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Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation | Review: Think big or get blown up

What do you do when you’ve already gone big? You go enormous, of course.

The original Ashes of the Singularity was released in March of this year and almost immediately stood out among real-time strategy games with its emphasis on large maps, grand spectacles and massive engagements between hundreds of clashing war machines.

Stop thinking in terms of squadrons. In Escalation, it takes entire armadas to come out on top.

Stop thinking in terms of squadrons. In Escalation, it takes entire armadas to come out on top.

Escalation, a new, standalone expansion, takes this large-scale commander experience and ratchets it up a few notches with a slew of new features designed to make hardcore RTS enthusiasts a little more at home, something the base game arguably struggled with. New units, larger maps, an expanded campaign and upgradeable structures and defenses mean fans of the original Ashes can up the ante and dive back in to the planet-spanning battle with an expanded toolbox at their disposal.

Chief among these additions is the new “strategic zoom” function. This vision mode takes the bird’s-eye view to the next level, turning the battle screen into a global view in which the forces and territories on the map are arrayed in a digital 2D display – perfect for taking a macro-management approach to maneuvering the swarms of units at your command. The feature should please strategy aficionados who want to make the most of the massive armies they can construct, but less seasoned RTS players may be frightened off by the big-picture approach.

The strategic zoom, a new tool added in Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation, gives players a big-picture perspective of the battle.

The strategic zoom, a new tool added in Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation, gives players a big-picture perspective of the battle.

This dichotomy is unfortunately indicative of one of Escalation’s few drawbacks. With so many factors being critical to a successful campaign against human or AI opponents, it takes a special kind of player to handle the task of building, maintaining and leading a successful army. Hardcore strategy gamers who enjoy a mental challenge should find enough options, approaches and variables to keep things interesting – in fact, appealing to serious RTS players was a stated goal of developer Stardock Entertainment while building Escalation. Taking on lower-level AI opponents or getting some practice in the campaign mode can help ease rookie RTS players into Escalation, but an overall steep learning curve and lofty skill ceiling could easily turn away some less-seasoned keyboard commanders.

In addition, Escalation finds itself competing with such well-known RTS franchises as Starcraft and Command & Conquer, with fan bases that Ashes of The Singularity may still have difficulty cutting into. Gamers accustomed to the more popular RTS series may be disappointed with the presentation and production value of Escalation’s single-player campaign modes, but the new story chapters tacked onto the original AotS campaign are a welcome addition nonetheless. Besides, the skirmish and ranked online modes are where the game truly shines.

The volcanic landscape is one of the new map types added in Escalation.

The volcanic landscape is one of the new map types added in Escalation.

The opportunity to face off in online matches between up to 14 players on 96 kilometer maps is something most other real time strategy titles can’t compete with. Escalation truly succeeds at providing a uniquely titanic battle simulator with enough unit types to suit any offensive or defensive approach. When thousands of ground-skimming frigates and cruisers clash while aircraft strafe and rain explosives from above, the spectacle speaks for itself. Dreadnoughts, the largest unit type in the game, are a welcome twist on RTS conventions, as they gain experience and can upgrade their abilities as they win battles. This formula for chaotic free-for-all warfare from the original AotS is soundly improved with the new unit types and tools in Escalation.

Another barrier to entry may lie less in the skill of a player but more in their hardware. The original AotS was rather resource-intensive even among PC gaming regulars, and Escalation is no exception. More information on Escalation’s system requirements can be found here. Absolutely gorgeous visuals are the reward if benchmarks are met.

Although Escalation doesn’t deliver everything to everyone, it does deliver an expertly crafted and extremely detailed strategy title. Escalation recreates and builds upon what worked in AotS and gives RTS enthusiasts a solid new option. Curious RTS rookies beware – taking control in Escalation is no stroll through the park. But those in search of challenging and deep strategic engagements can do much worse.

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