Warning: stream of consciousness/rambling thoughts to follow…
AI War is great. According to Steam it’s my most played game at 160 hours and, while I’m no rookie, I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface in a number of areas. I enjoy playing it, I enjoy thinking about it, I enjoy browsing the forums hearing about how other people are playing it and the interesting discussions that result.
I also don’t play it all that often.
Why is that? I’m not entirely sure to be honest. Time commitment is certainly a major factor - one of my first games passed the 20 hour mark* and I was still a mile away from finishing. I’ll admit that subsequent games moved a bit quicker (a more aggressive approach on my part) but when you start a game I think you’re at least committing to 8+ hours at a minimum (assuming you aren’t destroyed earlier).
*per the in-game clock/timer, which romps along when you’re in time acceleration mode (waiting for something large to build/repair) but also stops while you’re paused to think things through. In my case I think the two roughly cancel each other out and reflect the time I spent playing.
I also have issues with the UI though, to be fair, I think it does a remarkable job making the game playable in the first place given the amount going on. And, as you say, the expansions have added a lot, but I also feel that in some cases it’s just extra ‘stuff’ that simply adds to my mental workload without a corresponding payoff (or a worthwhile one).
But I still want to play it. And I will usually fire it up for a game whenever a new expansion comes out or a major update is made. It’s like an old friend who’s moved away - whenever you catch up you have a great time hanging out, but you don’t always make the effort to stay in touch during the in-between times.
It has a lot to offer though, for anyone who’s willing to put in the time to learn. The things that particularly standout for me (good or bad) are as follows:
[B]It’s an RTS that plays like a 4X[/B] - I’d never class myself as an RTS player (Red Alert, Company of Heroes, is about it) and AI War doesn’t expect me to be one. It’s quite happy to let me pause the action, assess the situation, make decisions, give out orders, etc before letting things continue. Actions-per-minute are a non-factor here, with the focus going more on longer term strategic decisions eg which planets do I take (Rule 1: you don’t want anywhere near all of them unless you’re playing some odd masochistic variant), what do I want to research, etc. Although there’s a lot to do I never feel that my dexterity and quick-thinking is what’s letting me down - I simply made a bad choice.
[B]Asymmetry[/B] - I love (LOVE!) the asymmetric nature of the game. You and the AI are in completely different situations with quite different abilities/constraints to wage war. You effectively operate as a guerilla, making surgical strikes in key areas while trying to stay under the radar so as not to invite retaliation from the MUCH stronger AI. I think this also helps with the balance of the game where it’s entirely possible (and reasonable) for the devs to dole out new abilities/mechanics to either the player or the AI without having to make it useable (and balanced) by both.
[B]AI Progress[/B] - a simple, effective way of gauging the degree of ‘pissed-offedness’ of the AI. There are lots of choices you make throughout the game to either increase this number (usual) or reduce it (less likely). Each such choice is a difficult one and you really do need to weigh up the longterm impact of pushing the AI to heightened levels of anger versus the payoff you get from whatever it is you chose to do.
[B]Knowledge/Research[/B] - the mechanism whereby knowledge (research points) are gained only through capturing planets (for the most part) is brilliant. There’s a lovely tension between wanting more knowledge (to unlock new ships/structures, or better versions of the ones you have) but not wanting to take too many planets lest you provoke the AI into upping its game. This makes the choice of spending a fairly finite pool of knowledge all the more delicious - there’s a real opportunity cost involved.
[B]Configurability[/B] - the game provides you with a huge array of options to setup a challenge appropriate for your skill-level/mood. There’s a broad-brush (but very granular) difficulty level you can set, as well as turning on/off various game mechanics (and there’s a lot if you have all the expansions installed). Given not all the additions to the game over the years have been welcome ones (IMO obviously) this is a major plus.
[B]Variety[/B] - if we’re just talking basic ship types (the bulk of your fleet) the base game provides you with 30, and the expansions that followed added a further 42 (if my math is correct). Given you start each game with the three ‘core’ ship types (Fighter, Bomber, Frigate) plus one of the ‘bonus’ ship types (the 69 remaining ones) and can expect to only ‘unlock’ perhaps 3-4 additional types throughout the game, you realise just how much variety there is. And that’s not considering the different research choices you can make for starships, turrets, etc and the various mark levels for each. The AI itself can choose from an array of ‘personalities’ at game start which affects the ships it has at its disposal, the defenses it sets up, and the tactics it employs.
That said, the massive variety can also be a negative. Every ship has various strengths and weaknesses and when you start thinking about all the permutations of ‘this ship versus that ship’ it can become a bit overwhelming. And when you might only see a particular ship type once every few games it’s not like (at least in my experience) you get to a point where you see the name of one and immediately think “oh yes, I’ll build a bunch of ‘x’ turrents to deal with those”, etc. Apart from a few highly specialised ships which you might assign specific tasks to you’re often tempted to just bundle all your ships into one or more ‘fleet balls’ and just throw them into the fray. Not that that approach isn’t entirely spectacular and mostly effective, but you do feel that some of the lower level detail/chrome/whatever is lost.
[B]UI[/B] - mixed bag. There’s an absolute ton of information at your fingertips but often it’s hard to discern exactly what’s important and what you can ignore. A good example is the planetary information popup on the strategic map - most of the time the guard posts on a give planet are a mere speed bump, but they share equal place on the summary screen as the guard posts that you absolutely-need-to-be-aware-of eg Counter-Attack, Alarm, Raid Engine, etc. I also find it to be a bit of a chore identifying which ships types work well against which other ship types - you can access a table which shows you that sort of stuff in detail but filtering it down to, say, my core ships versus the core ships the AI is using is…challenging. You can also use the F1 key to cycle through all the ship types in the game and have it show you the relative strength/weakness of those ships against one you’ve chosen…but it shows you ALL the ships in AI War, not just the ones being used by you and the AI that game (unless you restrict the scope of the ‘search’ to the planet you’re currently viewing…okay in the middle of a battle but not as useful if you’re doing some forward planning). The hotkeys are a godsend in general though, if a little hard to discover by browsing through the options.
[B]Economy[/B] - pretty easy to automate (can set up looping queues, etc) though I fail to see the value in having two different resources (metal and crystal) in their current implementation (each ship might need more or less of one resource but it’s pretty academic for the most part - certainly I haven’t felt compelled to capture a particular planet because it had more of one resource type).
[B]Timed events (waves mostly)[/B] - knowing that something bad is going to happen at a very specific time is actually a lot of fun. It gives the player a goal (considering how many options are open to you at a given moment it’s nice to have the game nudge you in a particular direction) and can add some real knife-edge moments when you aren’t sure if your static defenses will hold and the enemy spills into the soft underbelly of your empire (scramble the backup fleet!).