It’s almost the 1950s. Any minute now, the bitter tension and terrifying uncertainty of the Cold War is going to break out. If that’s what Cold Wars do. Can something that never quite starts break out? Is that the right idiom? Never mind, you get the gist. America and Russia are gearing up to spend the next couple of decades throwing spies and dirty looks at each other, stockpiling their missiles and maneuvering secretly for domination, all the while pretending they aren’t. Like a giant pair of fat men on competitive diets pretending not to be scoffing cookies when the other isn’t looking. Politics and watchfulness are the orders of the day. Vast nations mobilise their assets into arms races, each eager to claim any possible advantage as a PR victory. It’s the ultimate in one-up-manship, but one where you can’t go all the way to that final challenge, of seeing whose missiles work best.
Of all the major conflicts of the past hundred years, this one really has a lot of opportunity as a turn-by-turn strategy. All that sneaking and skulking, all the use of agents and gentle pushing, of posturing and threatening – I really think that is an under-explored venue for some really interesting games. Imagine a Total War title where you must do everything possible to rule the globe except actually declare war. Where the potential for violence is more deadly than the violence itself. If you want to run the risk of open war, you do it by proxy or by manipulating other people into doing it for you so you can join in on the sly. A real opportunity for cunning and flare, in other words.
Supreme Ruler has an immense amount of detail and thought behind it. Every aspect of Real politics is in the game somewhere, from the massive races to outdo each other with technology, to managing the infrastructure of the colossal empires that dominated the world for the last fifty years. The map is staggering – zoom from a global screen right down to a town-by-town close-up, with individual units waiting to be personalised. Bargain and bully with the minor powers that scurry around the feet of America and Russia, the two titans. Or even play as one of them, to see if you can survive the fallout of that greater conflict unscathed. There’s an immense amount of potential for complex, involved gameplay, and somebody out there has gone to great lengths to see that realised.
If only they’d also spent the same lengths on the tutorials.
I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, okay, but I’m pretty bright as gamers go. I used to be a genuine, bona fide doctor. I did half of my training at Oxford University. I have actually helped perform open bowel surgery. Not stupid, in a nutshell. I’ve also been an avid gamer for well over fifteen years, playing long and solid hours of most of the major game systems developed over that time. RTS, turn-based strategy, FPS, RPG, MMORG, you name it, I’ve got a reasonable grasp of what to expect and how the basic mechanics work, I reckon. I’ve even spent a lot of time with games from before these styles got standardised, where the keyboard layout was as likely to be ‘QAOP’ as ‘WASD’, or where the right and left mouse buttons weren’t automatically mapped to ‘select’ and ‘give orders’ and some complex combo of function keys and Mandarin Chinese was needed to get anything done. So I’m pretty smart and I’ve got experience too.
But this game utterly defeated me. I could move things around enough to see all that tempting rich strategic detail. I could open and close menus, and get a basic idea of what was what. Nothing I did seemed to have any perceivable effect, other than getting a cryptic message a while later letting me know that the country I’d tried to make a deal with said ‘no’. I couldn’t figure out how to give my troops orders, or build things, or research things, or even get the slightest idea of what all the wiggling rectangles on the screen actually meant or represented. Nothing much seemed to happen, a lot of the time. My ministers made demands and explained results, but it all seemed very boring and repetitive. A good sim, then – I’m not very interested in the minutiae of running a country in real life either, so it’s maybe not surprising this didn’t grab my attention very much.
I spent an hour and a half reading the manual. Be honest, how long since any of you did that? We’re spoilt these days, we expect in-game tutorials to give us the basics. No longer do we plough through fat booklets of dense text to work out how to play a game. My dad holds that satnavs are slowly undermining the human race, because you don’t need to be able to read a map any more. I suddenly see his point.
The manual is great, by the way. That’s how I know all the potential is in the game, because it explained all about how spies can be used to destabilise developing countries, or how the infrastructure of a major industrial nation develops. Lots of very clear and intelligent theory, and some great concepts on what to expect the game to throw at you and how a nation can be run. Nothing at all on how to actually achieve that in game, mind you, but some very stirring ideals.
I honestly tried very hard, for about four hours. Then I gave up, feeling much sadder and stupider than I had in a long time. I often criticise modern games for being dumbed down, or for spoon-feeding the player through to the end. That’s certainly not true here. Maybe the problem is that this is such a complex and advanced simulator of trying to run a massive nation that you actually need a full parliament (or junta) of social, military and economic experts to assist you, each with their own area of expertise. But some unforgiving part of me says that actually the game’s UI is ugly and obtuse, and needs annexing by a less rarified, more straightforwardly capitalistic model. One that lets you make soviet tanks explode and send marines to invade Tibet without having to consider the ramifications too hard.
I don’t really know how to rate this because I don’t really think I managed to get to see much of the gameplay in action. The final score is therefore a bit arbitrary. The graphics aren’t anything special, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with them. The sound is limited, the score in particular is gratingly repetitive after only a few minutes. The UI is so unintuitive that it doesn’t really let me rate the gameplay, but just maybe I was having a really bad brain day. So I’ll give it a neutral average of 5 because I’ve got no firm evidence either way. Value? Steam has it for £24.99, and it certainly isn’t worth that unless someone explains a few basics a lot better. I’d also recommend watching the Steam trailer, because it plays a lot of fast and pacy music, whilst showing you screenshots that really reinforce everything I’ve just said. Good luck making any sense of anything that happens during it.
Who knows? If you can work out what the hell is happening, this might be a life-changing game of great beauty. I would love to hear from someone who’s got into it more, they could set the record straight. Me, I really don’t know what to make of this overall. It’s really dented my confidence that I couldn’t get to grips with it. I suppose I could therefore recommend it to someone who needs a bit of self-doubt, humility and confusion in their life. Simon Cowell, maybe?