Adding to that blandness, each faction’s 15 units look almost identical, although the Post-Humans’ general durability and the Substrate’s overall mobility nicely translate into vastly different strategies. And there’s an advantage to those limited units: were there any more, they’d easily get lost in Ashes’ controlled chaos.
Ashes is all about piling hundreds or even thousands of ships on the screen at once, ranging from flying bombers and small crafts skittering over the maps to lumbering, levelable dreadnoughts that laugh off small-scale attacks. It generally does a good job of it, too. I played with the DirectX 12 support enabled, and my GeForce GTX 980 had few problems running the camera over the busiest battles. It ran well when I zoomed in so close I could see the nicks on my ship’s hulls, at which point the booms and pows of the cannons reverberate in my headphones with satisfying weight. It ran well when I pulled back to the heavens to watch the symphony of destruction from afar (although it never quite reaches SupCom’s distances). The catch? I could only achieve an average of around 45 frames per second.
That rarely seemed to matter, though, as I discovered that dealing with that many units on screen demands shift from the speed-based strategies common to Ashes’ few contemporary RTS cousins. Appropriately for its title, Ashes instead champions a slow burn. Reaching the point where I can cram my screen with hundreds of units usually takes a while, especially when the most powerful units creep over the battlefields with all the urgency of a snail, and I admit that early on I found the thought of refreshing my browser for a Half-Life 3 release date slightly more satisfying.
But that’s the same side of me that got fidgety and distracted while playing chess and high school. I started enjoying Ashes when I learned to think how it wants me to think; when I started sending off dreadnoughts and small accompanying forces off to points they wouldn’t reach for five minutes, all while I scoped out new deposits of resources like metal and radioactives with smaller, faster groups. As these resources queue infinitely once captured, securing them allowed me to focus on strategy rather than the tedium of worrying about depletion rates.
Elsewhere, I shook off my initial disappointment with the samey look of units once I realized I fared much better using a hotkey to treat a collection of them as one entity, a ‘meta unit.’ Sometimes the big battles devolve into a simple tug of war, but Ashes tends to reward players who look beyond the trenches, such as when I swatted away the generally smart AI’s dreadnought assault with an array of long-range missiles I’d quietly built in anticipation. In the tightest spots, I sometimes took a dare and called down massively devastating orbital strikes, but despite their awesomeness, I found they were best used as a late stage bird-flipping when almost all hope is lost.