Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Supreme Commander one versus two

(Originally written on May 15, 2011)

Unlike many other media, video games sequels tend to improve on the originals. Street Fighter 2 is more beloved then Street Fighter 1, Final Fantasy 1 is nearly forgotten while Final Fantasy 7 is a well-known classic and Warcraft 2 eclipses the first in almost every category. Of course there's exceptions to the rule. And while Supreme Commander 2 is not bad, it pales in comparable to the original.
The Devil in the Detail
On first glance the games don't look that much different and SC2 even seem to improve on the UI which was a bit cumbersome in SC1. But soon the game reveals that it shed the complexity and layers that made SC1 such a refreshing and unique game.
Like the original, you can convert dead units into resources, unlike the original everything else is off limits. SC1 lets you assimilate trees, neutral buildings and rocks, in SC2 these objects are untouchable obstacles. It's frustrating to see what in SC1 is a much needed emergency source of income, and discovering it's nothing but scenery now. The scale of maps is also much reduced. SC1's maps were huge, they were gigantic battlefields that had oceans rather then lakes and landmasses rather then island. SC2's maps are smaller by far and use those untouchable obstacles as boundaries.
Another seemingly small change is the base building mechanic. SC1 had a system in which placing buildings next to each other gave them maintenance bonuses. But building in tight clusters meant being vulnerable to attacks as destroyed buildings damage those around them. SC2 has none of that.
The economy is again, simplified. In SC1 balancing your economy and production was an art. In SC2 your units wont start building if they don't have the resources. In the original it was a dynamic mechanic that balanced attention with automation. SC2 just automates the whole process.
Technology tiers are replaced with a rather simplistic system of upgrades using automatically accumulated "Research Points" which are then invested in a research tree. Thus, instead of upgraded factories which produce improved units, the research tree strengthen existing units and unlocks new ones. While this method removes what was admittedly an overwhelming array of units , it also means that it's hard to know how powerful an opposing army is. Since the units are always the same and most upgrades have no visual identifier. The same goes for defenses, which are also much easier to set up. Shields do not drain energy as they did in SC1 and no building is upgradable.
Minor issues are the fact that there are less of those sophisticated interface shortcuts which allowed, for example, factories to copy building ques with a click of a button.
SC2 is much more simplified. Not to say that that makes it a bad game. But when complexity was so much of what made SC1 special, SC2 feels much more mundane.

A Thousand Miles from Mortal Sun
Putting aside the mechanical side, SC2 lost the unique atmosphere of SC1. Granted, SC1 owes most of its tone and theme to Total Annihilation. Both do a fine job of painting a conflict as endless as it is wasteful and as grand as it is futile. Armies locked in a war that has lost all purpose and doomed to destroy both sides. Having the option to reclaim lost units off the battlefield really cements that feeling of impotence futility, as is the awesome scale of the battles.
Your commander appears on the battlefield in a blinding flash in a center of a crater with scorched trees all around. As your base grows, natural artifacts such as rocks and trees are replaces with industrial buildings. SC2 misses these small undertones. The single player story is populated by characters that sound like they were transferred from Zone of the Enders or Tactics Ogre. And the atmosphere suffers because they don't feel like part of the setting.
In the first mission of SC1 the map expands and the battlefield continues to grow, creating a breathtaking sense of scale. SC2 doesn't manage to do the same, even sabotaging what little there is with missions in which obstacles block a quarter of the map. It feels almost claustrophobic at times.
Having the experimental units built unseen in a special factory pales against those gargantuan units in SC1 which you needed to build in the open, too big for any factory to contain. discovering your enemy building something that rivals half your base in space was a teeth gnashing sight. The simplified economy means that building these monstrosities is far from being the undertaking it was in SC1.
Supreme Commander 2 is not a bad game. But it is an unforgivable step backwards. The sequel abandons most of what made the original innovative and novel. It is much easier to pick-up and play but it lacks the charm and sophistication that made the first one of my favorite games. What SC2 did well, is remind me how amazing was the first. Replaying the original, it still manged to awe me graphically, even surpassing the sequel from time to time despite being more then a few years older. But seeing that blinding flash of nuclear impact swallows up a corner of the map as you watch your forces making their last move... There is no game that delivers such empowering moments as Supreme Commander does.

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