AI War II

AI War II is one of my favourite games this year, and it’s also made by a developer that I strongly support, as they take plenty of risks and create interesting games with inventive mechanics. Part of this post is to review the game and explain why it’s so good, but also to explicitly give whatever exposure power I have in order to support Arcen games. They’re an excellent company with excellent ideas, and in particular AI War II can’t come recommended enough, especially if you’re into strategy games. Now for the reasons as to why I consider the game so good..let’s start with the premise and the goal.

Man vs Machine

AI War II’s premise is that in the far future, humanity developed an AI to help defeat their enemies. Through a gradual process of learning by the humans side, the AI eventually turned against humanity once no other enemies remained, and consequently almost completely exterminated them and took over the rest of the galaxy. You control one of the last pockets of humanity, and the goal is to destroy the AI overlord.

The premise is similar to many other stories of the underdog taking on the big bad, and I can greatly appreciate the simplicity of it. The details of what happened exactly are somewhat there if you’re interested, but the goals and motivations are clear: destroy the AI, because not doing so will lead to humanities extinction. Done. Now how one does this is the interesting part, because AI War takes the underdog aspect very seriously.

Strategic Sneakiness

In a typical AI War campaign, you are in control of one planet, and the rest is under the control of the AI. Typically with 4X and RTS games, there’s a level playing field where everyone has their own planet or cluster of systems, and it’s a game of pushing back and forth in a tug-of-war for resource and map control.

In this case, everything and then some is owned by the AI, save for your one planet. You start from basically nothing, and your goal is to slowly build up your forces by stealing technology, claiming planets, repairing derelict fleets, fortifying bases, etc.

However, you have to do this without drawing the full attention of the AI. At this point in time the AI is busy dealing with outer galaxy threats and other matters, so you are an insignificant speck of dirt that it doesn’t care for. In other words, you’re one ant in an owners house. No one cares.

The problem for you however is that if you tried to play the game out like you would a typical RTS game, where you rapidly expand your territory, gain resources and power, you’re going to find that while you feel like you’re gaining ground, you’re actually writing your own death sentence. There is a resource in the game called AIP (AI Progress), and for every significant action you take, such as taking a planet for yourself, the AIP increases. Do very small things time to time, and the AI won’t really notice. But if you quickly expand and boost the AIP rapidly, congratulations – you’re dead!

The mindset shift here is very interesting and actually forces you to rethink how you approach the game, because for every new resource you acquire, it doesn’t take away from the AI’s pool – it bolsters it. Again, back to the ant analogy: if you’re one ant in a house, you’re almost invisible. But a long stream of ants? You’re getting sprayed and fast.

So the goal is to gain power, but to pick your battles and planets, and this is how the entire game is played until you think you’re strong enough to find and destroy the AI overlord.

Strategic Selection

Unlike other RTS and 4X style games, AI War II doesn’t require planets you own to be directly connected to one another, which means that you’re able to “deep strike” and take remote planets surrounded by a bunch of AI ones. Each planet in the game will provide metal (your main resource for production), energy (your supply cap), science (a limited amount for upgrading), and hacking (limited amount for stealing and subversion).

However, not all planets are equal. Some of them will be host to derelict fleets that contain certain ship lines – so it may be an option to consider when playing the game. Alternatively, there are planets that house certain buildings that increase the amount of turrets you can build. There are other ones with defensive battlestation fleets, which allow for mobile turret construction on enemy planets (think of it as a beachhead). Some will also have AIP reducing buildings that, when held, significantly reduce your threat and expand your options, but at the potential cost of the AI focusing its efforts to destroy that building in the long run. There are several other ones apart from this, too, like research stations that add a new ship line to your fleet, or upgrade technology to another tier.

Essentially, you need to learn to pick your targets and pick them very carefully. You cannot capture or build everything there is, so there is a very rich layer of strategy to the choices you make. Yes, you can take a major data center which effectively reduces AIP by a huge amount, but are you able to hold it in the area it’s in? Do you have enough defensive capability? The cost of it being destroyed will lead to an exponential increase in AIP, so the weigh in is quite significant.

This and the AI is absolutely not a pushover – on the contrary, it’s one of the most vicious and predatory AI’s I’ve ever faced in a video game (this is on difficulty 7 onwards, where the AI has all its tricks).

Waves, Wardens and Hunters

Initially the AI doesn’t seem to be that big a deal as you take one or two planets for your own. It comments on the actions you take and notices it, but for the most part you’re not really going to get an aggressive response (though there are different types of AI to select, and some, such as the “Bar Fighter” AI are extraordinarily aggressive the moment you poke it).

Eventually however, the AI will start to send waves of fleets to kill you off and retake planets. You’re usually informed that there is an incoming wave to one of your planets and have ample time to prepare. These are at first not very threatening, but scale exponentially as time passes – so you have to scale with it. It’s a “tower defense” kind of layer to the game which applies a constant pressure to your defenses. They can also be triggered through counterattack waves or certain buildings which trigger an aggressive response when being attacked. In fact, the game advises not to just pummel away at a well defended system until it breaks, because this triggers the AI to respond with a counterattack that is exponentially more dangerous than normal ones. It’s basically a death sentence, so don’t expect to just blitz through big planets by wearing them down – the AI isn’t stupid.

And even if the counterattack doesn’t happen, warden fleets will be sent to defend and fend you off. The warden fleet behaves independently to waves and cannot actually attack your bases, but it houses its own bases inside systems and allocates resources to purely defensive fleets. If you allow the AI to funnel resources into the warden fleet (which is done in a number of ways), the warden fleet can become extremely dangerous and a brick wall for defense, so culling them or attempting to outsmart them is necessary. The AI usually reads and adapts to your behaviours, so the warden fleets take guesses as to where you’d attack and wait there to ambush you. I’m not sure how this works on a programming level, but I have time and time again been blocked off when attempting to deep strike, because the warden fleet had correctly deduced from where I was going to strike from.

But the one that I hate the most is the hunter fleet. This is what has killed me off the most in all the games I’ve played across 50+ hours. The hunter fleet works by building up its forces through AI stragglers, reserves and several other aspects that are part of the game, and actively looks for holes in your defenses. When it finds that hole, it turns it into a crater and punishes you very harshly – much of the time leading to a game over. It’s an incredibly vicious and cunning fleet. I’ve had moments where upon my metal being starved due to defending from a wave, the hunter fleet would appear and blow through defenses on a completely different front and proceed to destroy my homeworld, leading to a congratulatory game over screen. The AI is constantly watching for openings, and uses those openings whenever possible – and with not much warning (though you can usually monitor bordering planets to get some hints that something is coming). Hunters are usually dealt with by making sure their numbers are thin and your defenses are consistently spread out, but that’s just the superficial solution. They will always, at some stage, become a very big threat, and it’s your job to try to maintain that and not allow it to pierce through any potential holes in your defenses.

Emergence, Complexity and Scale

All of these aspects are just the basic parts of what makes AI War II tick, however. When the game plays out, things get very complicated and chaotic as time progresses. There are other factions in the game which can be added in directly in custom games, or they can be “found” through beacons or suppression fields scattered throughout the galaxy. These factions include things such as the Dark Vengeance – my personal favourite because I take some sick joy in provoking them and watching the (often death sentencing) results.

These factions can provide you with new ships, research and even allied support, but can also be used as distraction for the AI to focus its resources on. Take the Dark Vengeance generators. They’re not a threat as they are – they’re just giant balls of mass that absorb energy. However, when enough energy is absorbed from combat, they warp in some very nasty dark spires – a faction that enjoys killing everyone indiscriminately with very powerful ships. You can also hack these generators to provoke all generators in the galaxy to warp fleets of these spires in – thus creating a giant firestorm across the galaxy. There are other hacks too, such as making the generator vulnerable to normal fire so you can blow it up and keep it away from you, as well as stealing its ship technology so you can have some spires of your own.

Either way, these choices have tactical significance, in that it can be used as a way to force the AI into focusing its forces on extinguishing the spire threat, while you continue to expand and take more territory. That said, it’s an enormous gamble – if the spires come your way and you’re not particularly well defended, it’s basically game over, albeit an extremely enjoyable and explosive one.

This chaos that gets generated as you play the game makes every game you play a very different affair. Sometimes it’s not so wild and high intensity from the get-go, and you can quietly build up your forces without much trouble, but other times it’s just a mess from 10 minutes away, potentially because marauders (deep space pirates) are raiding your homeworld and causing problems for the AI, or there’s a nanocaust problem that’s active in the galaxy (basically robot space zombies that spread like the plague).

And all of it culminates into an incredibly fun, complicated and thoughtful experience, regardless of win or lose. You really have to think about how to approach each scenario, and you also have to weigh in the long term consequence of committing to particular actions. There is legitimate strategy behind what you do as a lot of the actions you take cannot be reversed and can have enormous consequences. The scale accommodates this too, with literally thousands of ships on screen at once flying around and blowing each other up. I’ve witnessed multi-faction fights happen on multiple systems, where a dyson sphere is launching fleets at the AI, which is fighting off dark spire ships spawning in from another corner, and marauders are raiding adjacent planets with me in the middle. It is absolute madness, and there are so many different variables and ways to play the game that the replay value is essentially endless.

Accessibility and Active Development

Finally, with this complexity comes a learning curve – it’s not a simple game to master or fully understand. While getting into it in the intial stages isn’t that difficult, a lot of the UI, the information and the sheer scale of things can be somewhat overwhelming. That said, it’s worth the time investment as the fundamentals are quite easy to pick up on – it’s just everything else that requires experimentation from you (poke things!) and a bit of reading.

The good news is that Arcen is very active in continuing development on this game. Updates are constantly being pushed out as well as taking in input from players, so UI improvements, QOL features and even new mechanics are constantly being added. Just recently a patch was released that added a new research building into the game, that allowed one to double their ship lines, so expect constant adjustments, reworks and new features to be added as the game progresses.

I strongly recommend AI War II. It’s a fabulous game all round with a very passionate developer, creative gameplay and a highly addictive gameplay loop. Definitely one of my favourite games this year!

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