Ashes of the Singularity
March 31, 2016
Ashes of the Singularity was the first DirectX 12 (DX12) game to be released, though it was Early Access on Steam. It was released as a finished product on 31 March, 2016. The core gameplay is inspired by Total Annihilation, but what sets this game apart is the huge unit counts it can support on-screen at a time, thanks to the low CPU overhead in DX12.
The game is built on Oxide Games’ Nitrous Engine which is built to support Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games having large unit counts (Think thousands of units engaged in warfare with a unique AI for each) thanks to the reduction in CPU overhead in DX12, Vulkan and AMD’s Mantle APIs. While the potential of that engine can be seen in the Star Swarm Benchmark, Ashes of the Singularity is the first game that utilises it. This might be the first game that actually puts to use the advancements offered by the new APIs.
Ashes of the Singularity can be described as a game of land-ships. There is only ground and air combat to be found in this game and none of the maps have any water bodies on them. It follows the traditional RTS approach of building bases, gathering resources and using these to produce units. There are some key differences in how Ashes of the Singularity implements these elements however, that differentiate it from other RTS games.
Every player and/or AI in Ashes of the Singularity starts out with a Nexus that can’t be rebuilt. It is an instant loss if the Nexus is destroyed by an opponent. A Nexus produces builder units that then construct the rest of the structures. Resources are gathered automatically by capturing nodes called Power Generators and building the relevant mine structure on the resources connected to it. Builders can also build Unit producing structures, Defensive Structures and Orbital Structures, each of which have their own grouping in the UI.
The economy in Ashes of the Singularity is a streaming economy, which means that you can order units and structures in advance and these will be built as the resources are collected. If you run out of stockpiled resources and your collection rate is lower than your consumption, you run the very real risk of all your activities coming to a standstill and proceeding at a snail’s pace. On the other hand, if you are producing more than you’re spending, the surplus resources beyond your stockpiling limit will be wasted. Power Generators control a region and come with the caveat that they must be connected to your nexus via other Generators or directly if they are to supply any collected resources. Thus, one can easily cripple an opponent’s economy by simply capturing a key chokepoint Generator instead of trying to capture all of them.
Some nodes might contain a Turinium Generator which gather Turinium that counts towards a victory condition, the other victory condition being complete military supremacy. A destroyed Nexus will also be replaced by a Turinium Generator. As per the fiction of Ashes of the Singularity, mankind achieved the Singularity, i.e. the fusion of the Human brain with an Artificial Intelligence and abandoned their bodies in the process. This allowed what became known as the Post Humans to reach across the stars and capture other worlds. Turinium was discovered as a resource that increased the computational power of the Post Humans and it is this resource that they set out to harvest.
The main campaign is divided into chapters, of which only one was out at the time of this review, featuring just two factions. Ashes of the Singularity also offers scenarios and skirmish maps, though a lot of the campaign maps felt like skirmish maps themselves and the campaign itself seemed hastily put together. It featured very little voice acting and cutscenes, with most of the story being told by text popups. This didn’t make it any less fun though, but the lack of polish was rather obvious.
Skirmish maps support a maximum of six players in Ashes of the Singularity in single and multiplayer. The game can experience slowdowns when unit counts go really high in such matches, especially on systems near to the minimum requirements. This mode is the meat of the game as per the developers. Given that the key to victory in this game is to be continuously pumping out new units, early expansion strategies seem to be favoured over Turtling. The scenarios maps can be considered akin to one off challenges. There’s also a Tutorial map, but it seems rather pointless if you plan to play the main campaign. This is because the first chapter of the campaign is structured so as to teach you how to play the game by introducing features one at a time.
The main philosophy in Ashes of the Singularity is that your units are disposable and that your commands should be to armies rather than individual units. Given the differences in scale and damage of the different units, it’s rather futile to attempt micromanagement with your smaller units (Frigates) and your largest units (Dreadnoughts) are too slow and cumbersome to be responsive enough for the task. This leaves only the Aircraft and the Cruisers for any micromanagement needs you might have. The game wants you to control armies rather than units, so this lack of focus on micromanagement is understandable.
The Army AI is pretty well done. If you form a control group into an Army, and then just add more units to that Army, they automatically get added to the control group. If there is an existing move or attack order, newly added units will also carry out this order. Units will synchronise speeds and adopt suitable formations while moving and in combat. Annoyingly, there are no options to set army formations or stances, and one must make do with Attack-Move and Patrol orders and trust the Army AI to react to the situation. Creating armies is pretty easy and can happen accidentally if you task one unit to another or order new units with a unit already selected.
Ashes of the Singularity uses the rock, paper, scissors balancing system with each tier of units, except for aircraft. Higher tiers of units also have an advantage against lower tier units as can be seen with the dreadnoughts who can easily take on multiple lower tier units, but might have a tough time going one on one against another dreadnought. Curiously, dreadnoughts have no anti-air defences, but their ridiculously large hitpoints mean that only a large force of bombers can pose significant threat to one. The best way to kill a dreadnought is to use another dreadnought that specialises in this task and to have a bunch of medics standing by to heal it.
While lower and mid tier units in Ashes of the Singularity might be disposable, Dreadnoughts are designed to be preserved thanks to an upgrade system that makes them more powerful as they gain experience. Once a Dreadnought levels up, you can choose from among three upgrades to make it more powerful or to heal your entire army. The endgame usually boils down to who can pump out more dreadnoughts without choking their economy. Dreadnoughts also work much better in groups rather than individually.
Besides Metal and Radioactives as the basic resources and Turinium as the victory resource, Ashes of the Singularity also has another resource called Quanta. Quanta are used to purchase upgrades to the caps on population and resource stockpiles as well as for upgrades to your units. They are also used for Orbital actions which can be accessed by building the relevant structures. All upgrades and actions that require Quanta become expensive after each use. Thus, while Orbital actions can have game changing effects, I rarely found myself using them since the cost increased after each use and the impact of the actions didn’t quite justify spending the Quanta, which were better invested in upgrades.
There are two factions in the game, namely the Post Human Coalition (PHC) and the Substrate. While both have functionally similar units, there are some key differences to set them apart. The available campaign in Ashes of the Singularity is only played from the PHC perspective, so it takes a while to adjust to playing as Substrate. The Substrate have just one unit production building where the PHC have three, though you will need to build multiple structures to set up an efficient unit production queue. Substrate units also come equipped with regenerative shields, but cannot heal the base hitpoints. Though two factions might seem too few, with the limited unit choices for each, the game ships with a lot of maps to play them on and multiplayer can be quite intense. The developers are also constantly updating the game adding more content and fixing balancing and other issues.
Visually speaking, Ashes of the Singularity looks quite decent, but not something that one might consider to be a graphical showpiece of DX12 games. There is attention to detail that can be appreciated, however. Unit sizes have realistic scale and one can see individual turrets and guns firing, even in the heat of battle. Weapons also fire in unique ways. However, weapon damage is not visually apparent, until the units explode in a fireball on death. The Terrain has some great detailing when it comes to the shapes of mountains, but the dull textures detract from that. There’s also a bug with the way shadows are rendered causing Aircraft to cast unrealistically large shadows on the ground. The Menu and UI design is rather bland and the music is decent, but nothing outstanding. While the game is available in both DX11 and DX12 options, I found that it ran better under DX11 with NVIDIA GPUs while the AMD GPUs benefited from DX12. In Early access this difference wasn’t so apparent as the game was unoptimised then, but by the time of release the AMD cards had a stark performance lead over their NVIDIA counterparts.
In conclusion, Ashes of the Singularity can be a very fun RTS, but due to the lack of polish to the campaign, the brilliant gameplay offered by the Nitrous engine isn’t immediately apparent till one really dives into the skirmish mode. The dull visuals do not matter once you are in the heat of battle trying to get one over the smart and reactive AI that seems to learn from its skirmishes with you. There are still some minor bugs and balancing issues to be found, but nothing game breaking. The game would have benefited by extending the early access period to add more polish to the campaign, rather than shipping in its current form.
+Large Unit counts
+Dreadnoughts are awesome
+Streaming Economy makes for interesting strategies
+Detail on units is brilliant
+Game being actively updated
-Lack of polish in campaign
-Limited army management options
-Dull Textures and UI