Ashes of the Singularity, the latest project from Oxide Games and Stardock Entertainment, is about spinning plates; except in this case the plates consist of an extensive robotic armada, a series of factories and military development bases, resource mining, and lasers. Lots and lots of lasers. It's not a game that you can have going on in the background while doing something else, you can't play this if you're not paying full attention, as it requires your full focus the whole time that you're playing it. There's always something going on or that needs to be done, and usually all of this will be taking place while the universe's most stunning yet life-threatening fireworks show takes place all around you.
The first thing to note about Ashes of the Singularity is that it shouldn't be judged by its campaign, as it's not the game's strongest suit. It's not necessarily a bad single-player outing, it's just not a good representation of what this RTS offers, and there's more that should be focused on. You're thrown into the opening cutscene, which provides a very brief summary of the events leading up to now; essentially humans have evolved further, to far more advanced God-like beings who refer to themselves as "Post Humans". With this new found power the Post Humans venture out into the depths of space to explore the galaxy and colonise a variety of different planets, which is where most of the conflicts take place. However, a mysterious unknown force has begun to warp some of the Post Humans, turning them against each other, it's this new faction that you're fighting against throughout the game.
The story isn't very long and consists of - so far - a mere eleven levels, the first of which is moving a scout along a path that's highlighted for you. However, they do refer to the series of scenarios as "Episode 1", which is an ambiguous way of saying there's more on the way, but they haven't yet been officially confirmed. The characters within the game aren't overly interesting or memorable, and are primarily represented through text boxes in-between segments of gameplay, making it quite hard to connect with them. Aside from that, the gameplay is very limited, the levels mainly comprise of resource gathering, which becomes a repetitive grind against the AI, and puts a lock on how much variety the campaign offers.
But as previously mentioned, Ashes of the Singularity should not be judged by its lacklustre campaign, as its main appeal is in the gameplay found outside the campaign, especially when against other human players. Ultimately the game is similar to other strategy games except with more of a focus on balance across all elements; in a lot of other RTS titles it's possible to progress successfully while only focusing on one particular area over everything else; military strength over resource gathering, political power over strategic architectural planning, like a pick 'n' mix of empire building. Ashes of the Singularity still has that pick 'n' mix format except it's highly recommended that you balance everything carefully, which circles back around to how this title is an overcomplicated game of spinning plates.
What we swiftly learnt with Ashes is that you can't go offensive and sacrifice defensive play, or vice versa: everything needs to be juggled which can get overwhelming at first, and there's a lot going on when a match gets into full swing. You need to make sure all your attack units are doing something and aren't just idle, ensuring you have enough defensive positions to hold off any incoming threats, check all your buildings are constantly maintained, and all this while still progressing to conquer the rest of the map. If you let anything slip then everything will come crashing down leaving you more things to juggle and, ultimately, failure.
The challenging management isn't the only thing that makes Ashes an interesting game, as previously mentioned the game provides a slew of pretty light shows, and that primarily comes from the large scale conflicts that take place during matches. These battles are spectacular, and contain hundreds upon thousands of ships caught in a laser-firing rocket-guided explosion-fest that's entertaining to witness but a confusing flurry to be caught in. However, the extravaganza can be let down by the bland backdrops, as maps are empty aside from the resource deposits and capture point structures that are scattered around the wasteland. Considering the scale of some of the battles this can be somewhat of a let-down with the possibilities available, however, it doesn't ruin the game, and in most cases there's already too much to focus on to distract us from the dull levels.
While the campaign may be weak, the alternative Skirmish mode is far more entertaining. The objective is to gather the required amount of Turanium (which is a sought-after resource within Ashes). To gather the rare mineral players must take over Turanium deposits scattered around the map. The more you capture the faster you'll harvest it, and once you harvest the required amount you win. The other way to achieve victory is of course to decimate your opponent's base, leading to victory by default. This is where Ashes really shines as it allows more freedom than the campaign, because you have resources at your disposal immediately and what you do with them is completely in your hands what you can do with it. That extra freedom better showcases what Ashes of the Singularity can offer during its finest moments.
Even though it's let down by a weak campaign and an uninspired setting, Oxide and Stardock's latest RTS venture is a great title that's definitely worth a look for strategy fans. We can only hope that any additions to the story (if there are any) can improve on what's already there, as the Skirmish mode demonstrates what Ashes is capable of and hints as to direction that the campaign mode can take. The wide-scale battles are certainly something to behold and the constant balancing of your armada adds an interesting challenge that will constantly keep you on your toes.
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