AI War: Fleet Command Review (PC)

Game Review: AI War: Fleet Command
Release: 6/2/2009
Genre: RTS
Developer: Arcen Games
Available Platforms: PC, Mac
Players: 1-8
MSRP: 19.99
ESRB Rating: N/A (I would rate it E)

When I say “RTS Games,” as a gamer, certain elements come to mind: troop management, building structures, upgrading equipment, tool tips, resource control and a whole lot of micromanagement.  Arcen Games’ AI War: Fleet Command, on the surface, would qualify as an RTS game because it fits the into the categories above.  And to many people, this is probably just fine and dandy.  But AI War breaks away from the mold in two areas: army / resource management, and the opponent’s AI. You can absolutely micro-manage your fleet  if you so desire, but you will never be successful past a certain point due to the sheer number of ships that you can create; the game will encourage a more global approach (and no I don’t mean just drag to select all troops and right-click on the big red enemy) without taking away the ability to get your hands dirty if you so desire.  The second, and most important distinction is that you are  battling against an adapting and difficult AI.  In multi-player setups, there is no player vs. player; you will always work co-operatively against an opponent that is often stronger and better than you, and you will need every resource you can get.  AI War takes some of the best parts of RTS, throws in some tower defense and exploration/conquer elements, and mashes them together in a familiar-yet-unique presentation that will no doubt please any fans of the involved genres (but RTS fans in particular).

Playing AI War doesn’t come easily, however, and even if you are a veteran RTS player, you’re going to want to take some time to go through the tutorials that are included.  While the basic functionality is similar (left click selects, right click moves/attacks), resource and troop management is not.  You will always start out at one planet, and you will be free to build up your forces from there.  Depending on the map size (anywhere from 10-120 planets, more planets generally means an easier [albeit longer] campaign), you will then need to start scouting out the areas around you to see where vulnerabilities in your opponents lie (there are 2 AI opponents you must defeat).  You will build your colony, space ports, turret defenses, and other necessities from the get go, and even in the tutorial mode pretty much everything is open and available to you from the start.  This is both a great thing, and a bit overwhelming.  The amount of information in the tool-tips will certainly be intimidating at first (and much of it goes unexplained in the tutorials), but folks who dig stats will eat it up.  In fact, a lot of the game seems to be a nod to those that love the complexities of an RTS, and the game goes out of its way to accommodate this niche, sometimes at the expense of simplicity.  That’s not to say the game is unapproachable, but it does raise the barrier of entry a bit higher.

Eventually you will come to terms with the interface, pass the tutorials, and be ready to take on the AI head-on.  As you begin to conquer other planets, taking them for your own in an effort to protect your own home base, you will begin to alert the AI to your presence, which will then step up its attacks against you.  The game does a good job of forcing you to treat awareness as a resource like anything else; you simply will not be able to conquer every planet and expect to win.  Doing so will raise awareness (and consequently, the available Tech to the AI teams as well), and you’ll quickly find the brunt of their force against your home planet.  However, staying just within your home planet won’t be enough either; you won’t have enough tech, knowledge, or resources to take on the AI opponents.  Sure, you’ll be able to hold off the waves they send, but you’ll never progress either.  So the game boils down to scouting the other planets to see where new tech lies, what troops are there, and what planetary resources are worth taking.  Then you plot out your attack, conquer the planet, and build up defenses.  You continue this until either you find and defeat the two AI command centers, or they find and defeat you.  Other human players can drop in and out of your games, allowing for more assistance in managing your attacks, which is helpful.  The directing of your troops is relatively easy as well, with the aforementioned right-click to attack areas.  The ships can travel at the speed of the slowest ship to stay grouped, and can also be set to guard a particular planet, chasing down any ships that hop in via the wormholes in space.  This frees you up to focus on plans of attack, resource management, and troop building (which can also largely be automated with looping ship production and more).

So all of this stuff sounds great, right?  For the most part, it is.  There are a TON of ships and structures in the game, and going through the demos, tutorials and even the game’s Wiki are all almost required to get the most out of the game.  The AI implementation is also excellent; it will make mistakes, change its routines, send strike forces, and escalate its awareness appropriately, and its done without feeling, for lack of a better word, artificial.  There is a significant amount of automation that can be set via the various menus, but aside from a few basics that are explained in the tutorial, you’ll need to pour through the menus yourself to figure out how to best utilize them.  Directing your massive army is relatively simple, especially against easier opponents where you can overwhelm them with sheer numbers, but later in the game, and on higher difficulties, you will need to use more intelligent moves to see success (such as staggered waves of the correct ship types, setting up mass-production to continue to drive units into battle, flanking, and hit-and-run tactics against specific targets in a planet).  The graphics, sounds and music are all appropriate and decent, nothing to knock your socks off, but they don’t detract from the experience either.  And for better or worse, the amount of information in the game is staggering.  The tutorial modes will cover most of the basics of the game in a clear fashion, and the game itself is very deep (and the AI unpredictable), which greatly increases its replayability.  For a game with the complexities that this one has, it does its best to try and explain everything it can to the player, with varying degrees of success.  Finally, when creating a game, you can dumb down the AI significantly, which will allow you to explore the game at a more leisurely pace; but if you want the true experience this game is meant to offer, you’ll want to step it up once you’re comfortable with how to play the game.

There isn’t a lot that is particularly “bad” about the game itself, but there are some things that bear mentioning.  The level of complexity with a game like this is significant, and unfortunately the tutorials only take you so far.  The jump from micromanaging your fleet to managing the galaxy is never really realized in the tutorials; traditional RTS players will struggle to manage fleets in the 1,000s and trying to grasp the thought of 100,000 troops in the galaxy at once is downright intimidating.  And maybe that’s just the best way to describe the game as a whole: intimidating.  Perhaps purposefully so, but it does lend itself to be a little too much for true newbs, and those that are stuck in traditional ways might not appreciate the fact that you cannot predict AI behavior, or brute force your way through the galaxy.  The amount of information is also a little too much to take in, and the tutorials do not do enough to explain the various bits of information in the tool tips, or what the different ships and structures available to you do.

vttym’s take: Intimidating: Check.  Difficult to learn: Check.  Worth your money: You bet.  AI War is many things (and game types) in one, and fortunately they are all good.  You may have to dig a little (lot) to find it, but no one can accuse this game of being light on content.  The dynamic AI makes for a different game each and every time you play, and the fact that you’re under the constant pressure of expanding without raising the alarm adds a level of complexity (and tension) to the genre that will make it hard for me to go back to traditional RTS games.  Gone is the luxury of sitting back and building the massive army to conquer the map; you must balance defending the constant threat of a relentless AI with scouting out for new resources and chinks in the opponent’s armor.  Add in the fact that anyone else you play with online is helping you fight the good fight, and you have a game that’s as complete an experience in the genre as you’re going to get.  RTS fans new and old should endear themselves to this game.  Just make sure you’re ready to get your ass handed to you a few times.

+ Dynamic AI

+ Massive scale RTS that never feels too out of control

+ Sheer depth and level of complexity is impressive

– Very intimidating to play at first

– Larger levels can take days to complete

Final Score: 9/10

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