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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
(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.
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.