AI War 2 Review22 Oct 2019 0
AI War 2 Review
Released 22 Oct 2019
It has been almost a year to the day since we last checked in with Arcen Games' AI War 2 and in that time there has been a massive pivot in direction, a complete restructuring of how the game is played, and going from a small team to a one-man show as developer Chris Park struggled with personal issues while never giving up the ship. In the week leading up to today's launch, the game is seeing almost daily patches preparing for the public unveiling. Definitely check out last year's article if you're interested in some of the underlying lore and mechanical description of this addition to the franchise.
We will be talking about some of the big changes that have come down since then, what gameplay is like now, and where the franchise is headed in the future.
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (Time to Make the Grade)
You can never say Park doesn't communicate about what the state of the game is. Between his presence on the Steam boards, frequent updates to the original Kickstarter update channel, and the Arcen Games forums, he has kept a steady presence despite challenges which could have led to the collapse of the project.
For the nitty-gritty of all the changes and why they've been made, check out all of the points of presence, but the Kickstarter commentary in particular is ideal. A FAQ was pushed on October 18 which counts off the major changes. Kickstarter backers have held their keys for a couple of years and those keys will give access to updates and the first paid DLC.
While the game was originally pitched on Kickstarter as a multiplayer experience like its predecessor, for the initial release it will be single player only with multiplayer coming as a free update in early 2020. This is the right move given the number of game changes that went into the mix after that decision was made, significantly transforming the underlying gameplay.
AI War 2 had a bit of thrash. It departed too much from the original to the point it might as well have been a new game; pretty unsatisfactory for people who wanted something that was definitely of the same franchise. Then came the over-correction which made it feel something like a 3D reskin of the original with all of the same problems. Finally, Park struck upon the idea of the new Fleets system (which may remind space 4X fans of Star Ruler 2). Coupled with the broad choice of factions which can be injected during map set up, it really brought things together.
Arks and Mercenaries both had gameplay changes to how they come into play, the former going from super-powerful hero ships that you would start in to more constrained Officer Ships with individual special powers that you discover and free later in the campaign. The latter saw a simple name change to Outguard forces but bigger changes are on the horizon.
Other Kickstarter stretch goal features, including interplanetary weapons, the playable Spire faction, and The Nemesis are getting moved off into what's likely to be the first DLC expansion early in 2020.
Playing the Field
Last year's article discussed the AI and how interaction with it, managing the level of attention it gives to you, is the strongest part of gameplay. None of that has changed. Some of the specifics of what the AI is doing under the hood, how it deploys fleets, and how it manages the pools of resources it has available to throw against you have changed and will be worth more discussion once the game has come out and the community has time to create new strategies.
What was always a problem in the first game was managing your forces. AI War is not about taking care of a small number of units with triggered abilities. You will be managing hundreds of ships, potentially thousands, which will pursue different aims, harass different planets, and controlling engagement ranges in order to work your advantage, when you have one, against the AI. In the original, the only means for doing so was the very traditional band-box-and-assign method. You selected a bunch of ships, press control-some-number to assign them, then give group commands until you need to reinforce, at which point you produce some ships, fly them over, then reselect the mass to reassign.
While that works, it's extremely tedious. Dealing with ship losses and replacing them was always a real problem. It felt like micromanaging because it was. Making sure that reinforcements got to the right planet when your task forces will be moving in order to press an attack or shore up defenses never felt right. Enter Fleets.
Now you start with a transport command ship which has support for a certain number of slots. Those slots can be set to hold a certain number of one type of ship that you are able to produce. The total number of types of ship that you can produce is limited but can be increased through unlocking new technologies – stealing them from the AI.
As you free planets from AI control or just hold off the forces while you steal their technology, you add lines of ships that you can assign to fleets, allowing you to specialize or upgrade. You can build new fleet transport/carriers if you have enough resources and assign ship lines to those new fleets. You can liberate fleet carriers from the AI by freeing planets, adding them to your fleet cores.
Once you have lines of ships assigned to a given fleet, when those ships are destroyed, you automatically begin building replacements if there are factories near enough (and you usually start with one mobile factory fleet as well). This significantly simplifies and streamlines interacting with the game. If you were a player of the original, working with the new fleet system is going to absolutely blow your mind with how much busywork it takes off your plate and instead lets you focus on doing clever things against your enemy.
There are weird bits that fall out of this, one of which is the first time that you realize that a ship line can only be assigned to one fleet at a time. While it is trivial to reassign that ship line to another fleet, it is literally reallocating those ships from one fleet to another. The single instance nature of the ship lines forces you to think about what to do with a limited selection of ships.
Fleets really change up how you think about communicating your intent. AI War provides the ability to instruct your groups to engage at their own choice of optimum range, move together at the speed of the slowest member of the group, and select their own targets. All of those controls still exist and you can assign and change them on-the-fly for an entire fleet. You can still select some ships give them specific instructions about manoeuvring or engagement, but being able to manage fleet level operations makes it much easier to keep up. Together with the automatic reinforcement, interface has moved up to a higher and far more manageable level.
The core of every fleet is an unarmed transport vessel. The important part of that phrase is "transport vessel," because it has an inherent speed bonus and the ability to load up all of the ships in that fleet. When you need to deploy quickly from one side of your space to another or if you just want to sneak through AI-controlled space as quickly as you can, you can load up your entire fleet, move quickly and stealthily, then unload all of the guns at your chosen target. Hit-and-run has never been so well facilitated in a space fleet game.
Fleet transports cannot be destroyed themselves, although all of their associated fleet ships can be. If the transport takes a sufficient amount of damage, it can no longer support a fleet and must be returned to one of the planets you control and repaired before you can start building ships to replenish it. Keeping your transport out of the way of the enemy while you wage war keeps you in the fight.
Into the Future
At the beginning of 2020, Arcen Games intends to put out a paid DLC which will be provided for free to their original Kickstarter backers. It's planned to contain all of the Kickstarter stretch goals, in particular interplanetary weapons, being able to play the Spire, and the Nemesis (which will probably see a major rework before they make it into the DLC). You should also expect several more Arks/Officer Ships because the art is already done for them and they only require special mechanics for each.
A day before the writing of this article, the Tutorial system was incomplete. Because of all of the mechanical changes, it simply didn't keep up. Now there is a straightforward Tutorial which runs through the basics and will do the job. It won't prepare you for everything that you're going to run into but it will get you on board with basic controls, help you interpret all of the things on the screen (which is a significant accomplishment in and of itself), and get you tinkering with the game. It certainly suffices. I would expect that to be expanded and enhanced as we go forward.
Despite the fact that Park has made no bones about the shaky financial ground that Arcen Games has been on, he shows a real dedication and devotion to developing AI War 2. He has committed more personal resources to making sure that his backers receive not just the game they signed up for but the best game that he can produce and that goes a long way. After the first DLC, the amount of content in the sequel will rival that in the first game after six expansions. Even if it never sees any additions after that point, there is more than enough meat to keep you occupied for quite a while. This isn't a thing that you worry about getting your money's worth out of.
The game as a whole remains ball-crushingly hard, if that is the kind of game you want to play. Even on lower difficulties, you will be pushed to hold your ground against the AI. At the highest difficulties, you simply won't be able to. I'm excited about the opportunity to get to play the finished product. If the game was only middle-of-the-road in quality, Chris Park's dedication to his audience and the responsibility to put the best game he can in front of them would deserve reward. That AI War 2 is a good game on top of that is fantastic.
The game remains a very niche product. Even with the improved graphics and interface, it's not going to appeal to an audience looking for the new shiny. It remains a game largely played zoomed out far enough out that the units are represented by icons, with a lot of staring at complicated galactic maps. However, it provides an experience that no one else gets near. When you succeed, you feel like you did so despite the best efforts of an implacable enemy.
- Hard as nails if you want to be
- Streamlined and simplified interface doesn't lead to simplified gameplay
- Developer devotion to the community is fantastic
- Very niche; if you like it, you like it
- Not the prettiest kit though well beyond the original
- Planned content in the first paid DLC may be a turn off for new players