Review

Supreme Ruler: Cold War Review (PC)

There seems to be something of a paradox when it comes to strategy games, which is that the more complicated and unintuitive they are, the less willing they are to tutor you in how to play them. Perhaps they assume you will be intelligent enough to work it out for yourself, or perhaps the developers spend so long putting detail and complexity into the game that there isn’t enough time left to create tutorials. I really hoped that Supreme Ruler: Cold War would buck this trend of admirably ambitious but utterly impenetrable strategy games. I was wrong to do so.

Let’s get one thing straight. There’s nothing wrong with complexity and ambition. Complex games are great. Games that challenge you and refuse to pander you by dumbing down their mechanics or being overly simplistic are fantastic. I love that side of Supreme Ruler: Cold War. It is without a doubt the most ambitious strategy game I have ever played. But there’s a big difference between complexity and impenetrability, and Cold War is sadly also the most impenetrable game I’ve ever played.

“And what are you going to use these for?” “Oh, display mainly.

To help you understand this. Here’s an account of my initial experience with Cold War. On booting up the game I was greeted, as ever, by the menu screen. I was already aware that this was very much a hardcore strategy game, so the first thing I did was look for a tutorial screen. There wasn’t one. So I assumed the tutorials must have been built into the Campaign. Therefore I opened up the Campaign menu, opted to play as the US, and jumped right in.

I was greeted by a full top-down view of Americas Eastern Seaboard, littered with cities and towns and countless American flags representing military units moving about. My fiancée leaned over my shoulder and said “Why are you on Google Earth?”

“I’m not,” I replied. “I’m playing a strategy game.”

“Oh,” she said. “Good luck with that.”

I needed more than luck. Basically, there is no tutorial. Neither are there clear objectives, nor an outlined set of prospective goals to help you work out what to do first. The only help you get is a series of announcement buttons which alert you to important events, and some very basic tooltips. After about half an hour tentatively clicking buttons and pointlessly moving units around like a child playing with toy cars on the living room carpet, I abandoned the campaign entirely.

To be fair, Battlegoat Studios (which is a fantastic name for a developer) are somewhat aware of the extremely unintuitive nature of their game, and are hard at work on a series of tutorial videos and a game guide. Also, the community on the Battlegoat forums is very pleasant and helpful, and through both I managed to get a basic handle on the game.

Nevertheless, this really isn’t enough. Cold War needs, and I mean needs, a comprehensive in-game tutorial, perhaps even a tutorial campaign similar to that of AI War, or Empire: Total War’s Road to Independence. Such a tutorial would improve the game dramatically.

Now that’s out of the way, I can tell you about the rest of my experience with Cold War, which was altogether more interesting. I decided to forego my naïve plans of overnight global domination, and started a sandbox game with a small nation. In the sandbox mode you can play as pretty much any nation you want. Naturally I chose Britain. This turned out to be an excellent decision, as the small size and relative neutrality of late 1949 Britain allowed me time to get to grips with the game’s UI.

The ultimate objective of Supreme Ruler: Cold War is to conquer the globe via influencing the world toward your particular political leaning, whether that is as the democratic West or Communist east. The number of ways you can do this is frankly phenomenal. Potential ways of spreading your influence include; economics, diplomacy, alliances, espionage, technological advancement, the space race, nuclear superiority and, of course, war.

Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING is up for grabs


Obviously that’s a huge amount for one person to manage, and thankfully the game provides you with a variety of AI ministers who you can delegate general policies to. For the most part, they do their job excellently, although it would be really helpful if the production minister was able to bulk buy items that are in short supply (you’ll find out why momentarily). Nevertheless, the AI ministers are probably the game’s greatest triumph.

Initially I opted for an eclectic mixture of economics, diplomacy, technological advancement and espionage. I told my finance minister to maximise profit and my production minister to stock-up on consumerist goods. Within a matter of months I had doubled the contents of my treasury. However, I also quickly ran out of raw materials, particularly food and timber.

Consequently I had to stop all production of consumerist and military goods, make swingeing cuts to public services and build a large number of agricultural and timber depots. My treasury contents dropped as quickly as it had burgeoned, but it soon began to increase at a far more measured and steady rate. In addition, researching and selling a few new technologies and entering some free trade agreements provided additional bonuses to my overall income.

This really is a game about personal play styles, and whichever way you decide to play there’s an extraordinary level of depth. In military terms, there are countless numbers of individual units of land, sea, and air capacities, and each has its own raft of statistics. I launched an in-built scenario which places you as North Korea on the eve of the Korean War, with the objective of capturing the South. I quickly turned my economy into a military production line and rolled over the border.

Actually, rolling over the border is technically impossible, because the border dynamically shifts as you conquer territory. I quickly captured the Korean capital, and was halfway to the south coast when the US intervened. Filled with adrenaline, I brazenly declared war on the US. Bad idea. Soon a vast number of US units appeared on the South Korean shore, and my steamrolling advance turned into a deadlocked war of attrition. Ultimately I failed to conquer the south in the allotted time. When the Cold War heats up, the game becomes incredibly tense, and not because of the sounds of bombs and gunfire reverberating across the map. Going to war can result in UN sanctions and trade embargos, and attacking the wrong country at the wrong time can set half the world against you.

What’s more, always lingering in the back of your mind is the temptation to go nuclear. Yet as with everything else in Cold War, hitting the big red button will undoubtedly set off a chain of reactions and countermeasures, only in this case with apocalyptic consequences.

Before I conclude, there are a couple of other issues which I feel I should bring to your attention. The first is the user interface. Now, in a game this complicated, the UI is always going to take some getting used to. However, it struck me as odd that some of the most important buttons in Cold War are also the smallest. It took me a couple of hours to realise that you had to place individual espionage agents on the map, simply because the button to do so was tiny. The same goes for the placement of industrial plants, bases, in fact the placing of pretty much anything.

You can’t fault the level of detail

The other thing is, even though units are often stacked to the ceiling, there’s still an awful lot of unit clutter on screen. Not only does this cause significant slowdown, it also can make battles extremely confusing. National flags are used to differentiate units, but when clustered in battle this is of little help. The only solution I can think of is a sort of dynamic colouring between friendly and enemy units.

Did I enjoy my time with Supreme Ruler: Cold War? Enjoy is probably the wrong word. I certainly appreciate its scope and ambition, and eventually the game began to grow on me, but the dearth of tutorship and the complete lack of direction in those early stages of the game will make it a hard sell to all but the most dedicated of strategists. Having said that, if you’re looking for what is probably the deepest and most complicated strategy game ever made, oh boy have you found it.

Top Game Moment: When you finally work out what each button does and can actually begin strategising, it’s positively revelatory.

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Comments

By nocutius (SI Elite) on Aug 05, 2011
nocutius
So basically a good noob unfriendly game :).

A tutorial is a must in this type of games, it's really strange they are often lacking one.
By unsilviu (SI Core) on Aug 06, 2011
unsilviu
Looks great only you know how to play, but I love this kind of depth in my games :)
By edrperez (SI Newbie) on Sep 02, 2011
edrperez
O.o sounds complicated for the new player. Too bad there is no tutorial.