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AI War: Fleet Command

The artificial intelligence hates me; has nothing but contempt for me.   Oh sure, we’ve all played games where the AI is our adversary, but Arcen Games’ AI War: Fleet Command is different.  Like something out of Fred Saberhagan’s Berserker stories where sentient machines wage a non-stop war of annihilation against all life in the galaxy, the AI in AI War is designed to be unremittingly hostile to its flesh and blood opponents.  What is more, it is programmed to take you down in as an efficient fashion as possible…and it is very good at its job.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before I scare you off, I guess I should first explain what AI War: Fleet Command is all about.

Old School Gaming at its Finest

At its core, AI War: Fleet Command is real time 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) science fiction game where the player is put in the familiar role of space admiral…but this time with a twist.  Unlike other similar games (Galactic Civilizations II, Sins of a Solar Empire, etc.), victory is not had by conquering the entire galaxy, but by scouting out the AIs’ home bases and then carefully plotting your strategic path to victory by destroying those bases in an expeditious fashion as possible (time is most definitely not on your side as the AIs have a nasty habit of reproducing like out of control nanobots).  In other words, it’s not about conquering every planet – something that will surely lead to defeat – but about carefully plotting your path of conquest. Arcen Games likes to describe this approach as “Every planet is a choice”.  I, on the other hand, prefer to describe it as strategic bliss.

To begin, AI War: Fleet Command offers a robust amount of replayability by providing a ton of customization options.  While there is no scripted campaign, there are enough starting options to make each game unique and interesting on its own.  Players can create a campaign that spans anywhere between 10-120 planets, involving solo play or up to eight human players versus two AI (there are always two enemy AI to fight against).  Players can select which planet is their home world (with commensurate unique starting warship) or leave it up to the program to randomly dole out starting positions.  In addition to that, the player can specify all sorts of starting options, from the speed of combat, to the types of ships available in the game.  Really, with all the options available, there is a ton of replayability packed into AI War.

Now, the first thing you should know about AI War: Fleet Command is that it is old school gaming at its finest.  What this means is that it is a great example of “gameplay over graphics”.  So, if you are expecting eye candy, forget it as AI War is a throw-back to the days of 16-bit graphics.  However, what it lacks in visual pizzazz it more than make up with deep strategic gameplay.

For the most part, AI War follows a familiar formula:  the galaxy is comprised of planets connected by wormholes.  Each planet contains three traditional exploitable resources - metal, crystal and energy - and one non-traditional resource, knowledge.  The traditional resources are gathered via the usual method of constructing harvesters for metal and crystal, and reactors for energy.  Knowledge, on the other hand, has a twist.  Unlike other games where knowledge is usually continually generated by the construction of laboratories, in AI War each planet captured can only generate 2,000 points of knowledge regardless of how many labs are owned.  This is an important innovation as it compels you to expand your empire if you desire to unlock new equipment via spent knowledge points – equipment you will desperately need to crush the AI.  In short, no conquest mean no new toys, and no new toys means no victory.  Turtlers, consider yourself warned.

Speaking of equipment, there is a lot of it.  In the base AI War game, there are over 200 different things you can build, from the standard military vessels (fighters, bombers, frigates and starships) available in three technological ‘tiers’, to all sorts of defensive turrets and specialty items, such as orbital command centers, shield generators and warp sensors.   In another clever twist, ‘tier 4’ equipment is only made available by capturing AI research centers, a game mechanic I absolutely love.  This somewhat randomized mix of potential equipment serves to make every campaign play a bit differently by requiring a different strategy based upon the equipment that has been unlocked for both the humans and the AI.

I Would Like to Place an Order for 1,000 Ships, Please

Okay, you’ve got your starting planet and are amassing a nice stockpile of resources... what should you do next?  Build massive fleets, of course!  And I do mean ‘massive’.  AI War is very much an example of a developer taking sprite lemons and making delicious carnage-on-an-epic-scale lemonade.  In a typical game of AI War, it is quite common for there to be 30,000 (yes, that’s “thousand” with a ‘t’!) vessels on a map, with some games reaching upwards of 90,000!  This is what is possible when a program doesn’t need to worry about choking a graphics card with thousands of 3-D models. 

Right off the bat, players will be manufacturing not a few ships here and there, but building twenty, thirty, fifty at a time (ahh…the wonders of futuristic manufacturing).  Sounds like a lot, I know...but you're gonna need them in short order, trust me.  Fortunately, AI War includes a helpful set of tools to both automate the process, as well as make it easier to group your gads (that’s a scientific term) of vessels into manageable fleets and provide them with orders.  Indeed, without the ability to so easily control your vast armadas, AI War might well have been unplayable.  After all, this is a real time strategy game, so being able to get things done in a timely manner is very important, especially when the AI floods one of your planetary systems with a wave of nearly unstoppable killing machines (yeah, this is when all those ships you built really come in handy).

Speaking of waves, AI War provides another clever twist on the genre by incorporating more than a little bit of the tower defense genre.  During the course of the game, the AI will launch large wave attacks (hundreds to thousands of ships) that can swamp the player’s defenses if not carefully checked.  To stop them, the player needs to build tower defense-styled lines of resistance in their most valuable systems.  These can involve everything from traditional minefields, to defenses with more of a sci-fi edge, such as tractor beam turrets that pin the enemy in place while Ion Cannons finish them off with their “one shot, one kill” ability.  There are a lot of possibilities based upon the available equipment, so this is yet another area of the game where the player’s imagination really comes into play.

Some might be tempted to think that success can be had by ship spamming your way to victory.  Well…go ahead and try it.  I think you’ll be disappointed with the results.  Most of the weapons operate according to an intuitive rock-paper-scissors dynamic, meaning that for every offense, there is a proper defense.  As such, fighting your way to victory requires a flexible approach that can adapt to what the AI is throwing at you at the moment, or conversely, adapting to how the AI is defending against your attacks.   It may also mean NOT conquering certain planets as with each planet you steal, the AI’s “progress meter” increases numerically, serving to make the cybernetic fiends both more powerful and more aggressive.  AI War is about what the player doesn’t do as well as what he does.

What Do You Want Me to Do to Prove I'm Human?

Not surprisingly, part of the fun of AI War is the many artificially intelligent opponents.  As they span gamut from easy to impossibly hard, there is an opponent for every skill level.  In addition to this, there are “AI Type” modifiers that affect their behavior, such as making one AI prone to entrenching planets while another has a predilection towards stealth, for example. These traits are grouped according to difficulty and are selectable when setting up a new campaign. 

In addition to the “macro” AI, however, there is also a “micro” AI that governs the behavior of all the ships in the game.  Christopher Park, AI War’s developer, has posted a fascinating blog entry on this topic (please see here) which explains such ideas as “strategic tiers”, “fuzzy logic” and other AI programming tricks.  But the part I found most interesting is the description of how “sub-commanders” operate in the game:

“Here's the cool thing: the sub-commander logic is completely emergent. Based on how the individual-unit logic is coded, the units do what is best for themselves, but also take into account what the rest of the group is doing. It's kind of the idea of flocking behavior, but applied to tactics and target selection instead of movement. So when you see the AI send its ships into your planet, break them into two or three groups, and hit a variety of targets on your planet all at once, that's actually emergent sub-commander behavior that was never explicitly programmed. There's nothing remotely like that in the game code, but the AI is always doing stuff like that. The AI does some surprisingly intelligent things that way, things I never thought of, and it never does the really moronic stuff that rules-based AIs occasionally do.”

It’s because of the amount of effort that went into the various levels of artificial intelligence that AI War just feels different from other 4X games.  As someone who has spent a lot of time bashing my head against formidable chess AI opponents, I can say that the AI in this game feels very similar to those.  It actually feels like it is paying close attention to what you are doing and not just blindly going about its scripted routine.  The “sub-commander” AI also helps to alleviate much of the tedious micro-management found in other games.  While it is true that players will still have to keep an eye on their vast fleets and step in occasionally to clarify matters, AI War comes very close to freeing the player from such minutia while allowing him to focus on the big strategic picture.

The War Just Got Bigger

The core game, AI War: Fleet Command, has since been expanded upon with The Zenith Remnant.   This addition adds 122 more ships, NPC minor factions that generally add to the chaos, and some capturable Golem vessels.  These “Golems” are a lot of fun as they are a form of super-capital vessels that can act as real game changers, causing both humans and AI to desperately fight for their control.  All in all, I highly recommend this expansion as it adds a nice amount of chrome without complicating the gameplay much.

In addition to The Zenith Remnant, another smaller expansion is in the works that is entitled Children of Neinzul.  As with The Zenith Remnant, you can expect more ships and AI types.  The best part of this expansion, however, is that 100% of the profits will be donated to Child’s Play!  Expect it in October.

So What’s not to Like?

Well, I suppose first and foremost are the graphics.  Now, it is a great testament to the strength of the gameplay that after a few moments playing the game, you almost completely stop paying attention to the sprites.  Nonetheless, I still find myself wishing that the game had a little more dazzle along the lines of Cliff Harris’ Gratuitous Space Battles.   Fortunately, this critique may soon become somewhat moot as Arcen Games is working on converting the game to the Unity engine, something that should help to amp up some of the graphical zing.   So stay tuned on this one.

Another slight critique (and truth be told, these are all “slight critiques”) is that the game is all about combat, so if you like to dabble in some diplo, forget it.  Personally, I don’t consider this a loss as I find most diplomatic options in these 4X games to be minimally useful.  What is more, I much rather have an unremittingly hostile opponent anyway, especially considering the theme of this game.  Be that as it may, I think it is important to point out the lack of diplomacy for the more statesmanship-minded gamers out there.

Another shortcoming is the lack of true planetary involvement.   While combat takes place in planetary gravity wells, the truth of the matter is that the planets are functionally little more than background wallpaper as there is no planetary development of any sort.  While I can live without diplomacy, I do wish I could interact with my planets in some fashion, even if to only build bomb shelters for the population!

AI War has a co-op component where up to eight humans can try to overcome the two AI players.  Considering how much fun the single player game is, I can imagine that playing AI War as a multiplayer game would be a wonderful strategic experience.  Unfortunately, organizing a multiplayer game is somewhat awkward as it is limited to LAN or direct connect.  While this workable, I hope someday AI War gets a server browser that will allow users to easily find a game with a click of a mouse.  Considering AI War supports hot drop-in / drop-out, such a server browser would be a great benefit to this game’s multiplayer community.

Last, the included PDF manual for could use a touch-up.  Don’t misunderstand, the manual in its current form already runs 44 pages and is nicely detailed.  However, AI War is such a deep game that even 44 pages fails to really penetrate the many options, strategies and tactics that are part and parcel of this rewarding game.  AI War does include a number of robust in-game tutorials, something that will help new players get acclimated, but a longer, more comprehensive manual would be greatly appreciated, especially considering the changes brought by The Zenith Remnant and the soon-to-be released Children of Neinzul.

Closing Comments: 
In a world replete with ‘AAA’ titles that dazzle with high end production values, it can be difficult for home-brewed games to get the attention they rightly deserve. This is a shame as sometimes very good things can come in small, unassuming packages. Arcen Games’ AI War: Fleet Command is just such a title. While it won’t win any beauty contests, it will win the hearts of many a space admiral. Combining deep strategic gameplay with AI that is worthy of the moniker, AI War: Fleet Command is a game deserving of a much larger audience. Indeed, it is a must-have title for anyone who takes games of interstellar conquest seriously.
 
Genre: Strategy
ESRB Rating: N/A
Developer: Arcen Games
More Information: Official Web Site
 
Verdict:
8.0
Pros & Cons
Pros: 
Strong AI; lots of replayability; a wonderful mix of 4X and tower defense genres; great music.
Cons: 
Dated sprite graphics; no planetary development; needs a multiplayer server browser.
Game Info
Publisher: 
Arcen Games
Developer: 
Arcen Games
Release Date: 
September 28, 2009
ESRB Rating: 
N/A