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Astounding new RTS game is like Command and Conquer with a big twist

Some of the best RTS classics, like Command and Conquer and Homeworld, are reimagined in a new strategy game with a smart insect twist.

Empire of the Ants Steam RTS game: Two ants from Steam RTS game Empire of the Ants

Command and Conquer is a masterpiece in brutal, dehumanizing warfare. Tanks roll off the production line, uniform infantry units pour from the barracks, and you send them all off to fight and get slaughtered in huge amorphous waves. The value of a single life in Westwood’s genre-defining opus is basically zero. You are an omniscient, usually malevolent deity of war, killing and causing people to be killed with cold indifference. A new RTS game, built in Unreal Engine 5, takes this brutal satire to a new level. If you’re hyped for Homeworld 3 or hoping for another C&C game, this is a vibrant new rival, and PCGamesN went hands-on at this year’s Game Developers Conference.

Empire of the Ants is much more than just an RTS game with insects. The principal gimmick, of course, is that you play as and command a burgeoning colony of the titular insects, attempting to spread your influence across a forest, modeled on the leafy surrounds of countryside Paris. Naturally, Empire of the Ants also takes some cues from 2017’s Empires of the Undergrowth, but mechanically it feels a lot smoother, more intuitive, and cleaner.

As a single ant general, you can move freely about the foliage, effortlessly clinging to leaves, branches, and rocks – the only barrier is water, which you cannot touch without losing health. Your movement is fluid and graceful. Quite frankly, I could happily play a version of this game where I just scuttle around and explore. But developer Tower Five has created something with much more depth and substance.

Rather than a top-down view, you command your insect brethren from ground level. Orders are simple and intuitive, and every single unit – down to every individual ant – is fully modeled and simulated. My objective is to defeat and overthrow a collective of termites that has taken up residence close to our own nest. Other enemies appear in the game – I also have a deadly skirmish with some huge fire bugs – but termites are the ants’ natural foe.

I find a small burrow that is hitherto neutral, and populated exclusively by directionless, queenless workers. With the tap of a key, I order my soldiers to dig down and start killing. For a moment, I feel like a kind of ant Napoleon, as I mount a nearby stone and watch the entire battle from an elevated vantage, squeaking and scratching additional commands from afar. Eventually, the burrow is overwhelmed and converted, and now I can start building.

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By standing on top of the small dirt mound that constitutes the nest’s center, I can scroll through a radial menu by simply turning my little ant body. The options are numerous. I can create more soldier ants, I can evolve new warfighting abilities, or I can build additions to the new hive. Opting for more infantry, a horde of fresh fighters scurry forth and cover the forest floor. Surrounded by my six-legged troopers, we march towards the termites.

Empire of the Ants looks incredible. It’s tactile, physical, and fully realized in every way. When the insects clash, they wrap around one another and tumble across the ground. When they die, their little bodies curl up and crust into tragic, gray effluvia.

It’s the horror of RTS and strategy games writ large – but also, at the same time, scaled down to a microscopic level. There are literally thousands of us, and always more bugs ready to mindlessly die in service to the queen and the commune. But combat is visceral and drawn out. Dozens die for the sake of literally inches of forest space.

Empire of the Ants RTS game: An ant leading a battle in new RTS game Empire of the Ants

It’s unfortunately rare that you see or get to play a game that feels distinctive and esoteric. Empire of the Ants is undoubtedly one of the best-looking RTS games I’ve played in years, and one of the most exciting new prospects for 2024. We’re still waiting on a release date, but this is one to watch.

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