Date: October 6, 2021
There have been quite a few excellent survival-RTS games in recent years, from Conan Unconquered to They are Billions, and there are even more on the horizon, games like Riftbreaker and Starship Troopers: Terran Command. Starcraft II has been leaning into its online Co-op, and many of the popular maps involve surviving waves of enemies — I know my favorite Starcraft missions have always been the ones where you have to survive against waves of Zerg.
Survival-RTS has essentially gone from being one style of mission or map to a genre unto itself. It’s really a combination of tower defense and traditional RTS gameplay; while you still build and give orders to units, and might even send them outside your walls on expeditions, the main draw is watching hordes of enemies die on your walls. Survival-RTS also provides a one-more-run kind of addictiveness and replayability that traditional RTS games struggle to match, if only because trying to survive just a little longer is generally going to be more exciting than seeing if you can beat a mission a little faster.
One of the latest entries in this burgeoning genre comes to us courtesy of Australian developer PlaySide, under the rather unexciting title Age of Darkness: Final Stand. Despite the lackluster name, the game itself is anything but — I was lucky enough to get to try it before it hits Early Access tomorrow, October 7th, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent stemming the tide of evil.
The game cycles between day and night, and every few evenings, a swarm of enemy units will attack. These swarms are one of the game’s selling points, as the game’s engine can apparently handle up to 70,000 units at once. I didn’t get a chance to witness quite so large a swarm, but even a few thousand monsters bearing down upon my walls was quite an impressive sight.
When the enemy swarm does come, it brings with it a temporary curse that hampers your defenses in some way. Survive the night, and you’ll choose from 3 random boons that provide various bonuses to your units or buildings. You’ll expand your small settlement, build an army, and venture out to scout and hunt for rarer resources. The rewards are greater during the night, but so is the danger, leading to some interesting risk/reward choices.
Concerns about light and dark aren’t limited to the day/night cycle, however. The fog of war in AoD is a deadly thing, and encroaches on your territory from all sides. The fog — known as “The Veil” — horrifies and damages your units, but you can construct beacons to bolster your troop’s morale and keep back the fog. It’s a fun mechanic, but relatively simple in its current implementation — I hope to see more done with the Veil in the future.
Age of Darkness looks and feels a lot like an Age of Empires title (similar titles too, huh), with military units being appropriately dwarfed by the buildings they are tasked with protecting. Unlike that seminal strategy title, you don’t need to worry about silly workers or peasant units; AoD streamlines the city-building and resource-gathering aspects of the game to let you focus on strategy and tactics. Once you plop down a building, it will simply begin to build itself. Resources are gathered in a similar fashion: you can assign 1 or more workers to a structure (up to its maximum capacity), and you can remove them later if you need them for something else. Resource deposits don’t deplete, so your only concern in that regard is further expansion to support a larger army and more upgrades.
I quite enjoyed the way population and food are used as a resource in AoD: Each military unit you build costs you one villager, and it takes one or more villagers to run the various resource-gathering structures. You can reassign villagers as needed, and you gain more by building more houses. These houses require food to build, but food is collected and used differently than the other resources in AoD (and in most RTS games). Each food-“producing” structure provides a flat increase to your total available food, and each house deducts a flat amount of food from your available total. This system does a great job representing the concept of food supporting a populace while being simple to use.
The construction and resources are streamlined for a reason — you’ll be spending most of your time microing your combat units. While there are only a limited amount of units in the game so far, they all feel responsive and easy to use (except for the slow-moving siege weaponry, but that’s by design). You can casually attack-move your way through the monsters near your base, but as you venture deeper into enemy territory, you’ll have to move your troops with care. Many of the stronger enemies have area-of-effect attacks that can easily wipe out large swaths of your army if you aren’t paying attention. There are also elite enemies that only spawn at night, and require proper preparation in order to take down — but reward you with rare and valuable resources when slain.
You use these rarer resources to upgrade your army as a whole. While there aren’t a huge amount of options, they are certainly interesting, and the branching trees of the upgrade system require you to make some tough decisions about which path to go down. Perhaps the most interesting tree was the ranged unit’s: the final upgrade choices are double damage when in towers, fire attacks, or the ability to become invisible and move rapidly. The global upgrades feel impactful, which makes them much more satisfying than the typical +1 attack style options that most RTS games offer.
A key part of your tactics is how you utilize your hero unit, essentially a small army unto themselves. The game only has a single, fairly generic guy-with-sword right now, but there are two greyed-out options on the hero selection menu, and who knows how many may get added as the game is developed. Despite his generic stylings, it was still fun giving orders to the tall, strong blonde man with the fire sword (Edwin, bearer of the flame is his official title) — he massacred monsters with ease, but still required tending to keep alive. Your hero gains abilities as it levels up, so you’re incentivized to take them out on expeditions, allowing them to gain the skills they’ll need to keep your walls safe at night.
Naturally, when you aren’t out in the field or worrying about resource management, you’ll be constructing defenses. Placing walls, gates, and towers in Age of Darkness is a straightforward affair, and each structure type has three tiers of strength; you’ll go from simple wood structures to sturdy stone as you tech up. You can put ranged units in towers, and you can even set fire to your walls if you get desperate. Repairs are easily done with the single click of a button come morning.
Interestingly, you seem able to construct buildings basically anywhere you have vision (and there isn’t evil fog), which leads to some cool strategic choices you can make about where to set up your defenses. The procedurally generated maps can make it challenging to find and defend the resources you need, so the freedom you get with buildings is a welcome feature.
All in all, Age of Darkness: Final Stand has a strong gameplay foundation to build upon in Early Access. While some aspects of the game don’t feel like fully fleshed out systems yet, I love what’s there so far, and I’m excited to see what PlaySide does with it.
Plan on checking out Age of Darkness? Got any questions about the game? Think tower defense games shouldn’t have RTS mechanics? Let us know in the comments!