After reading this post about Drone Swarm, I decided to try getting back into a different space RTS that also has ludicrous numbers of ships: AI War 2. A lot of what was great about the first one still applies but it’s fascinating what an improvement the sequel is.
I remember feeling a bit ho-hum about screenshots of it during early access because it looked like they had just slapped 3D models on the same design. And that’s not wrong, the core gameplay is still very similar; you’re still an insurgency fighting against an overwhelming opposition having to pick and choose your battles, and there’s still not very much story or character development because fundamentally it’s way closer to a wargame than a Paradox grand strategy or an Amplitude/Endless 4X game.
But there’s sooo many little changes, some of which seem like “quality of life” things but are really much more interesting. Here’s just two examples:
They’ve completely abstracted away scouting. The galaxy is automatically explored, so as you capture territory, neighboring areas get revealed. You never have to build scout ships and order them individually to explore. Rather than having to worry about the minutiae and micro of scouting, you get to focus on the more interesting stuff like making strategic decisions about which enemy planets to capture and which to leap frog.
Another big change is that you don’t build units like a traditional RTS. Instead all your units are organized into fleets, which consist of a carrier/construction ship and a complement of strike craft. To get more units you have to capture more of these carrier ships that are littered throughout the map. The carriers are invincible as far as I can tell, in that they can be crippled but can’t die. If the strike craft are eliminated and the carrier is in supply, it will just automatically rebuild them. This also adds an interesting layer of seeking out specific fleets to capture because their complement of strike craft are useful to you at that moment, for instance include cloaked stealth ships or siege bombers.
My first reaction was that both of these were too much oversimplification, making the game less detailed, but after playing for several hours I realized what bold design moves they are. The detail IS more coarse and less fine-grained, but that’s exactly the point. It really reminds me of tabletop wargames, which often purposefully abstract things away that are below the level of the simulation, especially if they are zoomed out to a “strategic” (whole theater) view of a conflict. The result is that you spend more time looking at the map of the whole galaxy, stroking your chin and plotting your next moves than you do fiddling around.
I genuinely can’t think of another sequel that simultaneously stays so faithful to the original while making these kind of real, non-graphics improvements at the same time. Also, the soundtrack still absolutely rules.