October 26, 2016

AI War - Fleet Command

Tags: A Gamedev Plays

This post is from the now defunct website “A GameDev Plays…”, copied here for posterity

With the sequel recently announced, it time to clear the celebrated, but now old school AI War: Fleet Command from my backlog of shame. Originally released in 2009, this game dated, even considering its age, but underneath is an interesting diversion from the standard real-time strategy (RTS) formula.

At first AI War acts like a standard old-school RTS set in space. The player’s goal is to defeat the AI faction across a randomised galaxy of planets, each connected to a few others to form a graph. Starting with just a single planet, the player constructs various space ships to exploit resources, fight battles, research technological advances, and more. By conquering other planets, more resources are gained, more research conducted - thus resulting in larger and better battle fleets to conquer further planets. The standard rhythm of the genre is present - build, overwhelm, repeat. Although, in this game a player does not want to overwhelm their AI opponent too much.

Where AI War differs from similar games is its conception of the enemy. Most RTS games have nearly symmetrical opponents. While each faction might have different units, both have roughly the same power level at the start, with the same objective and similar paths towards success. In AI War the default enemy AI is clearly not playing the same game as the human players. The AI is extremely powerful at the start and stays that way throughout the game. At the top of the screen is the AI Progress number, an indicator of how much the enemy cares about you. If it is low they will only occasionally send small fleets to harass player-controlled planets. However, as more planets are conquered and tech levels increase that progress number will rise, causing the AI to start sending larger fleets and mount retaliatory strikes. The player’s aim is to slowly and unobtrusively grow, avoiding the AI’s omnipresent gaze.

Fight, I think

Being forced to be a weak human against an initially indifferent AI (and trying to keep it that way), is the main reason to play AI War. This dynamic feels very different to most games and requires some thought. It is not just a case of building a massive fleet and steamrollering over the enemy (although that still happens at a small scale). There are other nice parts to this game. There are many option and units, so there is clearly huge depth to the tactics available and replayability in the game. Also the game is naturally multiplayer, although I haven’t had the chance to try this.

Unfortunately, there is also a great number of issues with the game. Firstly the game is ugly - it looks like something from the mid 90’s. Tooltip pop-ups regularly block the action, and the text is a multi-coloured mess. The ships don’t seem to fit nicely with their backgrounds. Also there is no noticeable difference between enemy and player ships. Some battles just turned in big blobs of ships and I was unable to tell who was winning as everyone looked the same. The UI is very clunky. It is hard to select the ships you want and there seem to be hundreds of controls. Many times while playing I needed to go searching for how to do something. Most annoyingly, if I am focussed on a ship, then zoom out, then zoom back in, the camera is now centred somewhere else! These are just the first few negatives that come to mind.

This should only take 10 hours or so

This game is long - it takes many hours (10+) to play a small game. I haven’t the constitution to try something larger. Even the tutorial took a few hours to complete! Much of this time is just waiting or performing actions that must always be done (so why not automate?). There is the ability to speed up or slow down simulation time, but despite this there is always a delay while building up forces for the next strike or defensive action. There are so many options and units available, it can be incredibly overwhelming at the start. I just set things the way the tutorial suggested. Although the tutorial barely scratches the surface - you will still need a wiki open for the first few games. I enjoy complex games, but this is the most complex I have seen, and perhaps a little beyond me. The game also advertises itself as part of the tower defence genre. However, I don’t see it. There are towers (called turrets) in the game and they are used exclusively for defence, but that is as far as it goes. I have only ever placed a bunch of them in a blob around warp-gates and then ignored them.

Just one page of the many options available

AI War was developed by a solo developer with nearly no budget. By that standard it is an amazing achievement, so I don’t feel great pointing out the many flaws. By the standards of current games, this one is hard to get started and difficult to play (and not just because of the complexity). Although I have heard a few recent interviews with the dev, and he sees the same issues and plans on fixing them in the sequel. This is the main reason I played the game now. I have heard the term “glorious failure” used with respect to games, and this one definitely fits. The core idea is great, but the implementation is lacking in polish. Exactly the kind of thing that can be addressed with a sequel. With 7 extra years of gamedev experience and thought, I hope the sequel fixes the problems. For this reason I am unlikely to play more AI War, but look forward to playing AI War II!

AI War is available from Steam and the Arcen Games website at US$9.99 for PC, Mac and Linux. There are many expansions; a sequel is announced; and the original has been bundled many times.