Ashes of the Singularity will have none of your “turtling” nonsense. It was during the third level that I realized that Stardock and Oxide had made something very different than any RTS in recent memory. I sat back with my massive fleet and waited for an unknown dreadnought-type threat to slowly roll towards my base, only to watch that overwhelming force melt like a candle in the hot sun. I survived, but my entire force was destroyed in the blink of an eye.
Publisher Stardock and developer Oxide’s most recent foray into global battle strategy, Ashes of the Singularity, is a different sort RTS. There have been some fantastic entries into the genre lately, including Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, Grey Goo, and StarCraft 2, but Ashes doesn’t just look to “me-too” their way across the finish line — they want to change the way we think about strategy altogether.
What I mean by this is, if you follow conventional “turtle” tactics like you might have employed in Grey Goo, you will die — often. If you try to zerg rush the enemy with basic units like you can in StarCraft 2, you will die even faster. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak’s heavily-restricted resources and slow builds are the polar opposite of the agility needed to play Ashes. Here, players are challenged to make constant modifications to their tactics, and many of them will push “old school” RTS players way out of their comfort zone.
When you are fighting at the scale that Ashes eventually pushes to, your focus has to change. In early missions you’ll point individual units at objectives and they’ll dutifully march to your orders. Eventually you’ll begin building Cruiser-class units, and you’ll lump those individuals under that larger vessel’s command. Think of them as your sergeants. From there, you’ll begin building the larger Dreadnaught-class craft that eventually bring those sergeants, as well as their accompanying troops, into their fold. The Dreadnaughts do have a little added longevity as they earn experience, gaining a choice of three powerful upgrades at the culmination of each level. Combining them with all of the smaller units unifies them as an Army. How large, you might ask? While I never saw the dizzying numbers demonstrated when I watched a developer play the game with nearly 10,000 units under their command, I did find myself with several thousand units at my disposal fairly often.
When I say disposal, there are times where it feels like I tossed hundreds of them directly into a grinder. Units are balanced, at their most primitive, at short, medium, and long range. The Nemesis sniper cruisers can do massive damage, but only to a single unit. Brutes spawn six at a time, but they are more of a smokescreen than a workhorse unit. Archers handle long-range (even outside of visual range) missile tactics. From peons to Dreadnaughts, every unit has a specific purpose.
Somehow, when you put all of these units together, you begin to lose sight of them. Entire swaths of units can get wiped off the map in the blink of an eye, as you frequently feed wave upon wave of units directly into the gaping maw of the enemy. You can lump them into control groups, but it’s very easy to accidentally mix them like so many jelly beans. At that point, the aggregation of your forces only serves to accelerate the grinding as you stop feeling as much direct control over their strengths and weaknesses. This is how a General must feel.
It’s in this change of direction that I think Ashes of Singularity will create a sharp divide in the RTS community. For those who like to concentrate fire on a single unit, you might find that this tactic is sub-optimal here. While you can right click on an enemy to focus fire, the game’s design is built around combat at the macro level. Macro control as your armies grow takes something that can be fast paced and brutal and pulls it back a level. While hundreds of units swarm foes and structures, your larger units lumber into their wake. It begins to feel somehow slower as your focus shifts to global war. It’s a new perspective, and it breaks some established conventions, and everything about that breathes new life into the ailing RTS genre.
I’m very much reminded of Company of Heroes in the pacing of Ashes of the Singularity’s single player game. The AI constantly presses, and the player is all but required to advance their position. The eleven missions reveal the “Ascension War” between a faction called The Substrate and Post-Humans. Technological advancements have allowed the human race to integrate robotics and AI into their being, providing incredible tactical control when it comes to warfare. The campaign is entitled “Episode 1 – Imminent Crisis” which suggests that the team at Stardock has more in store.
The strength of an RTS isn’t usually in its campaign, but in skirmish and multiplayer. It’s here that Stardock and Oxide have clearly invested heavily. Beyond learning how the units work in the campaign, there is also a skirmish/multiplayer tutorial, a King of the Hill mode (how long can you hold the high ground — I’m told the current record is 36 minutes), and a four-way-shootout called Overlord. Overlord gives you access to both faction tech trees and an objective to crush a Substrate Overlord named Athena that has taken over the world.
Ashes of the Singularity has shipped with a staggering 24 maps. These maps support from two to six players, and all of them support the seven levels of AI on display. Ranging from Beginner through Insane (with one even entitled Painful), the AI is one of the most advanced and well-oiled I’ve seen. The enemy knows how to create well-constructed squads of troops, using range appropriately, advancing and falling back algorithmically as they press the attack or regroup when they find they are on the losing side. During one mission I thought I had the enemy on the skids as they pulled back. I gave them some breathing room only to find that their retreat was pulling me back into an ambush, their Artemis Cruisers and Archer missile artillery using height and range to destroy my far-larger fleet.
Don’t let any of this talk about Painful AI levels scare you. The game is actually very accessible. The Skirmish modes allow you to square off with friends against as many AIs (or even just one) as you’d like, mixing and matching their faction and difficulty. The tutorials also do a great job of easing you into the full tech tree for both factions.
It’s odd to take a pause in the middle of a game review to talk about technology, but in the case of Ashes of the Singularity, it matters. Ashes is one of the first games out of the gate that supports DirectX 12 — Microsoft’s updated API that will power a great many PC and Xbox One games moving forward. Enabled by partner Oxide’s Nitrous Engine, Ashes of the Singularity supports Asymmetrical Multi-GPU setups, meaning it supports cards from opposite camps enabling you to combine the best features of GeForce and Radeon. But there is more here than just bridging the gap between competitors.
The Nitrous engine also supports asynchronous compute. Asynchronous compute allows a single GPU to multitask within itself. Under the DirectX 11 world, your video card would have to complete each sequence individually and to completion before it could ask for the next bit of code. In a DirectX 12 setup, tiny explosions can make their way through the pipeline, delivering them to the screen while the same card also chugs along on larger executions. There are entire volumes around how AMD is tackling this technology better than NVidia, but ultimately it’s fairly academic as driver updates and recently-released hardware is making the race between the two closer than ever. In the simplest math, know that adding a second card is more than likely going to provide about 75% more power to your ability to process what the engine is throwing at your eyeballs. In a world that demands 4K resolutions at 60fps, DX12 and asynchronous compute and GPU are the gateway to incredible performance gains.
But why should you care?
In Ashes of the Singularity, there is a solid performance improvement in the DX12 arena. It can certainly be run in DX11 mode, but if you are running Windows 10 you will want to see what the Nitrous Engine can do for you. Almost regardless of your hardware (beyond the minimums) you’ll benefit from using the new API, but it’s the visual difference that will catch your eye most. DX11 handles a dozen or so lighting sources, but DX12 is more than capable of handling thousands. In a game where it’s possible to have thousands of units on each side engaging in active combat, the prospect of all of them firing individual lasers, as every missile belches their own smoke contrail behind them is simply remarkable. Ashes of the Singularity is more than the first DX12 game — it’s a technical triumph.
If I had one criticism of the campaign for Ashes, it’d be that it lacks a bit of personality. The story is told mostly by silent text boxes and brief cutscenes between levels. Without more voice acting, and a little more investment, it’s hard to say it’s compelling. Stardock’s previous RTS title, Sins of a Solar Empire, didn’t feature one at all, so it’s at least a step forward for fans of story-driven global battle.
Part of that personality issue comes from a lack of variety. The game feels like it is a few units shy of completion, and base building feels a little too focused on aggression to the omission of some sort of technical shield or walling. Similarly, while the “Smarties” or Drone-based defensive structures work pretty well, additional artillery or advanced defensive structures would make bases tougher to crack. But here is where I’m going to deviate from the usual critical path.
Reviews, by their nature, are a snapshot in time. They are meant to judge the current state of a game, not necessarily the potential of the developer to shore up the product moving forward. While I won’t grant any additional rating for a developer’s ability to shore up their game post-launch (that’s what second-looks are for), I have to say that I’m absolutely blown away by Oxide and Stardock’s commitment to Ashes of the Singulary. They are regularly engaged with the community, patching Ashes frequently since launch. This has resulted in even better performance, as well as balancing across the board. Better yet, for those of you who have played the Total Annihiliation series, you’ll find a familiar path. Stardock and Oxide will begin releasing units to add to the game next week, much like TA did at launch, filling in the variety gap and further extending the army composition. With an engine this flexible, it’s likely (and rumored) that the team could also eventually release entirely new factions.
The biggest bright spot for me, beyond the stellar AI and solid skirmish mode, was the map variety. On the surface, you can run armies together like two amateur boxes going at it, but it’s when you start using the terrain that things heat up. Funneling the enemy into ridge-lined chokepoints and using your missile batteries to harass the enemy from outside visual range takes planning, but when it comes together you can overcome a far larger force with tactics instead of numbers. That’s something I’ve rarely experienced in a traditional RTS.