Stardock has been busy in recent years, releasing strategy game after strategy game. While many of them were more or less what you’d expect from the company, a few introduced truly interesting concepts and mechanics – take Sorcerer King for example. It subverted typical 4X dynamics completely by making you play as one of the minor factions, which has to stop a vastly more powerful opponent before it’s too late.
Ashes of the Singularity, developed in cooperation with Oxide Games, also tries to differentiate itself from the crowd. The game’s biggest selling points were, as follows:
- Graphics powered by the new Direct X 12.
- The ability to control armies which are huge and semi-independent, but still comprised of separate units.
- The goal of creating an RTS in which victory is more about strategic thinking than actions per minute.
Unfortunately, despite being technically competent and reasonably fun to play, it fails to deliver on those promises. AotS tries to be a revolutionary title in the RTS genre, but instead ends up being simply above average.
Gameplay-wise, Ashes of the Singularity is not unlike Total Annihilation or Supreme Commander. All the basics are there: you build large armies, you make them move together to fight huge battles, and by holding shift while picking the next action, you’re able to create a command queue which reduces the amount of micromanagement.
As far as base building goes, you have three or four stationary defenses, and a similar number of unit factories. You’re also able to build structures that unlock special ‘orbital abilities,’ and a defensive structure which makes using them over a certain area impossible.
There are four resources in the game. Metal and radioactives are used to build most things, whereas Quanta is generated by converting radioactives, and used for supplementing your army and orbital abilities. Turinium is another resource that causes you to win the game if you collect enough of it.
To get metal and radioactives, you need to build extractors in designated spots, capture the power generator connected to them, and make sure that there’s a connection between your base and the generator. To get Turinium, you not only have to capture Turinium generators, but also must have more of them than any other player.
The biggest flaw with the gameplay is that there’s basically no way to play other than quick expansion and a focus on defense. You can’t take it slow and build up your base, you need to expand quickly and find ways to either cut your opponents’ supply lines, or overwhelm them with superior firepower.
The needs to gather resources and maintain supply lines are the biggest factors deciding the game’s outcome. While the player must put thought into the makeup of his/her armies and their positioning, map control is what really matters, and things like base building are very much underplayed. The game also has absolutely no economy or diplomacy, so you can’t trade anything, and there are no in-game alliances.
Underplaying the game’s unique features has to be the defining flaw of Ashes of the Singularity. Take, for example, the storyline. Humans have achieved technological singularity and started calling themselves post-humans. After they began colonizing space, some of the colonies became corrupted by the influence of the rival faction: artificial intelligence known as Substrate. They essentially play the same, though humans have health, whereas Substrate have shields.
Unfortunately, that’s more or less the whole plot. There’s nearly no world building in the game–we don’t know how post-humans are different from regular humans, we know nothing about the culture of the Post-Human Coalition, and we don’t even know what happens with the corrupted colonies, other than the fact that they sever contact and start acting hostile towards the PHC. While Stardock games are never the most narrative-heavy titles out there, Ashes of the Singularity has far less to offer than Galactic Civilizations or the Elemental series in the story department.
AotS‘ campaign mode is as unimpressive as its storyline. While you do have mission objectives, they’re generally simple things you’d do in a skirmish anyway. Each of the missions play like a stripped-down skirmish, occasionally interrupted by non-compelling bits of dialogue. The campaign is called ‘Ascendancy Wars’ and while that title may be trying to evoke something grand and epic, playing it makes me think it’s just an afterthought.
Ashes of the Singularity is at its best when you play a large-scale skirmish with multiple opponents, preferably not divided into teams. Here, the game’s scale and scope begins to shine, when the AI controlling your army actually gets a chance to do something, due to things getting too chaotic to micromanage. The simple addition of multiple neutral enemies not only shows how the game pushes the current technology to its limit, but also adds depth to the gameplay. There’s more planning behind when and where to attack, when you have to take into account the fact that the enemies can possibly fight against each other.
In a way, it reminds me of unstable temporary alliances in Defcon, even though Ashes of the Singularity has no actual alliance mechanics. Playing skirmish is also the best way to prepare for multiplayer. Despite the well-made enemy AI, playing an actual human is always going to be more difficult.
The graphics in Ashes of the Singularity are a technical marvel, with a huge number of units rendered at the same time, detailed lighting and explosion effects, and dynamic heatmaps in places outside of your line of sight, but still in your radar range. The cutscenes are also a pleasure to look at. Unfortunately, the game once again underplays this by giving most of the units incredibly generic designs.
The maps are similarly bland: you have grassy planets, rocky planets, and icy planets of different sizes. Nothing memorable and nothing that stands out from the crowd. Don’t expect anything crazier than a few mountains. It’s sad, because the game could have done a lot given the technology. Imagine this game’s graphics engine used to render large bodies of water, or sprawling forests.
There could even have been something crazier, like floating continents, seemingly endless chasms, or impossibly tall mountains. It would have also been cool to see maps influenced by the lore of the game, such as post-human cities or substrate factories. Sadly, there’s really no creativity here, and it drags the game down.
AotS‘ soundtrack is probably its most memorable feature. While it has its fair share of epic-sounding orchestral tracks, there are also a surprising amount of calm, slightly otherworldly songs that don’t sound dark or ominous. It’s the perfect music given the game’s theme. It evokes both traditional space opera (not unlike Galactic Civilizations), and the weird, not fully understood world of post-singularity transhumanism. It’s a real shame that neither the plot nor the visuals could keep up with the OST.
From a technical standpoint, the game is well executed. The only issues I had were long load times during startup, and the occasional crash after ending a match. So far, I’ve encountered no other bugs, aside from my AI-controlled armies having trouble with pathfinding from time to time. Other than that, the game’s performance is quite good. I also haven’t encountered any obvious balance issues or exploits, although that doesn’t mean that the competitive multiplayer community won’t find those soon enough.
Generally speaking, Ashes of the Singularity is an RTS game that has many good ideas, but doesn’t put enough focus on any of them. In the end, it’s not a bad game, but it fails to distinguish itself. It’s technically impressive, and it’s a well executed Total Annihilation /Supreme Commander clone, but it could have been much more. Its core gameplay is well-done and it’s technically impressive, but that’s about all there is to say about it. It’s a good game, but fails to be anything spectacular.
Ashes of the Singularity was reviewed on PC using a digital copy provided by Stardock Entertainment. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict: 7.5
- Well-made Total Annihilation-style RTS
- Great AI
- Cutting-edge technology that doesn’t turn the game into a buggy mess
- Great soundtrack
- Disappointing storyline and campaign
- Unoriginal visual style
- Bland map design
- No economy or diplomacy