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AI War: Fleet Command came out just over one decade ago. It combined elements of many strategy genres to create an experience unlike any...

AI War 2 AI War 2

AI War 2

AI War 2

AI War: Fleet Command came out just over one decade ago. It combined elements of many strategy genres to create an experience unlike anything that has come before or since. Until now, that is. With the release of AI War 2, Arcen Games has created a title which takes all of the best elements of the original and attempts to streamline the experience into something far more accessible to the less hardcore players among us. While I found the original AI War to be fascinating, and enjoyed fiddling with it from time to time, I was mostly overwhelmed by the massive number of options and potential strategies the game offered. A half dozen expansions released over the years turned up that complexity by more than a few extra notches. 

Right off the bat, I can say that AI War 2 keeps much of the complexity of the original game, while being easier to learn and wrap your head around. That's even with most of the concepts and features from the expansions baked right into the base game of AI War 2. That's right, unlike some other developers out there, Arcen Games doesn't expect you to buy all of the same DLC again just because they moved their flagship title to a new engine. Here, all the goodies are in the game from the start, and I can only imagine what they have in the pipeline. Now, all of these mechanics have been tweaked and changed (for the better in my opinion), but they are fully represented. 

So, those unfamiliar with the original game may be asking, what the heck is so unique about this game? At a brief glance, you may just see what appears to be an RTS game along the lines of Sins of a Solar Empire, but that doesn't even scratch the surface of AI War 2. The premise of the game is simple. You are the leader of the last human stronghold, and a force led by a malignant AI controls every other system in the galaxy. Your goal is to find the system containing the AI overlord, and destroy it. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast! At the beginning of the game, the AI doesn't even care about your presence. It's actually busy dealing with some threat in a distant galaxy, and humanity is hardly worth its time. If you do nothing, the AI won't even bother to attack you with any significant forces. Unfortunately for you, sitting still won't get you anywhere. Initially, resources are not a problem, and in fact your home base will crank out a few dozen ships before you know it. Within a minute or two, you will hit the max number of ships your fleet can support, and that's it, no more ships for you until you get to work. 

Now, there are many options for expanding your forces, and this is where fun begins. An easy way is to spend some of your science points to upgrade one of the many technology categories. Each time you upgrade the tech level of a weapon type (and there are many), all ships that use it will get stronger, and you'll be able to build more of them. You only have so many science points to start, and getting more requires going on the offensive. Another way is to venture to an AI world where a certain type of building exists, and hack into it, allowing your starting fleet to support an entirely new "line" of spacecraft. This could be a few dozen small fighters, a handful of larger ships, or even a single unique vessel. Every line of ships you have is tied to a capital ship, of which there are several varieties. You begin the game with just one simple transport capital ship, and four or so lines of ships that assigned to it. What you'll really want to do is seek out additional capital ships and add them to your armada, as each one comes with several lines of ships already attached. To do that though, you'll have to conquer a system from the AI. So what's the big deal about that, we're here to defeat the AI, right? Now comes the big twist: every system you conquer from the AI doesn't weaken your foe, rather it becomes more dangerous.

Taking out key AI structures, such as the command posts that you must destroy to conquer a system, add a certain number of points to a number, the "AI Progress," that tracks how angry the AI is at you. As you accumulate these points, the AI will unlock new behaviors and ship types. At the start of the game the AI is, frankly, uninterested in your actions. Even taking a system or two won't prompt much response.  Before long though, the AI will begin sending attacks at your systems. For most of these attacks, you'll have plenty of warning in the form of a timer and description of exactly what is coming. Keep annoying the AI, and it will start using more advanced and sneaky behaviors. It will begin gathering larger and larger forces for its attacks, and will start to attack without warning whenever it senses weakness. 

In order to counter these attacks, you can use your fleets, but you also have access to an array of turrets, minefields, shields, local defense frigates, and other defenses. The number of these defenses you can build in each system is limited, but can be expanded in much the same way your fleets are expanded. Investing in relevant tech levels, finding special defensive capital ships, and capturing special buildings from the AI. Building up all of these defenses does come with a cost, they eat into your available resources: metal and energy. Metal accumulates continuously, and you generally won't run out unless you are constantly fighting and needing to replace ships, or working on a very big project (the really fun mid to late game toys). Energy is a fixed number, giving you a hard limit on what you can build. The primary way to get more energy is, you guessed it, conquering worlds from the AI. 

That's a lot of description of the game mechanics, and I'm really only hitting on the basics. Hopefully you get the picture though. To defeat the AI, you have to build up a large, powerful fleet of ships, but many of the actions you take in doing so will cause the AI to counter-attack with ever fiercer and trickier resistance. Keeping those two considerations in balance is the key to winning the game. Angering the AI by taking a world without due consideration is to be avoided at all costs. You'll always want to get something strategically valuable for your trouble, be it a new capital ship, a special energy generator that will massively boost your energy cap, or simply a defensible choke point for staging attacks deeper into AI territory. 

AI War 2 offers a multitude of ways to scale the difficulty and complexity of a given campaign to your liking. You can set up a campaign to your exact specifications, or choose from a variety of pre-built scenarios. This is another nice step up from the original, since now you have some easier scenarios that gradually increase in complexity, giving you something to cut your teeth on before facing the "real" game. Among the many options are how big the galaxy is, and how it is arranged. Since travel between systems is only allowed on specific tracks, this can radical alter how the game plays out. You can play on a more open map, where there are many options for moving around, or a map where there are distinct clusters of systems with only one path between each grouping, or a variety of other styles. There are multiple AI personalities, each with their own personality and approach to consider, and you can even face more than one AI at the same time. 

There are also a variety of other factions that are completely optional to include, but can make a huge difference in gameplay. A good one to include for beginners is the Human Resistance. These guys show up randomly to help you out in a fight, but then leave. Then there are the more complex Human Marauders. These guys will strike at you and the AI alike whenever they see an undefended system. They will even establish their own base and start to expand into neighboring systems if they can. This can work in your favor at times, but also throw a wrench in your plans if you aren't watching out. Beyond these options are all sorts of fun things: a roving swarm of space monsters, an unstoppable Devourer that cruises around eating ships, ancient alien structures that do mysterious and very bad things if awakened, and numerous others, each with their own unique mechanics. Throwing a mix of these into your game can make it far messier than a standard game, but also of course that much more interesting to solve. 

And that's really the appeal of AI War 2. There is so much going on that you are constantly deciding on short and long term strategy, not to mention tactical level fighting. It feels simultaneously like an epic scale RTS, a tricky puzzle, a rogue-like dungeon crawler, and a 4X grand strategy game all at once. For example, let's say there is a system you really want to take. It contains a "golem", a unique and extremely powerful capital ship that would really help you with winning the game. Trouble is, that's a higher level AI system (systems are ranked I-VII in difficulty) and it contains some special defensive structures, not to mention a large enemy fleet. There is a super powerful turret in the system that activates whenever you have more than X number of ships in the system. It's also invulnerable until you eliminate multiple other structures in the same system. Maybe you can brute force attack the system with your fleets, but you'll take a huge hit to your metal stockpile due to losses. And you know you'll need an obscene amount of metal to get that golem online after capturing it. Also, that really isn't a a great option anyway since you know the AI is planning multiple attacks on some of your other systems over the next few minutes. If you mass all of your fleets in one place it could lead to being overrun elsewhere. Maybe your defenses can hold out long enough, but maybe they don't. Do you risk it? Instead, you might comb through your fleets, identify ships that are especially good for knocking out structures, and assemble them together for this particular task. You can do reconnaissance on the target system to see what you are up against, and select ship lines that counter what the enemy has. (Select any ship and you can get a vast amount of nitty-gritty details to help you with this.) All the while you are thinking about this, you are also considering other paths, other choices, weighing the pros and cons to decide on the best option. Fortunately, you can pause the game at any time, so fret not! 

Although there is a ton to unpack with this game, I found it easier to get into than the original. There is a nice set of basic tutorials to get you started, but even better, there is an in-game wiki of sorts which includes tons of information for new and returning players. It has some handy strategy guides for basic and advanced strategies if you still feel lost after the tutorials. The other part of what makes the game easy to get into is the UI. This is a game where there is a lot of detailed information to be had when you want it, but also a UI that gives you all the essentials at a glance. Fleet strength is represented by a simple number, which gives you a good idea of whether you can easily outmatch an enemy fleet and how an idea of how dangerous an incoming enemy attack will be. Of course, that simple number doesn't always tell you the whole story. 

Besides streamlined gameplay and a more accessible introduction to its complex world, what else is new in this sequel? Well, obviously the game has received a substantial visual upgrade. Gone are the 2D sprites and top-down view, and here to stay are 3D models and prettier combat effects. Though these still aren't highly detailed ships, there are a massive variety of them, and often hundreds on screen at once. As the game goes on, entertaining little skirmishes will give way to truly epic clashes between massive fleets. The effects of lasers and explosions are individually very simple, but when there are dozens going off at a time, it makes for a pretty nice fireworks display. More impressive is that the game never slows or stutters one bit despite all the action on screen and numbers running in the background. 

I also can't say enough good things about the music in this game. In most strategy games I just turn the music down or even off, since it's so forgettable. Not so for AI War 2. The tracks have a good range, but much of it is hauntingly beautiful, suitable stuff for a desperate struggle raging across space. This piano piece in particular mesmerized me: 

I really don't have any bad things to say about AI War 2. It's a unique title, that for me has surpassed the original in most ways. Now, I'm not a hardcore player of the original, only a fan who wasn't terribly good at it. I'm sure there are folks out there who will miss some things about the first game that have been streamlined here, but for most players I think they will find AI War 2 to be an overall better experience that has only just begun it's life cycle. Multiplayer is planned for the game, but currently not live. If the game follows in the footsteps of the original, I imagine we can expect quite a few expansions and updates to come. In fact, there have already been four patches pushed out over just the three weeks or so since the game released, all of which included not just bug fixes and balance changes, but also significant changes to how mechanics work, entirely new special buildings to capture, and even a new AI trick or two. It's clear that the developers are really looking to please the player base by continuously improving the game.

This game probably isn't for everyone out there, since it does not follow the normal flow of most strategy games. However, if you are intrigued by the idea of fighting an enemy that only gets smarter and stronger the more you attack it, this is definitely a game worth picking up, especially at the very modest price of only $20.

AI War 2 is available on Steam, GoG, and the Humble store.

- Joe Beard