April 15, 2008

Game Personality

I was reading through some of Tom Chick's old :60 Reviews, and I came across this one on Supreme Commander. As a previous post has made clear, I adore the game, but one critical line from the review struck me deeply: "Why... is there no personality here? This is as aggressively bland a game as you’ll ever play."

SupCom brought the RTS genre back to strategy for me. After games like C&C and Warcraft 3 that rewarded micromanagement more than anything else, SupCom's emphasis on high-level strategy was a breath of fresh air. Epic battles of high strategy: this was what I had signed up for.

But Chick is right in calling the game out on its lack of personality. As pretty much every review acknowledged, all three factions play almost exactly the same. The powerful "experimental" units differ somewhat, but generally, the only distinguishing factor is the art. It's great art, too, but without corresponding differences in gameplay potential, it almost feels deceptive.

The problems extend beyond just this lack of distinction. The entire game is about fighting robots, in an environment in which resources are as plentiful as you can gather them. The result is that, even in the game world, the battles are just high-tech games. Nothing ever seems to be at stake. Even the original Command and Conquer made an effort to put you in character and give you reason to care about the outcome of the battles. The campaign stories in SupCom try to pull this off, and they give fine justifications for why each side is fighting, but you can never see (or even imagine) the effect of any given battle. Two robots fight until one dies... Why do we care? Where's the ultimate human element?

As I write this, my criticisms seem a little unfair. It's a high burden that I'm demanding. But perhaps that's the difference between a good, well-crafted game and a great masterpiece. Or maybe this aspect of being sucked in to a level of deep involvement in the game world is just another facet of the game to be judged, separate from gameplay or aesthetics. I'm not sure. But Chick hit a nerve; something is missing in SupCom, and I acutely feel its absence.

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