It's hard to guess how a game like Supreme Commander for the Xbox 360 gets approved for a retail release. It's a technical disaster, prone to frequent lockups, constant stuttering, and plenty of buggy behavior. These issues are maddening, because at its core, Supreme Commander is a great real-time strategy game, filled with tactical intricacies that function on a massive scale. On the PC, it worked brilliantly. Here, it isn't just rough around the edges--it's just plain rough. Fantastic strategic gameplay deserves better, and it's astonishing that it was allowed on store shelves in its current state.
Supreme Commander is strategy on a massive scale.
The game's frame rate and general performance are absolutely atrocious. The game engine hitches every few seconds, and standard tasks like zooming in and out cause it to stutter. Explosions will cause the frame rate to drop to a crawl, which makes Supreme Commander's famous nuclear blasts more annoying than exciting. Whenever a superior's talking-head portrait is about to appear onscreen during the campaign, you can tell because the game will pause for a couple of seconds. Saving a game or reaching the end of a mission might cause a complete game crash or system freeze--an issue that occurred close to a dozen times during our play-testing, on multiple machines. Just moving around the menus results in weird, unexplainable slowdown. One mission can be easily broken in at least two different ways, so you could potentially find yourself reloading a saved game after you find your efforts have been wasted. It's apparent that either the Xbox 360 version of Supreme Commander needed more time in development, or that it is simply not a good fit for the hardware.
Supreme Commander's story isn't terribly involving, but it sets the stage for battles that feel truly consequential. Three factions with human roots--the United Earth Federation, the AI-infused Cybran Nation, and the spiritually enlightened Aeon Illuminate--fight for their rightful place in the galactic landscape. The storytelling isn't particularly noteworthy on its own; missions are doled out by your superiors, and they'll occasionally appear in pop-up windows during the campaign. What makes the proceedings so interesting is that there is no clear bad guy: Each faction fights for seemingly rational values. Whether or not the plot is meant to parallel real-world politics is up for debate, but it's striking that these different factional philosophies are functionally quite similar to one another. Even on a universal scale, humanity's splinter cells have more in common than they think.
Each of the three campaigns features six missions, which doesn't seem like many. However, these levels can last for two or three hours, and maps that look relatively small will continually expand over the course of the mission until the battlefield seems impossibly huge. To help you keep these gigantic playfields under control, Supreme Commander features the most impressive zoom function yet seen, allowing you to pull the camera right up to your units, and pull out to see the entire battlefield at once. These gargantuan maps hold hundreds and hundreds of units at any given time, so it's not uncommon to have multiple battles raging at once, while smaller skirmishes take place around the perimeter. Thankfully, a number of automated functions help you streamline the process so you can concentrate on the bigger picture. For example, you can queue up multiple tasks for engineers (your primary construction units) and set multipoint patrol routes, a very handy way to keep your flying units constantly engaged with the enemy.
Spiderbots are always an imposing sight.
The sheer number of units and tech levels open up endless strategic possibilities. Your central unit is the Armored Command Unit (ACU), which can perform standard building tasks, and is upgradeable in a number of different ways, depending on whether you want to use it in battle or as engineer support. There are an insane number of structures and units to consider, from mass storage units and shield generators, to radar installations, to hulking units like the imposing galactic colossus that lumber across the land. If you like to turtle up and play the waiting game, there are tons of defensive options, like antiair installations and stealth generators. If you're the aggressive type, you can take to the air, use the land to your advantage, or bring the battles to sea, where attack submarines and battleships can lay waste to your foe's unprotected coasts. Options exist whether you like to creep toward your enemy's base and let artillery pound on it, lay back while you build up technology, or use transport aircraft to keep a constant rush of attack bots streaming toward your opponent. There are many viable ways to play Supreme Commander, and they are all balanced well.
The control scheme and interface, always a potential worry in a console RTS, is generally up to the task of keeping battlefields under control. The busy heads-up display elements of the PC version have been stripped away, replaced with two simple bars that represent your two basic resources: mass and power. The D pad is your gateway to command and building queues. Selecting a unit and pressing up will bring up a radial wheel, where you can choose simple commands like attack or stop, or more unit-specific commands, such as powering down a shield generator or building a nuke. Pressing right produces a build and upgrade wheel, where you can level up your structures or produce units. You bring up your grouping wheel by pressing down on the pad. Here, you can select all units of a certain type, or create and select custom control groups.