Thursday, April 14, 2011

Age of Fear: The Undead King Review

Age of Fear: The Undead King, developed and published by Leszek Sliwko.
The Good: Interesting combat with a focus on shielding friendly units from enemy movement and attacks, very capable AI, varied units with wide-ranging abilities, informative user interface, units carry over between battles, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Lack of battle randomization and skirmish missions reduce replay value, computer opponent given an unnecessary numerical advantage, no multiplayer or scenario editor yet, arbitrary unit caps, dull maps, pedestrian graphics
What say you? A turn-based fantasy strategy game with enthralling battles thanks to unit shielding and diverse abilities but limited overall features: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

NOTE: A patch released on May 22, 2011 added multiplayer and skirmish modes. Darn indie developers improving their game and making my review increasingly obsolete!

We are familiar with the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Pliensbachian Age (well, maybe not that last one). Now, we are in the Age of Fear. In this fantasy setting, the humans, orcs, and undead fight amongst themselves for total domination and the last chocolate chip cookie. This is a turn-based strategy game that emphasizes shielding ranged and magic units with cheaper grunts, with an injection of dice rolls for randomization and luck. How does this indie title stack up in the fantasy strategy genre?

Unfortunately for Age of Fear, we have to talk about the graphics first. This game is clearly a labor of love, which is a nice way of saying “the graphics aren’t so great.” The game is played from an overhead perspective and uses 2-D graphics across the board. While there isn’t an inherent problem with this (as some 2-D games look fantastic), Age of Fear features blocky, poorly detailed units and bland, muddy map textures. The combat animations are unimpressive, and the Java engine is a bit sluggish when selecting things. Most troubling, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what a unit is based on its model and icon (which look decent, but low resolution), a problem when the tool-tips take a second to pop-up; more clarity here would be appreciated. Of course, this reduced quality means Age of Fear can run on pretty much any system out there. The game features basic voice acting, but good music (reminiscent of Dominions 3: a high compliment). In the end, you are clearly not buying Age of Fear for outstanding graphics and sound, but for the meaty strategic gameplay.

Age of Fear features two campaigns of around fifteen missions each, one with a boring knight and the other with a badass necromancer (you can guess which one I chose first). There are three difficulty levels: while the “experienced” level is fairly balanced, the “beginner” level has cheaper units and an AI that doesn’t plan or use magic, and the “master” level gives better attack, defense, and magic ratings to the computer. The game has a rather lengthy story told between missions with a lot of text, if you are into that sort of thing. Each battle takes about half-an-hour to complete, so you can figure out how long each campaign will take. There is little replay value, however, as the enemy units and landscape are always the same for each particular battle. Progress is automatically saved between each turn and after each battle, and the campaign is lost if your hero is killed. Units carry over from mission to mission, so too many losses endured in a single conflict can severely impact your ability to win subsequent battles. I found the campaign to be quite challenging on “normal” difficulty because the AI is given more units than it needs (more on that later). The game features a decent read-along tutorial to acclimate yourself to the game mechanics.

Other than the campaigns, Age of Fear is light on features. The limited custom battles that are unlocked during the campaign allow you to pick either side (so you can play as the enemy), but choose your units for you. Age of Fear also lacks a skirmish mode where you can pick a battlefield and a set of units, and lacks random maps. It would be cool if the game would incorporate some of the features seen in Shogun 2 regarding unit persistence and army customization. Age of Fear is available for all three PC operating systems, Windows, Macintosh, and Linux, so that's nice. The developer does promise further improvements in the future, like multiplayer and a map editor, but you can’t evaluate Age of Fear on things that aren’t there yet.

Between each battle, you can recruit new troops. The game specifies arbitrary income and unit cap levels (ostensibly for game balance), so your strategic choices are a bit limited. There are also limited numbers of each unit type to recruit, so keeping most of your units alive is very important. This is especially true since experience gained over time will upgrade units automatically, without you having to spend any gold on new recruits. Age of Fear features a pleasing roster of around thirty units, each of which has different ratings for hit points, attack, defense, and movement speed, plus special attributes and skills you can activate during battle. Most fall under two categories, melee and ranged (including magic), but their special skills and varied attributes set them apart.

Age of Fear allows each of your units to perform one action each turn (or move and then immediately melee attack). This restriction makes magic units more vulnerable, as they can’t move and cast a spell during the same turn. In general, the interface is excellent, incorporating a lot of the good ideas strategy games have introduced over the years. First, a unit’s movement range is clearly shaded on the map, influenced by adjacent units. You are also given range circles for magic and ranged attacks, and success percentages above each potential attack target. The bottom of the screen displays icons for all units who have no moved (great for not forgetting somebody), and spell icons are displayed in the bottom left for a selected unit for quick access. Left-clicking selects, moves, and attacks units, while right-clicking on a unit opens a list of their spells. However, there are still some limitations: Age of Fear does not clearly indicate which side units are on (using only a subtle color shift), does not automatically end turn even if all units have moved and acted, and lacks a minimap. Still, I found Age of Fear easy to navigate and free from tedium.

Age of Fear features a good variety of special unit attributes they can use during battle. This makes the enchanted units much more interesting to control, since they have access to a larger variety of options. The battlemage can throw fireballs, teleport, or improve unit defense, the banshee can paralyze enemy units, ghouls infect targets with disease, and the high priest can enchant weapons, heal units, or resurrect the dead (extremely useful), just to name a very few. The necromancer hero is so much better than the knight, since he can raise dead humans and take control of enemy skeletons. The focus of Age of Fear is protecting your powerful magic units by placing grunt infantry in front of them. You can only move your units within their line of sight, so you can successfully block the enemy from making melee attacks on specific units by placing units in between. Ranged attacks are not affected, so you must still be wary of spells and arrows even if units are providing cover. Of course, this means friendly units can inhibit movement as well, so it goes both ways. This opens up a whole slew of interesting tactics, from flanking with faster units to screening powerful mages with low-level cannon fodder. You must also decide who to move, when to move them, and who to attack. Since you are only allowed one action per turn, you must weigh the different spells each unit has and determine which one is needed most; tough decisions like these make for good strategy games. Age of Fear plays a lot like a hex-based game, but with greater freedom of movement (since there are no hexes): I like it.

Combat uses the time-tested method of dice rolls: if a d10 roll is greater than five minus the difference between the attacker’s attack rating and defender’s defense rating, then you score a hit, which decreases the defender’s hit points by one. The result is a lot of misses (evenly-matched units have a 50-50 shot at success), which extends the length of the battle. Unfortunately, terrain rarely impacts your tactics, as the availability of trees, water, or rocks is low. But, using your own units for cover is still a viable option. I found the AI in Age of Fear to be quite good and exhibited a number of advanced strategies: it attacks weak ranged units first and retreats when appropriate. It also knows exactly where the attack radius is for ranged and magic units, and stays out of it until it attacks. Because of the competency of the AI, the campaign is difficult on the “medium” setting: not only does the AI always have more units (partially because of your artificial unit cap and income restrictions), but the AI is smart, too. In most games, the AI is given more units to compensate for poor game tactics, but here it’s a needless benefit since the AI is quite proficient. Between the random dice roles and the good AI who has numerous units at its disposal, Age of Fear can be a tough game. Game balance is a very difficult thing to get right and is subject to opinion, but I can say that I frequently died only a third of the way through each campaign, and I play a lot of strategy games.

Age of Fear succeeds because of its combat: using units to protect fragile allies, incorporating hex-based mechanics without the geometric restriction. The result is some satisfying strategy, choosing which units to move and carefully keeping your army intact and away from open avenues for the enemy. The interface really helps in this aspect, clearly showing which units can move, where they can move to, and what the chance of a successful attack is. Combat uses dice rolls, which results in drawn-out battles with a lot of misses (though they still clock in under half-an-hour); while this results in unpredictable outcomes, some players might not like so much luck involved. Age of Fear features a nice assortment of units with quite varied abilities and attributes; some of the magical spells are pretty neat, especially those associated with hero units. Units can also gain experience over time, upgrading to a better version for free. New allies can be purchased between each mission as well, although you must stay within strict army size and monetary limitations. The map selection is bland, rarely featuring interesting features like water or cover (trees, rocks) that might influence your tactics by restricting your movement. This is extended to the basic nature of the game’s graphics: they are functional at best, clearly the work of a one-man team. The game does feature two campaigns of fifteen missions each, but the custom battle mode is quite limited and Age of Fear really screams for a skirmish mode and online play where you can take on others (or the AI) using a custom set of units and heroes. Speaking of the AI, I found it to be quite competent: it takes advantage of openings to attack frail units, retreats vulnerable ranged units, and uses special skills intelligently. Really, the AI doesn’t need the advantages in number and quality of units it is given during the campaign, making it a bit more difficult than necessary. Still, Age of Fear delivers some nice strategic gaming recommended for fans of turn-based fantasy titles.