Impressions: Spiritual Supreme Commander Sequel Ashes Of The Singularity

There are this many things on my screen: lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots.

And most of them are exploding.

Ashes of the Singularity [official site] isn’t made by the same people as Supreme Commander (or, for that matter, its forebear Total Annihilation), but there’s no denying what it’s trying to be.

Massive science-fictional, real-time strategy battles, focused on armies rather than units, and with a camera which fluidly goes alllllllllll the way ouuuuuuuuuuut and allthewayin in order to demonstrate the extraordinary magnitude of these machine wars. After a few months locked into Stardock’s eyewateringly expensive founders’ program, a ‘pre-beta’ version just fetched up on Steam Early Access. As well as maybepossiblyhopefully scratching SupCom itches, it’s also our first chance to take a DirectX 12 game for a spin, not to mention one which requires a quad-core processor as a minimum.

I’ll get some hardware blather out the way first. I didn’t notice any prettiness gains from running it in DirectX 12 mode (which requires Windows 10), but it did run a few frames faster. That said, I’m running it on an NVIDIA card, and given how much AMD has been involved in promotion for Ashes thus far, I rather suspect I’d have seen a bigger jump if I had a Radeon. Jeremy’s talked about some of this stuff before, so I won’t repeat it now, but for the time being my experience is that it doesn’t much matter whether I run it in DX11 or 12. Apart from that the latter seems to be incompatible with everything I use to take screenshots. Bah!

Running it at 2560×1440 with most settings on high but anti-aliasing set to 2x, I was getting approximately 35 fps out of my GTX 970. It looks mostly spectacular and it’s not a game that I feel would especially benefit from the magic 60, so I’m happy with that for now. The built-in benchmark tool – which I suspect will be first port of call for many early adopters – also tells me that the framerate is almost entirely handicapped by my GPU rather than CPU. That’s probably to be expected given I’ve got a hexacore chip running at 4GHz – but then again it is half a decade old, on an equally geriatric motherboard. Running a modified test that simulates an ‘infinitely powerful’ GPU in order to demonstrate the capabilities of the chip, I’m getting about 75FPS.

I, uh, don’t know if that helps you in any way, but basically I’m saying: I have a sort of medium-high system and I can get Ashes looking great and running pretty smooth, depending of course on how senior your rank in the framerate policeforce is. While min system requirements are higher than the norm, I don’t think there’s a dramatic barrier to entry.

As for the game, well, it looks the part. I ran the benchmark repeatedly, purely just to clap in delight at the vast, explodey scale of it all. It’s one of those instances of a game looking like you remember an older game looking, which is perhaps because side-by-side comparisons reveal that the visual jump isn’t exactly life-changingly profound. It does look better than its spiritual predecessors though: the overall impression is that the scene is richer rather than more detailed as such. It is a fine, fine sight to have on one’s screen, no question about that, and does beg the question “why don’t all real-time strategy games in 2015 look like this?” I should also mention that the sounds of battle are wonderful: proper speaker-shaking stuff, a true sonic warscape.

The camera doesn’t go quite as far out as SupCom’s, which I suspect is partly because this age of commonplace 1080p screens means it doesn’t need to in order to usefully display the entire scene, and partly because Ashes had to stop short of outright copying everything. Here, you hit space to bring up the strategic map with its ant-farm swarm of dots, rather than scroll all the way out, but it’s not really a hardship.

Arguably far more bothersome is this odd intangibility to the units. You know how games with PhysX effects, especially the earlier ones, seemed to scatter weightless, evaporating objects all over the place, which seemed disconnected from the game-world you were playing in? It’s a little like that, these swarms of semi-ghostly tanks passing over and even through each other, with almost no apparent weight to them. It’s exacerbated by the fact that everything hovers rather than rolls across the land. Not a big deal at all, but it did lend a distractingly unreal air to what’s supposed to be a heavy metal war.

Ashes currently only includes multiplayer and a reasonably robust AI skirmish mode, so I can’t speak to the campaign yet. There’s also only one faction for now, which is the relatively vanilla Post Human Coalition. Their tanks remind me quite a bit of slightly less pointy Eldar craft from Epic 40K back in the day. The units are perhaps a little less charismatic than SupCom’s, but frankly both games consciously pursue an austere aesthetic, super-units aside (and I haven’t seen any of those yet, but early days). Scale is what it’s about, and scale it absolutely gives. It’s a real pleasure just to watch it at work.

In terms of controls and interface, it’s both similar and different to SupCom. In some respects it’s obvious how to play, and in others the UI is a little too busy and fiddly, but I’m not sure there are many ways around that when you’ve got this much information and this many controls to display.

There’s more emphasis on rapid and continued acquisition of fixed resource points, displayed in a sort of nexus, than in SupCom – a little like Company of Heroes, but without the Victory Point side of things. That lends a faint skein of added artificiality to proceedings, but at the same time I can see how it’s going to encourage different sort of tactics – do you hit and run the enemy or try to land-grab in order to then afford a titanic army – as well as effectively forcing you to pay attention to multiple fronts at once. Simply defending your HQ isn’t enough – you need to protect your far-flung holdings too.

Then there’s the Meta-Units system, which enables you to turn a group of units into effectively one, in the name of sanity – micro-managing every tank is effectively impossible, and also pointless. The Meta-Unit stuff has been a natural fit in my experience so far, which is primarily because it’s not a million miles away from ye old control groups on 1,2,3,4 etc in almost any other RTS. There’s more more clever AI stuff going on under the hood, and grouping tons of units into one means simply selecting the right thing(s) from the main screen is that much easier. It seems like a good addition, neither frippery or cheat.

Only longer-term play will reveal whether Ashes manages the grand tension and master-planning of SupCom: right now I’m a little distracted by what’s different, and really need to get over that. But I am hugely enjoying having Ashes there on my screen, filling a nerdly need that’s been left unfulfilled for half a decade. I wish it had a bit more personality, though: I think Ashes is so determined to be like SupCom and simultaneously so afraid of being identical that it hasn’t quite managed to be aesthetically distinctive in its own right. But fingers crossed that wilder units and factions will show up later in development. With its single faction and handful of slightly plain maps, the current build does feel paradoxically a little small, but that’s definitely going to change – and hopefully improve – before too long.

Full release is pegged for some time next year, and the good news is that Stardock claim it’s already funded, with Early Access being more about testing and fine-tuning than ensuring it can be finished. #

29 Comments

  1. Sarfrin says:

    Change your mind about that last bit Alec?

  2. Joriath says:

    Did I miss something in the article to explain why the last paragraph and a couple of sentences were crossed out? It may be ‘hip’ but it’s a bit annoying to the reader, especially when as far as I can see there is no indication of artistic/journalistic justification for the font change

  3. Baines says:

    That said, I’m running it on an NVIDIA card, and given how much AMD has been involved in promotion for Ashes thus far, I rather suspect I’d have seen a bigger jump if I had a Radeon.

    Does the final release of Ashes fully support DirectX 12 on Nvidia cards?

    The he-said-she-said war of words had the Ashes devs not only said that some of Nvidia’s DirectX 12 support was either broken or absent, but also that Nvidia had requested that they disable functionality. (The Ashes devs had also said that performance actually dropped with Nvidia cards when they kept it enabled.)

    • Procrastination Giant says:

      The Devs have recently backpaddled from their initial statements that nvidia cards do not support async at all and that the problematic performance wasn’t just a driver issue. Nvidia also didn’t ask them to “remove features”, they apparently just pointed out that they were trying to use features that weren’t supported by their drivers at the time. Their most recent comment on the subject was something along the lines of “It was a driver issue afterall, and we’re working closely with nvidia to fix the issue”

      With the most recent drivers Nvidia cards still don’t recieve as much of a performance boost as AMD cards, but the DX12 performance is no longer worse than the DX11 performance – Ah and performance-wise both are on par

  4. Daiz says:

    It’s not really trying to be SupCom all that much. The fact that they pretty much outright refuse to implement the full strategic zoom of SupCom and strategic icons for units/buildings/etc in the main view makes that pretty evident. Or at the very least, it tells us that the developers don’t really understand what makes SupCom the game it is. I think it’s a terrible shame, since we really could use a true successor to Forged Alliance Forever, but with things being like they are Ashes is unlikely to be that game.

    • apm says:

      i thought this was the successor of command and conquer and not supcom. they have way more in common.
      isnt ashes missing stuff like giant units and automation, like loading infantry into ships and dropping them off continuously?

      • socrate says:

        i just got back to sup commander yesterday and that game still hold up really well…although i had to run it as admin and with compatibility mode on..but its still an amazing game with a really good story mode that doesn’t just make good vs evil…every side as their reason for the war and the number of way to approach a conflict with sooo many different and interesting unit diversity is amazing one thing that would make it even better would be co-op story mode.

        Stardock is not a company i like all that much they tend to retake what as been already done but unlike the old blizzard they don’t tend to make an improved version of it they just make a bad version of it with shiny new graphic but tons of missing feature,ive also had bad experience with their customer service and product so that didn’t help.

        • socrate says:

          well thx for the no edit

          anyway isn’t the Spiritual Supreme Commander Sequel!! already the really bad planetary annihilation?

  5. Premium User Badge

    BlueTemplar says:

    “Arguably far more bothersome is this odd intangibility to the units. You know how games with PhysX effects, especially the earlier ones, seemed to scatter weightless, evaporating objects all over the place, which seemed disconnected from the game-world you were playing in? It’s a little like that, these swarms of semi-ghostly tanks passing over and even through each other, with almost no apparent weight to them. It’s exacerbated by the fact that everything hovers rather than rolls across the land. Not a big deal at all, but it did lend a distractingly unreal air to what’s supposed to be a heavy metal war.”
    Well, that’s disappointing. I’m not surprised though : it looks like that games that use these kinds of effects for actual gameplay, rather than just graphics, scale very badly due to a difficulty (and maybe even impossibility) in parallelising such computations (therefore with the framerate dropping very quickly due to CPU bottleneck) :
    link to forums.gearboxsoftware.com

    If you want a more “tangible” game, that not only has several movement types (including bots, spiders and jumpers) each with its own advantages depending on terrain) but also gravity weapons, units taking damage from collisions (including suicide shrapnel drones and a unit that “stomps” other units by jumping on them); then you might want to try an evolution of Total Annihilation : Zero-K (in the Spring 3D engine) :
    link to zero-k.info

    Of course, due to all these features, your machine would probably grind down if you were to play on gigantic maps with more than a few thousands of units (what Ashes of the Singularity claims it can do), but is there really a point beyond novelty in being able to zoom in and micromanage one specific battle, while the scales have been raised so much that the real decisions don’t happen at that level and you end up playing with icons symbolizing squadrons most of the time?

    • king0zymandias says:

      I think there’s a little misunderstanding going on here, on Alec’s part, regarding dynamic simulations and whatnot.

      In a game like this where the vehicles aren’t being driven by dynamic forces but are rather being simply moved to a particular spot on the terrain, there’s absolutely no need to have a rigid body simulation to make sure the AI agents don’t collide. There’s nothing dynamic or physics related going on here at all. All that needs to be done is to make an addition to the pathfinding system, which will make sure that every part of the terrain where another unit is located is flagged as impassable. Which will result in the pathfinding algorithm charting a path around any unit currently on the field.

      So on paper this is not all that complicated to implement and any game that features dynamic environment does this. However the issue with this approach is that now the navigational mesh(it’s the mesh that the AI uses to find the most optimal path) is no longer a static dataset that’s set at the start of the level. As this navigational mesh will have to be recalculated every time any unit moves. And then every unit while moving will also ask for this mesh so that it can calculate its path, but as soon the unit actually moves the whole navigational mesh needs to be updated again, since now a different part of the mesh is impassable. Now imagine thousands of unit asking for this information and re-updating the navigational mesh simultaneously. Easy to see why that would be a nightmare codewise and performance-wise, no matter how many nifty optimization tricks they use in the code.

      But keep in mind that in most games with dynamic environment this is already done, and no physics simulation is needed at all for it. And it works without a hitch, however no game usually has this many AI characters running around the place.

      • Premium User Badge

        BlueTemplar says:

        Good point.
        Though it’s

      • Premium User Badge

        BlueTemplar says:

        Good point.
        Though it’s a shame to have this kind of game without any dynamic simulation…

        Also, it happens that Zero-K has a terraforming system (interacting with the various unit movement types and the ballistic weapons that have their range increased when placed higher) – as well as terrain being deformed by the most powerful weapons (and cheap melee “dirtbag” units).

        And until a few months ago, there was an issue (especially noticeable when terraforming ramps) where it took quite a bit of time for the pathfinder to update its “navigational mesh”, and as a consequence, units would stubbornly refuse to go up terraformed ramps unless you micromanaged them!
        (It seems this issue has been solved with the latest engine versions, maybe they found a more effective algorithm?)

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      SuddenSight says:

      Physics definitely benefits from parallelization. It is one of the go-to examples of where parallelization helps.

      The problem is, it scales poorly. Let us consider the calculation steps involved:

      1) Ballistics aiming calculations. These calculations are hard, but each unit only has to do 1 each time it fires. So it scales with the number of units (lets call it N).

      2) Unexpected ballistic interactions. These are what makes ballistics “fun.” The bullet may bounce off of things. This is an easier calculation to do on average (bullets don’t often bounce unexpectedly) but scales more poorly. The is ~1 bullet per unit (N bullets), and each bullet must check to see if it hits any other unit (N checks). So this scales as N^2.

      Like I said, parallelization definitely helps here. Every calculation is separate (just add them together at the end). So, if you have C cores, the first step scales as N/C and the second step scales as N^2/C.

      That second scale factor should show why parallelization helps, but ultimately you will reach a limit no matter how many cores your computer has.

      • Premium User Badge

        BlueTemplar says:

        “Every calculation is separate (just add them together at the end).”

        It’s this “at the end” condition that might be a bit problematic. Granted, with Ghz processors, even 120Hz seems negligible, but wouldn’t merging the results each frame from separate cores result in significant overhead, especially considering you have to deal with conflicts among separate threads?

        I’m not aware of any games that managed to multithread gameplay-affecting calculations, maybe you know some?

        Another reason might be that this kind of multithreading is definitely possible, but too hard (read : expensive in qualified programmer-hours compared to the expected gain, in part because multithreading is recent in consumer applications) for the game developers to get involved with…

  6. racccoon says:

    When I bought the first it didn’t last long & was very disappointing. I hope that this game isn’t just the same.
    Although the attraction is the mass, so on that note… I would prefer a revamp of Cossacks :)

  7. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    Can somebody explain to me where these ashes came from? Is the singularity a fire?

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    KRVeale says:

    In some ways it’s nice when you hit the part of an article that references Stardock and realise you have no reason to ever remember a game again.

    • LexW1 says:

      Because we hate Stardock or because Stardock games have a strong tendency to be completely forgettable?

      I suppose either is fair. I know I own some Stardock games but I had to look up a list of Stardock stuff to even work out what they were – and indeed, all of them are mediocre and forgettable, gameplay-wise. Not awful, not stellar.

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        KRVeale says:

        For me the games themselves get overshadowed by the fact Brad Wardell is an abusive fucksock, but the roads lead to the same place.

  9. KDR_11k says:

    So what’s the combat interaction like, just “attack move here” with units that shoot insta-hitting bullets while moving or does it require more player interaction?

  10. SuicideKing says:

    You’d see a larger jump with AMD because AMD cards perform poorly in DX11 mode. Otherwise the results under DX12 were largely the same for the highest end cards, because the game is CPU bound after a point.

  11. haldolium says:

    Back when Stardock announced their two new RTS, I was really hoping for something in the line of StarCraft… this Supreme Commander stuff as well as their other strategy game is not even close to what I imagined :(

    I might give it a try, but I don’t really care for that SupCom mass unit stuff.

  12. Fobbah says:

    I’m not sure if something has changed since last i tried this game, but last time i checked, it really played absolutely nothing like supreme commander. I think it’s a bit rich to call it a “spiritual successor”…

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      BlueTemplar says:

      I guess it might be called a “spiritual successor” not for gameplay, but for trying to push PC hardware like SupCom1 did? (SupCom1 was hyped to be the first multithreaded game, though it didn’t work out that well in practice…)