Age of Fear Review
5.6our score

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.

The welcoming face of the menu screen.

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.

Ah, the battle for smeary pastel wasteland. I remember it well.

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.

Story screens link the action

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.

I found it hard to pick good screenshots from what I got on Fraps. All the images look almost identical. This one stood out because it's so dark. Folks, I give you – The Cave.

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.

Town planners – make sure your streetlights can't be pulled up and used as staffs by angry magicians

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.

the author

Used to be a Doctor (Dr). Now is an actor (Ar), writer (Wr) and gamer (Gr), and would like to get all these abbreviations into general usage, because GrArWr is a much more interesting title to have on your bank card.

  • Jurgen

    Strange cooincidence to see it on your blog – I was actually in beta-tests for this game :-)
    If you get over graphics it actually plays pretty fun.

    First time I thought exactly as you – too much randomness, but it works pretty well, especially in multi-player mode.

    I think anyone who enjoyed Fantasy Wars ot Battle of Wesnoth should at least try demo.
    The demo does not show it but you can controll enemy (or enemy controll you) later – that’s the best feature imho.

  • Toly

    The game is addictive and a lot of fun to play. It isn’t perfect, but is very well done, and kept me entertained for many hours. I find it to be a great value.