Ashes of the Singularity is Stardock and Oxide Games’ unique take on the large-scale RTS. Up until Ashes, it was pretty much a given that large-scale RTS would look like Total Annihilation: you saw it in Supreme Commander, in Planetary Annihilation, Zero K, Rusted Warfare, etc. They all share parts of TA’s venerable and beloved DNA.
Ashes, to me, was kind of like proof that you could do things differently. Supply lines, support powers, Victory Points, and one of the most interesting resource systems I can recall in modern RTS (I’m talking about their Quanta resource, which is used to drive support powers and unit upgrades, and also to increase population cap. It’s a limited, hard-choice resource in this otherwise sprawling game about abundance and excess). Ashes, to me, has been an interesting experiment and is a game I find myself coming back to now that I have a PC capable of running it moderately well.
It has its issues (some sort of ferrying system still feels badly needed for instance, and I want new, higher tier air units) but overall I’ve had fun playing skirmishes in it and a lot of its ideas are interesting.
Normally, multiplayer is really important to me, but I’ll admit that I’ve stepped back from that for a bit. And along with skirmishing in Command and Conquer 3, revisiting the Battlezone Redux campaign, and faffing around with Total Warhammer 2’s DLC, I decided to pick up Hunter/Prey, a new DLC scenario for Ashes.
I’ve only played it once so far, but it’s been pretty fun.
What is it?
Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation – Hunter/Prey (or, Hunter and Prey as it’s called in-game) is a new single player DLC scenario for the game designed to allow players to experience each faction’s new units.
You play as the Substrate faction, which got a bunch of new units in a recent update, and you’re given regular infusions of large groups of those units as you fight against 5 aggressive AI opponents all playing the PHC, whose new units are mostly or entirely comprised of a bunch of new turrets.
And that’s the whole point of the thing. It’s basically a giant sandbox to let you have fun with the new units, and see what the PHC will be able to lob at you from its entrenched defensive positions.
The game mode just gives you free waves of the new units alongside the dozens and hundreds you’ll be pumping out of your own factories, unlocking higher tiers of them with each AI enemy you defeat.
From a heavily armored T1 assault unit, to a T2 hit-and-run skirmisher, a support unit at T3 that explodes on death, doing damage to structures, one at T4 that drops a bunch of token units when it dies, there’s a lot of fun little nuances to the new Substrate units, and Hunter/Prey lets you focus on enjoying your time with them by automatically scaling up your population limit and just summoning in batches of them to bolster your offensive capabilities.
Hunter/Prey itself is kind of a race against time. There are 5 AI controlled opponents on the map, and each one immediately starts capturing the map, heading in your direction. Even on Normal difficulty, the AI is moderately aggressive as it pushes towards you, building massive firebases to protect its territory. The more aggressive you are at pushing out and taking the fight to the enemy, the better you’ll do. Towards the end of the game, PHC firebases and juggernauts can really put the hurt on your forces.
To me, the most interesting part of the map is the early game, where the supporting waves you get have the most impact and all of the AI are creeping their way towards you, sending armies in a wide-ranging pincer to fence you into the bottom-center of the map. Also, in the early game, being aggressive is a bit more difficult to pull off successfully, even with the reinforcements you’re getting since there’s a fine line to be tread between crushing the enemy, defending your resource nodes, and fighting on all flanks. Be too inefficient with your unit allocations and your assault will peter out or the encroaching enemy will overpower your defenses. It’s quite well done.
Honestly, I’d love to see the reverse scenario, where as the PHC you are tasked with building up defenses and holding the line against ever-increasing waves of Substrate attacks while you wait for your Turinium (victory resource) to cap out. The ending wouldn’t be as dramatic since you’re just waiting out a timer, but being able to see the new PHC structures firsthand in a defensive scenario would have been a good mirror to the aggression-focused Substrate mission.
That being said, horde defense is a tried-and-tested RTS cliche. This sort of against-the-clock forced aggression makes a fun reversal on the concept and pushes more turtle-y players to think outside the box.
The new units introduced in the 2.9 expansion of Ashes: Escalation are a welcome addition, and Hunter/Prey is a great way to have fun trying them out. $10 feels like it might be a titch steep for the one-map game mode, but honestly I love the idea of creating unique maps like this one designed to showcase new content being added to an RTS, and overall, I’m pleased. Just as I’m pleased that Stardock and Oxide keep looking at the Ashes formula to see how they can improve it and help it reach its full potential.