For a genre often deemed dead, the past few years have been surprisingly good for RTS fanatics. Between Homeworld’s revival, Grey Goo, Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void and the revamped Master of Orion, there’s no end of dynamic new releases to choose from. However, you’d be fully forgiven for putting all of those on hold to sink a few hundred hours into Ashes of the Singularity.
Let’s be clear here: this is a game which wears its influences on its sleeve. Major ideas and concepts from Supreme Commander show up time and time again, and it owes a lot to many of the bigger macro-scale strategy games. That said, Ashes constantly stops short of outright imitating them or being derivative of their designs, and often goes the extra mile to put a new spin on things, even at the most basic level.
While the simplified resource management system – requiring players to place extractors on certain locations – is most definitely a Supreme Commander idea, the variety of resources their placement makes them stand out. Alongside metal and radioactive material, you need to pin down Turinium and Quanta to access the bigger, badder stuff and make your army into a legion. Atop of this, these are scattered in very exact places across the map, defended by unaligned hostile forces, all of which are constantly spawning in. As such, you need to carefully commit your forces to each fight and decide when to advance. Pushing into the next network of mines is necessary, but if an enemy expedition shows up during the battle, that could quickly spell the end of your fledgling army. It’s a nice risk-reward balance across the game, and the illuminated network between mines means you rarely get lost. Sure, you might not know what’s next or how many enemy troops await you, but you won’t be stuck for hours on end hunting for that one Turinium deposit hidden just out of sight.
Past the resources themselves, the base building and construction aspects are misleadingly simple to start with. While certainly streamlined and lacking much of the fat which would otherwise drags too many RTS games to a crawl, the ability to queue resources near infinitely and split them across projects requires skill and patience. It can help with a rapid start, but lose track of things or miss one detail, and you can end up in a downwards spiral and gradual failure. This really is the best example of the game’s qualities: Easy to learn, but hard to master.
The sheer scale of the battles is something which needs to be impressed upon anyone as well. Early skirmishes can feature dozens of units stuck in a whirling high speed firefight, while late game battles often involve hundreds at a time, ranging from minute aircraft to kilometres long land battleships. The skill here stems from knowing the right tool for the right job, as merely spamming single units will quickly lead you to disaster. Wave upon wave of low tier tanks and aircraft might keep a player off balance for a while, but in most cases a better equipped or more diverse force will always in out. Will, that or the player who has access to orbital doom lasers, if someone has been foolhardy enough not to build defences against them.
The only black mark which can really be brought up against Ashes is the treatment of its factions. Despite varied and differing mechanics, the Post-Human Coalition nor the Substrate lack the strong character traits to make them memorable. While the game certainly has a good deal of lore, all too often it seems to have been put on the back burner in favour of mechanical crunch, and this makes the campaign itself surprisingly unremarkable. It’s a minor note to be sure, but after Grey Goo so expertly balanced its three core factions, this failing is surprising to say the least.
Ashes of the Singularity mixes the best qualities of Supreme Commander and Sins of a Solar Empire, offering fast paced continual wars on an unprecedented scale. It takes the best qualities of recent RTS titans but sidesteps the easy pitfalls which could have made this all too derivative a release. If you have any investment in this genre at all, if the idea big Star Wars scale battles gives you even the slightest thrill, this is an essential purchase for 2016.
ASHES OF THE SINGULARITY / DEVELOPER: OXIDE GAMES, STARDOCK ENTERTAINMENT / PUBLISHER: STARDOCK ENTERTAINMENT / PLATFORM: PC / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW