If one wants to conquer the world, one must dream big. Such plans have been the bane of many a would-be conqueror over the years – Alexander the Great is said to have cried when he realised the world was too large for any one man to rule and Napoleon Bonaparte learned the hard why you should never fight a land war in Russia.
Visionary plans, however, are precisely what you need to conquer the universe in Ashes of the Singularity, the RTS of sweeping scope from Stardock Entertainment and Oxide Games.
Your army of floating war machines such as brutes, archers, and the heavier cruisers can run to thousands of individual armies grouped together in armies larger than the entire population of most RTS games. And it’s a truly impressive site as you watch your army advance across the vast maps of the game seeking the enemy’s Nexus – these buildings are at the heart of Ashes of the Singularity, for when you lose the last of your Nexii(?), you lose the game, no matter how many units you have left or Metal and Radioactive resources you’ve gathered and trust me, despite the name, you do want Radioactive.
The thing is, you’re not entirely human in the game, you’re something more. Set in 2178, the game imagines a future in which the technological singularity has fused humans and artificial intelligence together as Post-Humans, who have placed part or all of their consciousness outside their physical body. The quest in Ashes is to generate and control turinium, the artificial element that allows Post-Humans to create additional cortexes and grow ever more intelligent.
It’s a somewhat abstract thing to fret over and not as immediately relatable as, say, searching for food or chopping wood in a historic RTS game like Age of Empires.
The game has no interest in making it easy, either.
Ashes‘ AI may not compare to the Post-Humans it depicts but it is adept at developing strategies of its own to thwart your plans. The game’s Skirmish mode seems every bit as challenging as a match against a human opponent might, with the computer teaming-up, flanking, and generally doing all it can to stop those thousands of units you’ve worked hard to build and all that grand scheming you’ve come up with. Similarly, the game’s campaign, which begins with William ‘Mac’ MacBride and Eric ‘Valen’ Tylan, two founders of the Post-Human coalition, struggle to overcome a Post-Human that appears to have gone quite mad. As you’d expect, things quickly spiral out of control, though you’ll need to play the campaign yourself if you’re interested in learning how.
That being said, just 11 missions are dedicated to telling the story of the Ascension War and the characters are about as memorable as the droids you lose in the tutorial. These missions also do little to engage the player, with victory typically coming to whichever side manages to garner more resources than the other.
Of course, your plans can be your undoing just as easily as the AI’s defence. You might decide to go all out with a full Dreadnought attack only to find that your enemy’s cruisers have been built specifically to target and destroy large vessels. Alternatively, you might opt for smaller, faster vehicles and carefully scout ahead to discover enemy positions and defences but as ever, the game is hatching plans of its own.
The problem with building all these armies, of hundreds or thousands of units, is that the 15 unit types belonging to each faction are difficult to tell apart and trail across wide sections of the map, usually moving more slowly than you’d like. Another quibble, comes from the fact that the larger the battle, the greater the risk of it becoming nothing more than a simple back-and-forth until one side reaches victory.
Your factories and other buildings produce units in batches and as long as your resources remain higher than your expenditures, they can continue to do so, which is just as well, because you’re going to need everything you can get your hands on. That’s important because the enemy is surely doing the same. Even as you take enemy bases and your units surround a Nexus, the AI will continue to pump out forces until you complete the base’s conversion over to your side.
Arranged against the Post-Human Coalition are the Substrate, a faction of AI interested only in war but Ashes‘ universe is a sweeping one with plenty more to offer for any aspiring generals out there.
Keeping all this in mind, while investing in technologies to push your faction to victory along the right path, can be tough and it’s all too easy to be distracted by the minutiae of the game’s details. That’s a small quibble, however, in a game built for grandeur. More troubling, the armies in Ashes are massive and so are the maps but the first merge almost into one and the latter are mostly grim and uninspiring.
While Oxide wasn’t involved in the making of Supreme Commander or its predecessor Total Annihilation, it’s clear that that’s what they’re aiming for and if you want thousands of units on a sweeping board, Ashes of the Singularity will serve you well.
Ashes of the Singularity was developed by Oxide Games and published by Stardock Entertainment. It will be released on March 31st for PC. A copy of the game was provided by the developer for the purpose of this review.