AI War: Fleet Command, PC – Review

AI War: Fleet Command, PC – £5.32 (DRM free, direct from the developer, but also can be registered on Steam)

Review by Bobby Foster

If I could take only one videogame with me to a desert island, it might be this one. There is so much depth and challenge here that even if I spent a lifetime in solitary confinement playing it, I might still never be able to say I’d mastered it.

Unfortunately, away from the desert island, my patience was too short.

The longer I played, the more stupid and ordinary I felt. My tiny mind failed to remember which ship I was supposed to click on first to build a certain kind of unit, and then I kept losing my bearings in a sea of identically sized, abstract icons. It took me nearly an hour just to play through the “basic” tutorial, and afterwards I felt exhausted.

Now I find myself worrying that I’ve gone soft and/or stupid after playing too many primitive games- the kind that can be boiled down to nothing much cleverer than “press X now to be awesome!!!” It seems plenty of others have been able to get their heads around the game and enjoy it, and it wasn’t so long ago that I was exactly the kind of guy who’d throw himself into a deep and sophisticated strategy game. Have my game-playing abilities in fact regressed despite the 20-30 hours I spend each week playing the damned things?

Maybe. You probably don’t care: it’s more my problem than yours. I guess the point here is that if you too have played a lot of “press X now to be awesome!!!” games, you might struggle with AI War.

There is of course an honesty and fairness thing too. I hold my hands up: I definitely haven’t spent as long with the game as would be needed to review it “properly”. I felt worn down and gave up, because it was starting to feel more stressful and undermining than my day job. Four hours is my current total play time according to Steam, and even if this were the most basic of Real-Time-Strategy games, I’d have scarcely scratched the surface.

AI War is categorically not the most basic of real-time-strategy games. And if the consensus usually is that it’s a good idea to thoroughly understand a thing before you criticise it, shouldn’t you be asking why this says “review” at the top of the page and not “lazy, irresponsible, scratch of surface”?

Go ahead. Ask. You could well be onto something. Maybe Lewie will change what it says if enough people ask for it.

Yet with disappointing sales taking developer Arcen Games to the brink of bankruptcy, it seems downright bizarre that so much of their (hugely admirable) post-release support has been directed toward satisfying people who already love the game, rather than working on how to make it more approachable for new players. Wouldn’t it have far greater reach – and thus potential profitability – if it could realistically be marketed beyond players who found Starcraft too easy?

[Editors note: Chris from Arcen popped along to the comments to add a clarification on a few points regarding the sales, and other things. Cheers Chris]

I wonder whether Arcen have even grasped that this is a fundamental problem with their game. From the first dialog box of the first tutorial – where the RTS concept is introduced in terms of chess – alarm bells start ringing. Why use a slightly confusing analogy with a turn-based board game purely to make a redundant point about how the player isn’t represented by a piece in the game? How is that important? And are people with no prior RTS experience seriously expected to make AI War their first? Wow.

The first RTS I played was the original Command & Conquer. Players rarely gave up on that one, because it knew how to introduce itself. Sure, it was a much simpler game than AI War, with far fewer mechanics to learn, but nonetheless, it knew that if it showed us everything it had to offer right from the start it would have freaked out our simple mid-90s gaming brains. So instead you had a first mission that was really just about getting used to using the mouse to drag and select units, pointing and clicking to move and shoot, and right-clicking to de-select. This point, which could quite easily be (and just has been) made in one sentence, Command & Conquer used an entire mission to demonstrate. When the player completed their objective, big red capital letters saying MISSION ACCOMPLISHED appeared in the centre of screen, and while those words were probably just there to deliver some sense of satisfaction to the player, they could equally describe the developer’s success at entertainingly communicating the knowledge needed to play the game.

AI War’s approach couldn’t be more different. It uses lengthy tutorials instead of short missions to introduce concepts. In those tutorials a paragraph or two of text is thrown at the player that details the elaborate mechanics and keyboard shortcuts the game uses. You’re then told how important it is that you don’t forget the information being told to you, before the game quickly rushes on to the next equally important demonstration.

Wait, hang on, what did it just say I wasn’t supposed to forget?

It’s telling that within AI War’s tutorial menu there’s also a link to the developer’s Wiki, in which you’ll find a further six chapters to help out beginners to the game. Under the “How Do I Know What Difficulty Level To Play On?” heading, they recommend that “If you have never touched an RTS game before, and you struggled with the tutorials, you should probably start with difficulty 1 or 2, which will be extremely easy and will give you more time to get used to the game.”

Wait- what’s that? It seems Arcen Games are indeed aware – but aren’t concerned – that some people will sit for hours playing through the lengthy tutorials and still be struggling. That attitude seems foolish- if not a little irresponsible to me. Don’t they realise that it won’t just be lazy reviewers, but also cherished paying customers who give up on the game before they get to the good bit?

I realise that it would likely take a lot of hard work and creativity to break the components of the game down in such a way that they could be gradually introduced organically one-by-one instead of all at once, but you know what? If you want to make an elaborate and sophisticated game that involves running a galaxy-spanning empire, then you can’t afford not to think about this stuff. It’s simply unfair to expect your less-able players to take it on trust that the game they’re struggling through will eventually be worth the effort.

Then again, what do I know? Not enough, admittedly. But I can be certain that I won’t be the only one generating the sort of word-of-mouth that says, “I had a quick go and it looked kinda interesting but I got bored long before I could really get into it”.

AI War: Fleet Command, PC – £5.32

14 Comments Leave yours

  1. mlaskus #

    It’s a shame you got put off by it. I admit, the game seems quite daunting at first but when you finally grasp the basics, it plays like any other RTS game, although with a lot more strategic planning and less tedious micromanagement involved.

    The best way to get into AI War is to find a friend who already knows what he’s doing and play a campaign with him.

  2. Dominic White #

    The game really ain’t that complicated. I’m unbelievably shit at strategy games in general – I can count the number of competitive matches I’ve won on the fingers of one foot – but AI War was pretty accessible, even if it was pretty rough in its presentation. You can start very slow and gradually work your way up, picking up tips and tricks as you play, learning what counters what, and just how hard you can push before the game pushes back.

    It’s a lot to take in, but you’re not being forced to absorb this information at anything other than your own, casual pace.

  3. One thing I’d like to correct: that AI War’s sales have been in any way disappointing. As I clarified in a recent post on our financials, people seem to assume that the problem was with AI War, but that simply wasn’t true. As of a few months back we’d sold around 20k copies of the base game of AI War, and that number is more than doubled when you consider sales of the expansions. And I think that the number of copies sold of the base game are probably closer to 25k or 30k now, though I haven’t collated all that data in a while (that takes time!).

    AI War isn’t Minecraft-successful, but it’s one of the more fiscally successful indie games of the past year. We just recently passed the $300,000.00 USD mark for the game, and it’s still climbing. I’m starting to restate from the article I linked, but our problem came in how we reinvested that income in an attempt to grow the company. Namely: Tidalis didn’t sell well. Although, recent sales have seen it’s number of units sold go up by tens of thousands of copies (albeit at 90% off, so still not into the realm of profit yet), so even that’s starting to turn around for us.

    I’d also point out, I suppose, that a lot of our recent updates (mainly the whole 4.0 thing) DID address the whole complexity thing. We simplified a ton, and made the in-game learning tools better, etc, etc. I don’t mean to say that more can’t be done, or that there’s something lacking on your end that you didn’t get more into it after four hours (there are plenty of complex games that are less complex than AI War that I just can’t get into for whatever reason), but I think some of that comes down to you just not liking the game — which, also is fine. Not every reviewer, nor every player, will.

    My experience has been that those players who love the game figure that our pretty quickly, and their enjoyment of the game make the learning process a game unto itself, rather than a job-like chore. That last, hours-spanning tutorial is reportedly a ton of fun from a number of people, so much so that some play it multiple times through. To those that don’t find themselves enamored of it: it’s a chore. I can think of games I feel the same about. That’s totally cool, but it doesn’t mean the game wasn’t TRYING to reach you (or that the other games that shall remain nameless weren’t trying to reach me). Some folks are predisposed to the game and others aren’t.

    I think that’s unavoidable once you cross a certain threshold of complexity, honestly. If you break a game like that down too far (say, Dwarf Fortress, or Civilization, or SimCity, or whatever), it loses all of its identity. SimCity Societies was utterly loathed, from what I can tell. So in the end, SimCity appeals to people who like city builders and want to put in the time, Dwarf Fortress appeals to… well, people who like it’s specific blend of drama and building, and AI War appeals to people who like RTS games but get annoyed when they are too simplistic. To them (and me), the frustrating thing is putting in the hours to learn even a “standard RTS” (which, as you say, even four hours would not be enough for), and then going “oh, I guess that was it. Now it’s easy and same-y. Time to buy a new game and start this cycle again!”

    It’s a small niche of players, but I think we’ve really nailed hitting that. In fact, we’re outselling a number of (ahem) simpler indie RTS titles that are a lot more accessible. I doubt we could repeat this sort of success with this level of surface complexity, and so our future titles definitely won’t try. But for whatever reason, AI War connects really strongly with those players it does connect with, and just not at all with some of them, such as apparently yourself. And, as I noted, that’s totally cool with me. But we’re not blind to what’s going on, or being stupid about it — in terms of AI War, it’s been successful beyond our wildest dreams, and is still selling strongly a year and a half after release (after the hiccup of this summer).

    Anyway, this is getting long, so I’ll cut it out there. ;)

  4. Ozymandaiz #

    No game quite like this. Its not for the timid and the ones who only like a few minutes star craft games, but it has tons to offer for those who want a real challenge. :)

    A real good game, not just the fluff that is far to common these days, but real game play that can keep you at it for hours thinking up new strategies and trying to outsmart the well designed AI.

  5. Jeremy #

    I guess the point here is that if you too have played a lot of “press X now to be awesome!!!” games, you might struggle with AI War.

    That about sums it up. If you’re looking for a deep, strategic experience that provides a real challenge and some of the best AI I’ve ever seen in a strategy game, this is something you want to play. The tutorials are an excellent introduction to the game, particularly the intermediate one, but you do have to have a bit of patience and a willingness to learn the way the game works. If you have questions, the wiki is an excellent source of information and the forum is very active (and you frequently get helpful responses from the devs as well as other players). If you’re looking for a game you can pick up and be great at in 5 minutes, this simply isn’t your game. If you’re anything like me, though, 5 minutes later you’ll have put that kind of game back down. On the other hand, if you’re looking for depth, challenge, and the fun and massive replayability inherent to those things, AI War is one of the best purchases you’ll ever make. That it’s constantly being added to, and is quite simply the best supported game I’ve ever seen, is just gravy.

  6. Lewie Procter #

    I think Bobby is being fair on it, and what he describes is an accurate account of his opinion, although obviously there is a passionate audience for this kind of in depth Strategy game.

    I’d love to hear some more opinions of it from people who it does appeal to.

  7. Thank you all for the thoughtful comments- especially Christopher. I don’t think I’ve ever written a review of something that’s reached its creator before, and that’s pretty much as good as this criticism malarkey can get for me. I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to respond.

    I also can’t really disagree with a lot of what’s been said, although it might be worth me clarifying that the Savy Gamer review style – and certainly my own preference – is for reviews that are as subjective as possible. I wrestled pretty hard with a, “I know I should be enjoying this but I’m not” vibe during my time with the game, but unfortunately we never quite clicked. Rightly or wrongly (and I’ve heard some good reasons for saying “wrongly”), my view is that if I’m reviewing a piece of entertainment and it hasn’t grabbed me within four hours, then, “life is too short”.

    My hope was that the review would make those principles clear, warn off other impatient thickies like me, but also wouldn’t needlessly turn off others who could conceivably get a lot of enjoyment out of the game.

    So I understand what people are saying, but I still stand by everything I’ve said. Christopher- I did notice some of the changes in 4.0, and it seemed a step in the right direction, although I think it would take a more fundamental rethink to solve most of the problems I had. Of course, if one day you’ve got a spare few hundred programming hours, and can build a much more child-friendly shallow-end to this incredibly deep swimming pool, then I’d be very happy to take a second dip.

  8. All good, Bobby. And actually, one thing we did with the 4.0 version was that we spent a lot more time on making the in-game stuff “discoverable” rather than on beefing out the tutorials (which we also did, but not with as much emphasis). The logic was that most folks that were too impatient for the tutorials would probably just skip them, which in the past had been disastrous, but which now — with the “fast facts” thing on the wiki, and the in-game tooltips and objectives window, etc — is a case where players can get in an “play around” pretty immediately without really understanding everything.

    The catch is that, of course, when people just jump in without the tutorials, they wind up missing a lot of the subtlety there, and wind up deciding the game is more similar to other RTS titles than it really is. So it’s a double-edged sword.

    I can recall “learning” Chess when I was about 6 years old — I knew how all the pieces could move, about castling, the fact that pawns can move forward two spaces on their first move, and checks and checkmates. And that was about it. I played a few times with my dad, but didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Checkers was simpler, and quite a bit more fun because there wasn’t all this sitting around thinking.

    Then I encountered Chess again, when I was about 15, and really learned more about it from expert players and wound up joining the Chess team. What a rabbit hole! Checkers has nothing on that game, and the bare basics of knowing how to move the pieces means you know almost nothing about the game. Even learning an opening or two is just for the most basic of beginners. I had never seen anything like it. I loved it. And there was nothing like it on the PC, aside from Chess against the computer. And that, to me, is boring.

    I think AI War is kind of like that. It’ a time investment, like Chess. It’s meant to be played over a period of months or years, not just for a few weeks one summer. You can dink around with just the basic rules, but it’s not much different from other RTS games unless you get into the deeper parts of it. I can afford to do this because I’m not depending on coming out with AI War 2 next year or the year after, with prettier graphics and a new story campaign. It’s a completely different model from the AAA strategy games, which arguably don’t want you to spend years and years with a single title — otherwise, why would you buy the next iteration?

    Anyway, so I recognize what a challenge it is to review something like that, especially if the basic concept of “a Chess-like strategy game of immense complexity” doesn’t make you giddy to start with. You’ve got a stack of things to review and limited time, and I can sympathize. When I hit a novel that doesn’t grab me within a few pages, if I don’t have an extremely strong recommendation from someone with tastes similar to mine, I bail. Life is too short.

    That sure does make it hard for AI War to get reviews, though. Didn’t stop them, in the end — certainly it was one of the top-reviewed games overall last year (#40, according to metacritic), but there were a lot of places that just declined to review it at all after having requested a key. I think that’s why.

    I’m not sure exactly what my point was, but those are the thoughts that sparked from your response. I’d bet that more of your reviews actually reached the original developers of games than you realize, by the way — quite often game developers (or someone on the staff there) read more widely than is assumed. They just don’t comment because they don’t want to get sucked into arguments, or they’re shy, or they’re busy, or they don’t have the go-ahead from legal./marketing/whatever to do so, or they don’t want to make it look like a “favor” to the review site, or whatever other reason — there are a good many reasons not to comment, especially if you’re at a AAA house. But I figure you might enjoy knowing that most reviews get more read than you might think. Google Alerts and all that. ;)

  9. SRombauts #

    I did buy AI War only a few weeks ago, after the big 4.0 release.

    But before that, I’ve looked at Chris’s articles about the great Emergent AI, then to some part of the wiki and of the forum. All this convinced me to buy it and to give it a real try.
    This might be the point : I was already quite informed of its gameplay, its depth and the long play time it requires for a campaign.

    And the reward is great!

    What I have discovered so far is a great true strategy game where you can take the time to really build up your path to the victory : here the player give the tempo, so if you decide to

  10. SRombauts #

    (Oops, sorry)

    Here the player give the tempo, so the “where” and “when” you attack are its real choice, and big part of a real long term strategy. This can lead to turtle mode if you are like me, and you may want some more rhythm : you have the keys for that!

    I am a big fan of all kind of classic STR, but this is really different, more like a big wargame.
    And I like it.
    In fact I love it now!
    But this depends strongly of your tastes …

  11. shugyosha #

    “If I could take only one videogame with me to a desert island, it might be this one. There is so much depth and challenge here that even if I spent a lifetime in solitary confinement playing it, I might still never be able to say I’d mastered it.”

    I think you delivered a solid description with this bit. AI War isn’t a game for a casual hour of gaming. Its more of a 4x game which are long and more complex. Playing in real time doesn’t make a game a RTS-game automatically or primarily.

    It may be not the reviewers problem that AI War is called or marketed as RTS but as a PC games reviewer one should know the difference between 4X Strategy and RTS and that 4X often has a steep learning curve and is for people who can and will dedicate a lot of time into learning all the mechanics.

  12. Winter Born #

    I started with board games a long time ago, had a multi year subscription to Strategy & Tactics (pretty cool while it lasted – get a new game and a mag devoted to the enclosed game every other month), Played a lot of Avalon Hill games as well. But I always needed a friend and a room to leave the game set up in and days when both of us could play.
    Then computers and games like Empire, Civ 1, Moo and Warlords came along. Suddenly, I could play a 4x game with out needing all the space and a human opponent. But the AI was so stupid, find the logic flaw and exploit it, build a zigzag trench full of traps, etc. Or there was a predictable optimal build path leading to a click-fest and zerg rush or to some Uber unit that would end the game.

    AI War is different (and better) to me. There are no optimal build paths, with the number of ship mixes and AI personalities, and lack of Uber units there cannot be.On the other hand, I don’t have to hyper-click to be good (watch some of the Korean Starcraft master players on YouTube who average 300 kbd/mouse clicks per minute for the entire game)

    Every AI Wars game requires scouting and strategic decisions, to figure out where to attack, what tools to unlock, and what to build. (Basically a game of discovery every time I play) There are plenty of ways to make the game easy to win or to take in the other direction where you are guarantied to loose, and anywhere in between. I play in between ;) The game beats me on a fairly regular basis, sometimes in under 30 minutes if I needed to learn something real bad, real fast.

    The times I do win feel really really good.

    No game “works” for everyone and I think you make that clear in your review.

    The game works for me and I like the fact that after over a year of playing I haven’t used it up/worn it out, like every other game I ever had.

    Ty

  13. Wingflier #

    In all honesty, I think your review is a little unfair. I can completely understand not being a fan of a particular genre and therefore declining to spend the amount of time ON the game that would be necessary for a fair review. If somebody asked me to review World of Warcraft I would be disgusted by the mere notion. However, I wouldn’t spend 4 hours with it and say, “Well, this game was extremely boring”, because I know that 4 hours is a completely unfair amount of time to “review” any given game.

    AI War is a wonderfully deep and strategic game. It is also not for everybody. The price OF depth is often the alienation of a potential part of your playerbase. Games like Farmville are simple and straightforward, anybody can enjoy them, and they are extremely popular; but how deep are they? Even depth has a cost, and, as you said yourself, being so used to playing the “hit X button to win” type games, can certainly skew your tastes to simple, instant-gratification type gameplay.

    Please don’t take this as a personal attack, because it’s not. I’m personally thrilled when anybody even decides to give AI War a fair review, because it helps get the word out there about a game that I think is unknown and under-appreciated. However, if after 4 hours you decide the game is not for you, wouldn’t it be a better practice to just not “review” it at all?

    Granted, the tutorials aren’t as flashy and enjoyable as what you see in most modern games. Could it be improved? Probably. But I certainly didn’t find it to be that “hard” or “exhausting” as many people have claimed that it is. Also, do you really have the right to question Arcen’s development decisions and financial difficulties when you haven’t even played the game for more than a few hours? Certainly there has to be some semblance of guidelines for “reviewer integrity” on this website. But enough on that.

    The reason I made this post is to make a point. The point is, AI War offers a deep and strategic experience that you can’t find anywhere else. You are put into a universe, with practically as many people as you can find (up to 8), and then asked to conquer the galaxy against overwhelming odds. The AI in this game is top-notch, and (unless I’ve missed something) offers an experience that no other game can even compare to. AI War is unique in that, it can pit players against an AI that can be set to any difficulty level, yet the gameplay never gets stale or boring because the AI is practically as smart or smarter than a human being in some of its decisions. How many other games can say this? Every person I’ve ever seen or talked to about AI War, that has actually be a fan of the genre and given it a chance, has stated that is the best RTS they have ever played. It offers a diverse and emergent experience every game against a non-human opponent, and frankly, I don’t think that’s something you can find anywhere else.

  14. Crispy #

    I think the big question here is: “Does the game just not explain itself well enough or is it just a matter of complexity?”

    I disagree that 4 hours is too short for a review. We forget that a review is generally a purchasing guide*. Certainly on a site dedicated to finding the lowest prices for games that’s exactly what this is. You shouldn’t have to complete a game to be able to review it because it doesn’t take 4 hours to realise whether you like a game or not.

    Nor should it take 4 hours to learn the basics of how to play the game. It’s not clear from the article if the tutorials are to blame for the opinion or if it’s that the type of gameplay doesn’t sit as easily with the reviewer, but my take on it would be that if the player doesn’t know why they dislike a game then something very fundamental is to blame: the game isn’t communicating itself clearly to the player.

    It sounds to me like the type of person that will really, really like this game is also the type of person that is more accepting of learning many new things at the same time and putting them all into practise at once (or ‘information managing’). In the version that was reviewed, perhaps the game was asking too much of most new players. Perhaps the conversion rate from demo to purchase, if compared to similar titles, would confirm this.

    I think it would be interesting to hear from someone who has played the game and thought it was ‘okay’. II suspect they don’t exist.

    * This is as opposed to a piece of critical writing you’d be more likely to find in or on an industry-focused publication or website. It’s definitely warranted that anyone giving an in-depth critical analysis of the game should have completed it. We are in this funny space in games where we don’t yet really have a format for critical game analysis, and this leads reviews to try to encompass both things when its not really their role.

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