In my mind, there are only two kinds of RTS games in the world: those that aspire to be like Cavedog’s masterpiece, Total Annihilation (TA), and those that don’t. This is a myopic way of framing things… Yet there is no question that TA, released waaay back in 1997, became a real-time strategy (RTS) classic. The game was less about the behaviors and capabilities of individual units, and more about building up never-ending streams of combatants that poured out of your rate-based economy. It created grand battles that emphasized positioning and combined arms tactics. It also came out almost 20 years ago and RTS fans have been hoping for a long time to see a next generation take on TA.
So with no small fanfare, Stardock’s highly-anticipated RTS game and TA disciple, Ashes of the Singularity, has finally arrived. The game offers up grand-scale conflict wherein you “Wage a War Across an Entire World,” “Construct thousands of units” and “Claim Victory with Strategy, not Speed” (their words from the Steam page description). When you couple this grand vision with a rate-based economy and management of dynamic armies instead of individual units, it’s quite evident what Stardock is trying to achieve. Ashes has also been promoted as a ground-breaking, 4th-generation RTS game, that takes full advantage of 64-bit multi-core processing power, unbridled RAM abundance, and DirectX 12 graphical whizz-bangery.
For now, what you all want to know is this: how well does Ashes reawaken the grand, large-scale RTS experience that TA pioneered? In some cases, the game is on the mark – in other cases it’s a miss. Let’s dive in.
First, let’s examine the basic mechanics and structure of the game.
Ashes provides a single player campaign consisting of 11 missions, a skirmish mode against the AI, and multiplayer. The campaign tells the story of how humankind’s descendents, the “Post-Humans,” are embroiled in a war with a human-created artificial intelligence, the “Substrate,” over some mystical stuff called Turninum. I’ll talk about the campaign more later.
Playing a skirmish game, you start out with a basic headquarters called a Nexus. This is the only structure that can build the basic worker unit: Engineers for the Post-Humans and Constructors for the Substrate. From your base of operations, you’ll use workers to secure and expand your resource base and build production facilities, orbital upgrade buildings, and static defenses. Sound familiar?
You defeat your opponent by destroying their Nexus or by accumulating enough of Turninum to “win.” Lore-wise it is still unclear to me what this victory condition is supposed to signify (some sort of mind-control over the matter-processing power of an entire planet?). Trinium itself is harvested from deposits scattered around each map. You want to control those nodes, build a generator, and harvest the requisite amount of the stuff to win. I do appreciate that there is a winning objective other than just straight up conquest, so that’s a good sign.
Furthermore, there are two primary resources used by the game’s streaming economy: metal and “Radioactives” (I’m just going to call it “energy”). Resource nodes are sprinkled across the map and connected through a network of transmission lines. It isn’t clear to me how or why these resources came to be connected in such a manner, but it works to create a tense land grab race. When you capture a resource node, the metal or energy deposits at the node will provide you with a positive flow of resources. Bring over a builder and you can construct supplemental metal or energy extractors that increase the resource rate even more.
The networked resource nodes are a nice touch, as it means that tactics like the old favorite, “cut off their supply lines!” is a consideration during gameplay. In theory, if another player knocks out a node in the middle of your network, you can find yourself staring into the grizzled eyes of a resource shortfall. In practice, I haven’t noticed this to be a major aspect of gameplay, as you only need to re-capture a node (not rebuild any structures) in order to reconnect your network. But I can imagine that in high levels of competitive play this will be important, as a lapse in your streaming economy hands an advantage to your opponent. In a strange sort of way, the networked system with its fixed resource nodes makes the game feel a bit like a terrestrial version of Sins of a Solar Empire, with the warp lines connecting the star systems together. Of course, the other game famous for having this system is Company of Heroes and, unsurprisingly, Stardock has also cited that game as an influence.
As in other streaming economy RTS games, factories and builder units produce other units and buildings at a certain “rate” of resource consumption. Your task is to tread a fine line between the inflow rate and the outflow rate to make sure you are making the most of your resources without causing a bottleneck and slowing down production. If you are generating more resources than you can spend, you can build storage upgrades to stockpile it for later, or better yet, just build more workers to accelerate the current construction activities.
If there is a weak point of the resource system, it is that the pace of the game is beholden exclusively to the map being played. In most of my games, my economy is held back by one of the two resources, and at a certain point there is nothing I can do about it aside from taking more territory. And in Ashes, territory is all that matters. Yes, you can build a single Amplifier building at a node to boost resource extraction there, but you are still coupled to the resource network. In a game where streaming huge volumes of units is the focus, the result is that whoever collects more will likely outproduce their rival and be the winner.
A third resource, called Quanta, is used as a pseudo-research, psuedo-special power resource. Each faction has a specific building that generates Quanta at a given rate, which can then be used in various ways. One way is to increase your unit cap (i.e. logistics). Another is to research global upgrades, such as increasing resource storage to boosting your units’ health universally. The third use is initiating “orbital” abilities, which are unlocked by constructing further facilities. These “powers” are interesting and constitute one of the more exciting aspects of the game. Abilities range from offensive bombardments to dropping workers behind the lines or conducting sensor sweeps. These add a fun dynamic to the game and remind me of the global abilities from the Command & Conquer series. One nice twist is that you can also build counter-orbital facilities that protect nodes or rally points from hostile strikes. This yields a good back-and-forth feeling to orbital offense vs. defense.
Given that everything you do in most RTS games is done by way of units, we should talk about the units! Compared to other games of this ilk, there are not many different units in Ashes (though the devs have promised to add more). Both sides (Post-Human and Substrate) have a comparable lineup of Frigates, Cruisers, and Dreadnaughts (oh and aircraft), for about 15 total combat units. Wait… Did I just refer to naval ship sizes? Yes I did – the units are all classed as naval ships. One of the oddities in the game pertains to what size the units are intended to represent. Each ship is meant to be “large” with Dreadnaughts upwards of a mile long! And hence the maps are supposed to represent vast swaths of terrain at an even greater scale (so big you can’t see the trees and details of the ground).
Unfortunately, the sense of scale didn’t come across well, in my experience. The size of the map in an RTS game is really a function of the physical dimensions of the map relative to the speed of the units. And in this regard, the actual gameplay effect does not feel like waging a “War Across an Entire World.” The maps don’t feel any bigger or take any longer to traverse than maps in any other similar RTS game. This is perhaps a necessary gameplay concession, as matches on the largest map sizes can already take a fair amount of time (an hour or more), and making the geography bigger would further protract the game.
A further blow against unit diversity is that every unit is a floaty, flying thing. The sense of presumed scale is lost on me because units never feel connected to, or impacted by, the terrain they drift over. Sure, being on higher ground lets you shoot further. And there are air units (three per side), that add some variety. But there are no tanks rampaging through vast forests, or 4-legged robots traversing up a steep mountain slope, or hovercraft transitioning between water and land (there is no water in the game at all, by the way). All of this means that terrain just doesn’t feel like a big part of the game. Different terrain obstacles should call for different units, in order for players to realize their ingenious, cunning plans. There’s little of that here (yet).
When it comes to the unit design itself, they are intended to fill straightforward roles, e.g. frontline tank, anti-air, artillery support. This is well and good – and I think there is an argument to be made that less is more, especially when units are given a distinct character or unique quirks. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this to be the case in Ashes. The units look nice visually, but from a functional standpoint the designs are simply not distinct enough. Units of a given size/class are homogenous looking, all of them being some sort of similar wedge shape (in the case of the Post-Humans) or curvy oval shape (in the case of the Substrate). Even the mighty Dreadnaughts, the game’s hero unit equivalent, look too similar – each being the same amalgamation of fins and turrets – just arranged in a slightly different configuration. All in all, this makes picking out targets or controlling your units frustrating, not to mention the lack of aesthetic character.
One of the big selling features of the game is the notion of the “army,” where untold numbers of units (but only one dreadnaught, mind you) come together to form a “mega unit” (i.e. blob of stuff) that is supposed to act more intelligently and powerfully than the sum of its parts. I may be alone in this, but I struggled with the mega-unit management tools. Armies are intended to be a key part of the gameplay – allowing players to manage the fight at a higher level – but my inability to grasp how the system worked affected my overall experience.
For example, armies allow you to requisition and rally new units into them (sounds great!). However, it was unclear to me how new units were being added. Did it collect units not already in an army? Did it interject new construction orders into the build queue? Turns out that it will queue up units from an idle factory, but factories set to auto-build a sequence of units endlessly won’t provide units to the army. The whole system is a little cumbersome. More frustrating however, is that when you add units into an existing army, the whole blob starts moving towards the centerpoint of its constituent parts based on where the biggest unit it. That might be halfway across the map, resulting in your army falling out of position as it lumbers away from the frontline. Lastly, I often ended up with poor unit placement within the army, as well. Many times, support units (anti-air or artillery) would end up at the front of my blob, where they would get shredded to pieces.
Maybe someone less involved than I am in controlling the minutiae of their fighting force would better enjoy the army system. Fortunately, standard RTS control groups exist alongside the army system – my enjoyment immediately went up when I got back to controlling units directly. This works to a certain point, but when there are thousands of units on the battlefield I often had to resort to the army system after all, and I wish it was clearer in how it functions.
A Strategic Experience, Eh?
This is a good moment to talk about the AI – which I must admit is really quite challenging. At launch, even on normal difficulty, the AI was a monster. A post-release patch has turned down the AI’s prowess a little bit at both the easy and normal difficulties (and also added some extra difficulty levels). Nevertheless, the AI is very adept at taking territory and building its economy quickly. It’s also very good at building lots and lots of units and finding just the right place to hammer your base of operations at a weak point. No doubt this is due to the 64-bit nature of the game, using all the CPU cycles to crush your feeble human mind.
However, the combination of a challenging AI with a clunky system of unit controls is where the notion of Ashes being about “Strategy, not Speed” starts to unravel for me. In fact, I’d say the opposite is true. Unless you want to pause every 15 seconds (which you can do outside of multiplayer), Ashes is 100% a game where speed (i.e. actions per minute or APM) matters. Resources being node-based and defended by neutrals means you constantly have to task forces to clear the node and bring in engineers to build extractors. If you don’t do this continuously and aggressively, the AI will and you will be out-produced before you can blink an eye. Likewise, you always need to be constructing Quanta-producing buildings and keeping tabs on your Quanta pool to efficiently upgrade units or perform special global abilities or maintain a high unit cap. And you need to babysit your forces – otherwise they will get shredded by the AI’s often superior numbers. APM, here we come!
I don’t have a problem with Ashes being about speed – most RTS games are, even my beloved TA. The bigger problem is that I don’t feel like I’m doing anything particularly deep or interesting. The multitude of systems in the game certainly keep me busy, but not in a way that is focused around interesting tactical or strategic decisions. I found that most of the gameplay consists of “holding the line” at a particular node, then “pushing” to the next node when you have a force advantage. Combat can become a big drawn out slog, and the opportunities for creative counter-moves or sneak attacks, at least in my experience so far, feel limited.
The plodding pace of the game can be attributed to two shortcomings. First – and going back to the “units are like naval vessels” approach to unit design – is that units do not feel quick and responsive. They are like big, slow-moving ships. This means that it is difficult to react to your opponent’s moves in tactically interesting ways. On one hand this makes big strategic moves all the more important – but on the other hand it diminishes the dynamic give-and-take of battle that makes combat engaging in RTS games.
Second, and partly related to the visual design of the units, is that the game does not provide very clear feedback on how a unit or an army performs. Armies end up being large blobs of indiscernible forces duking it out. To me, it felt like there was a disconnect between the damage being dealt and what I was seeing on-screen, making it hard for me to understand unit-to-unit effectiveness, and in turn how those insights applied at the army scale. Between these two issues – slow plodding forces and hard to evaluate combat dynamics – the gameplay lacks excitement.
The UI, while attractive and organized well on the screen, could be much clearer in the information it provides. Just as the unit models are nondescript, the UI buttons and symbols are opaque. The outlined icons representing different units in the construction queue are not clear, requiring more time fussing over production orders or ability options than I would like. And in the heat of a battle, where speed matters, this sort of information should be immediately evident. Moreover, the quality of life UI functions one might expect in a modern RTS, especially one that strives to build up a competitive multiplayer community, are not quite there. There are no map marking or pinging tools and the control-group lists are woefully short on useful information.
The Unraveling Plot
RTS games of the past have been known for delivering outstanding single player narratives. Some of the most memorable stories in gaming have come from classic RTS games. From Command & Conquer to Starcraft 2, RTS games have been at the forefront of storytelling at many points in time. Being able to bridge these narratives into gameplay can make for a very rich experience. In other cases, such as TA, the campaign has taken a backseat and that is clearly the case with Ashes as well.
The 11-mission campaign (dubbed “Episode One,” presuming there are more campaigns to come) consists of missions that are half tutorial and half puzzle-solving, with neither being very satisfying. The narrative is delivered in pre-mission sequences that are mostly planetary flybys with the narrator babbling on about singularities and Turninum. The AI you are fighting started the war because you “left it at home” when humanity took to the stars. Yet somehow the AI now exists out beyond your frontier and is attacking you out of spite? I don’t know… I’m not buying it. In game, the action is frequently paused while various Post-Humans ramble on in a very Non-Post-Human way about mission objectives and the like. It’s jarring and devoid of any character. But if you want to learn the game incrementally, there is some value to be had in working through the first few missions of the campaign.
4th Gen, 64-Bit Shenanigans
As mentioned in the introduction, Ashes markets itself as being one of the new next generation games and the first big strategy RTS game to take advantage of 64-bit processing power and all that entails. An article by Brad Wardell espouses the merits of this tectonic shift in technology. But ultimately what matters to the player is whether or not this translates into a new and grander experience, in terms of both gameplay and the audio/visual sparklies.
Visually, the game does look nice when zoomed at mid-scale. The particle effects are quite glowy and when there are hundreds of units on the screen shooting fireworks at each other, the effect is quite nice. The model detail and texturing is similarly well done. However, other aspects of the visuals are lacking. The terrain textures on the ground look murky and muddy and do not reinforce the sense of the scale we’re supposed to buy into at all (and I’m running on the highest graphic settings in DX12 mode). Overall, the terrain and map design is bland and uninspiring – and I can’t think of any recent RTS game that feels more placeless than Ashes. The music is fine and sound effects are serviceable, but are likewise unexceptional.
The DirectX 12-fueled graphics come at a steep price in terms of hardware, as you do need a moderately beastly computer to run the game smoothly. And it’s at this point that I started to really scratch my head. What is it, exactly, that Ashes is trying to bring to the table that other games haven’t in the past? I can believe we are getting a more competent and challenging AI, which puts those extra CPU cores to work, as the AI poses quite a challenge. So perhaps there is a silver lining.
Big RTS games likes like this don’t always survive on the backs of their single player content, although that can certainly help draw people to the game in the first place. They need a thriving, engaged, and competitive multiplayer community to give the game a long lifespan. Unfortunately, the gameplay experience feels stuck in no man’s land. It sports classic TA-style gameplay on the one side and a desire to bring something fresh and innovative on the other, but the game doesn’t deliver either well. For a game focused on the “big picture” conflict, there aren’t all that many strategic options to pursue other than “do more, faster,” and the game isn’t really designed to be played at the finer tactical scale either. Many of the right pieces are in place for a fantastic next-gen RTS – but it still needs more time in the oven.
TL;DR: Ashes of the Singularity is brand-spanking-new, next-gen RTS game in the vein of Total Annihilation or Supreme Commander. It certainly delivers a visual feast as thousands of units smash into each other in a desperate fight to secure resources. Unfortunately, the gameplay lacks the diversity of tactical and strategic options of prior RTS games of this ilk, with battles frequently devolving into slogs that leave the player detached from the action. Too many aspects of the gameplay, from unit design to the UI buttons, lack distinction and character. Nonetheless, the bones of a great RTS game can be glimpsed at times (such as in the very challenging AI). But until the diversity of strategies and the control interface to execute them are improved, Ashes of the Singularity remains an impressive technological feat undermined by lackluster gameplay.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You are pumped up about next-gen games and want a DirectX 12-fueled game to turn your benchmarking fantasies into reality.
- You want a large-scale RTS game where you can stand back and watch the fireworks, but in practice need to maintain l33t levels of APM.
- You don’t desire a high degree of control over your units and economy.
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You want an RTS game with lots of different units, which in turn affords many different strategies and tactics to pursue. Ashes is straightforward with little room for cunning play.
- You want a slow-paced RTS. Ashes, despite its claims, demands a high degree of twitch.
- You question your system power – Ashes is a demanding game and requires a beefy system to run smoothly.
Oliver has played 20+ hours of Ashes of the Singularity on a Clevo 670RG-G (Pro-Star Built) Laptop, 17.3″ FHD IPS Display w/ G-SYNC, 6th Gen Intel i7-6700HQ “Skylake” Processor, 16GB DDR4 2133mhz, GeForce GTX 980m w/ 8 GB GDDR vram DX12, 250 GB Samsung EVO M.2 SSD