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The Games Of Christmas: December 18th

This way please.

Things are better when in space. Games are better when played co-op. But what do these cast-iron truths mean for seasonally festive advent-o-calendar? An intriguing question. Almost as intriguing as the game of the year that is indicated by the hand of the one true leader of the Autobots. Let us travel through the 18th window to discover…

AI War!

Kieron: Frankly, the Indie-world’s become my favourite place to look for clever strategisosity. AI War is one of the premier examples of that. It’s best thought of as an stranger version of Sins of the Solar Empire, embracing the oddness in space rather than resting on the semi-symetrical design of Ironclad’s game. Of course, Sins veterans are noting that it’s not symmetrical and there’s different sides and yadda-yadda-yadda. All things are relative. Compared to AI War, Sins is as symmetrical as chess. Because it’s a game which is in the family of chess, derived from the idea that there’s these sides and they exist to bash the living shit out of each other. It’s games-as-games-were-concieved-before-videogames.

AI War isn’t that sort of game. It’s a game which understands that videogames open up possibilities other than having the computer do your maths and having spangly things spangle when your maths leads to a piece being removed. You’re the player. Out there, in the map, is the AI. But the AI isn’t like you. The AI is something alien. It acts differently. It thinks differently – and that’s the thing. It thinks. It wants to kill you, but will only really do so when you rile it. It’s like fighting hornets or ants. And – more genius – it works best when you play co-op. You and friends working out how to make humans the only sentient creature in the gameworld. It’s quite the experience. You could call it slow, of course. I prefer to call it stately.

It also begat one of my favourite RPS running jokes about Quinns not having any Iron. Doubly great, in other words.

Alec: A first glance at our list of Games of 2009 had me thinking it wasn’t a spectacular year for PC games. Not a bad one by any measure, but not the wealth of riches of 2007/8. But then I keep sitting down to write about stuff like Spelunky and now AI War, and instead I think it’s been a phenomenal year for PC games – the problem’s been me, and not having the time to sink myself utterly into these extraordinary and unexpected titles.

In short: too many other games and too many distractions, and that’s kept me from being the massive nerd about offbeat and unexpected delights I usually am. I mean, I haven’t so much as installed Solium Infernum yet, even though I’m even more confident I’ll love it than I am that grass is green, Scientology is evil and milk is delicious.

I want to be more of an AI War gonk. I want to know its units, its upgrades, its tactics inside out. I want to be doodling astrotrains onto my notepad while I’m on the phone. In a quieter year, I would have been – and, while it did devour all my evenings for a good week or so, I’m incredibly envious of those of who you have spent week upon week digging into the skull of this complicated, entirely mechanical yet ever-changing thing, and learning the shape of the mighty robo-brain beneath.

It does everything I want from a strategy game. Explore, expand and all that – a galaxy to build a pathway across, a glut of planets to conquer, ignore or isolate, a style of combat that relies on tactics and forethought, not on clicking and hotkeying at the speed of sound, an enemy that’s implacable and indefatigable but plays by rules I
understand, and that smoothly grows in menace as I do. And, of course, co-op: increasingly my preferred way to play strategy games. I don’t much care for the punishing brew of luck, speed and stat memorisation that characterises PvP RTS any more, because I am weak and afraid, but most of all because I have to pretend I’m not weak and afraid so that teenagers will respect my opinions about videogames. AI War’s co-op gives me the social element, a sounding board for my embryonic strategies and, if I play with Kieron, even more conflict with the other player than I’d experience from any competitive game. We do tend to redefine ‘co-operation’, he and I.

AI War is deservedly one of the best PC games of the year – holding fast against the mainstream trend towards simplicity and accessibility, in a way that Sins Of A Solar Empire did last year. That it hasn’t been an enormous success is purely a reflection of it not having the marketing budget and nous of Stardock. It’s a tiny, brave independent project, born of a clear and total love for PC, and PC-only gaming. It is pure-blooded in a way that little else has been this year, and you should worship it.

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