With conquering the galaxy as your objective, Supreme Commander takes the player into epic real-time battles on large maps with hundreds of units. Players will find their patience rewarded by an RTS that captures the scale of an interplanetary war in a way few other games can manage. Experienced RTS players will find plenty to like, even if some aspects of the game fall flat.
Supreme Commander takes place in the closing days of a thousand-year war between three factions. They are the United Earth Federation, the Cybran Nation, and the Aeon Illuminate: space fascists, cyborg revolutionaries, and technologically-advanced religious fanatics, respectively. After a millennium of war, the Federation is slowly being pushed back on all fronts. However, its secret weapon of mass destruction, called Black Sun, could change that.
There’s not much else to say about the story of Supreme Commander. It does a decent job of stringing the missions together. You might find yourself liking one or two characters more than others. There is even a bit of intrigue surrounding the internal politics of the Aeon Illuminate.
Still, don’t expect much in the way of big twists or surprise reveals. None of the characters deviate much from their archetypes. Once you know what each faction’s goals are, the story plays out more or less as you’d expect. The writing is about on par with some of the better Command & Conquer games, which I’d say is good enough.
If there is one area where the writing irritates, it’s the repeated in-mission NPC dialogue. Every so often, one of the briefing NPCs will feel the need to reiterate whatever the current objective is. While tolerable at first, after the 10th time, it starts to grate. Considering some missions run over an hour, this gets annoying fast.
Anyone who expects photorealism in an RTS is barking up the wrong tree, but for a game from 2005 Supreme Commander looks pretty good. The human and Cybran characters remind me of the ones in Ace Combat 5. It’s not a style that everyone loves, but one that ages very well. But, that’s just cutscenes. Even if Supreme Commander front-loads them a bit too much, they’re still only a small part of the game.
The battlefield maps are vast and impressively detailed. Ships have spinning radar arrays, and trees fall when tanks drive into them. Debris remains constant on the terrain. The screen jostles when a sufficiently massive explosion occurs in the player’s sight. While little touches like this don’t exactly make or break a game, they go a long way to creating a sense of immersion that most people probably don’t expect to find in an RTS.
My one complaint is in the design of the Aeon units. While it’s reasonably easy to tell different models of Federation and Cybran tanks and aircraft apart, it’s genuinely difficult to tell one Aeon unit from another. This can become a real problem if the player can’t tell if the object in from of them is an anti-tank or anti-aircraft gun.
As I may have just indicated, a big part of the strategy in this real-time strategy game is having the rig units to counter the enemy’s units. While there are some general-purpose vehicles, most are specialized to a specific role. For the most part, it’s reasonably intuitive. Interceptors counter bombers. Submarines are devastating against most ships, but can’t attack air units. So, Supreme Commander does an excellent job of encouraging the player to experiment with their unit combinations.
My main criticism of the gameplay in Supreme Commander is it takes place primarily in the campaign. Each instance of combat only lasts a minute or two, and it can take a while to get there. Part of the problem is the speed of ground units relative to the size of the maps. Tanks seem to crawl across the ground rather than roll.
The other contributing factor is the ridiculously long build times. Also, the units like to spread themselves out and easily get in each other’s way. These factors combined can make the simple act of going from one place to another genuinely frustrating.
The tactical combat is engaging enough to make it worth the hassle. But if something goes wrong, players are better off loading a save than spending another 20 minutes trying to recoup their losses.
Supreme Commander is not a perfect game. The story is competent, but unremarkable. The pace is slow, even when compared to other real-time strategy games from the same era.
On the other hand, the expansive maps and large armies gives a sense of scale many games struggle with. The attention to detail made the world feel real in a way I didn’t expect going in.
The slow pace and periods of tedium might be too much for some. But, those who see it through will find Supreme Commander offers a challenging but rewarding gameplay experience.