When I first booted up AI War: Fleet Command, I felt lost. The 4X genre is littered with games that are as simple as flying a helicopter through a hurricane using only your teeth, and AI War is no different. I was intimidated, even frustrated at first, but once I took it upon myself to learn the ropes, I discovered a deep strategy game that will keep me entertained for a good, long time.
After installing, I tried to jump right into the game. That was a mistake. I had no idea what the dozens of units on my screen did. Nor did I know exactly how to set up an economy, or scout, or build an army, or even move my units – all those things that any strategy player must do to play well. I was more confused than the main character in Memento. I immediately scrambled for a tutorial. Luckily, I found one.
It eased me into the game with baby steps, showing me how to issue basic commands to my units – how every randomly generated map is broken up into different screens that represent planets and their surrounding space (where the bulk of the game is played). Pressing tab pulled up a map of several planets linked together through wormholes, which my units could move through like portals. Immediately, I realized how huge this game is, as a typical map consists of 80 planets – and I was expected to conquer most of them.
I then moved onto the intermediate tutorial, where I played my first game against the easy AI. It felt more like a test of patience than a challenge, because many of the game's elements were still a mystery to me. I read verbose tool tips, trying to figure out how different units and upgrades interacted until I wanted to pull my hair out. Further compounding this, the tutorial's objectives were presented in small boxes in the upper-right of the screen – yet each one read like an essay, leaving me further confused by an already daunting game, as I checked and re-checked the steps that I should be following.
But I persisted, and my perseverance was rewarded. I admit, at first I really hated this game. I'm the kind of guy who plays for a couple hours in one sitting, and the 4X strategy genre is a special test of patience for people like me, but I've found that when I stick with a good entry I'm rewarded with engrossing games that will keep hooked for hours. AI War has that certain je ne sois quoi. For starters, the amount of care put into this game is nuts! Originally released October 21, 2009, it's currently in version 5.0, with three additional expansions. That's dedication!
AI War: Fleet Command is played either online in co-op, or solo. There's no competitive multiplayer on offer here. And while that would be a death-knell for most strategy games, it's not for this one. AI War stays true to its title, by challenging players with an extremely robust AI. There are a total of 30 AI personalities to choose from – each one playing noticeably different from the others. Some are aggressive, some sneaky, some defensive, and some defy explanation.
Though I am only a few hours into the game, I've already seen hints of devilishly clever AI. For instance, it will send waves of attackers after your home turf depending upon how dangerous it perceives you to be. And while most games would bonsai charge these units into your lines, this game plays astonishingly smart. The AI falls back to friendly territory when overwhelmed, using multitudes of turrets as a bulwark in its home territory. It'll harass you, bait you into attacking, and hit you in key areas crippling your ability to fight – in short, it's devious, and, unlike the AI in most games, a worthy opponent.
That being said, I did have a few problems with AI War. For example, there are hundreds of units on screen at any given time, which made me zoom pretty far out from the action to get a better look at the battlefield. This creates two problems: first, as there are more than a few different types of ships with their own strengths and weaknesses, it's difficult to tell which were actually effective because I couldn't tell who was kicking whose ass until it was too late. Second, being so far removed from the battle kills any satisfaction from seeing things play out. No explosions, no mayhem, no sense of excitement. At times I felt like I was watching tiny dots disappear. Also, there are hundreds of different choices in this game, which can make it extremely overwhelming, as well as making me feel like my strategic choices didn't matter, to an extent.
Regardless of that, if you're looking for a new 4X game to sink entire evenings into, I'd highly recommend AI War: Fleet Command. While it takes a lot of concentration and patience to play, there's a gem of a game here.