It’s pretty clear that there is a pattern. With a legacy in games like Dark reign and KKnD, work on the Age of empires remasters and now the abundance of talent in The dark agesIt’s obvious: Australia is really good at making real-time strategy games.
Age of Darkness: Final Stand, arriving in early access on Steam today, is a single player strategy game about the surviving waves of nightmares (read: the green undead). It is the closest in spirit to They are billions, an indie game that briefly rose to the top of Steam’s best seller list thanks to its streamlined management, intensity, and classic RTS tropes. Melbourne studio PlaySide has followed a similar path, although it’s clear that much of their inspiration comes from Warcraft 3.
You start with a town center and a small handful of units: a hero, two archers, and two melee soldiers. You have a series of resources at the bottom right, most of which will be familiar to fans of any strategy game from the past three decades: Villagers, Food, Gold, Wood, Stone, Iron, and Black Crystals, the latter of which will help you. won’t really use until you start unlocking high level upgrades.
Initially, as is always the case in Warcraft and those iconic Blizzard titles, the goal is to jumpstart your economy. Villagers are used for everything in The dark ages – build houses, cut down trees, exploit quarries or stand in line on the battlefield. You don’t control individual villagers, but can control how many are deployed in certain buildings. A farm, for example, can support a maximum of four villagers when fully upgraded. But if you find yourself in a place where you really need that extra worker to be able to build a final unit to repel an incoming wave, The dark ages gives you that touch of manual control.
Either way, most games start out like this. You start by using your available food supply to build houses, which generates gold. Like all resources, gold regenerates on a small timer, so you don’t have to worry about the placement of manual workers. Once you have enough gold again, you can start building lumber yards to generate lumber.
Lumber yards give you the first indication of how The dark ages mix things up. When you place a building that generates resources, the return you get depends on what is nearby. Farms, for example, generate the most yield with full clearing, no trees, no other buildings, or even a shoreline nearby. Add more houses or turrets or literally anything around the farm later? Its performance will slowly decrease.
So you accumulate your resources, slowly unlocking the tech tree as you go. After a few minutes, day turns to night and the fun begins. Nightmares – that’s zombies – are stronger at night. Some Elite Nightmares with all their juicy XP and resources only spawn at night in certain locations.
Anything you don’t clean will eventually fall out the door. You get a few rounds of this day / night cycle, but at some point the game warns you that a crystal is about to explode. When it does, that’s when the horde literally rises from the ground – and you’d better have walls, turrets, and archers ready.
You go through several of those Death Nights, where a crystal explodes, spawning hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of nightmares. The saving grace is that The dark ages nightmares don’t attack you all angle as soon as The Bad Night begins. You usually have one day’s notice to prepare, and for each incoming massive wave you are granted one of the three “blessings” to avoid future waves.
Most of the things in The dark ages arrive relatively slowly. Your units, the nightmares themselves, the build times – everything is happening at a fairly leisurely pace. There is an active break, much like the new one A company of heroes, which allows you to issue future commands while reflecting on the battlefield.
Everything is very thoughtful and surprisingly much more polished than I expected. The dark ages is still an Early Access game, so a lot of the choices you make are relatively limited right now. There are only six main units: archers, soldiers, upgraded versions of the two, and two siege units in the Flamer and Impaler. You also have a single hero unit, which for now is Flame-wielding Edwin, slowly leveling up with more kills.
Edwin is your most powerful asset in the early days. It is capable of damaging nightmares so much that your other forces only need one stab or one blow to complete the job. But it also means that there is an important practical benefit to closely managing Edwin’s targets, since you’ll be better able to deal with waves of undead by making sure Edwin doesn’t waste his attacks.
Everything looks like the first moments of a Warcraft 3 game, where you slowly accumulate resources at home, but focusing on a small group of units as they gain experience and discover new resources on the battlefield.
Your regular units do not gain XP, but they do have a secondary counter called “emboldened”. It basically follows their courage and comfort on the battlefield, and as they get bolder they’ll deal more damage, be more resilient, regenerate health faster, and stay alive longer. Much of the unit and AI flow is pretty straightforward, so you’ll want to keep a close eye on your forces as there is a huge difference between an experienced group of frontline tanks and those fresh out of the barracks.
What is also very interesting at this early stage is how The dark ages really forces you to step out of your comfort zone. To increase your resource cap, you need to build warehouses, which also have the added benefit of improving the efficiency of any nearby resource collectors. On top of that, your two base resources for higher level units and buildings – iron and stone – are still in short supply near your base. Much of the experience involves this constant exploration, clearing out areas of nightmares during the day and night, finding those resources that you can finally tap into.
This continued expansion is necessary to build your army, as you can’t just stack farms next to each other, they will only become less effective over time. Space is also a factor to consider – on some of the procedurally generated maps I’ve played on, building anything other than a farm in a particular lane made it very difficult for my armies to progress smoothly. So you have be aggressive to a point just so you can unlock the resources you need – not just to build up a force that can withstand the great nights of death, but also to have the excess resources to rebuild whatever you might lose. Walls, towers and ballistae cost a tonne – not only in wood, stone and iron, but also in villagers and food.
Due to embargoes on OLED Switches and Terror of the metroids, I haven’t had so much time with The dark ages as I would have liked. But there was enough for me to have three games, one of which ended pretty quickly, another that lasted in double digits, and a third where I just died on the last wave. If you make it all the way to the final attack you are probably planning around 10-12 hours of playtime. It was 30 days in total, although I’m not sure you can extend this play by just not eliminating crystals on the map before they explode. (Crystals becoming unstable are usually what triggers each of the Death Nights.)
Since I haven’t won a match yet – well, at least not without skimming, as it’s still an option – I’d say you’d probably need around 20 hours for more experienced strategy players get their first win on normal difficulty. You can go harder, of course. There are plenty of customizations available if you want to fine tune the availability of resources to be more plentiful, but zombies always hit harder.
The dark ages officially launches on Steam tomorrow morning Australian time. When it comes time to play, there is only a simple sandbox survival mode, but by the time it leaves Early Access, there will be a full campaign offering based on a story and challenge scenarios to to resolve.
The sandbox alone is big enough that you might consider a dollar an hour in terms of gameplay, if not better, for a few full wins. (Update: It will be $ 31.95 locally, the developers confirmed.) More importantly, what surprised me most was how much The dark agesthe fundamentals are. Not only does the game perform well as a single-player RTS, but the performance is rock-solid: I played the whole game in 4K, with full settings, with no noticeable hang-ups to performance, even during the final waves. frantic. The main weakness is simply a lack of choice as you get closer to the end of the game – you largely build the same units and run
Already, The dark ages is quite impressive. That alone is a huge accomplishment, not only because the genre is in desperate need of more standout titles, but because it’s such a quick deviation from what the Melbourne developers have made a career out of. About 12 hours was more than enough to see why Team17 was happy to throw millions of dollars at PlaySide for publish rights. The dark ages isn’t just good for an early access game or an Australian game. It’s just good, period.