It’s pretty clear there’s a pattern. With a legacy in games like Dark Reign and KKnD, the work on the Age of Empires remasters and now the abundance of talent in Age of Darkness, it’s obvious: Australia is really good at making real-time strategy games.
Age of Darkness: Final Stand, which hits early access on Steam today, is a single-player strategy game about surviving waves of Nightmares (read: green undead folk). It’s 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 have followed a similar path, although it’s clear a lot of their inspiration comes from Warcraft 3.
You start out with a town centre and a small handful of units: one hero, two archers, and two melee soldiers. You’ve got a string of resources in the bottom right, most of which will be familiar to fans of any strategy game from the last three decades: villagers, food, gold, wood, stone, iron and dark crystals, the latter of which you won’t really use until you start to unlock high-tier upgrades.
Initially, as it always is in Warcraft and those iconic Blizzard titles, the goal is to get your economy going. Villagers are used for everything in Age of Darkness — building homes, chopping down trees, mining quarries, or lining up on the battlefield. You don’t control the individual villagers, but can control how many are deployed within certain buildings. A farm, for instance, can support a maximum of four villagers when fully upgraded. But if you find yourself in a spot where you really need that extra worker so you can build one last unit to hold off an incoming wave, Age of Darkness gives you that touch of manual control.
Anyway, most games begin 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 manual worker placement. Once you’ve got enough gold again, you can start building lumber yards to generate wood.
Lumber yards give you the first indication of how Age of Darkness mixes things up. When you place any resource generating building, how much return you get is dependent on what’s within its proximity. Farms, for instance, generate the most return in complete clearing, with no trees, other buildings, or even a nearby shoreline. Add more houses or turrets or literally anything around the farm later on? Its output will slowly decrease.
So you build up your resources, slowly unlocking the tech tree as you go. After a few minutes, day will turn into night, and the fun begins. Nightmares — that’s the 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 clear out, eventually, will come knocking. You get a few rounds of this day/night cycle, but at one point the game warns you that a crystal is about to explode. When it does, that’s when the horde literally rises up from the ground — and you’d better have some walls, turrets and archers at the ready.
You go through several of these Death Nights, where a crystal explodes, spawning hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of nightmares. The saving grace is that Age of Darkness doesn’t have the nightmares attack you from every angle as soon as The Bad Night begins. You’re usually given a day’s notice to prepare, and for each incoming massive wave you’re gifted with one of three “blessings” to stave off future waves.
Most things in Age of Darkness happen relatively slowly. Your units, the nightmares themselves, building times: everything is at a fairly leisurely pace. There’s an active pause, much like the new Company of Heroes, which lets you issue future commands while pondering the battlefield.
It’s all very considered and, surprisingly, a lot more polished than I expected. Age of Darkness is still very much an early access game, so a lot of the choices you make are relatively limited for now. There’s only six main units: archers, soldiers, upgraded versions of both, and two siege units in the Flamer and Impaler. You’ve also got a single hero unit, which for now is the flame-wielding Edwin who slowly levels up with more kills.
Edwin’s your most powerful asset in the first several days. He’s capable of damaging the nightmares so much that your other forces only require a single stab, or shot, to finish the job. But that also means there’s a strong practical benefit to closely managing Edwin’s targets, since you’ll be better able to deal with waves of undead by making sure Edwin isn’t wasting his attacks.
It all feels like the opening moments of a Warcraft 3 game, where you’re slowly building up 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 don’t gain XP, but they do have a secondary meter called “emboldened”. It basically tracks their courage and comfort on the battlefield, and as they become emboldened, they’ll deal more damage, be more resistant, regenerate health faster, and just stay alive longer. Much of the unit pathing and AI is pretty simplistic, so you’ll want to keep a close eye on your forces because there’s a massive difference between an experienced group of front-line tanks, and ones fresh out of the barracks.
What’s also really interesting at this early stage, too, is how Age of Darkness really forces you to build out of your comfort zone. To expand your resource cap, you have to build warehouses — which also have the benefit of improving the efficiency of any nearby resource gatherers. On top of that, your two core resources for higher tier units and buildings — iron and stone — are always in short supply near your base. So much of the experience involves that constant exploration, clearing out areas of nightmares during the day and night, searching for those resources that you can finally tap into.
That continued expansion is necessary to build up your army, because you can’t just stack farms next to each other — they’ll only become less efficient over time. Space is a consideration too: on some of the procedurally generated maps I played on, building anything more than a farm in a particular alley made it super difficult for my armies to smoothly progress through. So you have to be aggressive to a degree just so you can unlock the resources necessary — not just to build up a force that can withstand the major death nights, but so you have the excess resources necessary to rebuild anything you might lose. Walls, towers and ballistae cost a ton — not just in wood, stone and iron, but in villagers and food, too.
Because of the embargoes for the Switch OLED and Metroid Dread, I didn’t have quite as much time with Age of Darkness as I would have liked. But there was enough for me to get three games in, one of which ended pretty fast, another which lasted into the double digits, and a third where I just died on the final wave. If you do get all the way through to the final attack, you’re probably looking at about 10 to 12 hours of playtime. It was 30 days in total, although I’m not sure if you could extend that playthrough by just not clearing out the crystals on the map before they explode. (Crystals becoming unstable is typically what triggers each of the Death Nights.)
Given that I haven’t won a match yet — well, at least not without save scumming, because that’s always an option — I’d say you’d probably be looking at around 20-ish hours for most experienced strategy players to get their first win on the normal difficulty. You can go harder, of course. There’s lots of customisations available if you want to finetune the availability of resources so those are more plentiful, but the zombies still hit harder.
Age of Darkness officially launches on Steam tomorrow morning Australian time. At the time of playing it’s only got a straightforward, sandbox survival mode, but by the time it leaves early access there will be a full story-based campaign offering and challenge scenarios to work through.
The sandbox alone is substantive enough that you’re looking at a dollar-an-hour in terms of gameplay, if not better, for a few full victories. (Update: It’ll be $31.95 locally, the developers have confirmed.) More importantly, what’s surprised me the most is just how polished a lot of Age of Darkness‘s fundamentals are. Not only does the game handle well as a straight solo RTS, but the performance is rock-solid: I played the entire game at 4K, settings at full blast, with not a single noticeable blip to performance even during the frantic final waves. The main weakness is simply a lack of choices as you get towards the end-game — you’re largely building the same units and running
Already, Age of Darkness is pretty impressive. That alone is a huge accomplishment, not just because the genre desperately needs more standout titles, but because it’s such a rapid departure from what the Melbourne developers have made their careers on. Around 12 hours was more than enough time to see why Team17 was happy to throw millions of dollars at PlaySide for the publishing rights. Age of Darkness isn’t just good for an early access game, or for an Australian game. It’s just good, full stop.