Real-time strategy (RTS) games went through a massive phase of popularity in the 1990s and 2000s. LAN parties saw people staying up to unearthly hours of the night playing PC games like Age of Empires, Warcraft, and StarCraft, mastering complex strategies and leading digital armies to victory. Although the RTS genre isn’t as big as it once was, there are still brilliant modern games holding the beacon aloft. One such example is Age of Darkness: Final Stand from Australian developer PlaySide Studios.
Launched on Steam in Early Access in October 2021, Age of Darkness tasks you with defending a keep against hordes of dark magical beings known as Nightmares. To survive, you must fortify your defences while recruiting an army capable of withstanding everything the Nightmares throw at you. With an in-game day/night cycle, daylight hours are for acquiring resources and shoring up fortifications, while nightfall is all about hoping like hell everything holds together.
When Age of Darkness originally launched in its early development state, its survival mode was the core focus. Different from many RTS games focused on dividing and conquering, this locally-made strategy title put the emphasis on defending a single location against an ever-increasing threat. My first experience with the game was that of utter embarrassment at how swiftly defeat came. If you don’t take full advantage of different unit types and defensive structures, survival is nigh impossible.
Part of this early challenge stemmed from a limited in-game tutorial system, leaving you to figure things out via trial and error. Fortunately for those, like myself, who enjoy a story campaign that also teaches you how to play, that moment has arrived. Age of Darkness‘ latest content update, Flames of Retribution, is its biggest to date, delivering the first two acts of a decent campaign.
Age of Darkness: Final Stand gets a meaty story
Set in the dark fantasy world of Erodar, Age of Darkness‘ campaign currently consists of seven missions, with the final act to come in a future update. Each mission, replete with full voice acting, immerses you further in its foreboding world, depicting a land at breaking point. Tensions between factions are on the rise, as power and magic corrupt those meant to be bastions of peace.
In the first few missions, you’re walked through the basics of how to play, including how to control units and collect resources essential for army expansion. Although these early chapters are light on action, they serve an important purpose in welcoming newcomers to the game. Narrative intrigue also plays out, with characters’ motivations and beliefs adding more than a substantial backdrop to the tutorialisation.
Some of the RTS genre’s complexities could be spelled out even more plainly, however. Sometimes, you’re asked to construct a building without being explicitly told where things are on the menu. For genre veterans, this isn’t much of an issue. Complete newcomers, on the other hand, may encounter moments of confusion trying to find what they need.
Everything you need to survive
An area where Age of Darkness: Final Stand distinguishes itself from other RTS games is through its pause system. Need a moment to get your bearings? Hit the spacebar and everything stops, giving you time to process the complex information. Considering the game can render up to 70,000 units on-screen at once, you’ll need to use this function at regular intervals.
As you battle your way through the campaign’s missions, the action increases in intensity, testing your accumulated knowledge. Ultimately, the goal is to prepare you for survival mode, the game’s core challenge. With multiple hero characters to choose from and deeply layered difficulty options, there’s plenty to master.
Of the heroes, the Flames of Retribution update introduces Merek, an ale-swilling, axe-swinging brick wall known as “The Bolstering Might”. Despite what he likes others to think, his morals leave much to be desired thanks to a penchant for gold. An impressive design feat is that the way he plays is cohesive with his characterisation. Merek’s abilities stem from his imposing size and menacing undertones, including a passive based on his fondness for drinking. A mix of crowd control and strengthening allies makes him a formidable character to use.
With new ways to play, future updates planned, and more story content on the way, Age of Darkness: Final Stand is in even better shape now than ever before. RTS games may have been around for decades, but this Australian-made gem has a fresh take worth playing.
Age of Darkness: Final Stand is out now in Early Access on Steam. The Flames of Retribution update is out on 19 April 2023 and is free to all players who own the game.