In RTS circles the Total Annihilation series holds a special place in many player’s hearts. Whilst many games in the genre focused on tactical play Total Annihilation was a far more strategic affair, pitting giant armies of units against each other. However the series has fallen flat in recent times, the most recent instalments in the form of Supreme Commander 2 and Planetary Annihilation failing to evoke that same kind of response that its predecessors did. Few have tried to enter this niche genre and Ashes of the Singularity is the first title I’ve even bothered to give a look in. There’s nothing I’d love more than to say that the torch has been passed to a new generation however Ashes of the Singularity makes the same mistakes as its predecessor does whilst adding in a few more of its own.
Like most RTS games the story is a little thin on the ground but enough to keep you somewhat engaged in what’s going on. Humanity has entered the post-physical stage of its development, with humans transcending their bodies and converting entire planets into computing power to support their now expanded minds. However some minds have started going rogue, disconnecting from the overmind and waging war against it. Even with their vast computing resources at their disposal humanity cannot quite figure out what is causing this and so it’s up to you, neophyte, to find out the cause and stop it.
Ashes is one of the few games that can make use of DirectX 12 however there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of point in doing so. In my, admittedly very subjective, testing I couldn’t really see much difference between the two when running at the same settings. Worse still both the Steam overlay and FRAPS refused to work with it making screen capturing a rather tedious process. Ashes does look quite good however and does surprisingly well even when the unit count starts tickling the hundreds. The UI is pretty rudimentary however and wouldn’t have been out of place in one of its older predecessors. Still for games like this it’s all about the quantity and it’s admirable that Stardock has made a RTS that can withstand the torment of a stupidly high unit count.
For strategic RTS players the game play is pretty familiar. You’ll start of with your main building, the Nexus, from which you can create engineers to start building out your base further. There are two main resource types, metal and radioactives, with a secondary resource called quanta that’s used for upgrades and using special abilities. There’s 4 categories of units: 3 land (frigates, cruisers and dreadnoughts) and 1 air. For the most part you’ll do the usual build up a massive army, smash it against the enemy’s and hope that you have a higher unit count than they do. There are ways you can sway the battle in your favour, like using orbital abilities that can bolster your army or devastate theirs, but most of the time it comes down to making sure you’re ahead in army and resource count. They have to be used wisely however as they continually increase in cost as you use them. Overall the game play will feel largely familiar with a few little twists to keep it interesting.
Ashes does a decent job of introducing its mechanics to you through the campaign missions although some of the nuances are left to one side. For instance I can’t for the life of me recall when it introduced the upgrade mechanic as I only stumbled upon it in the last mission. Similarly some of the more nuanced game mechanics aren’t spelled out for you, like the increasing quanta cost for using orbital abilities. This was a touch frustrating when I was coming up against the tougher enemies that were obviously making use of all the mechanics so I do feel a few improvements to the way mechanics are introduced are in order. That being said since Ashes is a little more constrained in terms of the units available to you it doesn’t take as long to pick up on what you should be doing.
As I’ve alluded to Ashes is a strategic RTS, wanting you to focus more on the macro elements of waging war than the tactical aspects of smaller battles. This means resource management, unit pipelines and distance are for the most part more important than the units themselves. Indeed my unit composition barely changed over the course of the campaign. The strategies I used to get up and running however changed a lot depending on the map and the resources available to me. Indeed if there’s one feature of Ashes that stands out for me is just how much of a difference a map can make to the overall experience. No longer can you simply have one giant megabase sprawling the entire map, no you’ll need tightly guarded outposts clustered around resources that are churning out unit after unit. In that way I feel like Ashes does a better job of being strategic than its spiritual predecessors did which could be easily cheesed by nuclear reactors and metal generators.
However Ashes also suffers from the same issue that Planetary Annihilation did before it in that there’s not a huge variety of units available, especially in the campaign. There’s a grand total of 2 factions and each of them have roughly similar crafts apart from the dreadnoughts. Experimenting with different strategies never seemed to work out too well for me once I hit on my preferred build and then it was only a matter of time to build up the requisite army. I understand that the more units you have the harder it is to balance things (a large consideration for Ashes since it appears to be attempting to foster an online competitive community) but that was one of the reasons I enjoyed the original Total Annihilation so much. Perhaps this will change in future DLC instalments.
Ashes comes with a few irritating bugs which I got tripped up on far too often. Right-clicking is something of a gamble as sometimes it’ll just simply refuse to issue a command. In order to get it to work again I’d have to left click then right click again, signalling it thought I was trying to do some other action for which right-click was not an option. This only gets more frustrating as the unit selection and grouping feels hit and miss too, making moving large armies a real chore. To top it all off the AI has a propensity to cheat in a very obvious fashion, something which is down right infuriating when you’re on the cusp of victory. The screenshot previous shows me completely dominating the AI until it used two nukes in a row to decimate my army completely, something it simply couldn’t have done with the resources it had at the time.
The story is serviceable however I felt like it could have been vastly improved if it was fully voice acted. The text exchanges just felt flat by comparison and the fact that they also took you out of the action whilst they were playing just made it all the more jarring. Had it taken a cue from nearly every other modern RTS and used voice actors playing in the background I’d likely be far more engaged with it than I was. It also felt a bit weird that this super-intelligences, ones that have several planets dedicated to powering their ever expanding minds, were so flummoxed by nearly everything they encountered. Honestly, whilst having a little irreverence can be refreshing at times, it just felt amateur in Ashes.
Ashes of the Singularity is a solid attempt at the strategic RTS genre however it, like the most recent entrants in this space, falls a little flat in its execution. Technically it’s a triumph being able to run on both DirectX 11 and 12 and handling more units on screen than most RTS’ can manage. The game itself however suffers from from a few glaring faults that keep it from being the title that will revive this genre. The story also lacks a few elements that could have improved it significantly which would have tied the whole experience together a little better. Overall, whilst I don’t recommend against playing Ashes, it’s really only aimed at fans of the genre and I don’t believe its appeal extends much further beyond that.
Ashes of the Singularity is available on PC right now for $49.99. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with a total of 54% of the achievements unlocked.