Compstomp – playing skirmish battles against the AI rather than human players – is almost a sideshow as far as ma many RTS players are concerned. However, what if a game was structured around playing against the AI, both in the actual and meta sense? Then you get AI War and its upcoming sequel AI War 2.
The premise of the game is that the AI has already won its fight against humanity. Siri had enough of our crap and most of the humans are dead. The main AI consciousness is now fighting extragalactic threats while smaller minds/offshoots/branches take care of smaller problems in its domain. This allows a small human remnant that secreted itself away in some backwater system to try to fight back against the AI. You get to lead the survivors in this interesting mix of RTS and tower defense.
The map in AI War 2 is a grid of systems – planets – connected by warp lanes. Each planet holds a limited amount of hacking and research points to be harvested. However, once taken, it can endlessly produce energy and metal, even if in capacities that are limited (like in Sins of a Solar Empire). This is one of the neat ways that the game pushes you to expand ever onward.
When the game starts, you only have your home system with which holds the surviving human population, a space station, an Arc (a super-ship) and the beginnings of your economy. There, you build your craft – swarms of essentially expendable fliers that used to overwhelm the enemy defenses. You can also build ships – those are a lot more limited in number and expensive, but a lot more powerful. When I was playing the review copy, there was a hard cap on the amount of craft you can have, which meant that I used them as a sort of doom stack.
However, AI War 2 is a game about fuckery. You pit your limited forces against an enemy that controls the entire galaxy. Which means you will have to use every trick and exploit to nullify the enemy forces. If destroying an enemy station causes the AI alarm (which tracks how aware the AI is of your actions – and the severity of the threats that it throws at you) to rise, then you don’t destroy them. You have ships and mobile buildings that allow you to exploit systems that you haven’t conquered (yet) and there are many other tricks to pull.
Is your entire force of ships incapable of taking on an enemy system? Well, what about taking some floating docks with you to reinforce your fleet on the spot? The build times are nearly instantaneous! Oh, and remember that you can do micro shenanigans with those stealth ships you have. Sneak them deep deep behind the enemy lines to take out structures reinforcing the AI efforts– or just use them clear out the enemy’s rear lines during an full-on assault on a system.
The AI will react to your actions, usually violently. Roaming fleets will jump in to bolster systems against your assault. As AI alarm rises, it will start adding new types of ships to its the fleets – and come up with new, more horrible types of attacks. And your fleet can’t really be everywhere at once. That’s where the tower defense aspect comes in. You will build dozens of turrets per system to crush the enemy when he crashes through the warp gates. Tractor turrets – ones that can hold most of the enemy ships in place – are amazing at locking hostile fleets in place for the rest of defenses to deal with. Naturally, some turrets will buy the farm. Luckily, for you, engineers can rebuild destroyed ones automatically, so you don’t need to reseed them yourself.
Moreover, you’ll be always racing to improve your forces. Research points can be used to instantly upgrade your building and unit classes, which is vital when taking on the increasingly belligerent AI. If you want to get new designs – and you do – you’ll have to take systems with servers that hold their plans. This – as well as the limited amount of economy expansion you can do – encourages you to always be aggressive and expand. Wouldn’t expect that from a tower defense game, eh?
Oh, but there’s more. The first AI War received many expansions that added a plethora new game elements. I’m sure that at least a few of them come standard with the new game – you just need to toggle them before you start the campaign – like adding AI space trains that transport materials, neutral factions that will either help or hinder your game, and artifacts from other races whacked by the robot overlords.
My biggest criticism of AI War 2 so far is the unnecessary 3D graphics. Some people complained that the first title wasn’t a looker. Those people didn’t (and still don’t) know what they were talking about. AI War is one of those games where you’ll be tracking most of what’s happening on screen via zoomed-out tokens instead of looking at specific hulls. There’s really no need for 3D in that sort of action. I feel that the game would have been better served by saving staying 2D.
Overall, AI War 2 is shaping up to be a worthy successor of the first title. There’s still all of that fiddly detail when it comes to ships and combat – for example, many weapons function differently depending on target’s energy consumption or “albedo” score – and the grand sweeping scale. Here’s to your chance to engage in the ultimate compstomp!