Featuring streamlined features and various worthwhile gameplay tweaks, Supreme Commander 2 is an exceptional improvement over Gas Powered's popular 2008 RTS game.
Supreme Commander was a title that lovingly embraced established RTS conventions such as base building and extensive micromanagement, but it also introduced new ideas like a zoom-out tactical map, physics-based weapons fire and massive armies consisting of hundreds of units. Unfortunately, the high-end hardware requirements and complexity of the game's core concepts didn't translate into widespread commercial success; while the game was critically well-received, its popularity never matched that of rival franchises such as Command & Conquer and StarCraft. Perhaps that's why Supreme Commander 2 felt like an overt attempt to address the issues that kept its predecessor from establishing itself as a legitimate threat to Blizzard and EA's dominance.
The changes Gas Powered Games made to Supreme Commander 2 are apparent from the very beginning. One of the first things we noticed was the game sports a new stylistic look that helps to further differentiate one faction from another; it only takes a quick glance at the screen to identify the three main factions (an Aeon ground force looks different from a fleet of Cybran boats, for instance). This new visual approach also helps keep things looking sharp without demanding a whole lot from the hardware the game is running on, and we were able to run Supreme Commander on the default 'high' setting on my mid-range PC.
We did notice some slight hiccups during some of the biggest battles or on maps with lots of water to render, but overall, the game ran smoothly and without issue. It remains to be seen how well Supreme Commander 2 will scale to lower-end systems but you don't need a top-end gaming rig to enjoy optimal performance. You can thank a modified Demigod engine - Gas Powered Games' recently released take on the World of WarCraft 3 variant, Defense of the Ancients - for that. It renders naturalistic environments with much more flair than the previous game's engine ever did.
Beyond their improved backdrops, Supreme Commander 2 game maps now eschew the previously favoured vast emptiness for a structured 'arena' approach. Choke points and carefully placed resources offer much more room for strategy-oriented gamers and there's generally more variety to the types of landscapes. Some maps are enormous industrial complexes meant for large-scale four-on-four battles while others are small tropical islands perfect for one-on-on online skirmishes. The high unit cap also returns, and though we never reached the 300-unit limit, we did regularly field armies of 200 or more; having that many soldiers swarming the battlefield was more than enough to accomplish what we wanted to do, but having the extra legroom doesn't hurt.
Supreme Commander 2's new upgrade system is also a welcome addition. Just about every building or unit in the original game had three tiers, resulting in the player having to hunt and peck around the map for upgrades. Supreme Commander 2 has wisely gathered all these upgrades and placed them in a research window, which is accessible with a single click of the mouse button. Everything from units, structures and the commander's armoured combat unit (ACU) is upgraded through this window, which significantly reduces the player's micromanagement.
We also appreciated the fact that every upgrade is retroactively applied to existing units in Supreme Commander 2: you feel a genuine sense of sinister glee all members of an 80-strong gunship squadron instantly gain personal shields and rapid fire. The research window is where you'll also find the real differences between the three factions, as each side's tech tree is vastly different from the other two. The factions have also been rebalanced so that each side has distinct advantages and disadvantages. The Aeon, for instance, no longer possess naval units but compensates with interesting new units such as the Sea Hunter land experimental.
Of course, what makes or breaks an RTS is its online experience, and Supreme Commander 2 was smooth and responsive even with six AI and two human players sharing the battlefield. Servers weren't live at the time of writing so our online experience was limited to battles against a friend and computer-controlled enemies, but we thoroughly enjoyed using the strategies gleaned from the single-player campaign on actual foes. The online functionality is bare bones compared to services like Battle.net, but the Steam version does come with basic stat tracking and leaderboards, so online fiends may want to consider going that route. Only time will tell if Supreme Commander 2's immense scale and unique upgrade tree will translate into long-term online success, but Blizzard's reticence when it comes to StarCraft 2's release date will no doubt help it gain some traction.