If there is a genre out there that has sat pretty stagnant, it’s probably the RTS. In most cases you’re put on a flat map, given a bunch of soldiers, told to build something and then told to defeat someone by some general in a room. Personal stories are out the window, and becoming invested in what is actually a war that kills thousands of people is almost impossible thanks to your God-like disconnection from the battlefield. In short, while the rest of gaming has moved onto epic storylines and truly powerful tales, the RTS, which is a genre ripe for telling epic stories, has pretty much done nothing. This isn’t even touching on the fact that aside from attempting to cram the genre onto a console, the fundamental gameplay hasn’t changed in ages.
Square Enix and Gas Powered Games are hoping to change all this with Supreme Commander 2. By bringing together Square Enix’s well known love of story driven gaming and Gas Powered’s epic RTS heritage the two are hoping to make an RTS like you’ve never seen before. And they’re actually going in to the fundamentals of how RTS function and making them work better too. I got a chance to see exactly what they are doing with SC2 last week, and now you can read all about it.
Supreme Commander 2 (PC, Xbox 360)
To begin with, SC2 is not going to be the computer destroying monster that the original Supreme Commander was. Gas Powered heard the issues people were having, and decided that needing everyone to upgrade their computer in order to play the game probably wasn’t the best sales strategy. Instead they dug their heels in and figured out ways to do more, but with using far less power. According to them they’ve succeeded, and SC2 will run on even some of the lowliest computers out there. To demonstrate this they had some not-so-nice computers running the game next to their all powerful computers. The differences I saw were negligible, so unless they were lying it looks like a far bigger audience will be able to actually play SC2.
One of the ways that the team at Gas Powered Games has made the game run faster is by revamping the path control of how units move. Previously in RTS games you gave a group of units a command to move and they all got individual routes to get there and if they ran into anything they’d bump and rotate and bump again and rotate, ad nauseum. However, in a game like SC where you can literally have hundreds upon hundreds of units on the screen at the same time it became a very big task for the computer to process every move, and on top of that you literally had hundreds of units running into each other constantly. So Gas Powered found some really smart guy and he figured out what they’re calling a flow field.
A flow field is kind of like how people move on a crowded sidewalk. No one bumps into each and then turns; we all just sort of move through each other. In SC2 this is exactly how units will move. When you tell a group of units to move they’ll form up and then move to their location. If they run into something or someone they’ll flow around it like people do instead of stopping and redoing their route or bumping and turning until they’ve figured it out. It cuts down on processor needs because the units are working as a group and it cuts down on gamer aggravation because your units don’t get stuck or muddled. It wasn’t something that truly awed me when they demoed it, but once I got some time with the game on my own it was clear how much better it could make an RTS. Throw in the fact that the new AI actually does whatever you can do instead of simply building and throwing enemies at you and you’ve got two changes to how the RTS works. Whether these fundamental changes are actually major changes is yet to be seen, but it could offer a more challenging and responsive gaming experience that runs far smoother than previous RTS.
Smoother is pretty much exactly what SC2 looks like compared to SC. The UI has been streamlined and slimmed down so that it takes up as little of the screen as possible, but it’s still easy to use and navigate. Meanwhile, the strategic view, a major bullet point for the original game has actually become strategic. One of the cool things about SC is that you can pull your camera out to see the entire map or zoom in on just one unit. This was great in the first game, but pulling out was simply that and nothing more. It gave you a great overall view, but actually wasn’t that strategic. In SC2 pulling all the way out gives you a truly strategic view. The map becomes a grid and your troops get marked as squads. There are also new commands in the strategic view that make it easier to control your troops all the way zoomed out.
The game also has plenty of stuff returning from the original. All three factions in the game (Cybran, UED and Aeon) are back though the Aeon are now called the Illuminate. The experimental vehicles that were such a hit in the original are back, but now there are a whopping 27. Plus, thanks to a new style of research tree functionality, in which players can pick and choose where their research points go, players won’t have to wait until the last few levels to get all the best weapons. You can have a giant walking dinosaur covered in guns by the end of the first level, and no, I’m not making that up. It kind of made me wish for a Dino-Riders RTS.
Not just the number of experimental vehicles has been improved, though. Chris Taylor, the creator of SC and the lead designer on the game, flat out insulted the original game’s maps when comparing them to the ones in SC2. The maps in SC2 have three dimensional terrain and can go from ridiculously small to massively huge. Some of the maps can take your troops a solid chunk of time just to walk across, making strategy on an immensely key element. The maps aren’t just bigger in size; they’re bigger in scope as well. Unlike in the original game where a map had boundaries that you could clearly see by the fact that the world just ended, SC2’s maps go on forever. No matter where you spin the camera you can see the world going on, not simply ending because the map is over. Ocean’s have floors, ships cast shadows and if your unit falls off a cliff (one level is literally in the clouds) he’ll fall of a cliff and you’ll see him falling. The maps appear to be actual worlds, not just maps.
The fullness of the stages is one of the major ways that Gas Powered wanted to actually immerse the player in the world of SC2, which brings me back to the game actually having a story. When Square Enix stepped in as the series' publisher they game to Gas Powered and said they’d love to have them do SC2, but they didn’t just want a bunch of military heads directing you what to do. They wanted a story, with characters you actually care about and a premise that makes the war matter. We got to see very little of this story, but there will be three separate story arcs (one for each faction) that eventually collide at the end of the game. The one we saw the opening cinematic to was the UED, which follows a commander who must choose between duty and love. Each story will have six operations that will give you 18 in all. Unlike the last game, SC2 will not have multiple endings. This is thanks to the extra focus on story, which is easier to create with only one outcome. It was also noted it’s easier to make sequels when there is only one ending.
The game also features a massive multiplayer component. Up to 8 players can take each other on or cooperate to defeat an enemy on a wide variety of maps from the game. The multiplayer functioned smoothly and was deceptively easy to dive into when I played it (as was the single player). Even more amazing was the fact that I didn’t totally suck at it right off the bat, which means they have to be doing something right. However, unless you’re an RTS fan it remains to be seen if the game’s multiplayer could hold your interest any longer than any other RTS could.
Finally, we come to the elephant in the room. The game is also landing on the 360. Anyone who played the port of the original game on the 360 knows that it had a few issues, most of which involved it not being that good. However, this time the 360 version is being developed in house at the same time as the PC version and will have everything the PC version has except for eight player multiplayer as the 360 is capped at four. Of course things have been rearranged a bit for the 360 version. The UI is condensed down to radial selection, much like we saw in Halo Wars and movement and selection have been simplified a bit. To tell the truth, moving into the 360 version of the game straight from the PC version was like hitting a brick wall made out of glorious PC user interfaces. However, once you get use to the interface it does seem to work well enough, with only a few minor problems here or there that could be easily worked out by launch date. Of course, as much as they’d like us to believe that playing on a console is just as good as on a PC, it doesn’t look like Gas Powered has found the secret to making an RTS a truly equal experience on consoles. It will be a few months before we find out for sure as the game launches on March 2 for the PC and March 16 for the 360.