By Kieron Gillen on August 17th, 2009 at 2:56 pm.
This has been on my list of things to look at for a while, but it’s been promoted due to Tom Chick’s rave about it in his latest Rush, Boom Turtle Column for Crispy Gamer where he argues that if you go past its surface lack of charisma you’ve got a genuinely new approach to the modern RTS. What is it? “For lack of a subgenre as convenient shorthand to explain what it does, let me give you this: AI War is a grand strategic tower defense 4X RTS,” claims Chick, “How’s that for a mouthful?”.
A mouthful indeed. I download the demo to suck and see.
It’s quite the demo. While it claims to only offer an hour of the campaign – it’s a longform RTS with a “proper” game lasting 10-12 on a reasonably hefty map, though apparently only four or so on a smaller one – it includes the intermediate campaign, where on a pre-made map – rather than one of the randomly generated one – it leads you through a campaign suggesting tactics. I’ve put a couple of hours into it, with no end in sight. Giving away the tutorial is pretty traditional – but when the tutorial is as hefty as AI War’s, it’s a welcome sight.
It’s an RTS played on the strategic scale – It’s a thousands and thousands of units thing – which, despite featuring multiplayer, is solely co-operative against the eponymous AI. To quote Chick:
“Your goal is to find the two AI home planets on a randomized tangle of planets. Then you must conquer the two planets. However, both of your opponents get regularly scheduled waves of reinforcements, some of which will warp into your systems and attack you. This is where the tower defense element comes in. You will routinely be attacked in AI War, no matter what. You cannot win if you don’t build defenses. While magically appearing attackers might sound cheap in another RTS, the beauty of AI War is that you indirectly control the rate and strength of the attacks. They depend almost entirely on how aggressively you’ve expanded into the galaxy.”
In other words, the harder you push, the harder the AI pushes back – so the decision of how hard you want to push is a primary strategic concern. It’s a game which maximises these hard, artificial limits, and asks you to work within them. So, for example, rather than a limit on the total number of units, you have a limit on each unit type. So you’re only going to have 100 Bomber I at once… though if you research Bomber II, you can have 100 of them. While there’s the expected strategic interplay between different unit types – including unit types which the AI has which you may not (which seem to be part of the random generation, therefore working out What Your Foe’s Like is a key part of the game.
(They’re actually pretty proud of their AI, as explained here.)
On the offence, Chick’s phrase – “Surgical Blitzkreig” seems key. On the defence… well, it’s choosing what and where and *how* to defend is key (The defensive units are also limited, so you can’t rely on just a standard tactic. If you have a certain amount of – say – tractor-beams, how are you going to divide them?). It also strikes me – though this is theory, as I haven’t played the full game – that that firm limit obviously leads to increasingly hard decisions on the larger maps.
Problems? The aforementioned lack of charisma is pretty striking. Presentation wise, it’s got precisely one card in its hand – the scale of the battles. Otherwise, as its anti-glamour title may imply, there’s close to no effort in giving it any personality . Compare and contrast how the equally mechanic-driven Armageddon Empires managed to elevate itself via embracing its theme. Its relying on a wiki for its documentation is a little iffy. And, most of all, the laser sound effects were beginning to make me feel like my girlfriend feels when I play Space Giraffe. I came close to shouting at myself to turn this racket down.
..Just above here.
Actually, its warp-effects when an enormous fleet accelerates and spreads into another map is really nifty. So that’s something.