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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Supreme Ruler: Cold War

In all of the multitude of conflicts that marred the 21st century, perhaps the most difficult to adequately model in a video game is that of the Cold War. A turbulent time marred by large amounts of intrigue, great posturing and the passive-aggressiveness of proxy-battles, it is a time of politics, espionage and the great public fear of nuclear-induced Armageddon.

Perhaps unsurprisingly considering the many features needed above and beyond that of WWII games, Supreme Ruler: Cold War is the most intricate game that has emerged in recent months. In an already-ridiculously complicated genre, that does say a lot. What is surprising is the lack of adequate tutorials for getting to grips with that gameplay. A nice in-game tutorial would have been really appreciated for this game, although manual junkies will appreciate the clear and well written attempt at putting the complex systems in paper form. As a result, this is a game to stay clear of unless you are a veteran of the genre, but offers a great deal for those who are.

Moscow is first...


One of the greatest problems that newcomers to the wargame genre suffer from is information overload. Suddenly thrust into the dictator hotseat, most players initially struggle to begin making intelligent decisions that will steer them, and their nation through the long years, and as a result, the games are rarely accessible. Information is not in short supply in Supreme Ruler. Indeed, all the usual suspects in terms of complicated modes are present; Research (five impressively detailed trees with era and geographical location appropriate emphasis on the space race and arms race), economic models featuring 11 commodities amongst other markets and large scale social responsibilities (education, medication, etc), diplomacy, an extremely advanced covert operations system and many more besides.

A somewhat useful filter mode does makes these systems accessible, giving important feedback through a panel of icons, but it is understandable how players can feel overwhelmed as they attempt to master the multiple systems; and then frustrated at an inability to access minor but seemingly hidden features. Essentially, there is a large learning curve in most grand strategy games and Supreme Ruler’s natural complexity, with its adequate but unspectacular interface, makes it no exception.




A remarkable feature I would like to draw attention to, and sadly underutilised in the game is the introduction of intelligent cabinet ministers which can be activated to automate their various roles, and tweaked to fit your own political inclinations. Whilst taking control of nations such as Zimbabwe, Australia or Andorra in the game’s sandbox mode might not require as much help, their utility in campaigns where you control the massive industrial development required in USSR and the USA's remarkable economy is greatly appreciated.
Want somebody else to look after your economic tradings? It’s done. Want a minister to make the most out of your various methods of troop production? Done. Want them to only have a little influence on that area, but instead take care of the menial stuff? Done. It’s like having competent henchmen in a FPSer. The concept is brilliant, although the developers may have been served well had they started every game asking which ministers would be preferred, or simply turning them all on by default (otherwise, this option is one of the thing that can be difficult to find amongst the interface).

As for the military aspect of the game. it is performed in real time and offers decent strategic fare. Because it is the Cold War, warfare is tough. The campaign mode, in which proxy wars predominate, means you’re fighting in somebody else’s backyard, and therefore every battle is an invasion. For example, in Korea, the North’s invasion of South results in no real home ground advantage regardless of your choice of player in USSR or USA. The individual units have a great deal of flavour and technological advancements brings with them impressively detailed toys to play with, which are hopefully bigger and shinier then your opponents. There are many fantastic troop options for each force including units in land, water, air and those packing some missile/ explosive fun.

The battle for Russia starts in Brazil


The AI is intelligent and does attempt to counter your own plans with precision, achieving an admirable level of sophistication. Further, the grouping of various forces into spheres of influence and theatres of battles is very intuitive and adds a lot to tactical nous to the experience. Keeping true to the times, the DEFCON status (essentially referring how close USA and USSR are to war) builds a level of tension in the player and whilst it is possible to have nuclear-free war, the threat is always hanging over your head. Not many of the units feel overpowered, either, except when historical accuracy is at stake.

What does detract from the gaming experience, and is always difficult to get right in the wargame genre is the progression of time, which is very tedious outside of battles. Indeed, in your downtime between wars you can make yourself coffee, get some food, read a book, solve global warming and run a marathon in the real world. All whilst the game is running in fast mode. This time control is ideal for wartime situations and is perfect to enable micromanagement. But, with a pause function so readily available and indeed necessary at time, you have to wonder why turn-based gameplay was not considered instead to speed up those down periods.

The scale for this game is impressive indeed.


Now for the reason why you are playing a game set during the Cold War: Espionage. I found this the most fun aspect of Supreme Ruler. From sending them on important missions to just blowing up stuff or funding insurgencies amongst your opponent’s allies, the spy has many uses. With up to 16 players available in multiplayer, this feature could prove masterful in obtaining the game a loyal following, even if it does test the threads of friendships. Its features like these, and providing a big red button to initiate thermonuclear war, that generates soul and personality in the game and thus become an absorbing experience.

Wargames are not renowned for their graphics and this is no exception. The game hardly extends itself and offers a routine map with zoom options and is aesthetically very standard. The trade off is, however, that the game is not crippled with loading times. It’s worth it. Music is appropriate and helps set the mood nicely, with sound effects providing a great deal of explosions and gunfire, alerting you to your next battle.

This game is a very decent simulation of the Cold War but is not for the faint of heart. It’s complicated nature offers a great deal to wargame veterans and the intelligent AI does provide a robust challenge. It is a little different from the norm, and, if you are considering this, its relatively cheap starting price makes it worth picking up.

- Owen S




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Review: Supreme Ruler: Cold War
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