The AI, it seems, is a colossal bastard.
And I'm so very grateful that's the case. In a game called AI War, you might expect it, but having a competent opponent one who isn't just sending wave after wave against you is wonderfully refreshing. Precise raids like that, along with the sudden, worst-timing-possible raids, let you know that the AI knows what it's doing. It knows when you're on the back foot, where you're weak, where to strike to really screw with your things. And this is on the default difficulty, of which there are near infinite permutations. Not only can you set a specific difficulty value, but there are also AI 'personalities'.
You can set it to be overly aggressive, perhaps sacrificing the safety of its systems to take you out. You can have it creating beachheads in your systems before it moves on with the offensive. With the game's two expansions, the number of different variations of AI type is around 40, each with their own unique use of items and ship types.
There are so many variables, in fact, that you'll be able to find a configuration that compliments you, regardless of how you like to play your strategy games. There's even a bunch of special events you can switch on and off, like human colonies rebelling against the AI control. If you save them before the insurrection is over, you'll get a nice bonus, and it'll count down the AI Progress a little. Fail, and the AI will just get a little bit more pissed off with that smudge we call the human race and it might decide to lash out.
One of the brilliant things about AI War is quite how clear it makes everything you're doing. Each little thing that pisses the AI off lights up as a status message, letting you know quite how much anger it's causing. Managing that AI Progress number is a fine art, requiring you to really pick your targets, rather than go all out and relentlessly expand into each and every system. It's a balancing act, with your own strength on one side, and the AI's opinion of you on the other. Piss it off before you're ready to face it, and you're going to get squashed.
That moment, when you're finally in a position to turn the tables, is about as glorious as gaming gets. Your fleet will be a huge, pulsating swarm of tiny bombers and fighters, and larger, more impressive starships, the lines of their boosts creating spiralling weaves of light covering the space between the ships. It'll be an unstoppable force, tearing a swathe through the galaxy, homing in on the AI's Command Station. And when that last remnant is taken out, you can finally, resolutely, breathe a sigh of relief, before starting up a whole new campaign. Perhaps with some friends, this time.
AI War supports up to eight players playing co-operatively, with synchronised saves and even drop in/out support, so you don't have to have the same eight players for the whole campaign. Naturally, the AI response to this increased threat is more waves of ships attacking more frequently, but when you've got a bunch of buddies to come and reinforce you, the drama of each conflict is ramped up in turn.
Since AI War's first release in 2009, developer Arcen Games has barely let a day go by without some tweak to the game, however major or minor. It's currently on 5.0, each integer marking some massive overhaul. The level of attention this one single game has been receiving is nothing short of astonishing, not to mention the fact that it's recently hit its third expansion, each of which add multiple new AI types and ships, and, with the latest, a campaign story mode.
The heart of AI War is in its asymmetrical nature, but that uniqueness permeates the entire game, from the way each fight works to your overarching strategy. There's an element of discovery in it that is partly due to the procedural nature with which the galaxies are created, but also down to the incredible amount of options each time you create a game.
You might think it would detract, making it all seem a little too randomised and chaotic, but the strength of the game is in its mechanics, rather than the terrain. Space is just space. It's nothing until you fill it up with something glorious.