Supreme Commander on Xbox 360 Preview

Despite the modern real-time strategy game being heavily defined by Techno Soft's Genesis game Herzog Zwei, most console takes on the genre have been considerably less than successful, mainly due to the control differences between a cursor-driven mouse and a directional analog stick.

Hellbent Games is trying to be an exception to that general rule with its upcoming Xbox 360 version of Gas Powered Games' large-scale sci-fi RTS, Supreme Commander. I got a demonstration of and some hands-on time with the game this week, and am happy to report that it seems to be a step in the right direction--primarily because of a feature that remains largely unchanged from the PC version: strategic zoom.

What stayed the same

"I'm a big fan of bringing more serious RTS games to consoles," said Hellbent creative director Chris Mair, a longtime friend of Supreme Commander designer Chris Taylor, when I met with him in San Francisco. "We know a lot of PC gamers are interested because they couldn't run [Supreme Commander well enough] on their PCs, so we tried to make sure all the PC elements are there."

One of the most iconic elements of Supreme Commander, beyond the massive size of its forces and its emphasis on sweeping strategy over tactical micromanagement, is its strategic zoom. Players can seamlessly sacle from the relatively closely-cropped camera view of most RTS games all the way up to a full map view of the battlefield, with units represented diagrammatically.

Supreme Commander players get accustomed to traveling from point A to point B not by scrolling the screen or navigating a minimap, but by zooming out to strategic view then zooming in on the desired location. This mechanic, which uses the left analog stick for panning and the right analog stick to control zoom level, feels completely at home on the Xbox 360, and addresses what is my biggest complaint about most console RTS games: the sluggishness involved with navigating the battlefield.

Mechanically and gameplay-wise, everything is intact from the PC version--base building, resource management, tiered technology progression, and so on.

What changed

Though the mechanics themselves are intact, there are significant interface changes. For one thing, the UI has been drastically cleaned up, in the interest of making the most out of the Xbox 360's 720 lines of horizontal resolution. The HUD is unobtrusive and restricted to opposite corners of the screen. Most in-game functions are accessed via radial menus suiting the controller's analog sticks.

Opting not to try and require an ever-present stick-controlled cursor, Hellbent has fixed the reticule to the center of the screen while zoomed (if the player desires, the reticule can be switched to a mouse-like free cursor, though it does not seem particularly natural without an actual mouse interface). When you pull back into strategic view and the entire map is on the screen with no need to pan around, the cursor is untethered from the camera--you can then point it at your desired zoom point.

Some components of the game were necessarily scaled down from the PC game, either for playability reasons or simple memory concerns. The multiplayer unit cap maxes out at 500 per player, the same as ranked games on the PC, and the player count maxes out at four, allowing for a potential unit cap of 2000 per game. Six particularly largely maps were also removed from the game, as the team felt they were excessive. "It could be like half an hour until you actually found another player," recalled Mair.

There were a few minor mechanical tweaks made by the team--for example, aircraft now need to refuel less frequently, lessening some of the micromanagement in that area in the PC game--though both Hellbent and Gas Powered were careful not to mess too much with the game's already careful balance.

What's new

Unfortunately, the Forged Alliance expansion pack will not be entirely incorporated into Supreme Commander on Xbox 360. For one thing, the entirely new faction and maps started to introduce memory concerns on the console ("Operation 6 on Forged Alliance could bring even a fairly powerful PC to its knees," admitted Gas Powered producer Marc Scattergood, also present at the demonstration), but also the expansion came very late in development, making its inclusion impractical. Production for 360 actually began in January 2007, with control scheme work having begun in October 2006.

That said, Hellbent was able to adopt a number of Forged Alliance's improvements into its port--and as it turns out, many of Forged Alliance's improvements were a result of Hellbent's own developments.

For one thing, the revamped artificial intelligence is present in the Xbox 360 game. The building template system, letting players intelligently "rubber stamp" successful past base configurations, is also here; templates are saved to the player's profile, allowing them to recall them from match to match.

Six of Forged Alliance's new units are here, along with three brand new units conceived by Hellbent and created by Gas Powered. For the United Earth Federation, there is a tech 2 bomber, a tech 2 gatling bot, and the new tech 3 anti-artillery shield. The Cybran get a tech 2 rocket bot with mobile missiles, a tech 2 bomber, and the new tech 1 "sleeper" stealth submarine. Finally, the Aeon receive a tech 2 suicide bomber guided missile, a tech 3 shield disruptor, and the new tech 1 stationary artillery.

Hellbent has created two new multiplayer modes: King of the Hill, which features a centralized no-construction zone that grants players more points the higher the level of the units they have occupying it; and Command Point, which consists of numerous bases around the map that players must capture with engineers and defend.

Finally, the game has an optional interactive tutorial section--a feature that was adopted by the Forged Alliance team--aimed at softening criticism that the original game took for having too steep a learning curve.

Still got an SDTV?
I was able to see Supreme Commander running on a standard definition TV, of all things--it was an unusual sight, as the PC version doesn't even support lower resolutions than 1024x768, but Mair pointed out that the team actually put a lot of time into SDTV settings for players without more expensive sets, including making the text large enough at that resolution to be readable, and further stripping down the HUD. "Chris Taylor spent more time giving feedback to the 480p version than to the 720p version," he laughed.

How it plays

Based on my brief time with Supreme Commander on Xbox 360, it seems to work. Despite being a PC-born mechanic, strategic zoom is a big improvement for RTS games on consoles, and Hellbent has implemented it smoothly and without any apparent major performance issues. It is clear that the game's level of detail and draw distance is not on par with what one would see on the higher graphical settings on a powerful PC, but in all honesty it is unlikely that most PC players are capable of seeing those high graphical settings alongside a smooth framerate either.

(One odd quirk I noticed is that there were noticeable framerate hitches during the simple early stages of the tutorial, but not during a late-game campaign mission with units filling the screen. Mair said this is likely because of the changing artificial zoom and pan limitations the tutorial imposes as it gradually opens up features like strategic zoom.)

The radial menus make sense, and there are some intuitive shortcuts and control mappings. For example, the right trigger serves as a general modifier for performing unit selection or grouping-related commands--holding down the trigger opens up numerous selection commands with the face buttons, such as selecting all units on screen, all units on the map, all units of the currently selected type, all air units, and so on. There is also a radial menu with some built-in groups such as the commander or all engineers of the different tech levels, as well as eight user-definable groups.

My main concern about playing Supreme Commander on 360 is probably that its general interface, particularly with the level of complexity this game can reach, is still unlikely to feel as natural as it does on the PC--that is, given the option between playing the game on the two platforms, I can't see myself switching over yet.

Still, said Mair, it should make a good alternative for those whose PCs can't handle it--and many of his developers, who had not already played the PC version, now see this version as natural. "A lot of my team had never done the keyboard and mouse," he said. "They started with this. They try playing it on PC, and they say, 'This is so weird, it's so much harder.'"

Aspyr Media plans to ship Hellbent Games' Xbox 360 version of Gas Powered Games' Supreme Commander in mid-March.