Developer:    GolemLabs

Publisher:    DreamCatcher

Released:   2002

PC Requirements:    Win 98/ME/XP, Pentium compatible processor, Direct X 8.1, Display adapter with 800x600 16-bit resolution, 64 Mb RAM, 300 Mb hard drive space, CD-ROM drive, 100% Microsoft compatible mouse, DirectSound compatible sound card.




by Singer

So what have you been doing with your spare time?  If you’ve been gaming, you’ve probably been trying to save the world, or some such noble pursuit.  Not me.  I’ve been controlling the fates of millions, and trying to take OVER the planet, living out my megalomania fantasies through DreamCatcher’s strategy game called SuperPower. 

Come to think of it, perhaps I should clarify.  In pursuing my goal of world domination, what I’ve ACTUALLY been doing is pouring through reams of statistics, charts, maps, and reports.  In between, I’ve been making vital decisions that show why I could let a political dynasty be overrun by a well-disciplined troop of Girl Guides, given enough time.  For that matter, I’d probably inadvertently fund them through excessive cookie orders.  Yes, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that as a politician, I make a wonderful reviewer. 

SuperPower is a modern day military and geo-political world simulator….  I know, I know – unless you’re the type of person that reads spreadsheets for fun, you’re thinking that this isn’t the most entertaining way of spending your leisure time.  Certainly this was unlike any game I’ve ever played.  My idea of following the news consists of headlines, sports, and comics… usually in reverse order.  What’s worse, my understanding of global politics includes questions like “So what’s happening in the Soviet Union these days?”  On the other hand, I do like strategy games, so I was willing to step outside my comfort zone to try something new.

The premise of SuperPower is to put the player in the hotseat of running an actual country, with the emphasis on realism.  Developed by GolemLabs using official data from the CIA and United States Naval Institute, SuperPower boasts of having the largest database ever used in a strategy game, and they ain’t whistlin’ Dixie!  There are 140 countries in the game, each with a simply staggering amount of detail, conveniently broken down into colour-coded demographic, political, economic, and military themes. 

Aside from a relatively small number of pre-defined scenarios, the bulk of the game is open ended, allowing you to choose any country you wish.  The only mandated condition is that you manage to stay in power.  However, you may also select objectives which include conquering the world, eliminating armed rebels, and/or balancing resources over the course of 1, 5, or 10 years, or even for an unlimited amount of time.   Experienced strategy gamers will wonder about a difficulty setting, but that’s getting away from the ultra-realistic nature of SuperPower.  These are not imaginary countries of relatively equal strength, but actual countries defined by their status in our very real world.  So the difficulty is inherently established by the country and objectives you select.  In a smart move, the game offers a meter which indicates the degree of difficulty of the options you’ve chosen. 

Needless to say, being a Canadian, I opted to be a homeboy.  Not only is Canada the biggest  military juggernaught outside of, well… maybe Papua New Guinea, we also have the kind of financial and political clout that, say… at least 3 or 4 other countries can only dream about.  So okay, maybe we’re not that dominating on the world stage, but I stuck with what I knew.

The other 139 countries are governed by the EHE, or Evolutionary Human Emulator, which GolemLabs claims to be an artificial intelligence that LEARNS.  Rather than have pre-programmed behaviour models, each computer controlled country in SuperPower is an independent entity that analyzes the actions and patterns of its opponents (including you), and responds with logical problem solving.  For extra realism, the developers claim to have added some “human” factors which also impact on the decision making of the EHE countries.  This is incredibly ambitious, and I commend them for the undertaking.  Unfortunately, since no one has yet been able to develop an accurate model of international relations, it’s no surprise that SuperPower’s attempt is a flawed one.  Even I, with my complete lack of political savvy, could identify EHE behaviours that made very little sense, most noticeably in certain countries declaring war on others. 

Gameplay starts you off on January 1, 1997, and takes place largely in “turns” representing a one week block of real time.  Visual presentation is simply a genuine topographical world map, with numerous subscreens accessible through icons along the top and bottom.  You’re free to take as long as you want to sift through any and all relevant info about your own or any other country, at which time you can select orders from various menus.  Unless you’re engaging in warfare (which I’ll cover in a moment), once you’ve confirmed your choices, each country’s actions will “play out” behind the scenes, in the order of richest to poorest, and you’re presented with a written update of the main changes on the world scene.  When you feel sufficiently briefed on what has occurred, it’s time for a new week (your next turn).  As incredibly complex as this game is strategically, on its surface it’s just that simple to operate.

The exception to the turn based rule is when you engage in conventional warfare.  In that case, a secondary real-time map is displayed, and you issue orders to your troops which they carry out onscreen until the battle is resolved, or until you issue new commands.  I found this aspect of the game to be rather pointless, as the graphics are laughably simplistic, and the controls are not up to par with any other strategy war game I’ve encountered.  Fortunately, there is a “quick resolve” button that will let the computer settle the conflict automatically.  I saved my game before each attack, and used this method every time.  If I lost, I simply altered my initial strategy, so GolemLabs should have stuck with this function.  There’s little use in additional features that aren’t done well.

I should mention that SuperPower also contains a fairly comprehensive strategic warfare component that includes pre-targeting, counterstrike and launch orders.  However, without meaning to criticize anyone for doing so, I refused to incorporate any aspect of nuclear war in my scenarios, and quit out of my game any time a nuclear weapon was deployed (not often).  I can see where the inclusion of strategic weapons would add a real layer of depth to the experience, but I simply considered it a little too ugly for my gaming pleasure.  Purely a personal matter.

The real strength of SuperPower, of course, is in the details.   The manual weighed in at over 100 pages, and even then did nothing more than cover the basic game functions, so I can’t hope to do it any justice here, but I’ll touch on the main highlights briefly.

Clicking on your country from the main screen map will highlight your nation’s cities and military bases.  Cities are the center of commerce from which you control your industry and economy.   Only here can you produce the game’s 5 resources of energy, ore, cereals, meat, and wealth, which all have their own specific purposes and contribute to the Gross National Product (GNP).  Cities can (and should) also produce and host military units, although to a lesser degree than the bases.  One of your cities must be your capital, and it is imperative that it be protected, as losing it to an opponent results in losing the game.  However, under extreme conditions, it’s possible to move your capital city – it’ll have consequences in terms of government stability, but if you’re forced to move it, you probably have bigger concerns to worry about.

SuperPower’s comparative geographical menu is great for showing how your country measures up in terms of population, GNP, technology, resources, and military capacity, among many others.  Each criterion is reflected in a world map that clearly shows your status relative to the other nations. 

For researching more specific information and taking action, there are 8 main options.  In addition to the Demography, Technology Research and City and Base menus, the Politics screens list all of your treaties, alliances, and exchanges with other countries, any foreign pressure, as well as your own population support and government stability.  Economy windows show you your financial agreements around the world, and allow you to set tax rates, adjust multiple budgets, buy and sell resources, and make international funding contributions.  The military menus display which countries will house your units (and vice versa), list all available land, air, and naval units at your disposal, allow you to ask for military help if necessary, and of course deploy your units.  One nice feature of the latter three components is an “Advisor” button, which will offer useful advice should the need arise.

The Unit Design is a complex area that allows you to essentially build military units to your own specifications.  By selecting ability levels in various categories, your units are outfitted with the appropriate technology.  Of course you’ll want your units to have the highest levels available, but each design improvement adds to the cost significantly, so it’ll be a constant balancing act.  Overall, there are over 4000(!) different design possibilities.  In the only nice graphical touch of the game, the unit models are nicely diagrammed in the design screen.

The field I enjoyed most was the Secret Service.  It is here that you can initiate covert operations to incite revolts, rig elections, assassinate foreign leaders, commit acts of terrorism (another one I found myself avoiding, despite just being a game), or perform sabotage, espionage, and even Coup d’États.  If done right, it’s even possible to select a different country to frame for your actions.  Needless to say, these are all extremely risky, and the consequences of being discovered can be very damaging (but that’s what the “save” function is for – didn’t work?  Reload!)

Should you conquer another country officially by capturing their capital, it falls under your rule.  Unfortunately, you must continue to treat it as a separate entity from your home country, which makes managing multiple nations a time consuming and troublesome task.  When pursuing global conquest as an objective, this can get very frustrating when the number of nations under your rule increases.  The sneakier method, brought about by Secret Service ops, is to conquer a nation unofficially by arranging a puppet government that you control.  This has the dual benefit of fooling both that country’s population and your opponents that it is still independent, which keeps the citizens productive and the other nations cooperative.

Is SuperPower as complex as it sounds?  Absolutely!!  Does it all work?  No.  The easiest criticism is that the release is filled with bugs.  I have no problem with reviewing a patched game, but the patch for this game was a whopper at 37Mb!!  (As a point of reference, the entire GAME is only 155 Mb on the CD; a patch that is one-quarter the size of the game is unheard of).  Being a poor sap still afflicted with dial-up, I attempted to play it unpatched.  I didn’t experience all of the problems I’d been warned about, such as being unable to complete 2 of the 5 tutorials, but I did experience enough crashes to drive me to the patch.  I was NOT pleased.  I’ll forgive some oversights due to complex system configurations, but many of the patch fixes were for details which CLEARLY should have been caught in testing.

I’ve commented on the visual inadequacies in passing, but I’ll re-establish it here.  It was clearly a design decision to skimp on graphics, which isn’t unusual for war games.  But the simple fact is that a few animations, videos, or even photos would have gone a long way towards creating a stronger immersion factor.  Equally lacking is any type of sound effects.  There are a few basic effects when windows open and shut, and that’s about it.  Instead, the game has an MP3 player incorporated into it, but with the level of concentration and reading the game required, music was the last thing I needed…, not to mention the fact that I don’t have any MP3’s.  At least SUPPLY some tunes next time! 

Still, I could have forgiven all this, but my biggest complaint is reserved for how darn unfriendly this game is.  Hey, I didn’t expect being a world leader to be EASY, but I did expect to get some help.  Surely Heads of State are not forced to sift through their own raw data to figure out a gameplan.  Heck no, they have specialists review the information, present it and make recommendations… and that’s precisely what SuperPower should have offered.  But aside from a few minor suggestions by the “Advisor” (which you still have to manually select), you’re completely left to your own devices.  

Even that might be fine, but there’s simply too much information to digest at every turn (literally).  Need to send troops into harm’s way?  Well, should you deploy your M557, your 105-mm M101, or your UH-1N?  Don’t know, or even what they do?  Neither do I!  Maybe my military officers would, but I haven’t got any of those to ask.  Want to try driving a wedge between strategic alliances overseas?  Who can I ask about those?  Oh right… nobody.  I’m not only the top government leader, but I’m also the general of each branch of my armed forces, chief diplomat, finance minister, and black ops director.  Quite frankly, it’s entirely overwhelming, and the developers are unsympathetic.  I’ll let the manual speak for itself on the topic:

“It is the player’s responsibility to search further for information on conflicts, world history, and other concepts used in the game…. Explaining the whys and hows of our choices would take a book in itself.  For more information on the subject, again, look up the different publications and free sites around the Internet.”

I can understand your point, GolemLabs (and DreamCatcher), but next time try not to slap me in the face with it.  The slogan “give us your money and go to the library” isn’t going to be a very popular one.

It’s unfortunate that the developers opted for a such a complete “do it yourself” mode of gameplay, because it probably wouldn’t have been that difficult to incorporate a greater degree of interactivity with the Advisor, even if nothing else.  It’s one thing for the EHE to process thousands of bits of information per turn; quite another to ask the player to do so.

Though buried in statistics and bugs, there’s a decent game lurking in SuperPower for fans of politics, international relations, and military strategy.  However, that’s a pretty limited market, and this game won’t be pulling in any newcomers.  So if you know a Poly-Sci major, grab this game and surprise them with it.  If not, take a pass and don’t give it a second thought.

Final score: 32%

Played on:

Win XP

Pentium 4, 2 Ghz

512 Mb RAM

GeForce 4

This document may not be distributed without express written permission of the author and the content may not be altered in any way.

For questions or comments on this review,
Please write to: Singer

design copyright © 2003 GameBoomers Group

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