Release Date: March 31, 2016
Review Platform: PC
Games are constantly evolving. Every year the boundaries are pushed a little further, the bar raised a little higher. Occasionally, a game comes along that doesn’t just push the limits, it obliterates them. Ashes of the Singularity is that game. Taking inspiration and influence from RTS classics like Supreme Commander and Total Annihilation, Ashes begins where Supreme Commander left off—dramatically increasing unit cap while maintaining performance—and takes the concept to a whole new dimension.
The Down and Dirty
The scale on which Ashes of the Singularity operates is positively mind-boggling. I remember hearing about Supreme Commander for the first time and scarcely being able to imagine what a cap of up to 1,000 units per player would be like (turns it was awful due to severe performance issues). Well, Ashes of the Singularity takes what SupCom started, runs with it and forcibly injects it with steroids. The scale of this RTS is truly in a league of its own.
Minute-to-minute gameplay was both fun and engaging, if tactically flat. That the game feels so well-balanced is a testament to Stardock’s professionalism, their smart use of Steam’s Early Access system, and listening to the feedback it received from passionate players.
The fact that it maintains solid performance throughout all the wonderfully-rendered the mayhem is a remarkable feat as well, no doubt in large part due the Nitrous engine it runs on (and much beefier modern hardware). However, it’s not all sunshine and roses. The size of Stardock’s newest title comes with its own set of drawbacks, ones that I had not expected.
Let’s dig in.
The Nitty Gritty
Strategy games, I have found, are one of the most challenging genres for developers to capture a player’s imagination and investment with a storyline. Saving a planet, a people or the entire universe is often little more than a background concern when you’re so mentally engrossed in the minutia of battle management. Players command faceless, nameless units and structures from a strategic, but necessarily removed point of view. Plot advancement is largely in the form of narration in between engagements, not inherent in each action a player takes as it is with RPG’s, or even shooters. This is very much the case with Ashes of the Singularity, where the plot does little more than give meaning to the game’s name.
In the not-so-distant future, humanity achieves what is known as the “singularity.” As Stardock explains it, “The ‘Singularity’ is a theory of the future development of humans and AI that was popularized by futurist Ray Kurzweil. As our minds become increasingly augmented by artificial enhancements, there will come a point where the un-augmented human brain can no longer comprehend the advancements that are being made.”
Humanity then takes to the stars, but eventually our own AI comes back to haunt us. It’s not exactly original and not exactly gripping. This is not to say the campaign isn’t fun. The missions are still enjoyable, largely due to the solid gameplay, but carry no real meaning.
Another issue that I had with the campaign was the excessive hand-holding. Ashes is a complex game, a huge game, and there’s a big learning curve, but the introduction of new units and tactics with each successive mission dragged on for too long. After the first two or three battles I was more than ready for all the restrictions to have been lifted.
The awesome scale of this new RTS is ambitious, and to have created a final result that plays with so few flaws is quite an achievement. Battles can quickly become a massive maelstrom of death and destruction. Unfortunately, this is also where the game begins to lose some of its tactical basis.
Due to this game’s large size and unit caps, Stardock has encouraged players to use what they call “meta units” in order to make the numbers more manageable. Commanding every unit effectively simply isn’t possible, so individual units are banded together into meta units that function as a single entity. While an obvious necessity with a game of such size, it does prevent players from taking part in each strategic decision made on the battlefield and robs the fun out of attacking and defending by making it nothing more than a virtual meat grinder. As the amount of meta units in a match grows, so too does the amount of engagements being fought, and then the whole endeavor quickly devolves into a contest of numbers and resources.
I found rapid expansion and resource control to be an effective strategy, especially in skirmishes. The faster a player can gain resources for Ashes’ streaming-style economy, the faster meta units can be fabricated and ordered to overwhelm the enemy. And yes, while I understand that expansion, resource control and overwhelming numbers are tactics in and of themselves, they tend to place emphasis (particularly on a game of this size) on battle management rather than real-time strategic decision making.
The Bottom Line
With remarkably well-balanced and finely tuned gameplay, the stout and innovative Nitrous engine, and excellent visuals, Ashes of the Singularity has boldly and successfully pushed the limits of RTS gaming. Unfortunately, it may have pushed the boundaries too far, having gone beyond where players can easily and effectively make real-time decisions or employ unique tactics to turn the tide of battle.