Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance is the first expansion for Supreme Commander, the epic scale RTS by Gas Powered Games. The stand-alone expansion introduces a whole new race, the Seraphim, into the SupCom universe, as well as a number of interface and gameplay refinements.
The campaign doesn't muck about, lobbing you right into the thick of things from the very first second. For seasoned SupCom veterans it might be an exhilarating kick in the pants, but for freshly minted commanders, it can all seem a bit much. There is a pretty decent tutorial to work though if you fancy, but it doesn't do much to alleviate the brain-lock that results from first contact with a screen full of hurtling icons. If ever you've played a hex-based version of, for example, the Normandy landing, you'll be familiar with the feeling of being handed a sprawling, chaotic mess and being expected to sort it out. Now imagine it all in real-time. With somebody shouting gung-ho 'get it done, soldier!' rants at you.
It's at this point that it becomes clear that Forged Alliance is aimed squarely at experienced SupCom players, and fair enough - it's an expansion, after all. The stand-alone nature of FA obviously makes it attractive to new recruits, but the shotgun-to-the-face approach of the campaign will most likely be a bit too much. Eventually, though, the pause key will become your best friend, the clouds will part and FA reveals itself to be a solid expansion even as it struggles with some of the flaws inherent in the SupCom style.
More than anything, SupCom is about size and scale. It takes RTS conventions and writes them very large - hundreds of individual units crashing around gigantic maps, the tides of war ebbing and flowing as massive assaults founder on stalwart defences. Underpinning all this is the standard base building and resource gathering that has largely fallen out of favour in modern day real-time strategy. As spectacular as the scale of FA can be, we do have lingering doubts over whether it actually adds much to the RTS experience. Undoubtedly it provides some genuine strategy in place of the more tactical nature of most RTS's, but it sometimes just feels less fun than it should. It's never exactly boring, but for all the action and bustle, it's not unusual to get to the end of a four hour mission and feel a little underwhelmed. It's not completely unlike trying to extract a truck that's bogged in sand - there's an awful lot of noise, lots of spent energy and a momentary feeling of satisfaction when you're done, but was it any actual fun?
A good illustration of this comes in the 'expanding map' technique used in the campaign. On completing particular objectives, new areas of the map are revealed. While this gradual curtain raising is presumably a way to ratchet up the gosh-wow bigness of things, it feels strangely soul-crushing. Effectively, it means that after pounding away at a mission for up to an hour, your reward is - surprise! - more of the same. The freshly revealed areas of the map are invariably swarming with bad guys who quickly home in on you and pound you back to the stone age. Cue another hour of rebuilding and restocking before capturing another objective which then opens up more of the map and so on. And on. And on.
So is this fun? The grinding, dispiriting feel of the campaign is not, we think, a terrific achievement for a game. As always, though, it depends on your personal definition of 'fun' but for most people, FA's campaign will play out more like a tired Monday morning than the over-caffeinated Friday afternoon it should be. Still, grumpy Irishmen aside, some people do like Mondays, so don't let us put you off. Forged Alliance's campaign is an undeniably big and meaty affair and, if you've got the gumption, you'll easily get your money's worth.
The shiny new Seraphim aren't massively different from the other three original factions, though they do stand out a bit more on the battlefield. There's still a lot of similarities in units across all the factions, at least until you start getting into the higher end of the tech tree. Experimental units are a hoot, but you'll have to maintain a throbbing, vibrant economy if you want to churn them out before the sun comes up.
Skirmish mode proves to be something of a saving grace, letting you set up a game that's as big or small as you fancy. It's actually a really good place to come to grips with the game and includes a very handy 'sandbox' option that lets you tinker about endlessly with the squillions of units at your disposal, or work your way up the tech tree without being hammered into the ground. In combat, the AI provides a significant challenge and will quickly throttle you if given half a chance. Even the easiest AI won't hesitate to sink the boot in if you spend too long bumbling about.
All the expected multiplayer options are present and correct. The game uses the slightly baffling and unwieldy GPGnet widget to access internet games, but once everything is patched up and sorted out, it's sufficiently easy to get into an online match. While it's an intimidating game to play online, the community seem friendly enough and aware that not everyone is a grand master. Also, we found that the game ran ever so slightly smoother online, possibly because the CPU no longer had to control an enemy AI.
Forged Alliance's interface is a significant improvement over Supreme Commander's 'slit-in-a-hi-tech-helmet' approach. It's cleaner and clearer, though it still feels a little too busy. A lot of the info panels can be slid out of sight, though, which helps reduce the visual pollution. The super-duper zoomable map lets you pull out far enough to enjoy the fjords, or get ridiculously close to the action. The fully zoomed out map renders all the units and buildings as teensy little icons, which while more informative than looking at the largely similar-looking polygonal units, is also a bit clinical and 'war-gamey'. Expect to spend a lot of time flitting between various zooms with all the enthusiasm of a hyperactive amateur photographer.
Forged Alliance is a step up from SupCom in the visual department, and able to serve great wodges of grinding, metal carnage on a sweeping scale - provided you have the system to handle it. While the recommended system specs - 3Ghz CPU, 1GB RAM and 256MB DX9 video card - aren't an outright lie, let's call them a cheeky half-truth. Sure, one could run the game on those specs, but you won't get anywhere near to seeing Forged Alliance at its best. Trust us, there is no such thing as jaw-dropping spectacle at three frames per second. And can we all take a minute to point and laugh at the minimum specs of 1.8Ghz CPU, 512MB RAM and 128Mb DX9 video card? Surely you jest, sir!
The soundscape of FA consists of an almost constant cacophony of laser fire and explosions. The closer you zoom in, the less you hear but seeing as you'll be spending most of your time overseeing the whole battlefield, you'll be blessed with every ping, zap and ka-boom. It really does wear on the nerves after a while. The music is exactly the kind of dramatic filler you'd expect. The voice acting is similarly generic, being firmly in the Starcraft school of shouty, military belligerence mixed with moments of wafty, mystical space-hippie.
There's a lot to like about Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance. It might seem insignificant, but the way the map zooms in on your pointer, rather than just straight downwards, is something a lot of other games would do well to copy. There's a nifty ferry system available for automatically getting units from A to B. You can create Build Templates that allow you to lay down whole complexes with ease. Formations work well, with units sensibly arranging themselves into the best attack patterns. We particularly like the ability to queue up unit construction in buildings that are still being built. These are all good, sensible advances for the RTS genre.
Ultimately, though, Forged Alliance feels like the culmination of an experiment that is only partially successful. While the appeal of a massive scale RTS is obvious, Forged Alliance feels too heavy, too laboured to keep anyone but the most dedicated strategy gamer involved. While there is undoubtedly a market for the kind of hard-core RTS gameplay that FA provides, most people simply won't have the time or inclination to ferret out the fun that's buried deep beneath its surface.