Much as predicted, I never got anywhere close to a victory. I tried a difficulty 9 campaign and died after a couple of hours. The same for difficulty 8. I skipped difficulty 7 and went back to my difficulty 6 "kitchen sink game." And I died within an hour. Some mysterious 3rd party decided they were going to raid my home planet while my main forces were engaged with the AI in a distant star system.
I think the tricky thing about AI War is that its logic works backwards. The better you do, the stronger the AI gets. I had a hard time adjusting to that. It's my usual strategy to consolidate my power, building up my forces and then snowballing as I gathered more resources and territory. Scrambling to mount a defense after a series of decisive victories is just completely foreign to my way of thinking.
I think it's something I could have learned to cope with in time, but time was not on my side. The process of getting good at the game is surely one of "unlearning what I have learned," and that never goes as quickly as one might hope.
I wonder what goes through a developer's mind when they try to make a massive time-sink of a game. On the one hand, "hours played" has to correlate at least somewhat with "enjoyment," and if your goal is to maximize the enjoyment of your game, having your players still pursuing mastery, even after 20 hours, would seem like a species of success.
But then maybe the length of the game is meant to be provocative, a gauntlet thrown down before the player, a test to see if they can decipher the riddle set before them. It may seem needlessly paranoid, but if you understand the game in the context of a genre, it makes sense. If a player thought they'd completely mastered the RTS, if they'd thought they had solved the genre in general, then AI War forces them to approach their strategy in a radically different way. For a relative genre novice like myself, it sometimes feels like a joke where I walked in halfway through the punchline.
Still, I have to give AI War credit for daring to do something different. It is a game that weds story to mechanics and rewards players who really get invested in the world. It is an RTS game for RTS super-fans, those who have become jaded by the "defacto quick win and then tediously mop up for the technical victory" pattern that can sometimes plague other RTS games. By upending that formula, it becomes a game of rising action, where victory is an uphill climb. Which I can appreciate, even if I'm the sort of hopeless scrub who enjoyed the tedious mopping up phase which this game (probably) dispensed with.