Age of Darkness Final Stand Early Access Review: They Are Not Billions
The base-builder RTS genre, popularized in the 1990s by games like Starcraft and those in the Warcraft series, used to be one of the stalwart genres of PC gaming. That was before falling into an age of darkness around the time Empire Earth 3 fell flat on its face in 2007. The last real hit in the traditional style might very well have been the third Age of Empires in 2005.
However, the genre has risen from the dead, as so much old pop culture has in the age of the reboot, and developer PlaySide Studios and publisher Team17 are attempting to end the age of darkness with... Age of Darkness: Final Stand, a grimdark RTS similar in style and execution to 2019's They Are Billions, with a heavy-handed nod to those old Blizzard games from 20 years ago as well.
Age of Darkness Final Stand Early Access Review
The game is in Early Access, so it's also super-stripped-down and plays more like a demo than a full-fledged game. There's just one game mode — what the developers call “Survival” — and it's just like the one-off quick battle singleplayer modes in every RTS game to come before it. A campaign is, presumably, coming, but for now, it's one-off battles and only one-off battles.
A roster of heroes is planned, too, those super-powered general units who, whether based on historical figures as in Age of Empires or fantasy archetypes as in Warcraft, apply bonuses to troops while delivering suitably inspiring one-liners whenever you tell them to attack something.
For now, however, Age of Darkness supplies just one: a fellow named Edwin, who wields a flaming sword and has the personality of a wet noodle. A proper hero character in a game like this should feel appropriately heroic. Canned lines of cliched dialogue and one useful line of backstory — "a veteran of many expeditions into the Veil" — in the menu does not a hero's tale make.
Right now, hero characters aren't much more in gameplay terms than upgraded mooks, and there's no incentive for trying to keep them alive — if they die in battle, they just respawn back at base, every bit as expendable as, say, the Patriot characters in 2003's Rise of Nations.
The enemies in this version of RTS home run derby are the Nightmares, who may as well just say “zerg rush kekekeke” in a nod to old Internet memes; if you've played Starcraft, you've seen this a million times.
Buglike swarmers who die by the thousands and whose main ability is to simply overwhelm defenses by sheer numbers are rank and file here. It was zombies in They Are Billions, it's scampering four-legged critters who look a bit like long-lost cousins of the ghouls in The Witcher 3 here.
The enemy also has boss-like units, but they are relatively few in number and defined not at all in the game's lore. They're just more cannon fodder that happen to take a few more hits from regular soldiers but die just as easily from anything upgraded.
Which brings us to the base-building part of “base-builder RTS”. Everything is as you'd expect from the genre; there are zero risks from innovation. The main keep is the defend-at-all-costs objective. You lose the game if the keep falls. There are barracks for making soldiers, towers for defending stationary assets (like, say, the keep), farms and loggers and quarries for gathering the game's resources.
As seems to be the norm nowadays in the revived RTS world, the game wants you to build quickly. A system is in place where a “Death Night” occurs every few in-game days. Enemies burst from the void at ludicrous speed, and the mode is not over until you've killed every last one of them, a demented version of the multiball mode on a pinball machine with your armies as the flippers and the zerg stand-ins as the balls.
During the mode, your base suffers a random malus that may, for example, prevent your units from healing, or raise their upkeep costs such that your economy might crash while you're fighting off the enemy, or other nasty tricks.
The upside, however, is that if you win the Death Night, morning dawns and you get to choose a permanent perk that will usually upgrade one of either your hero, your armies, or your base.
The problem isn't that Age of Darkness is bad. No, it's simply competent. A report card full of B and C grades. Sure, it's good enough to graduate, but it's not making the honor roll. It's built on the RTS base-builder design document, but it has no character, no soul, no defining “Hey, this is worth it” feature to set it apart from what is, after years wandering the wilderness, a revived genre.
Yes, sometimes that's exactly what players are looking for. And yes, it's the earliest of Early Access. Age of Darkness might get better as launch approaches, whenever launch may be — gods know there are more than enough titles that got launched into Early Access and never got finished.
But is that a recommendation? Well, no. Not when you could play They Are Billions, which is a complete experience, or wait a few weeks for Age of Empires 4, or even chase down an old copy of Warcraft 3 or StarCraft, which are still great games over 20 years after they first came out.
Age of Darkness: Final Stand is simply not ready for prime time in its current state. There is a lot of work left to be done. Of course, we'll check back and see how it's turned out a little further down the line and who knows: maybe it will find that one upgrade to survive the night.
[Note: Team 17 provided the copy of Age of Darkness: Final Stand used for this Early Access review.]