I enjoy the concept of an RTS but in practice, when I come to play one, my brain just isn't geared for the fast paced tactical action and reaction. I like to be able to take my time and think things through before committing to a course of action. If the enemy attacks before I'm good and ready it feels terribly unsporting. I find myself wasting time turtling while my mental progress bar crawls towards 100% and the eventual formulation of a battle plan even the great Sid Meier would be proud of. Don't even ask - you know Sid could take Napoleon any day of the week.
AI War: Fleet Command comes blurbed to the hilt with quotes like "players retain powerful control over their fleets in a macro-sense, ignoring painful micromanagement present in other games" and "ships themselves attempt to target enemies as intelligently as possible so the player can focus on the tasks that really matter." That sounds brilliant! I can let my minions take care of the busy work, giving me time to shunt little counters across a big old metaphorical war room table and recite half-remembered General Melchett quotes. This is the RTS for me!
Only it isn't. I was promised an escape from "painful micromanagement" and I was begging for that escape before I was even out of the tutorial. AI War does not do what it says on the tin! I have never encountered a strategy game as inaccessible as this; and I say that as a Paradox Interactive fan.
Though RTSes have moved towards 3D presentation in recent years, the battlefield is fundamentally two dimensional. In spite of the contours of terrain, we're still dealing with a regular square or rectangle nine times out ten. This is good - it keeps movement nice and simple and the boundaries of the world are very apparent. Space doesn't play by these rules. Blessedly AI War doesn't force full 3D movement on us but instead employs dozens of individual, concurrent 2D squares and links them up with wormholes. While you're base building by your home planet, AI beasties are popping into your particular corner of space from the other side of the galaxy and you find yourself fighting it out over ten conventional 2D square battlefields at once - all the while looking out for those blighters bending space-time with wormholes. It makes my head hurt.
AI War is painful in oh so many ways; not least of which is with its soundtrack. The pew pews and kabooms of space combat are all present and correct - I have no quarrel there - but the music is agonising. It reminded me of Transport Tycoon (1994) but only because TT's 16 year old .gm files are so much better than what AI War pumps through your headphones! Someone has a MIDI keyboard and just barely knows how to use it.
This is becoming more of a tirade than a balanced review but there's one more thing I have to take issue with. A lot can be forgiven in the visuals of an RTS; especially one developed by a small team of indie devs. I didn't go into this expecting enormously detailed 3D models and fine texturing but I feel that little things like consistency of art style aren't beyond what the team should be capable of. Some of your ships and structures are shiny and streamlined while others are angular and weather-beaten; insofar as an object in a vacuum can look weather-beaten. Still, this is a secondary issue because most of the time strategic necessity will have you zoomed out so far that nothing is distinguishable from anything else without hovering your mouse over it to bring up a text box full of enough detail to deduce what the ship's captain had for breakfast that morning. Meanwhile your frigates are firing at something on the other side of the universe and you just can't get enough of the action on screen at once.
AI War doesn't have a campaign in the conventional sense, instead going for a random map generator with a hell of a lot of settings to customise your universe and the things living in it. This really is the strongest part of the game and if you do find that you like the gameplay there is every setting you could hope for to tweak your next round to perfection. Even the personality of AI opponents can be customised extensively but you can invite up to seven other online players into your game for the human touch.
AI War: Fleet Command has been out for quite a while and a glance at Metacritic shows that it has reviewed very well. This worries me on a personal level because it suggests that there's something here I'm just not getting. It suggests that nine out of ten people who aren't me think this is a pretty good game but here and now, feeling as I do, I just can't recommend AI War. Maybe it's worth the £14.95 just to find out how wrong I am but, personally, I'll be uninstalling the minute this review goes up.