Most of the time, when someone talks or writes about a large-scale RTS (that is, an RTS which allows the player to control hundreds or thousands of individual units as opposed to tens or dozens) they’re speaking about a game in the lineage of the venerable Total Annihilation. Total Annihilation: Kingdoms, Supreme Commander 1 and 2, and Planetary Annihilation, are among the most well-known and popular large-scale RTS. All of these games share a similar DNA; characteristics that tie them together in recognizable ways. From Commander units to economic model, structure tiers to similar unit types and treatment of technological advancement, there is a solid core that makes one of these games instantly identifiable as designed in the TA lineage.
There are, perhaps, some few other RTS of a similar scale, but they are true niche-among-niche and I cannot think of any off the top of my head (the Wargame series might count here, but I’d technically consider that a tactics game as opposed to a strategy game due to the way it treats its economy). But Ashes of the Singularity… Well, if it’s related to Total Annihilation, it’s more of a distant cousin than a sibling or child. It’s a very different approach to thousands-of-units strategy gaming, that does a good many exciting things. While I think the game has some flaws, it is eminently playable and contains depths I’m only beginning to plumb.
Ashes of the Singularity is a large scale RTS developed by Stardock and Oxide games: to be specific, Stardock is the publisher and Oxide is the developer. The game is built on the Nitrous engine developed by Oxide, and is, I believe the first game which fully takes advantage of Microsoft’s Direct X 12 (and thus can more fully and efficiently utilize multiple-core processors). And when I say “large scale” I definitely mean it. There’s no soft limit to the number of units a player can build (and I have absolutely no clue what unit count would be imposed via hardware limitations) – there have been accounts of Ashes matches with hundreds of thousands of units, built by a single player. Ashes is built to scale up, and up…
I will note that, simply due to the way I’ve approached the game, I tend to see matches with between 500-1000 units, but as long as players have the Quanta (it’s one of the game’s resources: we’ll get to that later) to keep expanding their unit counts, they’re able to do so.
Ashes of the Singularity is set, as the name implies, after a so-called “technological singularity” in advances in technology effectively surpass human understanding, ending scarcity and ushering in an age of unprecedented technological advancement and achievement that redefines what “human” means. In this post-Singularity universe, post-humans are primarily concerned about one remaining restriction on their advancement: computing power. They are in the business of converting planets into a resource called Turinium, which is an ideal computing medium. In the game, the post-humans are about to get a rude awakening…
Forget what you may have seen in professional reviews of this game. Ashes of the Singularity is not a ‘successor’ to Supreme Commander. It’s, at best, a cousin of those games, similar mostly in its resource system. But then, its resource system also bears some resemblance to Company of Heroes’.
In Ashes of the Singularity, the game map is divided up into sections: depending on map size and the number of Turinium Generators, this will vary, but we’re talking about 20+ here, not like… 6. Each territory will contain a Generator, and several deposits of one of the game’s two main resources: Metal, the primary resource, and Radioactives, used for higher-tech units and structures. Most territories will contain 1-3 Metal deposits, or 1-2 Radioactives deposits. I believe some contain a mixture of each. Simply capturing a territory will provide a little income, but building an extractor Supreme Commander/TA style, will increase it. Additionally, boosters can be built on the Generator to increase income from all deposits in that territory.
But here’s where things get interesting. As in Company of Heroes, territories must form an unbroken chain back to the player’s base sector to provide resources towards a player’s war efforts. If a territory is captured, or contested, all other zones ‘outward’ from it will cease to give their funds to the player’s coffers. It’s a neat system, and entirely unprecedented in a game of this scale.
The game has 2 additional resources: Quanta, which I will discuss in the next section, and Turinium. Turinium is essentially the game’s victory resource. Each map contains between 1 and 4 Turinium Generators, which provide a steady flow of the resource when occupied (each player’s core structure also rests upon such a generator). The first player to reach the Turinium cap, or to destroy the other players’ base, wins.
Right now, Ashes has 2 factions: the Post-Human Coalition, or PHC, and the Substrate. While games of this scale tend to preclude incredible variety, the two factions are actually pretty different. The Substrate use a single structure for their Tier 1, Air and Tier 2 production, making them a little more flexible production-wise. The PHC, on the other hand, have separate structures for each of these. Many PHC units have armor which arbitrarily chops off 40% of incoming damage, while the Substrate have regenerating shields. Some Substrate weapons spend the firing unit’s energy, which means they have to pay a little more attention to army upkeep. Additionally, both factions have a different set of defensive structures and superweapons, which are really more akin to the support powers introduced in C&C 3 (or Commander abilities from Company of Heroes 2 or Dawn of War 2) – they’re not all game-enders. Some call in specialized units, some increase income from a specific territory. There are abilities that do damage, but they’re the exception, not the rule.
Call-ins like this are also scarcely seen in games of this scale, and to me dramatically increase the interest and “tactical” decision-making that players are asked to do. Color me pleased.
The game’s 4th and final resource (3rd, if you don’t count Turinium) is Quanta. And it’s important enough that I’m setting it aside specifically. Quanta is, in many ways, what makes this game for me. It’s my favorite system in this game. Quanta is generated (are generated?) via structures built by the player, and slowly accumulate over time. Quanta is (are?) spent to: increase the player’s supply cap, research combat, armor + other upgrades, increase resource stockpile caps, and to activate orbital call-ins. Basically, everything you want to do besides build and order around units, is constrained by Quanta.
This is the source of countless interesting, non-trivial decisions. My supply cap is closing in, but I need to spend some Quanta to call in a scout, or boost my resource generation to start a new construction project… I want to stick it to my opponent, but I need to keep expanding my forces. You’re constantly asking yourself how you want to spend your Quanta, weighing short-term benefits over longer term ones. Choices like this just… aren’t common in games of this scale, where the impact of each decision is minimized by the game’s scale. Quanta is a scarce resource in a game that’s capable of supporting hundreds of thousands of units. Well done, Stardock. Well done, Oxide.
Armies are another key feature of Ashes. Essentially, the player is able to band units together to act as a single object, a multi-part organism. Armies, as I mention in my latest Rebellious Tacticians YouTube show, effectively change the calculus of how units interact with other participants in the army object. Healers, instead of focusing on the most injured unit within their automated, pre-defined search radius, will instead focus on injured units within their army group. This minimizes immersion-breaking situations where units will fail to respond to attacks, or other relevant stimuli, based on pre-defined limitations such as ‘aggro ranges’ or search ranges for their abilities (e.g. healing). This allows the army to be ‘smarter’ about how it interacts internally, and to threats.
Armies are a purely optional feature that can be activated and deactivated with the click of a button, allowing the player to have as little or as much fine-grained control of their units’ actions as they might desire. It’s not a flashy feature, but it definitely makes a difference.
I’m actually not totally sure where I stand on the graphics of Ashes of the Singularity. Units feel, in some ways, like a throwback or continuation of the ‘classic’ conventions of RTS units: brightly colored, and almost toylike even if detailed. And, again, detailed even if not realistic. There’s a marked difference between the unit design in Ashes of the Singularity and the bouncy zaniness of a StarCraft 2 unit, or the grit and detail seen in Company of Heroes or Deserts of Kharak. But then, Ashes of the Singularity is a very, very different animal to those games.
Overall, I approve of the unit design as implemented. It suits my obsessive, fiddly, nature: when I was drawing my own RTS units in class in high school, my designs were similar in some respects (I only share this to illustrate why these unit designs resonate with me in the way they do). And it’s quite honestly impressive to me that the units can have the level of detail Stardock manage to bake into them, knowing that these floating tanks will be floating beside hundreds and thousands of similarly-detailed models, many with multiple weapons and turrets.
And hands down, one of the best things about Ashes of the Singularity is that it never forces the player to interact with icons.
In Supreme Commander 1 and 2, and in Planetary Annihilation, the player is basically forced to zoom out to the point where all of their units and structures are reduced to tiny iconic representations while they’re engaged in actually, you know, trying to win the match. For the first minute or so of one of these games, and perhaps occasionally later on, the player can sneak a couple of zoomed-in moments with their armies, but mostly the player is interacting with boring, flat, monocolored iconic representations of their units. This is especially egregious with Experimental units, who kind of beg to be seen and adored.
Now, I know that icons, especially in the case of Planetary Annihilation, where players are required to manage tens of thousands of units across continents and planetary systems, are necessary. But that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy them. And the beauty of Ashes of the Singularity is that it entirely eschews the frustrating convention of unit icons. It’s a large scale game where, happily, I’m free to interact with the units, always, as units. There are times in Ashes when necessity dictates that the player must zoom all the way out to manage multiple battles, etc, but even when individual units shrink to antlike size (and honestly the larger unit types are always distinguishable) you’re still looking at the units themselves. And the Army system takes care of the rest, most of the time.
I know I’m dragging on and on about the graphics and UI of this game, but bear with me. This is an important piece of the game experience. In a game where the player is asked to manage hundreds and thousands of units, the tools given to the player with which to manage their units are non-trivial. We’ll move onto the rest of it soon. Soon-ish. I promise.
There’s so much to talk about here. From the radar that shows enemies as “hotspots” in a sea of otherwise blue dots, to the color-casted ‘placeholder’ buildings that show where your engineers have future buildings queued, to the actual user interface.
As I was fortunate enough to be able to discuss with Dave Pottinger, RTS user interface design is no mean feat. However, I think Ashes does a respectable job of keeping the menus and clutter to a minimum. Idle Engineers/Constructors are easily accessed through an unobtrusive icon just above the minimap, and superweapons are tucked away behind a little red cyclone icon at the bottom of the screen. The upgrade icon is next to it, and their associated menus are entirely hidden when not needed. Armies are able to order reinforcements through a contextual build menu (a nice touch). The UI is understated and unobtrusive, and I never really found myself floundering to find things (which I do all the time in Act of Aggression, as a for-instance.)
Lastly, I’m going to touch briefly on the game’s strategic map. Similarly to titles like Company of Heroes 1/2, Deserts of Kharak and Act of Aggression (there are others but these are all handy examples) Ashes of the Singularity has a Strategic Map that can allow for higher-level management than the game’s innate zoom allows for. Now, unlike the other games mentioned, Ashes’ zoom is already pretty generous, especially on 1v1 and 2v2 maps. But the Strategic Map allows for a truly ‘high level’ take on the action (and allows the player to maneuver around the map quickly) for situations that warrant it. It’s perhaps not the prettiest example out there, but it’s come in handy a time or 2.
The Strategic Map also helps the player understand the territory situation in the game. Territories are an important strategic and mechanical consideration, and I’ll cover them in more depth later on.
I don’t have a lot to say about the story or the campaign, so I’ll just touch on it quickly and get on to talking about the really fun stuff (the game mechanics, of course!)
Ashes of the Singularity has a campaign that centers around the Post-Human Coalition and a mysterious affliction which is subverting the Post-Humans and turning them against one another. It serves as a well implemented introduction to the game’s more unique systems while weaving a narrative thread that pushes you onwards. It’s about at a midpoint between Planetary Annihilation’s affectless planet-hop and Grey Goo’s cinematic commitment. The levels are interesting and some are almost puzzle-like, asking the player to perform tasks designed to inch their understanding of the game’s systems and pressuing them to attain an understanding of whatever mechanic or unit that has been introduced.
There are also a number of one-off scenarios, which I honestly have yet to try. In this era of “kitchen sink” design, where developers have to stuff ever-increasing numbers of features into their games to appease audiences, I find the scenario + campaign model to be sufficient. I do wish they’d have committed some dollars to hire voice actors, but am ultimately glad they spent that money elsewhere.
I do have a couple of relatively minor issues with Ashes. First and foremost, there’s a weird bug (apparent bug?) with the cursor, that I cannot consistently reproduce. Occasionally, seemingly at random, an attack-move command will make an army un-selectable until I actively click on a single object: un-grouped unit, structure, etc. It doesn’t happen particularly often, but it does often enough that it’s become frustrating.
Secondly, most units tend to move kind of ponderously, and this makes me yearn (crave) some sort of aerial transport unit. Or a teleporter. Something. Something to allow me to get my troops where I want them without having to build factories on the front lines and build a new army where needed, or wait for the long trek across the map. I understand the needs for constraints like this in a game, but some way to mitigate these situations would be welcome.
Fortunately, Stardock has released a huge slate of changes: new units, transports, etc in a forum post, that should address virtually every major issue I have with the game. Can’t wait.
If you don’t like large-scale RTS… well, there’s a chance you will like Ashes. It’s got, in many ways, the soul of a smaller scale game, while giving players the grandeur of a large scale one. It can be slow, due to how long armies can take to cross the map, and there are some gaps in the unit list (more air units, in particular, would be welcome). But Stardock has big plans for Ashes, and are moving full steam ahead in implementing them. I’m glad that this game was made, and I have to admit it’s winning me over in many ways.