Version tested: PC
Shhh! Keep it down, would you? And don't read so loud, it's upsetting. Not to me, no. But to it. That big, angry, metaphorical eye sweeping the galaxy, just waiting for an excuse to get up off its arse and clean the insignificant smudge that is human existence off the windscreen of its war machine.
You're humanity's last hope, because you're the last of humanity. You're given a single chance to reclaim the galaxy, and there's one giant, obscene obstacle in your way: the AI. Think Terminator or the Matrix; think any sort of sci-fi where the computers take over and you've got yourself the premise of AI War. Except this time, the battle is fought over the entire galaxy, over dozens of them. You've got to take it all back and the AI can stop you at any time. You've just got to piss it off enough to think you're a genuine threat.
This is Buckaroo, only the stakes are a little higher, and the scale is cosmic. Each little piece of detritus you're littering over that angry donkey is a star system, a data bank, a factory. At any point, you might well take one thing too many, and suddenly, in the top left of your screen, a little message is going to pop up. It's not going to be a pleasant sort of message. It will read something like this:
"30,000 ships headed towards your system in 5:00."
That timer at the end is going to start ticking down and you're going to frantically start to build up your defences, except somewhere, in the back of your mind, you're going to know it's not enough. It'll never be enough. You recall all your ships, from everywhere, to try to mount some kind of realistic defence, but somehow they seem to be moving slower than usual, or maybe it's just because this is so much more urgent and your mind is wanting, no, needing, them to move faster. And oh God the AI ships are here and we're all going to die.
That's AI War at its climax. Well, one of its climaxes. This happens so often, with you barely scraping through each time, that if you aren't a frayed mess of overloaded nerve endings, you're probably just as much a machine as the one you're fighting.
You always start with a single system. This is your home base, with your command station, and the last remnants of humanity held in huge cryogenic pods, hovering in stasis until you can provide them with the safety of an AI-free galaxy. The system is littered with wormholes leading to other systems. It's through these that you send your troops. It's also from these that the enemy attacks.
The actual mechanics of the battle are deceptively simple. Beyond the odd shield here and there, most ships can be divided into a few base types, such as bombers, frigates and fighters. However, figuring out the best configuration doesn't boil down to what to build (everything), but what to research, because research points are like gold dust, and spending them badly could spell your doom.
For the most part, though, you're limited to the ships you start out with. Sometimes, you'll find an advanced research station in an AI system, which will unlock a new ship type, or sometimes there'll be a fabricator which can pump out a single ship type. These sudden blips of variation are one of the most compelling factors in keeping you playing.
If all the AI systems were the same, you'd fall into a very monotonous, very dull game very quickly. Even with the sudden huge waves coming in, that element of discovery plays a huge part in creating a compelling game, and perhaps more importantly, a compelling narrative. This is space opera at its finest; we're dealing with the fate of humanity, after all. So when you take an AI system, and find a huge, half-deteriorated Hive Golem, suddenly your eyes light up like a child at Christmas.
A Hive Golem is a huge, moon-sized spaceship that creates hundreds of swarm ships inside it constantly, only to spew them out at the enemy when you send it in to attack. It has an insane number of hitpoints, and needs to be repaired and then powered, before you can use it. When I was a little shy of the power required to fire one up, I got a wave warning: it was headed to the system where the Golem was, but it wasn't a crazy number of ships. With enough defence, I fended them off without too many casualties, almost bemused at how easy it had all been. It was only when I zoomed out and had a look around the system that I realised what the AI had been up to.
The Golem was just a bunch of scrap. The AI had sent all those ships, sacrificed them, to take the Golem out before I could use it. Before I could even power it up.