There’s a point in Ashes of the Singularity when the benchmark simulation pulls out to showcase its Supreme Commander-style wide view, and the sight of all the flashy battles raging on the snow far below actually looks a little like simmering ashes. It’s an apt image for Stardock’s new game, which clearly sees itself as a phoenix of sorts for SupCom and the real-time strategy genre in general.For the most part it succeeds in spreading its wings, as it tosses out the speedy tactics known from the likes of StarCraft 2 in favor of a more determined, thoughtful approach and boldly enables carpeting the playing field with thousands of fighter planes, hovering battleships, and scrappy tanks. It’s an RTS for pensive folks interested in the big picture, and even its slightly dorky name hints at its affection for brainpower, referencing Ray Kuzweil’s conception of the moment when human intelligence transcends mere biology.
Too bad it doesn’t spin a yarn that’s worthy of its gaudy name. Ashes devotes a mere 11 missions to telling the tale of the future ‘Ascension War’ between the technologically augmented Post-Humans and the strange AI faction of the Substrate. The characters are as memorable as the back label of a Hershey’s bar. There are YouTube ads more entertaining than the narrative, and victory rarely involves much more than nabbing more resources like metal and radioactives than the other team.Ashes of the Singularity is one of those games that comes along every few years and slaps us in the face to remind us what the word “strategy” means. The likes of StarCraft 2, Grey Goo, and even Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak are rendered little more than tactical skirmishes by its grand scope, healthy disdain for fast-fingered micromanagement, and strong emphasis on high-level thinking. It’s a refreshing approach, considering this type of RTS hasn’t been attempted with much success since Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance. Ashes doesn’t quite pack the punch of Gas Powered’s nearly decade-old masterpiece, but it does hit the mark in several of the same places.
Someone who only played the disappointingly short single-player campaign would likely have a negatively skewed idea of the abundant strategic depth hiding in the other modes. Across eight main missions and three optional ones, the campaign introduces you to a future where the Post-Human Coalition (cybernetically-enhanced superdudes) send their remote-controlled robot armies out to do battle with the shinier, more-organic-looking-but-still-robot armies loyal to a mysterious, aggressive AI called The Substrate. The characters are as flat and flavorless as they sound, the story is about as minimal and straightforward as those in Ye Olde Games of Yore, and up until the last couple, the main missions feel more like an extended tutorial than a set of interesting challenges.Unambitious story presentation is ultimately forgivable for a game like this, but it puts a flimsy foot forward that underrepresents what Ashes actually holds in store. Supreme Commander and the recent Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak did a much better job of infusing some life and a sense of purpose into the plot. Given that the campaign that comes with Ashes is labeled “Episode 1,” I hope to see a little more attention given to storytelling in the implied future installments.The colossal maps can be surveyed with a flexible and responsive camera zoom that made me feel like I was managing an entire theater with multiple, full-scale battles going on in many locations at once. Ashes encourages you to think of large groups of units as single entities, which, when grouped into formal armies with the press of a hotkey, will adopt and maintain a logical formation without help. In this context, the need for low-level micromanagement and clickable abilities has been wisely jettisoned, allowing you to focus more on the unit composition of each army, and which army should be going to which part of the theater.But that’s the same side of me that got fidgety and distracted while playing chess and high school. I started enjoying Ashes when I learned to think how it wants me to think; when I started sending off dreadnoughts and small accompanying forces off to points they wouldn’t reach for five minutes, all while I scoped out new deposits of resources like metal and radioactives with smaller, faster groups. As these resources queue infinitely once captured, securing them allowed me to focus on strategy rather than the tedium of worrying about depletion rates.Elsewhere, I shook off my initial disappointment with the samey look of units once I realized I fared much better using a hotkey to treat a collection of them as one entity, a ‘meta unit.’ Sometimes the big battles devolve into a simple tug of war, but Ashes tends to reward players who look beyond the trenches, such as when I swatted away the generally smart AI’s dreadnought assault with an array of long-range missiles I’d quietly built in anticipation. In the tightest spots, I sometimes took a dare and called down massively devastating orbital strikes, but despite their awesomeness, I found they were best used as a late stage bird-flipping when almost all hope is lost.The campaign delivers occasional bits of excitement in this vein, but Ashes’ true soul lies in the Skirmish mode. Here the focus always centers on a mad rush for resources (including the all-important Turinium), and it’s dazzlingly customizable and playable by up to six AI teams or players.Considering how liberally Ashes slathers the screen in units, it shouldn’t work as well as it does,but I found it came into its own once I imagined the scattered squads as pieces on a giant board. Rather than bothering with endless busybody micromanagement, I focused on the flanking, the surprise flashes for Turinium, the carefully timed arrival of a dreadnought when my opponent expected none. And in the process, I found I was having more fun with an RTS than I have in a couple of years.
I say that with some qualifications. I never managed to shake the feeling that Ashes’ drab maps rob it of an extra layer of strategy, and as a person whose favorite gaming stories have grown out of real-time strategy games, I frowned at the forgettable campaign. But in other moments, Ashes manages to rise beyond its lackluster parts and its muted landscapes to deliver carefully paced victories I won’t soon forget.