AI War

By Christopher Beck 28 Jul 2009 0

Author:  Christopher Beck

Ah, the rogue AI. With chilling names like Hal, Skynet, SHODAN and the less fear-inducing WOPR, super-intelligent, homicidal computers have become a staple in modern science fiction. Often these stories detail the insidious growth of the AI, which begins as a modest and unassuming processing routine, and soon spreads like a virus, snaking its electronic tendrils into all available information centers until its mastery over the human race is assured. Arcen Games, however, provides an interesting twist to this formula in the new game, AI War by supposing ? what if the AI has already won? What if the AI, having pushed humanity to the very edge of the universe and the brink of extinction, now rests on its electronic laurels as unchallenged master of space? What if it is humanity that has to start as an insidious and meager force, slowly growing into a locust-swarm to recapture systems one wormhole at a time? How would humanity survive? As the player in AI War, it is up to you to answer these questions.

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On the surface, AI War seems to be a traditional real-time strategy, not unlike its similar space-based cousin, Sins of a Solar Empire, with large numbers of units across huge, mostly empty, maps. However, this assumption would largely be inaccurate. Instead, AI War is a rather novel blend of RTS, tower defense, grand strategy, and, strangely Warcraft III ?creep crawling.? I?ll explain that last statement soon, but first, a general overview of AI War gameplay.

AI War is played on a grand stage, with anything from 10 to 120 individual planetary systems connected, somewhat like the Space Empires series, by wormholes that provide instant access between distant planets. Like some of its competitors, AI War allows the players to build huge fleets, with the unit cap at an insanely high 30,000 units! Most single player games will not reach these limits, but it is very common to see fleets from 200 to over 1000 units strong. Also, although AI War does not include a story-based campaign, the maps are procedurally generated, with literally billions of combinations (so you better start playing now). Still, these huge fleets are easy to keep track of, as the player can zoom out to see the entire system or zoom-in close to see these fleets battle it out among the stars. The galaxy map can also be easily accessed with the TAB key, which not only shows the branching wormhole network but also a detailed list of units, both hostile and friendly. Obviously, information on hostile forces depends upon the amount of time passed since the last human scout entered the system, making intelligence and recon important. Still, this system provides easy access in order to plan future strikes against the AI, prioritize systems for their resource value or strategic importance (based on what type special building the AI is housing in the system).

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AI War makes it easy to find and move  your forces, on two levels of tactical maps.

What makes the game more unique is the unevenness of the playing field and the ?personality? of the AI enemy. Rather than have the AI operate similar to a human player, starting in one corner and bursting out to meet the player somewhere in the middle of the map, AI War drops the player into one system in a completely hostile galaxy. Every other system is fully under the control of the AI, forcing the player to scrape out territory, slowly recapturing bits of the galaxy in an effort to find the AI?s central core, a massive ?complex,? armored and heavily guarded. Once destroyed, the AI is destroyed, and the player victorious. Ambitious players can play against two different AI enemies, which cooperate against the player and share the vast spaces among the stars (defending each other?s forces when the need arises).

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Those that persevere will find the AI core, and learn what fear tastes like.

Further, the AI does not play like a human player and follows completely different rules. Rather than building units and sending them to fight or defend, much of the AI?s forces are static, created within a planetary system and ?gathering? around certain nodes (which coincidentally are the same nodes used by the human player to gather the game?s two resources, metal and crystal) or structures. These forces will not normally leave these nodes at random, rather the AI sets up periodic ?raids? against the player?s systems via warp gates. When these raids are about to occur a timer appears at the top of the screen, detailing what system the strikes are targeting and what types of ships will be used. Like a tower defense game, this can lead to some frantic defense building, a pull-back of ships from a contested front to a proposed target, or stressful deployment of available assets to slow the destruction of a newly built-up system in a sort of ?scorched earth in space.? How and what the AI sends is based upon its personality, with the game offering over 20 different personalities, 10 difficulty levels, and the options like ?schizophrenic AI? that will mix and match what ship types it will send during a raid.

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AI War offers a wide variety of AI personalities and options for 1-8 human players in cooperative multiplayer.

The strategy comes in how the player decides to expand, handle AI raids, and improve his or her technology level. Although the AI forces remain relatively defensive, with the exception of these periodic raids, that does not mean that the AI will not play a dynamic game. Rather, each victory made by the player increases the AI threat level. With each base or unit destroyed, and with each planetary system seized by the player, the AI gets one step closer to increasing the power, size, and tech level of its forces. In this way, the difficulty in AI War is adaptive. If the player quickly spreads out and encounters great early success, the AI will respond with larger raid groups, including more powerful unit types, or ships with upgraded technology. To balance this out, the player can either destroy relatively rare AI command hubs, which lowers the AI threat level, or make the conscious choice to skip attacking AI controlled planets that are less strategically desirable. Each battle will be more difficult that the next, and might require a new balance of forces or a focus on upgrading the level of key ships, such as bombers or missile cruisers. In this way, the gameplay is reminiscent of ?creep crawling? in certain RTS games, where a relatively modest player force goes against relatively static enemy forces in order to gain resources for larger battles against other, better entrenched and more advanced, foes.

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The AI uses a variety of buildings in ways unlike the human player.

This warpgate allows the AI to send raids into human systems, thus they are a priority target when securing your bases.

In order to fight the AI, players are given a choice from a wide variety of different ship types, such as the fast moving, high damage bomber, or the slow moving and heavily armored space tank. There is also an assortment of defensive structures that can be built to help protect systems as well, although these should hardly be relied upon solely to protect against large AI waves. The player is allowed access to only a limited number of ship types in each game, which necessitates difficult decision making when building a fleet. New and random ship types can be captured from AI science ships, and captured AI fleet factories are the only building that can create some of the higher level ships. In addition, each ship type has a population cap, which mean that planning two or three simultaneous strikes requires a decent balance of mainline, high-damage ships to hit AI buildings and smaller faster ships that can harass larger AI forces.

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Although this fleet looks rather larger, it is actually small considering AI War?s impressive 30,000 unit cap.

One might think that balancing hundreds, if not thousands, of units would be a micromanagement nightmare, but thankfully this is not true. Controls are simple and responsive; fleets can be set to move all at the speed of the slowest ship, or in separate pieces according to ship speed. Ships will automatically engage enemies that are within range, so unless you want to target certain ships with certain ship types, there is little need to micromanage battles (in fact, in the more difficult ?Fast and Furious? combat setting, it becomes nearly impossible to do so). Battles, at least under standard settings, are slower, stately affairs, much slower than games such as Command and Conquer. Gaming reflexes offer little aid, as one could make the argument that the battle is won or lost before the ships leave the system, with unit balance, force size and force composition as critical elements for success.  Hot keys provide quick access to builder units and unit factories, and fleets can be assigned group keys, a rather standard practice in the RTS genre.

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Starting with only a ship factory, a home base and a science ship, by using the intuitive UI and easy to learn controls,

you can be well on your way to building a gigantic galactic liberation force.

Building a huge force is also a breeze. Resource gathering is done similar to Sins of a Solar Empire, or the older Total Annihilation, by granting resources in ?ticks? whose size depends upon how many resource mines the player has built. Mines can be built on designated asteroids, metal or crystal, which inhabit the various systems. There are two other ancillary resources types, energy, which simply acts as a unit cap and can be raised by building power plants, and knowledge. Knowledge is gathered by science ships automatically when they enter or reside within a system. However, the knowledge generating capacity of systems is finite, set at 2000 points, and once these are gathered the science ship must be moved to a new system to begin its studies anew. Knowledge may be spent on higher level versions of units (i.e. Bomber II is much more powerful than regular Bombers), new types of system defense (such as mine layers or shield generators) or to unlock large multi-purpose and expensive starships, which can be built by special builder units. The system is easy and works well, considering the large fleet and map sizes. In a game with such a wide scope, resource generation should provide limits without creating distractions, and the system in AI War delivers just that. The same simplicity is seen in unit building. Factories can be given standing and repeating orders to produce certain numbers of units, and they will carry these out unit the unit caps are reached or resources become too low.  

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Knowledge can unlock upgraded ships, like this Raid Starship, a fast and heavily armed battleship.

While all of this might seem overwhelming at first, the game comes with a number of very detailed tutorials, one of which is a text box guided full-campaign against an easy AI. After several hours of playing this intermediate tutorial, I had stopped thinking of it as instruction and began having fun, occasionally getting pointers or explanatory notes as I accomplished set goals. It is rare to see a tutorial that not only lets the player jump right into the action, but also entertains while instructing the player.

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AI War has an impressive set of tutorials, including one tutorial which allows you to play an entire campaign guided by helpful text boxes.

Interestingly for an RTS, AI War does not include any player vs. player options. However, the game does support a cooperative multiplayer mode for 1-8 players to fight tooth and nail against the AI. These matches can be extremely dynamic tactically; one player might focus on bombers, while the next focuses on missile cruisers. Players could split up the map or pool their forces for greater success, all the while being constantly mindful of increasing the AI threat level too fast and spawning powerful forces before the players are ready to deal with them. Don?t expect to play these matches during a coffee break, or even during an extended lunch. Single player matches of AI War can easily take 8-10 hours, and multiplay matches can regularly go past 14 hours. Thankfully, multiplayer can be saved and resumed at a later time, making it far easier for groups of friends to make nightly progress in saving the galaxy without marathon gaming sessions.

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Although the game uses 2D sprites, the art is inventive and the both the AI and human forces are both attractive and unique.

It should be mentioned that the graphics in AI War are far from cutting edge. While I found the 2D sprites, which move against beautiful planetary backdrops, very well done and attractive, they are still 2D sprites being used in the 3D era. However, with the large unit cap, the lower end graphics facilitate lower system requirements. I found the art design for the ships to be fantastic and appropriate to the Sci Fi ?robotic? back-story, and the ship animation and weapon effects are smooth, if only a little ?cartoony? and fast.

So, with a great interface, low system requirements, fun and dynamic strategic choices, and a budget price, it is very easy for me to recommend Arcen Games?s freshman effort. Even those who dislike the fast and frenetic pace of more traditional RTS will find the slow and measured pace of AI War much more manageable. Undoubtedly, some players will be turned off by the very lengthy matches, both solo and multiplay, but others will recognize that these long matches provide nearly endless and varied entertainment. Arcen Games even helpfully offers a trial version of AI War on their website, so I see little reason that fans of space warfare shouldn?t give the game a look. Just remember, if you are asked ?Would you like to play a game?? set aside several hours with AI War, and answer ?Die you metallic, soulless, son of a calculating program!?

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