PlaySide's grim-dark strategy game knows its audience but could use a little more ambition.
Age of Darkness’ new campaign mode is as old school as strategy games get
Age of Darkness: Final Stand preview
When you hit up PlaySide Studios’ official website, the first thing you'll see is the logo for Warcraft 3: Reforged. Earlier this year, the studio took over support for Blizzard’s beleaguered remaster and if you spend even five minutes with Age of Darkness you’ll have a pretty good idea why.
Launched into Early Access in September 2021, Age of Darkness: Final Stand is a fantasy-flavoured real-time strategy game where you build up your base by day and then fight off hordes of demons by night. As someone with a fondness for the genre, that premise feels right out of the Warcraft 3 custom map-making scene. The tone here veers closer to dark fantasy than Blizzard's fantasy RTS does, but I don't think I've ever encountered a real-time strategy game that owes quite as much to Warcraft 3 as Age of Darkness does.
That's not a bad thing though. If your biggest problem with the state of modern real-time-strategy games is that they don’t make many of them anymore, this Age of Darkness has you squarely in its sights and a vested interest in keeping you around.
In the 18 months since early adopters got their hands on it, PlaySide has worked hard to add both new units and heroes to Age of Darkness. This month, the developer is gearing up for its biggest swing yet: a single-player campaign mode that acts as an on-ramp for new players and brings the lore and characters of the game’s grim setting to the forefront.
Age of Darkness’ single-player campaign is being implemented in two halves, with the first billed as the Flames of Retribution update and due to launch on April 19, 2023. This update will include the first seven missions of the campaign plus a new hero character Marek. The final stretch of the campaign, (referred to as Act 3) is due to arrive later down the road. So are additional heroes and new features and modes like co-op play.
Right now though, the biggest thing that Flames of Retribution brings to the table is more context. The storytelling and worldbuilding in Age of Darkness to date have been largely background noise, adding flavour and colour to a familiar real-time strategy experience.
This next patch pivots that relationship such that storytelling now takes centre stage and where the logline of Age of Darkness was once comparatively simple, PlaySide is now moving to make things more complicated. Characters previously defined by their skills, stats and combat utility are given fresh context by in-game cutscenes and interstitial cinematics that shed light on their motivations and relationships with the world around them.
The writing here isn’t particularly subversive or sweeping, but it isn’t cringeworthy either. There’s little time wasted but a lot of lore to be dumped on the player. In other words, Age of Darkness is very much playing to the genre. The results of this crowd-pleasing bent are every bit as pulpy as that of its biggest inspirations.
Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Despite its negative reputation, there are plenty of comforts to be found in conformity. And for now, at least, the new campaign mode is every bit as traditional as the wave-based survival experience offered by Age of Darkness.
PlaySide gave me an opportunity to mess with the new campaign before the big update dropped and I had a pretty positive time with it. The story-driven scenarios here are as purist as real-time strategy campaigns get and exactly what genre veterans will expect. However, that specific quality sometimes veers alarmingly close to coming off as generic and by the numbers.
More than once, I often found myself wishing that Age of Darkness’ story missions were a little more ambitious or creative. The constraints of each story mission are such that you’re locked into certain segments of the tech tree, so the solution to any particular combat problem rarely feels like it gets more complicated than throwing more units at it.
If the goal with Flames of Retribution is to make storytelling a key pillar of the Age of Darkness experience in a way that it wasn’t before, then I think this update is primed to satisfy that desire. I just can’t help but wish the scenarios involved gave you a little more to chew on.
Most of what I played was an extended tutorial for the basics of combat and base building in Age of Darkness. It's all very RTS 101. I’m fairly confident that later missions are a little more strategically involved but if the campaign is only going to be a dozen or so levels in total it feels like a missed opportunity for any of them to be rote enough that it becomes forgettable.
While the return to this more classical style of strategy game is something I'm on board with, I came away irked that PlaySide hasn’t yet tried to build in a little more replayability or room for creativity into the scenarios here through optional objectives, achievements or even alternate difficulty settings. A little bit would go a long way to making Age of Darkness less of a novel throwback and more of a revival that stands tall enough to earn its own stripes.
It feels almost unfair to directly compare Age of Darkness to its biggest inspiration, but when PlaySide’s affinity for this style of real-time strategy game is enough to see it take on the stewardship of Warcraft 3: Reforged then it becomes hard not to.
Even by the standards of today, Warcraft 3’s campaigns offer up a staggering amount of variety. You’re constantly being pushed to fully engage with every tool in the sandbox, which is one of many reasons that it is so highly regarded. Even in the early stages of that game's single-player campaign, no scenario plays out quite like the last.
Living up to that legacy might sound like a tall order, but I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to make. The bones of what's here are sturdy, and PlaySide would be well served to put more meat on them.
Why settle for making Age of Darkness into another one of those when it's so easy to see that it could be the next great one of those?
No. While it's possible that the game could end up bundled into Microsoft's Game Pass for PC later down the line, Age of Darkness is currently only available to buy in Early Access via Steam.