Sins of a Dark Age preview

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PC gamers should need no introduction when it comes to Ironclad Games. In its still-supported first game, Sins of a Solar Empire, the developer managed to successfully mash together some of the coolest concepts from the Civilization series and other 4X games with the excitement and moment-to-moment decision-making of the real-time strategy genre. Now the studio is turning to a new mash-up concept for it’s next offering, a fusion of RTS play and the hero-based team play of games like League of Legends and DotA.

The game is called Sins of a Dark Age and this summer it’ll join the growing ranks of premium free-to-play titles that we’ve been seeing more of lately (and that the recent Game Developer’s Conference was so overflowing with). Ironclad is looking at a summer 2012 launch for the game’s beta, with the official launch to follow “when it’s done.”

I got to take an early look at how things are coming along for Dark Age at GDC last week. The game appears to be content-complete, with Ironclad’s focus now fixed on balancing out the game’s heroes and units to ensure a fun and rewarding game for all. While the F2P model will of course include an online store, Ironclad is strongly stressing the fact that there’s no “pay to win” dynamic here; any real money you spend in Sins of a Dark Age will be on cosmetic upgrades for your heroes.

The game features both competitive and cooperative elements, though even the competitive mode requires a significant amount of cooperation. It all seems familiar enough when you look at it. The slightly canted overhead view of the world and various on-screen UI elements all point to what at first looks like a real-time strategy game. That genre is alive and well here, but more often than not your primary focus will be on directing a single hero character.

The core game mode is a 5v5 showdown in which four players on each team take the role of a selected hero while the fifth instead steps into the role of Commander. For hero characters, moving around and fighting isn’t all that different from action-RPGs in the style of Diablo or Titan Quest. The Commander, on the other hand, gets to see a more zoomed-out view of the world. What’s more, there’s no single unit to control; instead, the Commander focuses on using peons to shore up resources (gold and crystals) and then putting those resources to work on building an army.

sins of a dark age preview soda concept artThe basic idea here is to set your team’s forces to wiping out the other team. Each hero character is designed to be strong in some areas and weak in others. A caster hero might do big-time DPS but he’ll also have low defense and hit points. A tank, on the other hand, might be able to soak up plenty of damage while not handing much out in return.

Initially, this careful balancing of heroes promotes cooperation among the four non-Commanders. Each hero’s strengths can effectively support others’ weaknesses. However, even that will only get you so far. The enemy Commander is constantly building up an army — we’re talking units of all types, siege engines, guard towers and other support structures — as will your own. So while it’s important for the heroes to work in tandem, it’s even more important for the Commander to take the lead on building an army that plays to the strengths of its champions.

The Commander has the option of micro-managing individual units, but the cool twist here is that they can also be paired with specific heroes. Remember that high-damage, low-HP caster example? Pairing him with a unit of armored knights — the Commander unit equivalent of a tank — means that he’ll have the protection he needs while casting. Any units paired with a hero will follow that hero around in the most effective manner; the caster will always have the knights leading him whereas the tank hero example above, paired with high DPS archers, will trundle forward at the front of the pack.

In addition to managing the overall offensive/defensive capabilities of your mini-empire, Commanders also come in several different “classes” that each have powers of their own, fueled by the game’s crystal resource. A Dragon Lord Commander, for example can summon reinforcements to the battlefield in the form of a giant dragon. A Merchant Commander, on the other hand, could more easily funnel collected gold into the heroes’ wallets, allowing them to buy better equipment early on.

The economy for each match in Dark Age is self-contained. While there is an element of persistent progression to the game in the form of a ranking system, it’s much more like Halo or Gears of War than Call of Duty. There are no dangling carrot unlocks; ranking up is largely for bragging rights and to get a sense of your allies’ and opponents’ relative experience levels.

In addition to the core 5v5 mode, there are also two other, purely cooperative play options. One is simply a 5v5-style match, only with one team’s Commander and heroes all filled out by PC-controlled bots. The other co-op mode offers more scripted scenarios. In the lone example I saw, the chosen heroes for the match were deposited inside a giant, fully constructed castle. The goal in that case was to defend the castle from enemy attacks, while also venturing out into the world to complete sidequests (which in turn brought more strength to the home castle).

I should also say a little bit about the community-friendly plans that Ironclad is cooking up for Dark Age. Systems are being built to help with the occasional network errors that pop up with online games. Players who are accidentally kicked out of a match will be able to reload the game once they’re back online and proceed directly into the match in progress.

In addition to that, the issue of rage-quitting will be addressed in a positive way. While those who simply quit out of the game with no warning won’t be punished, the Dark Age front-end will feature a separate queue for those players who wish to jump in on a shorthanded game. They’ll earn a a chunk of the game’s free virtual currency — earned from playing matches and used to buy new factions, heroes and commanders (note: this is separate from the cosmetic stuff, which only real money will buy) — and earn yet another bonus chunk if the shorthanded game they jumped in on ends with a win.

While Ironclad will of course continue to support Solar Empire — the Rebellion expansion will be here soon enough, I’m told, and more is planned beyond that — it’s clear that the studio is tapping into its creative reserves once again for Sins of a Dark Age. It’s clearly not a F2P knock-off of the developer’s earlier PC game or anything even resembling that. Dark Age looks like something truly unique, and even now it appears to be living up to the standard that fans of Ironclad have come to expect.

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