Despite everything, you know, we live in a pretty sweet time right now. For most of us, the biggest risk to our health is living it up too much and, while there are wars going on around the globe, the day-to-day impact on the lives of most civilians in the western world is minimal.
You don’t have to go that far back in time before things start looking much darker. Two world wars last century, look. And even since then there was a huge, global conflict between the two biggest, baddest superpowers on the block. Only thing that made that different from the other world wars was that they never actually went to war.
Supreme Ruler: Cold War casts you in the role of leader of either the USA or the USSR, nukes and all, and challenges you to get through the latter half of the twentieth century without writing the prequel to Fallout 3. Or, if running a superpower’s not your thing, you can take control of any nation on the earth and try to walk the political tightrope between these two nuclear-armed colossi.
Now I’m a newcomer to the Supreme Ruler series, and being a newcomer to a game like this is daunting to say the least. See, SR:CW is a geopolitical simulator, meaning you’re as likely to be fine-tuning fuel purchases from the world market or tweaking spending on family subsidies as you are ordering the Special Forces into Somalia. There’s a lot to take in for a newbie, particularly if you launch straight into campaign mode and take the reins of one of the big boys, with troops and influence stretching across the planet. Fortunately, just like every good leader, you’ve got a cabinet of NPC ministers who will handle the heavy lifting for you if you don’t fancy getting your hands dirty in every last detail of running the country. Simply set a political alignment (Liberal, Moderate or Conservative) and leave it up to your staff, allowing you to cherry-pick the elements that interest you.
So the aim of the game, at least in campaign mode, is to bring more of the nations of the earth into your sphere of influence than the other guy. While this can be achieved through force of arms, that’ll cause grief with the United Nations unless you can justify the war properly. It’s much better to either covertly support insurgency to topple undesirable governments or simply bribe the heck out of them (OK, you can call if ‘Foreign Aid’ if you’d really rather) until they get a warm snuggly feeling about you.
Supreme Ruler: Cold War isn’t a game that you can pick up and play without any fuss. I read the manual through twice before I got a feel for it, and even then put in a good couple of hours browsing the forums to try to work it all out. All of the units in the game are accurately named, and sometimes this can be a little confusing if you’re not a military history buff. Each unit also has a slew of attributes, from spotting distance to missile payload, which need to be compared before you launch an attack. Once you decide to pile in there, though, troops can be moved by a more-or-less straightforward point-and-click. That said, you’ll still need to worry about air traffic corridors, supply lines, allied movements, fuel ranges, terrain, artillery cover…
Phew. SR:CW is a bit like one of those fractal pictures where no matter how far you zoom in there’s still more detail, and you can find yourself falling forever into a rabbit hole of figures, statistics and comparisons. Pretty much every city on the planet is present and correct, named and kitted out with local industries and terrain. It would be very easy to automate everything except, for example, international trade and resource production (if that’s your thing) and make an engrossing, infinitely re-playable game. One time you might like to make the USA completely self-sufficient (no mean feat), next time maybe you’ll assume control of Sweden and try to make it the world’s leading exporter of consumer products. The possibilities are endless, because there are so many factors that you can take a hand in. Of course, if after 10 years or so of game time the cut and thrust of international trade starts to lose its thrill, you could let your minister loose and focus your attention on deploying carriers to the Mediterranean to invade, oh, let’s say Corsica.
So there’s a lot of game here, and it is not immediately easy to get into. Hover-over mouse tips are good in some places, confusing in others and altogether absent in others. Certain features that should be core to a game based on the Cold War are currently not even implemented. For example, currently there is no way to liberate a captured territory – everything at the moment just remains under your direct control. Quite a glaring omission in a game of proxy wars and regime changes. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that regular updates will iron out most of these gaps.
Despite the insane level of depth throughout the game, I couldn’t help but feel that espionage had been given pretty short shrift. When I think about the Cold War, it’s all Russian spies with those hats with the big furry flaps, sitting on park benches nonchalantly sliding briefcases to one another. As far as I can tell, the espionage system hasn’t really developed in any huge way from the other games in the Supreme Ruler series. Sure, you can assassinate the odd Foreign Minister here and there (which seems to do little besides slightly lessening the target nation’s approval rating) and, if you’re really lucky, steal the odd tech (although this is incredibly hard), I’d like to have seen more from the espionage. Personally, it’s the one bit of the game I’d have liked to have focused on, leaving the financial and social stuff to the cabinet.
It’s difficult to talk about the graphics and sound in a way that gamers brought up on racing and FPS games will be able to relate to. Compared to, say, Assassins Creed, the graphics and sound are dreadful, dated and wholly drab. Compared to the previous games in the Supreme Ruler series, there’s considerable improvement as well as better system performance. If you’re wondering about the quality of the graphics and sound, however, you’re missing the point.
I approached Supreme Ruler: Cold War casually, almost disinterestedly at first, and it threatened to completely consume my free time. For long-time fans or anyone with an interest in the era, there’s really no escape. Supreme Ruler is a powerful time sink – this has already become the longest review I’ve ever written for Game Debate and I can’t believe how many important details of the game I’ve not even covered.
Supreme Ruler: Cold War. It’s confusing, massive, sprawling and complex. Does that sound like fun to you? Because it does to me.