander 2 is, you guessed it, entirely passable. It has a good selection of maps to choose from, along with the full "easy" to "cheating" array of AI enemies to battle, including "turtle" versions of each difficulty level. Along with some minor tweaks to gameplay settings (such as the option to disallow all navy or air units), and a few different game modes, the multiplayer is solid, if not entirely thrilling. There are some basic GUI annoyances (such as an entering player forcibly removing a host-created AI slot) and one match I was observing entered an unending paused state mid-game (though everyone could still scroll across the map and chat) and then crashed to desktop when a disconnect was attempted. These are mild issues, however, and don't seriously hamper the gameplay.
When creating a strategy game about robots, one has to really outshine the competition. In a cacophony of uniform voices, it's a shame that Supreme Commander 2 simply gets drowned out. Gas Powered Games chose to play it safe with this release, simplifying the game from previous entries in the series and, perhaps in the process, robbing it of any personality that the series once had.