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Forget asteroids hurtling towards the Earth ­ AI: Alien Intelligence begins with a curiously unexplained event of such cataclysmic scope that it attacks not just one planet, but all known worlds within the galaxy.

A few races manage to survive, but populations have been decimated and technology lost. Now each race wants to lay claim to the remaining habitable sections of the galaxy, and it's up to you to lead one of them to victory.

Sounds like another real-time strategy outing? It isn't. Although there is real-time combat on the surfaces of the various planets you attempt to conquer and colonise, you'll also find yourself fighting intense battles in outer space.

There are six races that you can either command or, as it were, conquer. Variations are more than just cosmetic ­ each race's mentality and culture will form a vital part of your strategy. The highly evolved Psionids (bless 'em) possess strong mental powers that they use to confuse the enemy in the heat of battle. In contrast, the insectoid Strixthes behave more like ants or bees (well they would, wouldn't they?) with mindless drones being controlled by a queen to lethal effect. Another insect race, the Arkanians, are more like roaches, and can construct anything out of garbage ­ they're also excellent thieves.

The remaining three races all served as servants before being liberated by the disaster, and are now enjoying their freedom.

The Munzoids are the closest race to humans ­ they are descended from Mongolians captured and enslaved by an alien race. The Munzoids are extremely aggressive and never surrender. More sinister are the Metalloids, which are somewhere between Star Trek's Borg race and the T1000 from Terminator 2. Artificially created as servants, their individual thought processors are controlled by a central computer known as The One. They reproduce by absorbing metal and then splitting, amoeba like, in two. Finally, there are the dragon-like Drache. These former slaves are skilled workers and can transform a barren landscape into a habitable world PDQ.

So far so good. But what sets AI apart is its structure. There are no missions per se ­ instead, you simply dive in and play, saving the game when you get too tired to continue. This gives it a much more epic feel than C&C; and its ilk, and also provides a completely non-linear structure.

It is also vast and, at the same time, detailed. The planets that you colonise will give your race not only a place to grow, but also many resources. At the same time, planets have their own ecosystem which could be upset if you choose to meddle with it. For example, you may decide to eliminate a creature that becomes a pest, but in doing so, the predators that live off those creatures might start viewing your race as an alternative food source.

Once you've successfully populated one planet, you will want to expand ­ and for that you need ships. In addition to outpost and colony ships, there are seven basic hull types for each race, all of which can be customised to some degree. Some of these are ideal for ferrying troops to newly discovered planets, while others are combat specific. Not only can these interstellar behemoths face off against enemy fleets, but they are also capable of bombing planets.

War is avoidable, though: diplomatic relations are a large part of the game and you can maintain neutrality, enter into hostilities or even form an alliance with another race. Trade is another area and will provide you with resources that you cannot get for yourself and money, which goes towards the development and running of your colonies.

Naturally, careful resource management is central to the success of your empire. For your colonies to flourish, you need sufficient food, as well as plenty of buildings and structures. You can't have buildings without metals, which must be mined, and power, which is derived from radioactives. And of course, you can't build anything without money, which you'll need for units, ships and structures. Fortunately, resource management is made easier because materials can be used anywhere, not just in the area they were acquired.

AI certainly appears to be ambitious. And it's definitely refreshing to see a game where frantically paced real-time combat is not the only focus.

In some ways it's a little reminiscent of MicroProse's XCOM games, albeit on a much grander scale, with its balance of combat, resource management and research (another important factor, with over 150 levels of technology to develop or, in some cases, steal).

However, it is infinitely more complex ­ in fact, it is daunting in its scope. And that's just the solo game. There are also multiplayer options which include both aggressive and co-operative modes.

One cannot fault Flatline Studios for its ambition. All that remains is to see whether AI lives up to its huge potential.

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