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Review: A.I. War: Fleet Command

It's a common thing to let the AI "cheat" in a real-time strategy game. Giving them faster resource gathering, knowledge of the whole map, or even extra units is something developers might do on higher AI difficulties. But why not just streamline out all the resources and construction and just leave the basics of the AI? That is to say, the basics are swarms of AI units that you must overcome to win. AI War: Fleet Command does this, and manages to set itself up as one of the best strategy games this or any year. It's a game that is perfect for playing with your friends, and easily surpasses the RTS 4X standards set by the excellent Sins of a Solar Empire. It shows that one man with a vision and make something just as good, if not better, than that of a large team.

Download the AI War: Fleet Command Demo
AI War's story is a rather simplistic and familiar one. As humans relied more on AI in ship systems, the AI began to develop awareness, and eventually rebelled against the humans. As humanity was in the middle of a series of civil wars at the time, some perceived it as the AI attempting to reunite humanity against a common foe. But now, at the brink of extinction, it's apparent that the AI really just wants to eliminate humanity. Forced into a small group of a few planets, humanity must fight back and drive the AI from the galaxy once and for all.

Initially, AI War had what could best be described as placeholder art. As time went on, however, the developer found a new artist and released the latest version, which ups the graphical fidelity quite a bit. AI War is a very good-looking game, although you might not notice it thanks to the scope of the battles and strategy at play (something that Supreme Commander and Sins of a Solar Empire suffered from as well). Effects such as wormholes and smoke trails are well done, the sprites are beautifully detailed, and the sounds fit the game like a glove. It's definitely a game you can look at for quite a while.

AI War plays very differently for the players than it does for the AI. As was mentioned before, the computer in AI War is a cheating one, but it cheats fairly. Rather, the player controls how much the AI cheats depending on actions taken during the course of the game. This is the central focus of the entire game, and is an incredibly important concept that must be mastered before players can even attempt to play or finish. After all, if you just go in with all gun ports open, you're going to get annihilated extremely quickly. Nobody likes getting their butt kicked by a computer player.

Players start off with a home planet and one unique ship technology. In order to expand outwards, players must build resource producing structures (mines), power plants, and ships. Ships come in many different flavors, but they boil down to: the fighter, which is great against regular enemy ships; the bomber, which is great against structures and force fields; the large ships, which are great against everything; the scout, which feeds you information about a system. Ship diversity is very important, especially since the unit cap is per ship rather than per players. For example, you could build 170 Mark 1 Fighters and then build 170 Mark 2 Fighters. This makes invading armies extremely large and diverse, as you can't simply produce one kind of unit.

The computer player's level of "cheating" is represented by the AI progress meter, which governs three separate aspects of the AI: aggressiveness, technology level, and amount of units. The AI acquires units by warping them in off the map. In order to prevent this, the player can do two things. They can destroy the warping mechanisms, which increases the AI progress but keep them from reinforcing to that location. They can also simply keep the AI progress down, which will allow the AI to reinforce nearby but keep the forces from being too large and overwhelming. Aggressiveness determines how ard the AI will hit you back, and the technology level determines how tough the units being warped in are. As the progress level increases, so do all of these attributes, which makes managing the AI progress an integral and interesting part of the experience.

AI progress is raised by doing many different actions, such as destroying AI units, performing hit and run tactics, and capturing essential research structures. Once increased, it is increased permanently, with a few limited options to decrease it. The most common option is to destroy data centers, which reduce the AI's progress but can only be used once. There's a few others available, but it's up to you to find them. This escalation mechanic works extremely well at forcing the player to make tough strategic decisions, rather than just roll in and massacre everything in sight. You must pick your battles, since the straight-forward approach will rapidly end in your demise, even with the elimination of data centers.

AI War, as has been implied throughout this review, lack a competitive mode. While this seems a bit troublesome, a versus mode within AI War would not work well thanks to the singular focus on the grand strategy and manipulation of the AI. Rather, multiplayer is confined to co-op with up to 8 players. There is no built-in server browser, which is unfortunate, as one must either be on a LAN or have the IP of the person they wish to connect to in order to play. There is a chat room to alleviate this, but a browser is easily on our wishlist for updates to the game. And more updates are planned, with free DLC being rolled out every few months and an expansion, the Zenith Remnant, on its way within the next year.

AI War is, quite simply, the best experience you could have with co-op or single-player real-time strategy in this or any year. It combines grand strategy with emergent AI to form an excellent game perfect for parties and multiplayer. It is easily worth double the price that the developer is selling it at, and anyone with any affinity or taste for strategy games should not miss it. It may be daunting at first, but an excellent tutorial and amazing gameplay mechanics alleviate this into a game that almost anyone can - and should - play.

Final Verdict

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