I had the chance to get an extended demo of Oxide Games and Stardock Entertainment’s mind-blowing new RTS game, Ashes of the Singularity, at this year’s Game Developers Conference.
This is the first game from Oxide Games, built in house with their new Nitrous Engine, and I got a pretty thorough walkthrough by Stardock’s own Adam Biessener, who definitely knows his way around a strategy game (some of you may remember who he previously worked for). My first impression of the game is that it’s certainly a massive, almost overwhelming strategy game in terms of scope and sheer number of units, but it didn’t quite feel like chaos, as you would expect.
So what makes Ashes run so well, and without a hiccup? Biessener has the run down:
“So what Nitrous Engine does, it is massively parallel to an extent that no other traditional engine has accomplished. Typically everybody has a least four core machine these days right? On a four core CPU, you have one core that is always pegged at 100%, and then it’s like 15%, 10%, and 5% – if you’re lucky, in a traditional engine. In ours, it’s 100, 98, 98, 98. We use everything. Your PC is so much more powerful than you think it is. Nitrous can find that power and use it.”
This isn’t solely the result of DirectX 12, however, as the Nitrous Engine combined with newer graphics technology provides the cutting-edge visuals and performance you see in game. “Part of it is only possible in DirectX 12,” said Biessener. “The graphics side of it is really DirectX 12, Mantle, Vulkan, all kind of unlock the hardware side of it quite a bit. It lets all the cores talk to the graphics card – whereas under DirectX 11 […] we still find an amazing amount of performance in DirectX 11.”
For those fans out there worried the game will melt their computers or that they’re going to need to replace/upgrade their rig, worry not. “You’ll be able to play on a very mid-core machine under DirectX 11, probably not at 4K, (which they were demoing the game in), but you’ll still be able to play, have a great experience, see the thousands of units, all that stuff. What you’ll have to do is turn some of the settings down.”
You can see the game running in action below, courtesy of AMD:
You don’t really need that much CPU to do all of these technical marvels – Nitrous Engine simply demands more usage from your cores. “There’s a lot of other engines out there that do amazing stuff, but we’re able to utilize the entire processor to an extent that other engines simply can’t. It’s not just simply a DirectX 12 thing,” said Biessener.
So with a strategy game this massive, how can you possibly control all those thousands of units, and still make it fun? “One of the amazing things that the Nitrous Engine lets us do is that it’s not just the renderer that’s highly multi-threaded, it’s the gameplay as well. All the AI, all the physics, all that stuff. We have what we call the gameplay main loop, which is all those gameplay calculations. We’re only spending two to four milliseconds in there right now per frame , and that’s for 55,000 units.”
This leads the team at Oxide Games in need of a new form of unit organization and control. They came up with the meta unit, which is a bit more involved than you might think.
“We actually run way more AI on our units than a traditional RTS does, and that allows us to introduce what we call the meta unit. So the meta unit is basically when you take units and combine them together into a meta unit. It’s very simple to do in the UI, it’s all free form, and player driven,” said Biessener. “What that does, once a unit is part of the meta unit, it becomes aware of all the other units within that meta unit. They fight together intelligently, they support each other, without you having to babysit them. The simplest example is if you put a bunch of tanks with a bunch of artillery, those tanks will hang back with the artillery and protect them from any threats.”
Seeing the meta unit in action is something to behold, and it’s worth mentioning that you can micro all you want. You can still give all the micro unit orders that you want, but with the AI component built into the meta units, you’re going to want to focus on the entire war itself via those meta units. “This is a game of multiple battlefields with thousands of units. We want you to be the general, not the lieutenant,” said Biessener.
One of the most insane pieces of tech in Ashes of the Singularity is the incorporation of true line of sight. You can park a cluster of artillery behind a mountain and fire ballistics over it, without fear of them being counterattacked, due to the line of sight giving the artillery the advantage. Each unit has their individual guns, but what about those massive capital ships? If you pay attention to the gameplay, each turret has its own tracking, and will fire individually at units within their range.
I had my concept of graphics technology shattered when I saw shots fired out of the capital ships not reach their targets, because enemy ships had gotten in the way and got the receiving end of the ballistics instead. It’s the attention to detail and mechanics like this which make Ashes not just a mind-bending tech showcase, but also what I sincerely consider to be an advancement in strategy games.
“Our explosions are actually volumetric smoke clouds that are being lit by light sources, we actually put fire light sources inside the smoke clouds – you can also see them being lit by the laser bolts as they shoot by. These are not little explosions our artists drew and we just play an animation,” said Biessener. “This is an actual simulation. That doesn’t change no matter how far you zoom out, you can see the same thing with the explosions all the way back here, we’re playing the whole thing out.”
So Ashes does gigantic battles well, how is base building and your tech tree? You start off with your home base, which is called the “seed,” as well as your core factories, resource extractors, research buildings, turrets, and most of the familiar things you’d see in an RTS. There is a tech tree, although Stardock wasn’t ready to talk about that just yet. The map you’re seeing in the screenshots and the video is roughly 8km by 8km, with roughly 55,000 units on screen, although I’m told “we can go much higher than that.”
The economy is based around two resources, metal and radioactive, and you have to control nodes on the map to maintain a supply of these resources. Each map is made up of different territories, and each territory has a potential generator which gives you the supply of these resources. You have to decide upon how many research buildings to make, or how many factories to make. In this respect, the game sounds a bit more familiar to Stardock’s previous outing, Sins of a Solar Empire.
If you manage to lose a territory further out into your empire that cuts off a direct line of connected territories, you lose those resource-gathering territories. If your enemy flanks you and cuts off your supply line, you’ll essentially be denied a huge amount of income, and your incoming supplies will be halted from those territories. Some maps will have victory points in territories, which add into a victory counter, although this is also possible via player choice as well.
The game is going to ship with a map editor, as well as support for modding, like most of Stardock’s previous games. Ashes of the Singularity is supposed to hit beta (and Steam Early Access) this summer, with a final release some time next winter. I felt like a kid again seeing Ashes in action, wondering how such a game could possibly exist. For now, you can pre-order the game via their founders program, here.