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