Rush, Boom, Turtle: And Now for Something Completely Different
Anytime someone tells you that real-time strategy games are creatively stagnant, you can assume he doesn't know real-time strategy games. As long as I've been playing RTSes, there have been at least one or two exciting innovations every year. 2009 has already seen its share. For instance, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, Swords & Soldiers, Demigod and Battleforge are all significant departures. But I think I've stumbled across this year's Really New Thing. There's a lot of 2009 to go, but I'll be surprised if anyone else twists the RTS formula this dramatically and this effectively. And I'm hoping it'll be the Next Big Thing, because it's big, different, entirely unprecedented and an exciting way to play an RTS. This must be what it felt like to play Defense of the Ancients back when it was a mod for Warcraft III.
Drum roll please?
It's called AI War: Fleet Command, and it's a very small game in a couple of respects. The first bit of smallness is the name, which is as unsexy and simply descriptive as you could imagine. The title implies sci-fi, which it is. But you can't be sure. It might as well come in a plain brown wrapper, with the title stamped on the cover in basic Courier font. The game is indeed about fighting a war against the AI, and you do indeed command a fleet. But neither of these expresses anything important about the game. It doesn't even have the self-aware irony of the upcoming Gratuitous Fleet Battles or the wonderfully perplexing cognitive dissonance of Sins of a Solar Empire. Furthermore, it even shares a name with AI Wars, a free-to-play strategy game that?s been around for 10 years.
As if that weren't enough of a PR problem, AI War is not a very sexy game. It's clearly one of those garage-built labors of love, consisting of 90-percent design and 10-percent production values (frankly, I wish this proportion were true of more videogames). It was essentially created by a guy named Christopher M. Park who got three other dudes to help him with artwork and one other dude to do sound. Don't expect the artwork or sound to hook you. Don't expect flash, or even a good interface. Don't expect much in the way of atmosphere. Don't expect anything that looks too much fancier than the original Total Annihilation. If that.
But just as Defense of the Ancients was refined over the years, and eventually found ways into major releases like Demigod, Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends, I have high hopes that AI War is the start of something bigger than a single indie game. For lack of a subgenre as convenient shorthand to explain what it does, let me give you this: AI War is a grand strategic tower defense 4X RTS. How's that for a mouthful?
So let me explain
At first glance, AI War looks like a budgetware version of Sins of a Solar Empire. The map consists of nodes, each representing a planet, connected by a web of warp gates. You build fleets of hundreds of spaceships, which travel from node to node. But the actual gameplay takes place entirely within these nodes. That's where you build structures, mine metal and crystal, and fight battles. You spend knowledge you "mine" to unlock new ships and new buildings. Energy serves as your unit limit, so you build reactors in much the same way you'd build farms in another RTS. So far, it's pretty standard stuff. There's no reason to get all excited yet. You might as well play the non-budgetware Sins of a Solar Empire at this point.
But wait, there's the proverbial more. The AI War part of the title hints at what makes this game special. You don't play against a conventional opponent, who's using the same basic gameplay against you. Instead, you always and only play against two AI opponents (AI War has multiplayer support, but only as a co-op game). Your goal is to find the two AI home planets on a randomized tangle of planets. Then you must conquer the two planets. However, both of your opponents get regularly scheduled waves of reinforcements, some of which will warp into your systems and attack you. This is where the tower defense element comes in. You will routinely be attacked in AI War, no matter what. You cannot win if you don't build defenses. While magically appearing attackers might sound cheap in another RTS, the beauty of AI War is that you indirectly control the rate and strength of the attacks. They depend almost entirely on how aggressively you've expanded into the galaxy.
At the top of the screen, alongside vital information about your resources, there's an indication of the AI "progress," which is an escalating threat level. As you conquer systems, this number goes up. At certain points, the threat level will unlock new tech for the AI, giving it better ships. It will send bigger and more powerful waves at you. So it behooves you not to simply dominate the galaxy like you'd dominate a map in a conventional RTS. In fact, unless you're playing one of the low difficulty levels, it's impossible to win this way. If you just assemble a massive attack fleet and roll across the galaxy, you'll raise the threat level too quickly and doom yourself.
Walk softly and carry a lot of situational awareness
Instead, you have to carefully scout the galaxy. You have to work out the best pattern of conquest, understanding that as you take new systems, you'll have to defend them. You want to slowly but discreetly build your economic base, and you want to keep your holdings in as defensible a position as possible (remember the tower defense aspect!). You might simply cripple some systems and conquer others. You might leapfrog more heavily defended areas or maybe roll up a weak galactic flank. It's a 4X game in which you have to devise a grand strategy other than "conquer everything." It's about tough strategic choices. One system might be rich in crystal, but you need metal. Some systems give you valuable tech or powerful weapons. All systems give you a limited pool of 2,000 knowledge points, which you spend for research, so you must conquer.
There's a clear sense that you're expanding out into a hostile galaxy. You're walking on eggshells, carefully pushing your way to the enemy home planet. It's like a surgical blitzkrieg. It's like kicking a hornet's nest, but not too hard. Is it possible to gently kick a hornet's nest? Play AI War and find out. There is no RTS quite like this. Most RTSes have three separate and sometimes only partly related ways to play. There is the skirmish against the AI, the single-player campaign and the multiplayer. The beauty of AI War is that it does none of these things and all of these things at once.
In space, no one can hear you fail to sell copies
But for all the brilliance of the basic design, AI War might not take root. It should do well enough for designer Park, who has said he'll reinvest the money it's made to upgrade some of the production values. But the basic concept of AI War is going to be a tricky concept to move forward, either for Park or anyone influenced by his concept. Since it's really a 4X game, it requires a grand strategic scale (something missing from Sins of a Solar Empire, which is often misrepresented as a 4X RTS). A typical game of AI War plays out over several hours, usually in several sittings, like a game of Civilization. After a few days, it's hard to jump back into a game that's been going for a while. A gameplay model this big needs a lot of help from the interface.
But what this concept most needs is flashier graphics or a lot more personality. AI War offers precious few hooks for your imagination. There are flashes of creativity in things like the wandering Astro Train and the distinctions among the superweapons, but these are longer-term payoffs more than immediate hooks that keep you playing. Consider that the opponents are labeled "AI 1" and "AI 2". Would it have been so hard to give them the names of alien races? Maybe some disgruntled cyborgs or super-intelligent insects with hive minds? Heck, let us name them? I'll gladly infringe a copyright or two to lend the game a touch of personality.
Here's the Web site for the game. You can download a demo that will let you play the first hour of a campaign, but that's going to do very little beyond giving you a head start on learning the interface (hint: There are important parts of gameplay that you'll miss if you don't learn the hotkeys!). AI War is only $20 to purchase and the developer is incredibly responsive. If you're at all interested in supporting independent RTS development, here's the place to do it. Maybe in the years to come, we'll look back at a handful of grand strategic tower defense 4X RTSes and we'll remember it all started with AI War.