Harkening back to the good old days – we all love to do it. The sun was sunnier, the soft drinks softer, and penny sweets cheaper. I kid you not. A penny sweet used to cost half a pence back when I was a nipper. That’s inflation for you. Now you can’t get a ha’penny for love nor money, and cola cubes cost a tenner a throw. God bless the Tories.
Age of Fear – The Undead King is a deliberate throwback. Go to the game’s homepage (http://www.age-of-fear.net/index.php/age-of-fear-welcome) and you’ll find a short and heartfelt paragraph or two bemoaning the lack of fantasy turn-based strategy in today’s market. Really? I’d not noticed a dearth, to be honest – isn’t Heroes of Might and Magic 6 coming out soon? Not that I’d say HoMM is exactly a franchise that has my full-blooded support. Age of Fear does at least twang at a heartstring or two.
It’s uncomplicated, enjoyable enough and absolutely straightforward in what it offers. A good old fashioned no-frills fantasy romp, with all the well-known characters you’d expect. Noble knights. Savage orcs. Necromantic hordes of the dead. Each of the three sides are pitted against each other in various set piece battles, starting with tiny skirmishes and winding up to, well, much bigger skirmishes. On slightly differently shaped battlefields. The creative team haven’t exactly pulled out every concievable stop to come up with interesting venues for your fights, so things get a bit repetitive, but the fights themselves are very solid.
There’s something about this game that is rather proud to think small and inside a well-defined box. Not that this is a bad thing – it’s a very well realised box. The indie author behind Age of Fear is a full-blown logic whizz, highly trained in the creation of complex hard NP fuzzy logic d-resource genetic drift algorithms. The AI in this game is it’s other chief selling point, boasting that rare beast, a computer that can use its units abilities properly. That means unpredictably and with versatility, and the author has written a paper which proves it (http://www.jatit.org/volumes/research-papers/Vol4No8/8vol4no8.pdf). Or proves something anyway, it’s way beyond my comprehension.
Age of Fear gives you a meaty package of a good and an evil campaign, multiplayer modes and P v NP play (that’s player v non-player, i.e. computer. It’s a really clever gag referencing the research paper I linked in above, the one none of you have gone and read up on. You’ve missed it now. Losers). The game is simple and effective – choose from a band of troops, each with unique powers, and see if you can manouver yours to deliver a thrashing to the other team. It’s quick to learn, it could be very replayable (assuming this sort of game is your teacup), the campaigns have a decent story to them, there’s some nice sound both in game and with the twiddly medieval music in the menus. There’s nothing to complain about.
I wasn’t hugely challenged by the AI, even on hard. Yes, it does use its troops rather well. Not brilliantly, though. AI is hard to measure, and I think this is actually a strength in action here – it plays a bit like a human. It clearly knows what its doing, but it seems to try things that don’t work very well sometimes, and almost seems to get flustered if you overwhelm it. Perhaps it is fuzzily learning my strengths and weaknesses, and in a week or two it would know exactly what I was up to every time. It doesn’t help either it or me that this game sadly boils down to random chance. All your strategy pretty much boils down to percentage dice rolls, it seems. Okay, okay, we all like a bit of that. Computer games are the new board games, programming the new dice, I get it. But at least hide it a bit better, or give us bonuses for flanking or something.
It doesn’t look great. The author admits this himself – when he wrote to us at Mana Pool, he said ‘The graphics aren’t the best (OK, they are bad :-()’. Hey listen, buddy, I’m the reviewer here, don’t put words in my mouth and I won’t put a meta-heuristic stochastic process in your AI, okay? So the unit sprites are perfectly functional, the backgrounds are dull and smeary, although the story screens have some gorgeous black and white art that’s sadly obscured by the competent if pedestrian tale-telling. But it’s all perfectly fine; it doesn’t impede the gameplay.
My main criticism is that for me, perfectly fine just isn’t enough. That homepage whines about how the big games publishers just make carbon copy RTS clones, and that is a reasonably fair criticism. So, Mr Indie Smarty Pants, where is the originality in your game? Nobles knights, check. They’ve got wizards that throw fireballs and priests who heal and archers and horsemen and aren’t anything like anybody in Warcraft, no sir, not here. Savage orcs, check. They’ve got whiny goblins, butch orcs, shamans who summon animals and big dumb ogres. Revolutionary! Necromancers, check – skeletons, bring back the dead, blah blah blah di blah di blah. There is nothing in Age of Fear that makes you go ‘oo, that’s new’. It’s very familiar, almost to the point of being tired. Not quite – this is comfortable, more than boring, and I did find myself playing along for several hours on the trot. Not exactly bowled over, but certainly entertained.
Overall, I reckon Age of Fear shows promise more than actual flare. I don’t think the team who created it were ambitious enough. They’ve made something surprisingly polished, then tried to disguise it with cheap graphics they aren’t even proud of themselves, and they haven’t put an ounce of creative thought into the design of the three races. I suspect you’ll get as much enjoyment as you can from the demo as you would from the full game. £12 is too much for something with so little in the way of pizazz. It’s worth a quick look, though, because it does have charm, and that is a lot more than many major releases will give you these days. Not like when I was a kid, when games came on cassette tape and knew to call you ‘sir’ when you came in the door.