Thursday, June 18, 2009

AI War: Fleet Command Review

AI War: Fleet Command, developed and published by Arcen Games.
The Good: Challenging and multifaceted AI that increases in difficulty as you become more powerful, extremely large battles with lots of varied units that promote strategic variety, ample interface designed to handle a large scale, procedurally generated campaign maps, cooperative campaigns over a LAN
The Not So Good: Long match lengths on huge maps with a slow pace, no Internet server browser
What say you? A deep cooperative real time strategy game for veterans of the genre: 6/8

Hey look! Another space strategy game! Yes, I might be able to officially change the name of this site to Out of Eight Space Strategy Game Reviews, although then I would miss out on playing some truly awesome games. Our bi-monthly (it seems) space RTS comes to us this time in the form of AI War: Fleet Command, a game where you command a fleet in a war against the AI. I know, they could have made the title of the game more clear. Here the focus is on engaging the incoming AI hordes and taking over their planets, mainly because they lack table manners and smell funny (so, they are Irish, then (please direct all hate mail here)). Needlessly insulting cultures aside, this game has a couple of unique features that might be intriguing to the strategy gamers among us, namely the AI and the large unit counts. How does AI War stack up? Good thing I am about to tell you!

Although AI War is a 2-D game, the graphics have features of three dimensions in them that is especially noticeable when you pan the camera. It’s a weird change in perspective as the foreground moves more than the background does, but the result is a more visually stimulating package than a strictly 2-D space game. Unit icons are in 2-D, however, and they are small but show slight variations in designs of the same kind and some of the more exotic ships have some neat blueprints. Even when fully zoomed in, though, things are still quite small, so you’ll be starting at a gigantic mass of icons most of the time. This also means that the visuals for battles are understated, with small pixels for each weapon type, although the missiles have a nice smoke trail effect. Still, nobody will confuse AI War with a higher budget space strategy title. The sound design consists of battles that sound like extremely small fireworks are going off and a classical music arrangement to accompany your mass xenocide. None of the tutorial instructions are voiced, but I didn’t really expect them to be. Overall, AI War is a slight step above your typical independent space-based strategy game in terms of graphics and sound.

AI War is a real time strategy game where you and (hopefully) a couple of friends take on an enemy force. With this focus on cooperative play, AI War features Internet-based play (but only using a known IP address) in addition to local area network gaming. This means you need actual friends in order to enjoy AI War to its fullest, as the game lacks multiplayer matchmaking. Now, I doubt that AI War would ever have the audience required to have constant ongoing online matches (especially considering the long game lengths) to warrant a server browser, but you can theoretically meet people on message board and subsequently play with them (common in the wargaming community). AI War does allow you to save your progress and resume at a later date, so you don’t have to complete the typically fifteen-hour-long matches in one session. AI War has procedurally generated random maps (over 13 billion combinations! Count them all!) that offer enough variety and mystery to keep you interested in subsequent games. Unfortunately, you are not given a lot of leeway in deciding how large your universe will be: the smallest galaxy size consists of forty planets. At least Sins of a Solar Empire let you have small maps in addition to the disturbingly large offerings, but AI War arbitrarily restricts you to large maps and long games. The objective of each game is the same: eliminate the AI from the map. This can obviously take quite a while with the large map sizes, so expect one complete game to last on the order of fifteen hours. Games also include secondary objectives that are completely unnecessary: of course you are going to steal alien technologies and attack planets. The game has a set of tutorials that teach the basics of the genre and an intermediate campaign that takes place on a smaller, ten planet map; AI War does not come with a manual, but the in-game help is extensive enough for strategy veterans.

Because AI War is a large game, having an interface that allows you to access all of your important units and structures. Thankfully, the interface in AI War is almost completely fantastic. There is a list of buildings along the bottom of the screen and a list of units along the right side of the screen. Clicking on an icon in either list selects or zooms in on that particular object: nice. Accessing other planets is also relatively easy using the galaxy map (TAB key), where all of the planet links and a graphical summary of which planets have ships on them are depicted. You can also issue move commands from the galaxy map, provided you have selected your units prior to pressing TAB. The galaxy map does get crowded with a lot of irrational connections between planets, but that’s more of an issue with the map size restriction I stated earlier. You can tag planets with an importance rating, providing a one-glance assessment of adjacent worlds. There are also another couple of nice additional interface features: infinite queues that do not erase when you are short on resources (essential for the high unit counts in the game) and a simple option to have all units travel at the slowest maximum speed of the fleet. AI War could have failed miserably if the interface wasn’t up to the task, but it thankfully is more than sufficient.

The first step to any galactic empire is resource collection, and you have a number to acquire here. All of them are straightforward: metal and crystal (where have I heard of those before?) are mined from asteroids with a clear indication of where they are located on the game map and area minimap by placing a harvester building. Energy comes straight from power plants you build. Knowledge comes from each planet you control, but it is finite so you must expand in order to gain more powerful units. You can also gain control of enemy advanced research stations: getting one of these lets you unlock a new ship class. Knowledge is spent on research, which consists of upgrading existing ships to a better class (from Mark I to Mark IV). There are over twenty classes of ships, including anti-armor, armor, autocannon, bomber, bulletproof fighter, deflectors, electric shuttle, ether jet, eye bot, infiltrator, micro fighter, munitions booster, parasite, sniper, space tank, spider, teleport raider, and vampire claw. You will only get access to ten classes during a single game, which is great from a variety and management standpoint, leading to more strategies and less of a fixed, static build order. A lot of games can feature a large variety of units or customizable ones, but the ships present in AI War do offer a degree of strategic variety rarely matched in the genre. To be fair, most of the types in each class are simply linear upgrades, but the roster of military hardware is nonetheless impressive. Plus, Astro Trains are just plain weird (trains? in space? whatever!). You have a population cap for each unit type, so you do still need those lower level units to be upgraded in order to be effective: you can’t just spam a single effective unit. I don’t know if there is an in-game justification for this limitation, but it doesn’t really matter as it’s an effective mechanic. This does not mean, however, that battles in AI War are small: end-game confrontations can easily number into the tens of thousands, especially if you are playing with a number of human allies. The game seems to do a good job handling all of this at once, taking advantage of dual-core possessors by sticking the AI procedures on the other CPU. You are also given a suite of economic and defensive structures to defend against incoming enemy raids. Since the AI will (usually) predictably spawn from wormholes, you can surround them with an assortment of mines, turrets, and tractor beams.

With a game called AI War, you had better have quality computer opponents, and AI War delivers. You get twenty-six (I can count!) distinct styles of AI, including heavy defender, raider, bomber, stealth, spy, turtle, and planet assault. Each of these will present a different strategic challenge, increasing the replay value of the game as a whole. You can choose specific enemies to combat when you create a new game, but you are also allowed to randomize the choice at a difficulty level to keep you guessing. Unlike most (all?) games in this genre, AI War does not have the AI play by the same rules as you; this unbalanced nature actually works quite well and makes for more interesting gameplay in the end. In this sense, AI War plays more like an enhanced tower defense game, where you must defend yourself against incoming alien raids, although you’ll have to expand and take their planets as well in order to succeed. Doing so introduces the scalable difficulty of AI War: the AI becomes harder based on how much you have beaten them. This means that you will don’t actually want to completely destroy an enemy planet if you don’t need to, as it will motivate the computer opponents to become a more effective foe. AI War is still a difficult game, to be sure, especially if you increase the initial strength of your targets.

There isn’t much micromanaging required in guiding your forces to victory, a good thing considering how many units you’ll be controlling at once. Units will automatically attack incoming enemies, but your troops will not move to bring AI units into range if surrounding ships are attacking: a slight annoyance. In the end, it’s a matter of bringing the right mix and amount of ships to the enemy stronghold in order to take down the typically stout defenses. You can bring along a mobile ship producer to assist with reinforcements, although if you didn’t bring an adequate amount initially, you are screwed anyway. As I have alluded to earlier, AI War is a long, long game. The slow pace of the game involves a significant amount of waiting around for ships to move and things to get build (although the first issue is more significant). You can accelerate the simulation speed (using the + and – keys), but the game is more uncontrollable then, so you are kind of stuck with your fifteen-hour-long games. I don’t think a lot of people will be able to handle the decidedly relaxed pace unless you are accustomed to drawn-out strategy games. I think have smaller maps would be a much more desirable option. The intermediate campaign has only 10 planets, so why can’t I have something between this low extreme and the 40 for the normal campaign? It seems like an arbitrary limitation to me, and it keeps AI War from appealing to a wider audience.

Although not for everyone, AI War clearly has enough well-designed features to make it a notable strategy game. The AI types are quite varied, and I like how they become more difficult as you destroy them; this not only introduces an adaptive difficulty level, but also introduces some strategy of not attacking unnecessary AI worlds. A lot of RTS games tout HUGE EPIC BATTLES (this is typically shouted), but AI War does deliver massive encounters that can easily consist of literally tens of thousands of ships. The unwieldiness of controlling this amount of stuff is partially negated by the excellent interface: accessing all of your ships, buildings, and planets is a straightforward process that’s usually one or two clicks away. AI War is really designed for cooperative play, mainly due to the extreme map size; while the game does allow for saving a game and resuming it later, it does not browsing for Internet games, allowing only for direct IP contests and those over LAN. I would also like to be able to adjust the map size to something smaller; some people just don’t have the time to spend fifteen hours conquering forty planets at a minimum. Giving the user more options is always a desirable feature. Because of the large maps and generally slow pace (which can be slightly adjusted, but fifteen hours is fifteen hours), I feel that AI War will ultimately appeal the most to expert strategy gamers. You can speed things up somewhat using the “fast and dangerous” mode, but AI War still offers long games for strategy veterans and those with a lot of time to invest. If you fall into that category, the sheer variety of strategies AI War boasts will draw you in: the twenty ship classes (not types, classes), randomly generated maps, range of defenses, and the diversity of behaviors the AI opponents exhibit mean replay value for this game is quite high. If you can get past the massive nature of the time involved and the size of the game, AI War has enough depth in several areas to satisfy strong strategic cravings.