I once saw a description of the original AI War that I really liked. It said that while you played AI War, the AI itself was always thinking ahead of you. The game was portrayed as a one-sided battle: as you focused on your simple tasks, your AI opponent was busy playing a complicated game of Risk. As a strategy game, that was about as asymmetrical as AI War got. However, AI War II brings you and the AI on a more equal footing. But only somewhat – the robots will still kill you.
AI War as a franchise has less of a storyline and more of an excuse plot. There was a war between AI and humanity. The AI won, took over the galaxy, and is now fighting extragalactic threats. Meanwhile, you’re the leader of one of the last — if not the last — human outposts out there. And you’re about to launch your first strike in the war of reconquest. You may even win.
Starting the space-industrial complex
On a surface level, the gameplay in AI War II may remind you of Sins of a Solar Empire. The galaxy is made up of planets linked by warp lines, dotted with gravity wells and places where you build infrastructure and fight battles. But that’s where the similarities end. The gameplay process for AI War II is more trimmed down to serve one clear purpose: a grinding industrial guerrilla war.
Unlike most strategy games, your base won’t be a mixture of research, training, and resource extraction facilities. The AI doesn’t engage with those systems at all. In fact, most of what you build will instead be turrets of all kinds. That’s because the defensive side of AI War II‘s gameplay is somewhat akin to tower defense. Some turrets reveal cloaked enemies, others hold them in place or deal more damage to shielded ships, and so on. Your enemies will not walk in preset paths — space is somewhat open — but you know where they’re coming from, and you can shape your battlefield accordingly. A well-built defense can punch well above its weight.
On the offense, you throw your fleets at enemy planets. Oh, sure, you can command individual vessels, but that’s AI War I thinking; you no longer have to build and group ships yourself. Instead, you control fleets centered on flagships. Each flagship that you own has randomly assigned groups of smaller ships. While unarmed (unless you have an Ark), the flagship is fast and can carry its entire fleet inside while simultaneously acting as the spawn (not rally) point for factories in range.
Winning the AI war
Victory depends on how you utilize your flagship and armies. A simple approach would be to load up the fleet inside the flagship, send it where you want it to be, then unload your ships and unleash hell. Flagships are durable, after all, and fast enough to just scoot their way past all but the most heavily guarded system. In that way, your fleets are not only your aggressive force but also your fire brigades, as you can rapidly shift them to shore up defenses.
This refusal to engage in this micromanagement is a serious blessing. AI War II feels a lot easier than its predecessor, and it’s a lot less tedious. Previously, you could order a planet’s weight in ships — though you always wanted to build them up to their cap anyway. The process was a bit boring, and transporting your fleet was a pain, as many ships were often scattered due to them varying in speed. That was also when your flagship was an Ark, the big boy in the room.
With AI War II, this craft micromanagement has been cleaned away. Factories and fleets will cooperate in building reinforcements unless you tell them not to. You don’t have to choose what ships will be built, because the fleet composition is static. If Sins of a Solar Empire II ever comes out and forces me to manually replenish fleets, I will scream.
But are you powerless to influence the make-up of your fleets in AI War II? Mostly, yes. You can choose the type of fleet you start out with (if you’re playing a custom campaign), but once in the game, you will have to find abandoned flagships and bring them back online. They will come with their own random allocation of units. Luckily for you, you can swap those out between fleets. And if you want to add new squadrons to your fleet’s roster, you will have to raid the AI planets.
This is not a map-painting game
Oh, raiding the AI. There’s really no other game like AI War II when it comes to actually raiding your enemy (well, maybe King of Dragon Pass comes close). For one, you actually have incentives to not just take every world you can. To claim a system, you have to blow up the AI station and build your own. Sounds easy enough, right? However, blowing up AI stations (and certain other bits of infrastructure) raises the AI Progress counter, which measures how much crap the AI gives about some humans infesting its back yard. The progress counter influences a lot of things in the AI’s repertoire, such as unlocking new types of reprisal waves and so on. In other words, the more holes you dig, the worse things can get.
So what you do is carry out temporary strikes — raids, if you will — on strategic targets. Some of them are there to be hacked, which requires you to stay in the system only for as long as the hack goes. Other times, you will want to whack a certain structure and get out. That will often be the enemy warp gates, which periodically spawn AI ship waves to attack your systems.
Luckily for you, the gates are paper-thin and only raise the AI Progress counter a small amount for their destruction. Depending on how well you’re doing against the AI, you may even launch attacks to clean out a system of defenses before preparing a deep raid. Some hacks can take as long as five minutes, however, turning the event into an endurance run.
This grinder does not accept meat
Of course, even in AI War II, you will want to take planets. You can’t turtle and develop your economy forever. For one, you have limited ways to increase your production of metal (which can be stored) and energy (which can’t). To get real, hefty boosts to your production, you will need new stations built on newly conquered planets.
But some stations are better at boosting the economy than others. Combat stations are the toughest ones and have the best defenses, but they’re terrible at resource extraction. Economy stations are barely tougher than enemy warp gates, but they will shower you with energy. Logistic stations are somewhere in between the two.
Some material goods – such as AI processing centers, flagships, or Zenith (mysterious ancient aliens) power converters – can only be captured if you hold the system. And you don’t want to abandon the system after you’ve done the capture. Doing so would only allow the AI to retake the planet, and then you’d have a new station and gate to destroy. Better to dig in and sanitize any linked systems of gates!
I should also mention two last resources in AI War II: Science and Hacking points. These are the most finite resources of the game, with each planet providing only a certain amount of them. Science points are used to upgrade the mark of your vessels (making them all-around better), while hacking is used for, well, hacks. You know, stealing tech from the AI, disabling defenses, that sort of thing.
Relax and have war
It really pays to understand these big concepts in AI War II and not sweat the small details as much. And, at first glance, there are many small details to sweat. Most ships only have one gun, but they have plenty of stats (engine, armor, power use, etc.). Most guns deal more damage depending on some enemy stat, and some ships even have additional abilities. This threatens to overwhelm.
Good news, friends: it doesn’t really matter for starter players of AI War II. Sure, a high-end player will optimize their damage potential by making specialized fleets and matching them to targets, but you don’t need to. If the strength of your fleet is bigger than that of the enemy, you’ll most likely crush it outright. Some exceptions exist, but most of the time, you can safely take out everything you see.
And remember, with enough power and metal, your realm in AI War II can run entirely without your input. Engineer ships will rebuild defenses and repair your stuff, fleets will replenish, and so on. Outside broad-strokes administration and turret placement, you don’t have to lift a finger. Of course, if your metal pool is running low, you may want to halt certain projects to prioritize the flow of resources somewhere else. After all, building up defenses on a non-threatened planet is not as important as refitting the fleet that’s your primary fire brigade.
You’re not alone among the stars
AI War II is also ridiculously customizable when it comes to campaigns. Everything comes with a hefty amount of informational tooltips written in a conversational tone — that’s how you know that Difficulty 8 AI is what the developer must like the most. Either that, or Difficulty 11 AI is both a genius and a cheater.
There’s more to AI War II than just fighting Skynet-in-space. Depending on how you set up your game (or the scenario you’re running), you may fight one specialized AI or several, dealing with various AI-side complications (Risk Analyzers, Astro Trains), neutral factions (Zenith Traders, which sell top-of-the-line defensive stuff in exchange for exorbitant amounts of metal), allies, and enemies. The galaxy can get busy.
Dealing with other players, however, will have to wait. As of this writing, AI War II does not include a multiplayer mode, continuing to make space feel that much lonelier. However, developer Arcen Games has revealed that the mode will make it into the game soon as a free update.
Proof that I’m not a sycophant
AI War II stumbles somewhat in the presentation. Many of the 3D models in AI War II are ugly and extremely generic. I usually lament that some games are too tense and micro heavy for you to appreciate the action from afar, but that’s not the case in AI War II. You’re not missing anything from zooming out.
The music also doesn’t get a pass. Now, games like these depend on music a lot, since you’ll be spending many hours playing them. And sure, it can get repetitive. Really, what wouldn’t get repetitive after eight hours of ship management? However, the piano-and-whatever tracks in AI War II will get on your nerves immediately.
I ended up playing the game with the music off. And nothing of value was lost, as I had plenty of audio from all the explosions, panicking announcer, terrible unit barks, and AI’s taunting quips (they got old fast). Seriously, the contrast between the well-chosen gun sounds — I can now recognize Tritium Snipers by ear — and music that’s neither here nor there is jarring.
In AI-written conclusion
All in all, AI War II comes strongly recommended. There’s really nothing like it out there, and Arcen Games clearly understands which gameplay systems have to remain, and which need to change. The willingness to chuck micro out of the window is phenomenal. It is a good experience through and through. Just keep that Dark Spire in check.