Real-Time Strategy is a popular genre with one of the most challenging design approaches. Many games fail to find their place and succeed, even though the most popular competitors in the genre are more than ten years old. The main task most modern RTS games fail at is appealing to both casual players and hardcore esport fans. Players who love the Starcraft or Age of Empires series, enjoy the competition, and players who love the Anno series, prefer the more casual gameplay and the sense of progression and achievement.
Age of Darkness: Final Stand, developed by Playside and published by Team17, is a survival RTS set in a dark fantasy world, where you have to build a base, train an army, and prepare to defend the last human settlement against hordes of undead. Age of Darkness: Final Stand manages to find a sweet spot between the two types of RTS fans and provides an enjoyable experience for both casual and hardcore audiences without hindering the overall quality of the game. I got the chance to play the early access version of the game, and as an RTS fan, I can't wait for the final release! So let's talk about everything that the game gets right.
First of all, Age of Darkness looks gorgeous. The color scheme and the dark atmosphere, the desperate-looking villagers and medieval structures, and the hordes of scary undead creatures roaming the lands perfectly convey the feeling of survival, humanity's last hope, and the "Final Stand" against a horrible fate. Within the first few minutes of starting the game, it's clear that the stakes are high. Single-player RTS games can rarely reach the same level of excitement and stress as a multiplayer game, but Age of Darkness: Final Stand's visual style gives it a considerable boost in the right direction.
Every aspect of the game feels perfectly woven together. The graphics, the soundtrack, the gameplay, and the mechanics all elevate each other. For example, as we progress through the game, we can unlock fire towers to be a source of light in the oppressing darkness, the hero will level up and gain access to radiant abilities, and we can research fire arrows for the archers. Each of these gameplay mechanics translates to small graphical changes. The small sources of fire, and the radiant light that the hero emits when using his abilities, have a huge contrast with the greenish fog and darkness throughout the map, and it eventually leads to a subtle feeling of hope. There are many more small details like this in Age of Darkness, and they all have subtle emotional impacts as we play the game that makes us more invested in it.
Age of Darkness: Final Stand has an increasingly challenging gameplay loop. You build your economy to gather more resources, build an army to explore the map and defend against the undead, and build static defences to protect your base. The hordes of undead that attack your base at the end of each cycle get bigger and more dangerous, so you need a bigger and better army. In order to do that, you need more resources, to gather more resources, you need to expand your base and sometimes go outside of your pre-established walls and towers, and to protect the new areas of your base, you need another layer of defensive structures.
There is no tutorial to tell us how to build a base and expand, but after we learn the basic mechanics, the gameplay loop naturally teaches us how to do this. Age of Darkness is a casual RTS game, but by no means is it an easy game. Even in the easiest difficulty level, if we don't build enough defences and position our army correctly, the zombies will overwhelm us. It's casual in the sense that we are not competing with another player like in multiplayer RTS games, and we don't need to be better than someone else in order to win. But it's still challenging because each time we start a new game, we know what we did wrong in the last run, and we try to do better. Beating the final wave of attacks that spawn at the end of the game seems impossible to even in the easy difficulty, but when a player eventually beats that, the game has many more challenges to offer.
This sense of casual gameplay with a hidden layer of difficulty is also present in the army and unit compositions in the game. Apart from the hero, there are only six unit types in Age of Darkness; Fighters and archers, elite fighters and elite archers, and two siege units. Unlike most other RTS games with tens of different units where you have to figure out the best composition against each enemy, the army composition is pretty straightforward in this game. Build as many fighters and archers as you can, and throw in enough flame throwers and impalers to deal AOE damage against larger groups of enemies.
But the challenge here comes in the shape of the positioning and micro of your units. If the archers and siege units are caught off guard without the tanky fighters in front to protect them, they will die pretty easily. If we learn to create choke points and avoid being surrounded by hundreds of zombies, we will have fewer casualties after each battle. And if we learn a few micro techniques such as pulling back the damaged units and stutter-stepping our archers, that's when fights can become too easy, and we would be ready to go to the next difficulty level.
Another thing that I really loved about Age of Darkness, is its clever twist on the fog of war system. Fog of war is an RTS mechanic popularized in the early days of strategy video games, and they eventually became an integral part of the genre. The term refers to the areas of the map that we have discovered before, but when we don't have a unit actively observing the area, the map will become partially hidden. We can see the discovered terrain in the areas covered by fog of war, but we won't be aware of any enemy troops or activities in the area. In Age of Darkness, the fog of war becomes a literal fog during deadly nights that can slowly suffocate the troops that are too far from the vision provided by structures or fire towers. Not only is it a unique interpretation of a popular game mechanic, but it's also another feature that evokes a strong feeling of encroaching darkness and fear as we have to retreat to the safety of our base and prepare for the worse.
In addition to static defence in the form of walls and towers, Age of Darkness also rewards exploration so as to not become a one-dimensional tower defence game. There are points of interest and elite enemies spread across the map that will reward us with resources or troops, and there are crystals that spawn thousands of enemies during the deadly nights. These crystals will shatter when the attacks begin, and leave behind rare gems that will be required for researching the final rows of talents for the troops.
Age of Darkness: Final Stand is currently in early access, but it already feels complete. The only thing that would make it better, is more content, and the exciting news is that that's exactly what's coming. With a glance at the main menu of the game, we can see that more heroes will be added to the game, and there's a scenario game mode that's still unavailable. I personally can't wait to try the new heroes and experience the story that tells us more about the game's world in scenario mode.