A chilly November evening, and I’m walking home from town. It’s a forty minute journey, most of it steeply uphill. It’s cold, it’s dark, I’m tired and I’m bored. There’s probably another ten or fifteen minutes to go when I grind to a sudden halt, and sigh. There’s no pleasure in this. Why do I do it? Shouldn’t the journey be as important as the destination? A light flicks on in a house just ahead of me. There’s a pause, and then an unmistakable guitarline snakes out into the cold, quiet air. It’s Sweet Child O’Mine. I half-grin, and start walking again, fingers unconsciously miming Guitar Hero buttons. I can’t help but glance in the window of the house as I pass, hoping to see the face of my personal Jesus. The guy in there sees me and freezes, his fingers also mid air-guitar. We both pause in embarrassment. Then he looks at my hands. I look at his hands. He smiles. I smile. And I walk on, still grinning. Woah-oh-oh-oh, sweet child of mi-i-i-iyyyne.
The journey doesn’t seem so bad now. Just that little bit of reward en route, no matter how silly, made the struggle so much more bearable. Enjoyable, even. I’ll be home soon. Where I’ll have to play more Forged Alliance. My smile fades a little.
This standalone expansion for none-more-massive RTS Supreme Commander doesn’t want you to stop and have a giggle during its arduous uphill journey. It thinks making the angle of incline ever-sharper is entertainment in itself. It’s a fabulous multiplayer game, but in single-player it’s cruel and cold. It never rewards you with brief moments of pleasure during its crazy-long levels – it just points up at the yards and yards of sharp slope still ahead of you, and laughs at you. If you played campaign mode in the original SupCom, you’ll know the faint horror of the phrase ‘Operational area expanded’. Upon apparently vanquishing your foes, the map grows, revealing some hitherto unseen threat on a remote new corner rather than granting you the sense of achievement of a whole new level.
Forged Alliance is even more unforgiving. Its oft-expanding maps are longer – the first one alone took me almost three hours – and it cheats like a bastard to boot. When the game zooms out, it doesn’t, as its parent did, merely task you with a new enemy base to destroy. It also immediately throws everything it’s got at you, ludicrous waves of drones and tanks and planes and battleships and submarines and skyscraper-high deathbots that’ll often wipe-out half of what you’ve spent the last hour building in one fell, unfair swoop. Your hard-earned victory becomes a desperate fight for survival.
The justified point is that war is big and relentless – this is, after all, Supreme Commander, not Reasonably Big Commander. The problem is that it doesn’t ever make you feel like you’ve achieved anything – all it does is shout orders to keep running up that hill (Kate Bush would surely understand SupCom’s trials). It’s distractingly artificial – try to analyse why all these guys have been just off-screen, conveniently ignoring you until now, and the whole thing feels utterly ridiculous – as well as punishing. Add to that your superiors constantly bellowing unreasonable orders at you, which if followed tend to result in a quick and humiliating death (hint: ignore them, and attack in your own time), and when the mission’s finally over, you won’t feel triumphant as much as you will relieved. You’ve climbed that hill. All you win is another hill.
Which is exactly what long-term SupCom players signed up for – they want war on a massive, challenging scale, not to go through the motions again. From the very start of the six-mission (each taking several hours, remember) campaign, you’ve got access to almost all the toys in your toybox, with Forged Alliance’s shiny new ones gifted to you as the game goes along. So, you’re able to employ your preferred strategy, and not, as in SupCom, have to make do with whatever limited death-machines the mission doles out to you. If you’re totally familiar with the rules of Supreme Commander, having to survive those rules being broken by your opponent offers a thrilling new test of your abilities that you wouldn’t get if Forged Alliance played fair.
Trouble is it’s an inconsiderate impasse for new players – surely an intended audience as much as the old hands, given this is a standalone game and not an expansion pack. The campaign’s levels don’t pull any punches, and its droning, unengaging narrative (short version: the three human-derived races from the first game team up against an alien threat. Long version: yes, very) presumes fairly intimate knowledge of what happened in SupCom. Forged Alliance is a better game in most every respect than SupCom was – if you’re new to the series, this is, logically speaking, the game to grab first. Give some of that logic the boot and its weaker predecessor may still be a smarter starting point. At least it offers up a chummy, “Oh hey, you’re new here, aren’tcha? Lemme show you around. It’s your first day – take it easy until you’ve learned the ropes.”