I'm starting to think StarCraft II is the iPod of real time strategy games. Hear me out before forming a lynch mob!
When the iPod came out, it wasn't the first, or necessarily the most technically advanced mp3 player. But it did what people wanted, and even more importantly, it had soul. Design and fashion balanced almost perfectly. Almost overnight, it became the device of choice for the masses.
However, what happened next is the key to my analogy. Big companies saw the iPod and panicked. They took they key concepts of the iPod, and attempted to create their own device. But none were as popular. All the consumer saw were rushed imitations of the champion. Rather than playing to their strengths, most of the major electronics companies refocused to be more like the competition. The only problem was, as the market shares show, none of them quite got there.
StarCraft II is the big RTS this year. Very big. EA knows it, and Gas Powered Games knows it. And I'm sad to report, both companies appear to have panicked, and reworked their titles. Neither sequel plays much like it's predecessor. Sure, it's a conspiracy theory, but one I think that has merit. You can see, when playing C&C 4 and Supreme Commander 2, that the Blizzard style of RTS has filtered through. I love Blizzard RTS games, and the way they play. But I loved the competition because they played in different ways.
Supreme Commander 2 is not what it should have been. It's been simplified, reduced, watered down. The focus has shifted from technology trees to basic research points. The maps are smaller, with more choke points, much like StarCraft. There are less units. The economy is very basic.
You focus more on particular units, and your commander has become more of a hero unit than in the first game, with many more upgrade options. Is this due to a Defence of the Ancients/Warcraft III influence perhaps?
You can probably tell, I'm disappointed. Supreme Commander 2 isn't actually a bad game at all. It's just not really supreme. What made the first game so good was the epic scale - the massive maps, and stupid number of units. Instead you now have maps that barely equate to the medium sized maps of the old game, and a lot less units.
The units you can build initially are limited. You have to unlock even some of the basic units through research points. The developers sell this as a method of empowering you to make strategic decisions about which units to unlock. This is a great concept, however in application it's completely flawed. You simply spam research stations and unlock everything in about seven minutes of game time.
This has had a marked effect on the economy. Since you don't need mass and energy for access to higher tier units, the whole system for building units is changed. Gone is the ability to stack build queues. instead, you can only build what you currently have resources to build. I prefer the old system, which was carried over from Total Annihilation. You could queue as many units as you liked, and they would simply build slowly when you were low on resources. You could effectively hire purchase your units, and leave your factories to spit out hundreds of tanks over time.
So it's all very back to basics. Supreme Commander has been changed into a very generic playing RTS game. It's a shadow of it's former self. So maybe it's easier to consider what it is, than what it isn't?
It's still a reasonably fun experience. If you are new to RTS games, it's all very straightforward. The graphics are pretty nice, with big explosions, and massive experimental units that are fun to watch. You can build decent sized armies, or simply nuke the competition off the planet if you so desire. Multiplayer games on the maps can be fun, as the design leaves certain areas highly contested. The camera, zoom, and strategic map still make things quite tactical as well. The focus is more on players real-time interaction with units, than on building a grand war machine and economy to match. Sound familiar?
One thing that did carry over from the first game is the utterly terrible singleplayer campaign. In fact, they've made it worse. Horrid voice acting, terrible banter, and no emotional depth make it a chore. It's like playing skirmishes, only you can't use all the units, and is therefore best avoided entirely. Frankly, when you know there's a Blizzard game coming out with a Blizzard quality singleplayer experience, either up your game, or cut your losses. Mediocre simply won't do.
Supreme Commander 2 is a competent RTS game. If you are looking for something to do while all your friends play the StarCraft II beta, then this might be worth your time. But if you are a hard core technical RTS fan looking for an expanded, upgraded, epic Supreme Commander title, I'm sorry, but it's not going to happen. It's been pared back, and I think I smell Vespene in the air.