Wars are won and lost because of strategy. Napoleon faltered in Russia because he failed to prepare for winter. The Schlieffen Plan could have won World War I, if the German army had continued its push to Paris. Operation Market Garden may have opened a path into Germany in 1944, ending World War II before Christmas, if the Allies had secured a foothold across the Rhine.
In Ashes of the Singularity, the real-time strategy title from Stardock Entertainment, overarching plans are key. Unlike some RTS games that stress minute-to-minute choices and reactionary commands, Ashes asks you to manage several armies at once across massive, procedural maps. In short, Ashes isn't about when. It's about where.
The armies you command are just as colossal as the maps. In a recent demo, Stardock founder Brad Wardell jumped into a saved game in which his forces consisted of 1,440 individual units. By the end of his first game--which ended in failure, as he divided his attention between Ashes and speaking to me--he had about 700. That's higher than the maximum population limit of many other strategy games.
"In this game, the AI won because of map control," Wardell said as he restarted the same save-game. "But you can also annihilate the enemy's units. If you have the right strategy, and know how to make use of these maps, the smart AI can be beaten."
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The AI in Ashes can create useful strategies of its own. Ashes dedicates multiple CPU cores to its AI, allowing it to flank, team up, and move on your forces in ways other humans might. In many RTS titles, Skirmish mode is only used as practice for multiplayer battles. In Ashes, Wardell says, players can play Skirmish games that are just as complex as player-vs.player bouts.
In the second game he showed me, Wardell sent two of his armies up a northern route to attack one of the map's capture areas. The more of these locations he controlled, the more points he would have toward a map-control victory. Unfortunately for Wardell, however, enemy forces were dug in around his desired destination with two Dreadnaught vehicles. These massive machines could wipe out many of his forces in a matter of minutes, if he didn't respond with the right units.
That's another important thing to consider in Ashes: how do you compose your armies? You can roll into battles with several Dreadnaughts of your own. But if your army encounters only a handful of Maulers--cruisers capable of decimating larger warships--the fight will be over quickly.
Much of Ashes comes down to how good you are at planning.
To facilitate production of these massive fleets, Ashes implements an economy that grows even as you use it. You produce vehicles in groups, allocating resources like metals and radioactives to different frigates and cruisers. As long as your income is higher than your expenditures, your factories will churn out machines while your outposts collect more materials.
"Much of Ashes comes down to how good you are at planning," Wardell said. "That includes everything from building your armies, to managing your economy, controlling the map, researching new techs, moving your armies where they need to be."
From the demo I saw, Ashes showcased a dynamic scale. When Wardell zoomed out, he could see the whole battlefield, complete with several opposing armies, and all of the outposts they defended. When he zoomed back in, each vehicle of his 1,440 sported minor details, such as gun emplacements and aesthetic stripes. And as Wardell continued to churn out units, the AI marched onward, apparently with a plan of its own.
Ashes of the Singularity releases in full on March 22. As of this writing, however, it's in its first public beta, with single-player skirmish, cooperative multiplayer, and ranked multiplayer available for anyone who signs up. As of now, the beta features DX12 support, although the multi-core GPU support won't be added until the final release.
I only saw a glimpse of Ashes' scale, AI, economy, and massive battles, but at the moment, it seems to be separating itself from the numerous other RTS titles it's competing against. As of March, we'll know more.