Introducing Champions: These modular behemoths can be upgraded, gain EXP, and lend powerful aid to your main forces. But champions possess a unique power that sets them even further apart from other units: they can explore entirely new parts of the galaxy where the AI cannot reach. Splinter factions of humans, zenith, neinzul, and spire all dwell in those backwater nebulae. Some are hiding. Some are plotting. Some have gone totally insane. It is there, in the shadows, that your champion can find relics from the ancient race which constructed it. What power awaits? At what cost?
What We Think:
The Borg have won. Only a small pocket of humanity remains, and now the Borg have turned their attention to something else in the galaxy. What remains of us is no longer a threat to them, or so it thinks. This is how I describe AI War to my friends who have never heard of it, as no one seems to realize that this Co-Op 4X RTS gem even exists. Sometimes I even have to go so far as to reassure them it’s not a Star Trek game – I just felt that it made the best-relatable analogy.
A.I. War: Fleet Command is a solid hard core RTS on its own. But over the years it’s been continually supported by vast expansion packs, each with a theme. The first added large, super-powerful, but broken-down and derelict ships you could discover and repair for your own use. The second was a minor expansion and added Mayfly-like faction ships that swarmed in massive numbers, and then expired…for a Child’s Play charity, of all things. Do you see what they did there? The third – Light of the Spire – added a new story driven alternate campaign, as well as alternate game modes, another rather large expansion. Now we are upon our fourth expansion, Ancient Shadows.
This fourth expansion takes the original design of a Co-op, 4X, RTS, roguelike, and makes the old engine do something it was never intended to do: Hero units that allow one player to solely control a massive modular ship and assist the main fleet in attack runs, or wander off to explore the galaxy, completing what are essentially side-quests.
While it is totally possible for a single player to command both the main fleet and the Hero ships, if he intends to engage in the side quests, he should be wary of being cut off from calls of help from the rest of the battle. However completing these quests will grant your fleet with new assets and rewards to use in the coming climatic battle. But Ancient Shadows also takes the Co-Op aspect to a new level, as playing with your buddies is rightly recommended in the first place.
SOS calls cannot enter the special Hero-only areas where they can preform special feats to gain impressive advantages. Getting yourself too involved without backup might lead to an A.I. taking advantage of you being distracted. You’ll suddenly be greeted with a big fat, “You Lost” screen if they attack your base while you are cut off from communication and preoccupied elsewhere. So take it easy with your Leeroy Jenkins impulses.
As a note, this expansion came out a couple months ago. This writeup comes so far after the fact mainly because it is so challenging, and I feel deserves to be included in the roguelike sub-genre: Galaxies are randomly seeded, the ships available and encountered are different every time you play. In fact, in order to even see some of this expansion content, we had to ask the developers for the quickest way to force the content it adds. I had to turn Fog of War off, but leave the difficulty to a rather nasty level. (Normal is considered pretty brutal. Anything higher is just insane, and it goes way higher!)
The game is incredibly hard, yet still best played on its recommended settings. The developers personally challenge you to defeat their A.I. in a full campaign. And therein we better understand the real point of AI War – an attempt to build complex tactical responses from your computer-driven enemies above and beyond all else.
I should also briefly mention the soundtrack. While sometimes the soft flute or piano can seem out of place, when they come at the right times they are a welcome calm before the storm, especially when the ticker is counting down the time before an attack wave comes out of warp to slam against your meager defenses. The tone of the music, even the soothing parts, can give it a dire sense of urgency that fits the game’s intended feel. Then when a deep epic overture starts, I can’t help but throw all my careful planning and caution to the wind and throw my fleet into battle, it just oozes with emotional cues.
“Screw it!! Epic battle music! Send them all in now!!”. I might regret it later, but hey, it’s entertaining.
A.I. War is a solid game and anyone who enjoys a good hard 4X should already have it. But being a solid Co-Op 4X makes it a unique and beautiful beast. The Ancient Shadows expansion adds even more options to choose from an already abundant platter. Using the Hero-mode might even be a good way to introduce a friend to the game, without forcing them to manage huge fleets.