Putting the S back in RTS.
Ashes of the Singularity is one of those games that comes along every few years and slaps us in the face to remind us what the word “strategy” means. The likes of StarCraft 2, Grey Goo, and even Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak are rendered little more than tactical skirmishes by its grand scope, healthy disdain for fast-fingered micromanagement, and strong emphasis on high-level thinking. It’s a refreshing approach, considering this type of RTS hasn’t been attempted with much success since Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance. Ashes doesn’t quite pack the punch of Gas Powered’s nearly decade-old masterpiece, but it does hit the mark in several of the same places.
Someone who only played the disappointingly short single-player campaign would likely have a negatively skewed idea of the abundant strategic depth hiding in the other modes. Across eight main missions and three optional ones, the campaign introduces you to a future where the Post-Human Coalition (cybernetically-enhanced superdudes) send their remote-controlled robot armies out to do battle with the shinier, more-organic-looking-but-still-robot armies loyal to a mysterious, aggressive AI called The Substrate. The characters are as flat and flavorless as they sound, the story is about as minimal and straightforward as those in Ye Olde Games of Yore, and up until the last couple, the main missions feel more like an extended tutorial than a set of interesting challenges.
Unambitious story presentation is ultimately forgivable for a game like this, but it puts a flimsy foot forward that underrepresents what Ashes actually holds in store. Supreme Commander and the recent Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak did a much better job of infusing some life and a sense of purpose into the plot. Given that the campaign that comes with Ashes is labeled “Episode 1,” I hope to see a little more attention given to storytelling in the implied future installments.
In all fairness, though, a game like this deserves to be evaluated primarily on how well it lets you blow up robots in vast quantities while using your wits to outplay all opponents on a scrap-strewn battlefield the size of a small city. In that department, I had few complaints. Ashes definitely takes some getting used to, as its emphasis on strategy over small-unit skirmish tactics is as zealous as it is relentless.
Multiplayer is where Ashes really has room to spread its robotic wings. Adding human opponents to its rigorous equation has the potential to turn the sprawling conflict from a predictable puzzle into an elaborate mind game where actions per minute won’t save you from a well thought out counter. More than any RTS I’ve played recently, I see the potential to pivot entire matches by getting inside an opponent’s head and nullifying their grand plans before they’re even executed.
Battles are won or lost at the strategic level.
The two races (Post-Humans and Substrate) don’t play significantly differently—Substrate have rechargeable shields and a bit more mobility, while Post-Humans get tougher hulls and hold their own better in prolonged engagements—but given the high-level strategic focus, you’ll always be emphasizing which tools to bring over who has the better toolbox. Battles are won or lost at the strategic level, and trying to play it as I would a more micro-heavy game landed me in hot water even on simple earlier missions. Like in a game of chess between high-level players, you’ll often think back over a match and realize one side or the other had already clinched victory long before the last base fell.
If there’s a population cap, I haven’t hit it yet.
A large part of this dynamic comes from the massive, awe-inspiring scale of the battles and the armies fighting over them. Units number in the hundreds by the late game, from six-strong squads of small, frontline tanks, to mid-sized cruisers with versatile battlefield roles, to massive dreadnoughts with the ability to level up, gain new abilities, and hold their own against hordes of smaller vehicles. If there’s a population cap, I haven’t hit it yet; in one skirmish against a particularly stubborn AI I pushed my headcount well over 3,000, and there was no sign that I couldn’t have kept on going by collecting vast quantities of the appropriate resources. The engine also handles titanic engagements incredibly well, with no notable slowdown on my Core i7/GeForce GTX 770 on Windows 10 even when the battlespace gets very crowded. (Oxide says it’s used Windows 10’s DirectX 12 to deliver significant performance boosts by offloading light graphical tasks to the CPU.)
The colossal maps can be surveyed with a flexible and responsive camera zoom that made me feel like I was managing an entire theater with multiple, full-scale battles going on in many locations at once. Ashes encourages you to think of large groups of units as single entities, which, when grouped into formal armies with the press of a hotkey, will adopt and maintain a logical formation without help. In this context, the need for low-level micromanagement and clickable abilities has been wisely jettisoned, allowing you to focus more on the unit composition of each army, and which army should be going to which part of the theater.
The trick is predicting your opponent’s movements.
This model for interplanetary combat creates an interesting, ultimately rewarding learning curve. Due to how slowly yet inevitably actions play out compared to other RTSes, you have time to think through your decisions. Swarms of smaller units have considerable agility, but won’t last long if they run into an army supported by larger ships. Mixing in weightier vessels yourself will make your army more resilient and dangerous, but lose a lot of mobility. Dreadnoughts take this concept to the extreme: They crawl across the map like advancing glaciers of death, and might not arrive at their destination until the crucial engagement is long over — but having more dreadnoughts in a given region than your opponent almost guarantees strategic control of the surrounding area. The trick is predicting your opponent’s movements and knowing where you’ll want to have a dreadnought a couple minutes from now. Once again, the side that’s better at thinking several moves ahead will always have the advantage, and the armchair general in me was delighted by that realization.
It’s possible to crash a complacent opponent’s entire economy by surgically taking out a key node.
That pace meshes well with the core means of collecting resources and achieving victory, which intelligently and intuitively stress map control. Each team (up to six in Skirmish and Multiplayer) competes for capturable nodes similar to those in games like Relic’s Company of Heroes and Dawn of War. Because only nodes connected by a string of other nodes to your main base generate resources, it’s possible to crash a complacent opponent’s entire economy by surgically taking out a key node in the chain with a smaller, more agile force before their larger, dreadnought-anchored armies can respond. In addition, special nodes in the middle of most maps generate Turinium, a strategic resource that grants automatic victory if one side controls enough of it for a certain span of time. This is the most common way to end a match in multiplayer, with the late game becoming a tense tug of war over those points rather than one side snowballing all the way to the other’s main base – it’s as good an anti-turtling solution here as it is in Company of Heroes.
Options for rapid, reactive counters are few, and have such a high resource cost that leveraging them less than optimally will set you back. A small selection of air units are Ashes’ primary means of swift counters to surprise attacks (and of launching your own), and some of the better multiplayer maps have creative configurations of impassible ground to create a compelling, extra layer of air war. These units are hard-countered by anti-air emplacements and certain cruiser types, however, which makes them much less flexible in the late stages of a match. You also have access to some orbital call-down abilities that can spawn units or fire a death ray anywhere you want at a moment’s notice to gain a tactical advantage, but they tend to be expensive and compete for the same resource used to increase your population capacity. I enjoyed that trade-off between throwing a strong, unexpected punch now and having a larger army in the long run, which prevents orbital abilities from trumping good planning in the long game. All of these factors in concert carve out a satisfying, distinct niche for Ashes of the Singularity that will appeal to a whole different breed of strategy gamer than the frantically paced melees that characterize its contemporaries.
My only other significant gripe was that the environment art is bland and uninteresting. While the layout and design of most maps is spot on, the mountains, hills, valleys, and plains across which my armies thundered all came across as bare, dead, and unexciting. Unadorned, repeating slopes of brown and green stand in contrast to the creative and distinctive unit designs, which are simultaneously fun to look at and allow you to easily assess the composition of an army at a glance from most zoom levels. Dreadnoughts, in particular, become distinctive characters dominating the field, with each hull design speaking to the theme and capabilities of the hulking capital ship. Adding more of this visual detail and personality to the maps themselves would have gone a long way.