AI War: Fleet Command
I do love a good space game. There's just something inherently attractive about them. With the possible exception of the dungeon crawl (and associated variants), the space game is the staple of the geek diet. I just counted up the amount of space games currently installed on my hard drive and surprised even myself – 14! Of course with the sheer number of them that are available, there are going to be a few pretty bad ones out there along with the gems. This phenomena seems to be even more apparent at the indie level. Here, developers are not constrained by the requirement that most publishers and distributors seem to impose; that games need to conform to a particular format - cookie cutter clones of one another, with little to distinguish one from another. In the indie world, sales are often measured in the dozens rather than the millions of units moved. The freedom that independent developers afford themselves means that although the overall quality of the games is spread more evenly across the really good/really bad spectrum, there are sometimes brilliant concepts that would never see the light of day in a mainstream title.
AI Wars – Fleet Command is a good example of this. There are concepts in here that would make most commercial publishers wince. Unbalanced gameplay mechanics for the AI and the player controlled forces in an RTS? Shunning player versus player multiplayer mode in favour of co-operative play? Simple 2-D graphics? Star systems (up to 150 in a game) so large that it would take 6 minutes to scroll from one side to the other at the lowest zoom level? Over 30,000 units in one game? Surely you jest, Arcen Games? This sounds like a recipe for disaster!
In fact, AI Wars has had me hooked for over 2 whole weeks now. I can honestly say that I have never played a game quite like it. That's not to say that it's not without its faults, but if nothing else, it's bravely going where no other space game has ever gone before. I'm not going to have enough room in this review space to detail why all the aforementioned features work in favour of the game, but I will outlay some of the reasons why I think that this game is worthy of your $20, and your mate's as well.
Upon first glance, it would seem as if AI Wars was just another 4x RTS “Civ in Space” clone – but you'll only need a few minutes to find that there are some major differences. The objective is to find and destroy both AI's core bases of operations which are hidden somewhere in the galaxy. At the start of each game, the player's forces are cramped into a small starting world with few resources and the entire rest of the galaxy is controlled by the 2 AI opponents. Star systems are linked together in a daisy chain fashion with most having routes to at least 1 or 2 others. Forces are moved between systems using wormholes, and the player must build continually build and maintain large fleets in order to conquer AI territory and defend against AI attacks. But these attacks are not conventionally simple fleet movements made by the AI (although this kind of attack is possible). Most attacks on the player's empire come in the form of waves that the AI periodically sends against the player from adjacent systems that contain jumpgates. The size and intensity of the waves is determined by the AI progress level, a measure of the aggressiveness of the AI players at any stage during the game.
Perhaps the most important number in the game, the AI progress level, is increased as the player destroys key AI installations during play. Most significantly - jumpgates and major command stations. Without jumpgates, the AI can no longer send large offensive waves against the player's adjoining systems, and only ragtag groups will attack. AI troop production is automated and is distinctly different to the way the player's ships are produced. Without command stations, the AI can not reinforce a system at all as it usually does by warping in troops from outside the galaxy. Players may not build command stations in star systems that are occupied by AI, and so in order to expand the empire, they will be forced to destroy many AI positions. By the mid-game, the strategic decisions are very enjoyable, as the player must decide on whether to make full on attacks and wipe out the enemy in resource rich or tactically advantageous locations at the cost of progressing the AI level. Other options include surgical strikes on specific targets in a system which might include data centres – the destruction of which can actually hinder the AI progression.
The key to victory on any of the over 16 billion procedurally generated campaigns comes from knowing on where to make a solid and defensible base of operations from which to launch deep strike missions against the AI core systems. Too few and you'll have to traverse too much hostile space to attack targets of importance, as well as having to deal with a resource flow that is less than optimal. You'll know when you have overextended because intelligently co-ordinated AI attack waves will be hammering your perimeter and diverting troops from the front line. Establishing choke points, positioning key defensive structures and executing good combined-arms tactics can see you get back onto the front foot even when all hope seems lost. I'm constantly impressed by how the tide of battle can swing due to a couple of good decisions or a sloppy oversight.
The AI is some of the best I've seen. Often I'll observe an incoming enemy wave and send a platoon of defenders after it on the other side of a system only to watch as the incoming force is split! Some will break away and attack one of my crystal mines, while the bulk of the force engages by defenders. The AI knows which ship types are strong against which, and will intelligently utilise tactics that demonstrate that this is more than a simple <build forces> <attack nominated target> <rinse and repeat> flow that is observed in many other RTS titles. The AI operates on multiple levels right down to individual ships. Rest assured that if you leave a weak or poorly defended system on your perimeter it will be targeted sooner rather than later.
There's a real aesthetic joy in sending 1500 ships against a well defended position (the “zergling rush” effect) and watch as the ensuing battle is resolved. Players can micro-manage right down to individual ships if they want, but if left to their own devices, ships will target and engage enemies quite intelligently and to the best of their ability. There is definitely a benefit in co-ordination and bringing to bear the most firepower on a target at once will require some pre-planning as the slow cruisers and starships will need to be maneuvered into place well before the more nimble fighters and bombers. In all there are numerous ship styles and roles, and not all will be available in every game. Much of the replay value comes in learning how well different combinations of units work together and against differing enemy defenses. You can seamlessly zoom in the view to watch individual battles, or zoom right out to get a view of the overall fleet strategy simply by scrolling the mouse wheel. The larger battles are epic in scale and really awesome to watch.
Although the main resources of crystals and metal is in essentially unlimited supply, so is the enemy's ability to continue to warp in reinforcements. Apart from material resources the players will also need to accumulate knowledge in order to research more potent ship types and enhancements. This can only be gained by extraction from star systems through the use of science vessels and each system only has a finite amount to offer. By guarding science vessels in hostile systems, the players can effectively steal knowledge from the weaker AI systems, but sometimes advanced and new ship designs that can only be gained from the repatriation of enemy science vessels requires a full frontal attack and so once again, pros and cons must be weighed up.
AI War is a deep and involving game that offers a lot of replayability and very strategic gameplay. The players will always need to be considering possibilities and be ready to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances in order to win. With 26 AI types and 10 difficulty levels there's a good challenge for anyone here. It offers a brilliant and extremely satisfying experience in single player mode, but the scope for co-operative play and the ability for dynamic difficulty scaling of the AI is exciting. The music is beautiful, engaging and compliments the game wonderfully, and the graphics and sound effects, whilst not brilliant, are both effective enough that they allow the gameplay to shine through without detracting from it. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to touch on all aspects of this game that make it great, but I can't recommend it any more highly to strategy fans and fans of space games in general. Innovative, absorbing and most importantly a hell of a lot of fun to play, AI War is the best indie game I've got my hands on so far in 2009.
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