Tuesday 21 April 2020

Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation

In the distant future mankind has started the process of migrating into a posthuman species, incorporating elements of biological life and AI. A series of attacks on human worlds shows that some are opposed to this goal, triggering a brutal war for dominance and survival.

Ashes of the Singularity is a real-time strategy game, a rare sight in the modern age where new entries in the genre are few and far between. It is a conscious spiritual successor to the classic 1997 RTS Total Annihilation and its own 2007 semi-sequel Supreme Commander, games which emphasise the the creation of utterly enormous armies over the micro-management and hotkey obsessions of the likes of StarCraft II.

Resource management is therefore stripped back, with you having to occasionally task workers to build new mineral and gas extractors on resource nodes but otherwise having the freedom to build absolutely huge formations consisting of tons of disposable tanks and light mechs, sprinkled with somewhat hardier and more capable frigates and dreadnoughts, enormous war machines capable of dealing impressive amounts of destruction across the battlefield. As the game progresses you can also unlock aircraft, artillery and other units.

Ashes of the Singularity is initially refreshing, nailing as it does a form of RTS gameplay that we haven't seen in a good decade or so. Spewing out vast armies to attack the enemy and not have to worry about hotkeys and formations feels good and the scale of the game makes watching the battles a lot of fun. As the game continues, however, increasingly serious problems emerge.

The first is that the game is so nostalgic that it even goes as far as flawlessly resurrecting that age-old problem from 1990s RTS games: poor pathfinding. Ordering your vast army into the enemy base only to watch it split into four groups, each trying to take a laboriously out-of-the-way route rather than just waiting for the unit in front of them to move, and then be wiped out piecemeal is deeply frustrating. Almost as annoying is the game's tendency to hide your heavy-hitters behind lesser units, which sounds clever but is actually counter to the game's setup. Your weak units are very weak, dying in their droves with ease, so using dreadnoughts and frigates to soak up enemy fire so your weak units can bring their massed firepower to bear is quite an important tactic. The game is really not keen on this, however, and will often have your supposedly-static dreadnoughts float backwards behind screens of lesser units (a formation which is totally useless, since the lesser units will die within seconds of battle being joined anyway). The "disposable glass cannon" issue has always been a problem in Total Annihilation-style RTS games, but it seems to be far worse here than in any of its forebears.

The game also has a few other RTS issues from yesteryear that should really have been forgotten. The single-player campaign sees the AI "cheating" quite blatantly, most notably when you take 90% of the resource nodes on the map but the enemy base can still churn out a vast army consisting of multiple dreadnoughts somehow faster than you can. The singleplayer campaign also has some of the worst dialogue and most indifferent voice acting you will ever see in a video game. This title probably didn't have a twentieth of the budget of, say, StarCraft II, so no-one is expecting that level of polish, but the game often feels far too amateurish.

It's a shame because Ashes of the Singularity (***) has occasional flashes when it is fun to play, and with several lengthy campaigns (some courtesy of the old expansion Escalation, now integrated into the base game), a skirmish mode and multiplayer it certainly has a reasonable amount of content, but ultimately it is a tribute to games which are, frankly, still far more fun to play. The game is available now via Steam.

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