It’s hard for a game to get away with just being OK these days: every digital marketplace for game distribution seems flush with new titles almost daily, all of which compete for a consumer’s limited time and dedication. To reach out to a specialized gamer, a challenger needs to innovate a specific mechanic or idea in an interesting way. To appeal to players on the whole, however, it needs to hit all the marks: compelling lore, unique style, and stellar gameplay.
Ashes of Singularity may succeed on a mechanical level, but its failure to create a compelling universe kills the experience for me, and the difficulty may make it hard for non-veterans of the RTS genre to feel like they’ll want to stick around the game long-term.
For the armchair generals of the world, Ashes of the Singularity offers a more macro-focused experience than similar fare like StarCraft 2. Instead of commanding small groups of troops to coordinate and target specific units, focusing on blazing-fast hotkeys and clicks-per-second stats, players assemble armies to trundle along the terrain, moving as quickly as the slowest units in the group. Don’t misunderstand me: you’ll still need to work quickly and efficiently to win. But armies made up of squads of small units may arrive to the scene of the battle first just to be wrecked by a small number of heavier artillery, and without precision assignments, thoughts come on a different scale. For quick, targeted attacks, players can call down orbital assaults from the sky to wreak havoc on enemies or scout positions.
All these moves are made by utilizing and managing three resources: metal, radioactives, and quanta. If it sounds complicated, it’s because it is: this definitely isn’t a light-hearted introduction to the genre. In fact, many of Ashes’ game mechanic choices seem to be direct answers to complaints within the genre.
Wrapped within Ashes’ basic gameplay style are conscious choices meant to draw in players who’ve been turned off by the usual RTS conventions. Resource management in many games requires building harvest vehicles, sending them out to farm materials, and protecting them from attack until the resource field goes fallow. AotS instead uses a “streaming economy:” each resource is essentially a battery, with captured deposits providing additional charge to the battery. Building units and structures draws power out of the battery, but if your “charge rate” is faster than the rate of depletion, everything’s ok. Each “battery” does have a maximum charge though, so efficient players manage their build rates so they don’t completely drain their resources or let the battery sit full without creating new units.
Another interesting mechanic revolves around Turininum, a resource harvested by controlling generators found on the map. Harvest enough Turinium during the match and you instantly win, forcing players to stay active and venture outward instead of “turtling” up in their own base.
As someone who doesn’t have the quick reflexes necessary for many RTS games, I admit I really enjoy the slower, large-scale focus of Ashes of the Singularity, and it’s possible due to some quality AI design. Merging multiple units into a formed and unified army comes with the press of a button, and each specific unit makes intelligent choices about what to attack based on its own capabilities. The strategy comes in building the right armies, sending them on the right paths, and preparing your defenses for oncoming assault. This creates potential to actually watch hundreds of units engage each other on the battlefield without furious clicking and scrolling…or maybe you still should be, and I’m just not a pro.
Either way, the gameplay felt more “realistic” to me in a sense: in an actual combat situation, I wouldn’t be able to command the individual movements of each and every troop on the battlefield; I’d have to send out troops in certain mixes and hope for the best. All these things said though, I still can’t bring myself to get invested in a larger sense.
Even though the game scores major points in the gameplay department, the style and lore leave too much to be desired. For a new franchise looking to take root, something should compel players to take action: the Terran/Protoss/Zerg faction battle of Starcraft, the historic battlefield settings of the Total War franchise…Ashes of the Singularity simply doesn’t have it. As it stands the single-player campaign is just “Episode I,” – 8 missions with three optional side-missions. As a member of the Post-Human Coalition, self-declared Post-Humans who’ve advanced past the capacity of humanity alongside the discovery of Turinium, battle the Substrate for control of Turinium generators on other planets.
It’s a story that feels as generic as the barren, brown landscapes you fight on, with dialog that sounds like placeholders. It’s pretty evident Stardock focused on the more multiplayer-based components: Skirmish settings allow players to customize their matches and AI opponents before battle, and the “Ascendancy Wars” includes scenarios like King of the Hill, but nothing particularly dramatic.
This doesn’t get to the somewhat punishing difficulty of the game, even on normal. Ashes of the Singularity prides itself on its utilization of modern tech, using multi-core processing to enhance the AI’s capabilities. That said, the difficulty curve is more of a difficulty spike: the fourth mission, a “survive the onslaught” battle, quickly escalates to near nightmare status…a pretty big situation for the fourth mission of the first episode. I suppose having players replay a single mission multiple times to complete it is one way to extend a campaign’s length, but I can think of better ones.
Without compelling design, Ashes of the Singularity misses out on the components that really tie players to a game. Units don’t have particularly compelling designs, and the characters and landscapes feel flat and forgettable. Low-res games like the mobile-native rymdkapsel compel understanding through their visual style, while older titles like Supreme Commander used striking units and lengthy stories to keep players interested. Even further back, Command and Conquer used FMVs that eventually stopped taking themselves very seriously, giving the franchise an identity to set it apart from other games. Ashes may have iterated a couple design changes on the typical RTS, but it hasn’t done much to really carve out its own place in the spectrum.
Stardock games tend to flesh themselves out over time, and perhaps with a few updates it’ll become more of a standout. As it stands, Ashes of the Singularity is a good game, just not a particularly inspiring one. RTS fans looking for a new way to click-click their way to victory may still want to take a look at the large-scale battles and complex AI offered here; there’s an interesting experience with potential for growth in there somewhere.