Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance
We couldn’t stop ourselves, two reviews for the price of one. Both articles have their own accents and reflect seperate opinions so don’t be too surprised to see some contradictions or different views on the same subject. Nevertheless, the general feeling about Forged Alliance is roughly the same:
Firing ‘Black Sun’ has made a gateway to the Quantum Realm through which the Seraphim have entered ‘our’ universe. They don’t take the past extermination politics of humanity on their race very kindly which leads to a continuation of the Infinite War. Aeon, Cybran and UEF join forces to resist the alien threat which attempts to subject the human race with the help of Aeon and Cybran deserters. But is this “coalition of the willing” really that ‘willing’? Even with a possible genocide on the horizon humankind still has time for sneaky political games. Welcome to Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance.
A new race, more than a hundred new units but above all reworked gameplay is what you will find on this DVD. In contrast to Opposing Fronts (the expansion pack for Company of Heroes) Forged Alliance doesn’t update anything about the original Supreme Commander but it installs itself in another, seperate directory. So, you would do well to reserve an extra nine gigabytes if you want to play at all. The first thing that attracts attention is the renewed interface. Although the main menu disappoints and even looks a bit childish, the actual game interface more than makes up for that with a number of serious improvements. The UI doesn’t take up half of your screen but has been made transparent to get a good view on the battlefield without having to zoom out too far every time. Also interesting is that you can hide the different panels, something that should have been added in the original version. A completely new feature is saving and using Build Templates. This allows you to simply copy-paste all kinds of queued constructions so you can spend less time with building up your base.
Not only the interface is completely revamped, the A.I. has also been freshened up. The regular A.I. has received a big improvement and to make things more interesting you can now choose a cheating A.I. as well. Digging yourself in and using exclusively defensive tactics are ‘not done’ since your virtual opponent is more agressive than ever. The specifications of buildings like Mass Fabricators have been adjusted so they consume more energy to create mass. This obliges you to send out troops and engineers across the whole map since in FA your warmachine depends a lot more on natural resources. That warmachine gets some nice new treats like the new race with its own units, new units for the older factions and – more important – the new Experimentals.
The Seraphim play the same as the other factions if you look at how their ACU (Armored Command Unit) builds up a base; whereas for example the Aeon produces units out of a milky pap, the Seraphim do the same thing but with a dark mini-cloud. Even though Forged Alliance promotes a more offensive playstyle, this expansion doesn’t try to make the new faction completely different from the original three playable sides.
The ‘novelty’ has to come from the look ’n feel of the Seraphim and the previously discussed changes to the gameplay. The Seraphim look very stylish, something that is expressed the most if you see the design and functionality of their Experimental bomber.
But the real stars of this addon are the new Experimentals for the older factions. The Cybran, UEF and Aeon each get a new one. The UEF go orbital with a satellite which is reminiscent of the Command & Conquer Ion Cannon while the slogan of the Cybran is ‘bigger and better’. They receive a Megabot which easily is twice as big as the Monkeylord. The Aeon on the other hand rely on more resources with the ‘Paragon’. This building makes sure you’ll never(!) be short of Mass and Energy, it doesn’t matter what you are building or how many engineers and support commanders you’re putting to work. Oh yes, all very pleasant toys, in both the singleplayer campaign as online. And they look so good since GPG has been working on the engine to make everything look much more detailed. But alas, this has a price of course as it will tax your system.
This means that some folks who could run Supreme Commander just barely at a decent framerate will now have to think about getting that extra RAM-memory, a proper video card or that new DualCore/QuadCore processor to be able to play Forged Alliance at an acceptable speed. Especially a skirmish game with lots of computer opponents can quickly turn into a slideshow rather than it being a tense battle in which every second counts.
In terms of content nobody will be able to say a bad thing about Forged Alliance. This expansion pack doesn’t only include an intense campaign, a cool looking faction and new units but also a fresh bunch of multiplayer maps. The interface takes getting used to and isn’t always perfect. Not every unit is visible in the build bar so you have to scroll a bit further. But the advantages do outweigh the little annoying things in the end. As said before, in terms of graphics the game has improved a lot with units looking sharper and more colorful which makes it a pleasant deal to shoot them to pieces.
Bricks on the beach.
The soundtrack couldn’t really convince me. The original Supreme Commander music gave more ‘schwung’ and grandeur to the battles than what you can hear now. Everything is still okay with the other audio effects, whether it’s about lasers or explosions, particle cannons or nuclear missiles, Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance is a joy to listen to as it brings a real battlefield to life with its sounds.
But the abundance of options, units and technical achievements can’t hush up that nothing fundamental has been changed or been added. Forged Alliance is not old wine in new bags, just a missed chance to do something more with Supreme Commander than the classic RTS adagium ‘build base, make units, attack!’. It’s a matter of ‘never change a winning team’ to keep the fans satisfied but standing still is the same as not catching the last train.
Supreme Commander (SupCom) was a great real-time strategy highlight in the beginning of this year. Took some time to get into but once you did, you were left wanting more which is always a good thing and not really a surprise for a title which tries to do so much at once. Developer Gas Powered Games has tried to answer the needs and wishes of the community during 2007 through various patches which added a smaller interface, serious performance improvements, online achievements and even new units. The biggest changes and additions were kept aside for the inevitable expansion pack. And so it comes that now, less than a year after the release of the original game, Forged Alliance (FA) is being dished up. New race, new units, new campaign, countless other improvements… it sounds like heaven. Typical for publisher THQ is that this addon functions completely on its own (you don’t need to have SupCom installed to be able to play FA). Just as predictable is the sharply priced Gold Edition which adds a bit more confusion into newbie hearts about which version they should buy to get the most out of the SupCom experience. That’s not the only question that rises because it remains to be seen if Forged Alliance succeeds in satisfying the demanding veterans of the first game. Read on for the judgment on the final version.
Seraphim Commander stealing the show.
FA kicks off with a new CGI intro which offers more action than the rather boring introduction movie from the original game as well as making clear who the new kid on the block is: an alien race called the Seraphim. These chaps are out for revenge after their hippie-like brethren got exterminated by human hands. These new villains have been hiding in a parallel dimension and waited till the end of the Supreme Commander campaign to assault the quarelling human factions. With the help of some collaborators the aliens quickly overwhelm the UEF, Cybran and Aeon forces. The campaign starts right after these three, battered factions have formed an unholy alliance and judge themselves ready to make a powerful comeback to overcome the Seraphim and its allies.
The six new operations can be played as UEF, Cybran or Aeon but don’t think that the assignments you receive will change at all based on the faction you play. At most you’ll receive slightly different comments from certain characters. Playing the campaign with the new bad guys isn’t an option either (or you should manage to capture a Seraphim Factory or Engineer during an operation) which is an odd choice because a Seraphim storyline could have given this new faction a lot more colour. Now they are just those cliché Independence Day aliens which fight to the death and only take time to talk to you if they want to mock you which happens in such a ridiculous ‘Star Trek’ kind of way that you ironically enough really want to smash their face in. There appears to be no time for subtle character interactions since most of the dialogue and briefings are focussed on the objectives. In other words: if you see an important person going down you won’t feel a thing. The storyline setup is decent for the rest with varied goals, nice briefings (and debriefings) and a voice cast that, for the most part, doesn’t annoy.
The average operation can be described as incredibly spectacular, scripted like hell, massive in size, repulsive and thrilling. A bit of everything yes. All operations follow the SupCom campaign setup; you start on a small map and if you complete certain objectives then the map expands and you can start a new mission. Unlike the original campaign you now have access to practically all Tiers (technology levels) right from the start in every operation. Whereas other RTS’s nowadays need a mediocre turnbased Risk-like campaign with several linked maps to make you feel like you are in a real war, Forged Alliance provides the war experience with relative success in every single operation. When the last map expansion has taken place you’ll often see a map littered with enemy units, fighting it out with your allies or heading towards your position. An operation’s final map size is enormous when compared to an average RTS map but it still isn’t of gigantic 80×80 size as some of the skirmish maps. Understandable of course since GPG probably wanted everyone to be able to complete the campaign (at all and at a playable framerate). Some of the scripting work here really provides great surprises and several awesome confrontations.
That too much scripting isn’t good either also becomes painfully clear during these operations. Certain map expansions in SupCom could really drive you mad. Some of these expansions triggers were the main cause that you suddenly had to fend off a big assault on your base or that you quickly had to reach the other end of the expanded map to defend or take out a target in time. Well, be prepared for hell now because in FA you’re gonna see this kind of stuff with every map expansion. It’s also not just a matter of receiving a temporary setback by having a few buildings or troops destroyed. No, when playing on Hard difficulty you shouldn’t be surprised to see your entire base go up in smoke. Hordes of gunships, Experimentals and those devilish strategic bombers will make sure you’re gonna dig in ‘Fort Knox-style’ and save each time before you complete a mission. The new quicksave feature definitely comes in handy here. I have to admit that this can be fun once in a while, like in missions where you need to survive for fifteen minutes or so but for other assignments this approach feels a bit tacked on. It shows that the campaign opponents barely have any dynamics in their strategy (unlike the skirmish AI). After a couple of reloads you’ll recognise the attack patterns and it usually becomes a matter of adapting, staying in your base to maximise your economy there, putting anti-air turrets up everywhere and building as much Experimentals and high-level troops as you can to make a decisive strike on the enemy ACU (Armored Command Unit aka the Commander). A real pity because it partially ruins the other efforts GPG has put into these operations, not to mention the fact that the difference between campaign and skirmish/multiplayer playstyle really becomes bigger than ever this way.
In SupCom you could get away with building a handful of factories, fortifying yourself, upgrading your closest Mass Extractors (MEX), building rows of Mass Fabricators and advancing as fast as possible to the next Tier. It’s time to get rid of that mindset entirely because the economy in Forged Alliance skirmish and multiplayer mode has been radically retuned. Simply put: Gas Powered Games is now shouting ‘Death to the turtlers!’. You’ll need to head out and fight for every bare Mass Extractor spot on the map. Having multiple Tier 1 Mass Extractors in Forged Alliance is much more efficient than safely upgrading a limited number of MEX’s. Mass Fabricators then you say? Throw away all the trust you had in them because these volatile suckers have been transferred to Tier 2 and their cost has risen to a higher level (from 0 Mass to 100 Mass to build and a constant energy drain of 150). They now function as a pure supplement to your economy and you should really take the effort of placing them next to enough adjacent Power Generators in order to keep the energy drain on a lower rate. Tier 2 units are now less resilient against swarms of Tier 1 forces which finally makes the game a huge battle from beginning to end. You’ll need to have loads of factories pumping out large quantities of grunts and gradually advance to a next Tier and gradually improve your fearless robotic legions because the previous Tier will never become immediately obsolete. This reworked gameplay is more hectic but also more interesting than the original SupCom, you are using every unit available to fight the enemy on every front imagineable rather than constantly nurturing your base to make it a near-invincible fortress. Now, turtling and teching up early isn’t completely redundant of course, on larger maps it can still be relatively viable.
The veteran system also got an adrenaline shot, units in SupCom died long before they could acquire a veterancy level. In FA, you’ll see the wreckages piling up even faster but receiving those kill rewards (like health regeneration and more hitpoints) happens much sooner. When firmer units such as the ACU gain veterancy you won’t believe your eyes, it all becomes even more advantageous if you couple this to the cheaper Commander upgrades. It forms a higher risk to keep your most important unit at the frontline but seeing him racking up the kills in true Rambo-style can be quite addictive.
As for new content the Seraphim race stands out the most. This fourth faction is the big, bad menace in the storyline but what is most remarkable about them is that they just look so damn… alien. Their visuals are very slick but also extremely weird and confusing, it’s like the complete opposite of the clearly recognisable, military-themed UEF troops and buildings. At first nearly every Seraphim unit leads to a ‘what the fuck is this again?’ reaction, their wacko nicknames certainly don’t help either. You’ll get used to them of course, just like with the quirky Aeon and Cybran factions but the Seraphim should never be considered as the most interesting race to start out with (that’s still the UEF) which makes it even more odd to see that they are the only playable online faction if you merely have FA and not SupCom in your possession. Newcomers won’t be at ease online with just this faction if you ask me. Just like with every SupCom side these lads have the same basic economic structures (with different graphics) but the gameplay differences do become clear if you take a closer look at the weapons and units. In general the Seraphim have considerably less different troops in every Tier, on sea, land and in the air. To compensate for that these troops can handle multiple functions at once and their shield generators also rank among the very best.
Their Combat Scout (Selene) for example is a mixture of a Light Assault Bot and a regular Land Scout. It doesn’t exactly excel as a combat unit but once it stands still and stops firing the Selene becomes stealthed and cloaked at the same time. A nice trick indeed since that means only an enemy ACU (which always carries a permanent mini-Omni radar) can detect this little bugger in the beginning stages of a game. Also in Tier 1 is the mobile Zthuee Artillery which kicks ass on water maps due to its hover ability. When used in group Zthuees can overcome even the toughest Commanders because their projectiles sorta predict where the enemy will be at the moment of impact. The Tier 2 Assault Bots (Ilshavohs) are real bruisers, a heavy land tank in bot disguise actually. Such a power beast is necessary because Seraphim lack a T2 Mobile Shield Generator (like UEF and Aeon have) to boost the hitpoints of troops or a T2 Mobile Stealth Field (like the Cybran have) to conceal units in the field from radar. The third Tier makes this faction really shine (well, Seraphim always do, literally then). There is a fast but fragile long-range Sniper Bot (Usha-Ah) and a monster of an amphibian Siege Tank (Othuum) with a brilliantly sounding Tau cannon for heavy targets and two Bolter cannons for the smaller stuff. Equally impressive is the hoverable Athanah. The latter is about the best Mobile Shield Generator in the whole game by offering 10.000 extra hitpoints for any friendly unit that’s smart enough to get under its shield.
While the colorful FA box cover shows a seemingly huge Seraphim ACU in spread ‘Come get some!’ stance and a couple of nukes heading towards its crotch, the in-game reality is a bit more modest. The Seraphim Commander has the same size and general statistics as the other faction’s ACU’s have. It borrows a Tactical Missile upgrade from its UEF counterpart but it has a unique trick up its sleeve as well with the Restoration Field. Any friendly unit in the vicinity of a Commander with this particular upgrade will regenerate health at top speed (a second upgrade of this even provides extra hitpoints for units closeby). The SCU (Support Command Unit) generates a very decent starting amount of resources once it steps out of the Quantum Gate building but the pay-off is that it can’t be further upgraded with more resource production like the Support Commanders of other factions. It can obtain something that’s a lot more interesting than a better built-in resource generation though and that’s the Overcharge ability (which only normal Commanders have by default). This is an ability which you have to use manually (it’s no standard attack upgrade) but even then it can be a great help. Land Experimentals are simply not safe anymore if there are a bunch of Seraphim SCU’s with this upgrade wandering around in the area, just imagine them all firing shots (each worth 12.000 damage!) at once, pure and utter pain!
On water the number of different Seraphim units is low again but that doesn’t mean they are weak by any means. Their Tier 2 Destroyer (Uashavoh) can submerge if things get too hot above water and the Tier 3 Battleship (Hauthuum) even has a built-in nuke launcher. The Air Transports (Tier 1 and Tier 2) look very distinct and can carry more troops than the respective counterparts of other factions. Their only disadvantage is that they can’t be transformed into fear inducing ghetto gunships (this is a Tier 1 or Tier 2 Air Transport filled with Light Assault Bots which can fire their weapons from the sky, unlike all other land units) since no Seraphim unit can fire from an Air Transport. The only Seraphim Gunship is the Tier 2 version, leaving out the terror of a T3 Gunship. The aliens do possess another heavy-hitter in the air with the Ahwassa, a fast Air Experimental which makes you forget the rather slow Cybran and Aeon Air Experimentals (Soul Ripper and Czar respectively). This glossy mega-bomber can squash any shield with it’s nuclear dropload (that seems to be ‘cooked’ in one of its circular openings). The Ahwassa doesn’t look as terrifying (or should I say as odd) as the Ythotha, a Galactic Collossus à la Seraphim. This huge robot looks to be standing on thin chicken legs but don’t let its looks confuse you, this really is a powerful monstrosity. It doesn’t have the comical tractor beams of the Galactic Colossus but instead it can fire numerous other weapons all at once for maximum destruction. It’s best to get out of the way when the Ythotha comes close, not only when it’s alive. After all, once it’s been brought down (in a huge, damaging explosion) its carcass will spawn a mysterious energy sphere which will electrocute any friend or foe nearby for several seconds. The last Seraphim Experimental is the Yolona Oss, a nuclear missile silo with an attitude. It takes a long time to build but once you complete this building it will produce its special strategic missiles at high tempo. Add to that the fact that one of these special missiles takes about two anti-nuke defense systems to hold off and you know the enemy can’t protect its base for long.
The new units for the old factions spice up the battles thoroughly and are gradually introduced during the campaign so you’ll learn that most of them have their place in the game, at least if you take the effort of playing every operation with all three factions (which admittedly isn’t that tempting). Sandboxing in skirmish is also a good way to get to know these new machines:
The Cybran cyborg club now has the Jester, a Tier 1 Gunship which creates an extra opportunity to harass the enemy. This aircraft is above all fast to produce and cheaper than a ghetto gunship, an excellent choice to take out those lonely engineers in the first few minutes. The Wailer looks like a slightly weaker brother of the feared UEF Broadsword (Tier 3 Gunship) but the Wailer holds behind a trump card with its radar jamming device to mess up the enemy’s radar with false unit signals. The second land Tier offers the Fire Beetle, a kamikaze bot many Total Annihilation (TA) veterans will appreciate (it’s pretty much the crawling Invader-bomb of the TA Arm side). In Tier 3 you’ll notice the Brick, a heavy, rectangular box on small legs that can unleash a hail of laser fire on land targets. It can also keep walking under water, fend off torpedoes and send some of its own to hostile Subs or Destroyers. The Cybran wouldn’t be the Cybran if they didn’t continue their stealth trickery above and under the sea. The Mermaid Tier 2 Stealth Field boat hides naval fleets and the submersible Tier 2 Barracuda Subkiller can stealth itself. But the biggest surprise for enemy ships will probably be the submerged Tier 3 Torpedo turret (HARMS) with its huge range. If you think that all this makes the Cybran feel relaxed on open sea then you haven’t seen the Megalith yet. This enormous, crab-like, fourth Experimental has numerous torpedo launchers and anti-torpedo systems to hold its own against naval foes. It’s the ‘unit’ with the largest health in FA (110k hitpoints), has four deadly Proton cannons and it can drop eggs from which normal units will arise. The chip-headed faction can also build the Hive, a kind of stationary Engineer which will automatically repair/assist (or even capture) everything in its radius and which can be upgraded twice for a larger radius and a better build rate. The Soothsayer construction then gives complete line-of-sight in a limited area around the building itself, it’s nice to take away the stealth advantage of other Cybran-players like this and to always have a clear view of what the enemy is sending out to you (those grey icons can be oh-so treacherous).
The fresh Aeon units contribute in their in own, single-purpose way like most of the older units of this faction. Their Restorer for example is a Tier 3 Anti-Air Gunship which can rightfully be called an air tank. Together with the Swift Wind (Tier 2 Air Fighter) the Aeon can exercise serious control over the airspace. Enough control to make room for the Solace, a Tier 3 Torpedo Bomber designed to haunt any ship or sub without serious Anti-Air protection. The Blaze Tier 2 Hover tank is the fast-firing buffer to go along with those early hordes of T1 Aurora Hover tanks and hoverable mobile Shield Generators. Tier 3 Land Factories are now able to produce the Sprite Striker, a Sniper bot somewhat less damaging than its Seraphim cousin. The strong T2 Submarine Hunter, also known as the Vesper offers necessary protection for the new Torrent Class Tier 3 Missile ship which fires heavy tactical missiles from an insane range. The other new units for these green-white believers are buildings, one of them being another Experimental: the Paragon. This one is expensive, has a long build time and is quite vulnerable with it’s meager 5.000 hitpoints. The worst part is this though: lose one and it will unleash a nuclear explosion (bye, bye surrounding base)! The advantage? Well, you don’t have to worry anymore about resources once you can complete a single Paragon. It holds your Mass and Energy inflow at a constant, positive level which means you can build anything you want after that. Like that new Tier 3 Artillery platform, the Salvation. It clearly won’t save your opponents because they will have to endure a bundle of 36 highly damaging projectiles which will come down scattered all over the target area… every three seconds! The Eye of Rhianne tower then gives you the possibility to gain a permanent line-of-sight overview in a limited area of your choice anywhere on the map if you got the energy to back it up.
The blocky UEF chaps get a modest reinforcement in the second land Tier with Sparky, an armed, radar jamming Engineer capable of putting up defensive structures everywhere. The Kennel is an Engineering station which can be upgraded to triple its hitpoint amount. Its main job though will be assisting the production of your factories to get the new war toys out much quicker. A toy such as the Tier 3 Spearhead Mobile Missile launcher. Its motto is obviously ‘more = better’; why should you only fire one weak missile at a time if you can fire three strong missiles right after each other? Messing up the opponent’s Tactical Missile Defence structures is an extra bonus on top of the high damage. Don’t think the Spearhead is the ultimate basekiller though, that honor is reserved for the Percival, an expensive but very strong Amphibious Tier 3 Bot which makes short work of anything in its path via slowly reloading but ultradestructive Plasma Cannons. It can very well be called battering ram or Experimental killer. On maritime level the Bulwark Tier 2 ship offers precious extra hitpoints with its voluminous protection shield. The Cooper Tier 2 torpedo boat is a counter against subs but it should be protected against other ships and planes since it can’t submerge. If you got a hostile naval force incoming, then relying on the Neptune Class T3 Battleship isn’t such a bad option. It lacks the chilling Gauss cannons of the UEF Summit Class Battleship but it does possess other effective naval weaponry: torpedoes and spectacular, heavy Plasma lasercannons. Just like the other two old factions the UEF gets another Experimental and that’s the Novax Center. Once it’s finished, this fairly cheap structure launches a satellite which can’t be taken down by the enemy unless the Novax Center itself is destroyed. It offers a small line-of-sight area beneath its position and… oh yeah, it’s a satellite with a big laser attached to it to deal out moderate damage. Not really the all-conquering superweapon but it can prove its use by attacking less fortified enemy positions. A well-defended base is not the right target for the satellite until you put up more Novax Centers of course. The Ravager is another structure that shouldn’t be underestimated. Do you know the minigun which appears in nearly every shooter? Well, enlarge it about 20 times, put it on a big stand, automate it and you have one of the best defensive turrets you can imagine. Only planes and subs are safe for its all-annihilating rain of bullet fire. Not as damaging but a great sight nonetheless is the Continental, a T3 Air Transport which can carry up to 28 units. It has an extra protection shield, a SAM Launcher and Plasma cannons for any ground targets. It can’t carry the Fatboy land Experimental but it’s already impressive as it is now, it’s Forged Alliance’s C-130.
Another pick on the feature list is the new Build Template system which allows you to save build patterns (like surrounding a MEX with four Mass Storage buildings). It’s a welcome tool to lessen the micromanagement part of building up your base, you can even play the good Samaritan and exchange your selfmade templates online to friends! The 40 skirmish/multiplayer battlegrounds of old SupCom have returned in FA and have received slight adjustments to fit the new balance. The twelve new maps are fine but more wouldn’t have hurt. There is now also a handy Unit Manager which allows you to disable certain units and technologies during a skirmish or multiplayer game.
Lots of overlays.
Next to the aforementioned raw, new content there are many little improvements. So many even that you’ll be saying ‘hey, did that change too now?’ for weeks or even months to come. Just like with SupCom it’s all in the details. The game executable launches faster (no splash screen anymore) and the interface is now available with factional skins (even the loading screens are different). Just as the patched-in mini-interface for SupCom this new, standard interface is smaller and transparent. It has more functionality too with several retractable parts, an informative overlay menu, extendable idle-buttons and Mass and Energy indicators gathered in one place. Even the new, ultracool map border seems like it’s a part of this new HUD. Naturally you’ll have to relearn a few things, the same counts for some hotkeys but I have the impression that the whole package feels smoother and more intuitive than the original user interface. People playing in the lower resolutions aren’t gonna be fond of the fact that they’ll have to scroll through the list of buildings/units though (especially if you’ve moved the interface to the left side by pressing Alt+Up) and there are other shortcomings that were already annoying in SupCom like the fact that some of the completed ACU/SCU upgrades are barely visible on the game models or in the unit rollover information. Or other little things like similar strategic icons for units (in one Tier) that are all but the same in function (like a Wagner vs a Rhino tank for Cybrans). Features which apparently only modders are able to implement are aplenty too (hotkey configurations, resizeable interface parts etcetera). These regretful omissions show that Forged Alliance isn’t perfect and in a way maybe understandably so if you see that GPG gave themselves less than a year to complete an addon for a massive game like SupCom.
Still, the devs do show they understand a lot of gripes of the community by adding in other subtle improvements on all fronts. Submarines now smartly navigate themselves under ships in naval formations instead of taking up a separate spot, radar and sonar overlays don’t needlessly overlap but are one whole if they come together. The Overcharge ability is only extremely damaging against mobile units and not against buildings which finally makes base-rushing Commanders on smaller maps look like absolute dicks. And then there are the other innumerable rebalancing acts of almost all existing units to make them more vivid and useful. The Wagner and Riptide tanks for example are so much better now they even seem to overshadow regular Tier 2 tanks. Not every change is for the better of course. Selecting a transport and some land units together and then sending them to another place on the map won’t cause the transport to automatically pick up the slowest land units and drop them off at the target location, as it was the case in the original game. This was one of these ‘should be present in every goddamn RTS!’-tidbits SupCom often has a patent on but it probably got scrapped when GPG made the decision to leave out transports in the first selection you make (as with Engineers and ACU/SCU’s) in order not to get them in risky areas.
A more sizeable improvement over the original is the reworked skirmish artificial intelligence, with a special mention for the new Adaptive AI. It isn’t human-like but it doesn’t always need to be. Example: a Normal AI in FA attacks faster and gets its economy up and running much sooner than a Normal AI in SupCom would do. So, this new AI will definitely put on the pressure at any time during a game, can apply the current unit balance in a decent way but still fails at making a decisive, game-ending attack on your ACU. Like in ‘vanilla’ SupCom, it’s smart enough to launch a bunch of sneaky tactical missiles if you move your ACU too close to its base but that’s about the only proper finishing move the computer controlled player has mastered. It also has problems to keep its own ACU out of danger or to effectively make a rush with it like a trained human opponent would do (especially on smaller maps). The new cheating AI’s are a different story, you’ll need to play like a robot (or cheat yourself) to keep up with its tempo and its overwhelming numbers so there definitely lies a challenge, although its tactics remain just as artificial as those of the non-cheating AI’s. In terms of unit behaviour not a lot has changed, the ‘Return Fire’ stance is again just a ‘Fire at Will’ stance in reality and when compared to big example Total Annihilation this area seriously needs some work. It’s more a detail though than a game-breaking issue since the much lauded Strategic Zoom is still a big help to keep an eye out on your troops at all times. Unit pathfinding has improved a lot since SupCom first came out but don’t trust on it that it’s completely flawless. Your eyes will hurt seeing a giant Battle Ship (performing a long route) slugging its way around an irregularly shaped shoreline until you intervene by creating several waypoints away from the coast. At times the slow ‘porring other units in their backs’ by units passing through isn’t complete gone either.
Our ears want something fresh as well so Jeremy Soule is back as a composer. The Forged Alliance soundtrack can be easily called as ‘extensive’ as the Supreme Commander OST. A collection of new songs which play out in less than half an hour and which are at least of the same quality as what you could hear in SupCom. It’s a slightly different style though because the FA music contains a more mysterious tone, fitting the new alien menace theme very well. One of the more catchy, new battle tracks will sound familiar if you’ve listened carefully to the first Cybran cutscene of SupCom (‘Strategy, my boy’). In any case, it’s quite intense. Things would have been perfect if the music of FA and SupCom could be mixed. At least then there would be a bigger track list, for those extra long games on the extra big maps you know. Frank Bry has also returned for FA, the man who put in all the unusual robot sounds and weapon effects in TA and SupCom. FA has loads of new sounds and they all fit somehow. I don’t know what his secret is but Bry’s effects really seem to come from the 38th century A.D. (not the 37th century, no).
Now that’s a real explosion.
Graphically Forged Alliance clearly is a big step forward. Most explosions and bullet impacts now have some real fire in them, not just white smoke or white flashes. The impact of a Mavor shell is animated as a beautiful, fiery mini-nuke and the new weapon effects of the Seraphim are by no means to be sneezed at. They fire purple-blue-black bolts and jolts and their nuclear explosions are just top of the bill, more like beautiful paintings that explode right in front of your eyes. Textures on all units have improved or have been made softer, the sky dome is now crisp and clear while also showing planets, stars and moving clouds. Even on pure animation level GPG overhauled many things, the way units are hooked into Air Transports is no longer like they just stand still (as they would on the ground) in the transport but they really hang about or are pulling their legs in once they are attached to the transport. Aircraft are a lot more agile as they can shoot from shorter angles and Cruiser ships now fire their tactical missiles at a wickedly sick rate so you’ll see a lot more projectiles flying around. The Cybran Tier 2 Gunship has lost its Airwolf-without-rotors look and is replaced with a red, spiky version so it’s a better fit for the Cybran-design, the Aeon Harbinger Assault Bot now has a cute, circular mini-shield and the Janus Tier 2 Fighter/Bomber of the UEF faction can transform from Bomber to Fighter (looks like a small Millennium Falcon, really) and vice versa during its flight, an animation which is so cool you almost scream it out of pure joy. One of the things that felt short were tilesets or should we say the lack thereof. Yes, there are some new craters and some cristal trees but that seems about it. The landscapes are again beautiful but also so barren that you often wonder why these tough and strong armies keep clashing into each other. There is no life in the maps until you fix that by sending your troops out to cause some major mayhem.
A side effect of improved graphics (even the low settings share several new effects) and a smaller, transparent interface which shows a lot more action on screen is that the performance will drop even faster. In the likely case that you are one of those people who thought that SupCom was already a system hog, it will come as a bit of a shock to see the big slowdowns in Forged Alliance. Of course, there are a couple of no-brainer options you’re gonna switch off anyway (like most unit range overlays which are on by default) but even at comparable settings FA runs remarkably slower than SupCom. And then I am not talking about a soft slow-motion framerate drop as Command & Conquer 3 often demonstrates when it gets too flashy/crowdy but real screen shocks with more often than not music hitches. I had to decrease resolution and shut off most of the new graphical props to get the game in a playable state but it’s not exactly ideal and definitely not as fast as the original Supreme Commander, despite GPG’s promises. Loading times for skirmish games have also increased a bit by the way. Back again is GPGnet, the online matchmaking service. It does its job and since it went completely public in the beginning of this year it has evolved with new options which are present to FA players too now but it’s still a bit slow and somewhat clumsy. The frontpage is in desperate need of accurate and fast news updates (not even the last FA patch, v3598, got a mention) and Seraphim ranked players don’t have their own award icons (yet?).
A much heard SupCom complaint in the Belgian region (aka the center of the world) was about the printed manual; no unit overview, fairly limited guidelines (in three different languages for maximum paper waste) and a hotkey list on the backside entirely in French. Learning from your mistakes seems hard for THQ since they’ve done it again now. No, let me correct that, they did even worse this time with the Forged Alliance manual. No English parts at all and what is supposed to be the full manual is completely in French. The last pages feature a meager quickstart in Dutch. The backside with hotkeys… again in French. Even as a Walloon (Walloons are the funny, French speaking people of Belgium) I would be upset since the French translation features several mistakes and lacks a description of the new units for the older factions (only the Seraphim army is mentioned). What makes this even more ridiculous is the fact that FA came out in Europe more than two weeks after the North American release. Or does THQ really believe that French is the main language in Belgium? According to their own website it seems so, aargh!
SupCom wasn’t very accessible, not only because of a limited or faulty translated manual but also because nobody wanted to go through a large series of dated, boring video lessons. In Forged Alliance the developers tried another approach, no more video lessons but a real, active tutorial operation in which you gradually complete objectives about the game mechanics. Unfortunately, this isn’t the sacred boon newcomers have hoped for. You’re being thought merely the pure basics of the game (not even the Ferry concept gets attention here) and your ‘coach’ is Fletcher, the most irritating character of the whole Forged Alliance campaign. In the end you’re better off with reading through the digital, English manual located somewhere in the game’s installation directory for getting a general overview and for more detailed help about the game there is the wonderful internet with fans that provide all kinds of information (extensive unit database, FAQ, beginner’s guide).
Despite its flaws, a headstrong real-time strategy game such as Supreme Commander can still make you wonder if there are no other RTS-traditions that could be dumped in the trash can. The Strategic Zoom made sidescrolling obsolete, adjusting commands on the fly (by drag-dropping or selectively deleting them) is so much more handy than issuing new orders and the SupCom Air Transport system is without a doubt the best ever in an RTS. In contrast with all that it has to be said that Forged Alliance doesn’t break as much new ground as its predecessor did. It’s ‘just’ a serious refinement of SupCom. Some might say that that’s the only thing an addon is supposed to be and others might argue that these changes should have been made available in a patch. I think both statements are somewhat wrong. Improving the original is essential yes, and a good addon should be able to tempt every fan of the previous game, that’s a big selling point. But the real expansion gems should also do more than adding countless little new things and improvements, even if it would only be adding just one radical, new feature. Forged Alliance doesn’t do that and therefore it isn’t a 90+ score addon.
Forged Alliance is ok, for 30-35 euro the price is about just right. The only thing that remains questionable about this deal is the extremely superfluous stand-alone aspect. If you are new to SupCom then it’s best to go straight away for the Gold Edition. For about 5 euro more (35-40 euro) you’ll get both SupCom and FA which means you’ll be able to play online (where the real action is at) with all races. If you only purchase Forged Alliance then you can squash other armies on GPGnet solely as Seraphim (not the most interesting faction for beginners as said before) and you’ll probably be lost in the unforgiving campaign. The Supreme Commander Gold Edition is, just like the Company of Heroes Gold Edition (CoH + Opposing Fronts), without a doubt one of the best deals of the year.
When you’re already coming from SupCom then FA will surely surprise you in a good way, although it will take a while to let every change sink in until you’ve relearned the complete game. The new features and units are generally well worked out, the focus on map control makes the game faster and more enjoyable unless you loved to turtle all the time in the patched original game. It has to be said though that it doesn’t exactly succeed in removing the biggest issues of SupCom (heavy system requirements and poor documentation/tutorials). As its scope remains so huge you will also get a feeling that there is a lot of room for new content (underwater bases or a TA-like Galactic Wars multiplayer mode for example) which might explain why a second expansion has been announced already. So, while you have the impression that so many other things could have (and maybe even should have) been implemented, Forged Alliance still manages to satisfy that hunger for more and better… at least for a while.