First Look: Sins Of A Dark Age

By John Walker on March 14th, 2012 at 11:00 am.

Wait, this isn't shopping in space!

It was with profuse apologies that I entered the demo room for Sins Of A Dark Age. “No, I haven’t, I’m sorry,” I said meekly when asked if I’ve played Sins Of A Solar Empire. Am I familiar with RTS games then? “Er, sorry, no,” with more looking at my shoes. DOTA? “Barely… Look, I’m the wrong person for this, okay. But see: I’m good at taking information and writing it in an entertaining fashion.” But here’s the thing – by the end of my time watching the game being played, I rather wanted a go.

The Sins team, Ironclad, are pretty remarkable. Since they released Sins Of A Solar Empire in 2008 they’ve sold millions of copies, and had a huge success. That’s not the remarkable bit I’m talking about though. In the four years since, despite producing multiple add-on packs for SOASE and starting work on Sins Of A Dark Age as soon as the former was released, they’ve only added three members to their team, now totalling twelve. It’s so unusual for a successful team to not expand out of all recognition, but staying small seems incredibly important to Ironclad. And it doesn’t seem to be slowing them down. Despite only announcing Dark Age a couple of weeks back, it’s actually mostly finished, with a feature complete beta launch planned for Summer.

And despite the similar name, it has very little in common with their previous game. This is their attempt to take DOTA-like themes, and evolve them with their RTS knowhow, into a team-based, match-based game featuring commanders and heroes.

Which is to say, it’s a game of two halves. In each team of five players, four will be directly involved in the fray as they control Hero characters in the world, while one will rule over them all via an RTS map, as the Commander. (Interestingly, this wasn’t the only game shown at GDC to use a similar model, the other being Heroes & Generals, about which we’ll have details in the next couple of days.)

Described as a “medieval fantasy in an alternate universe”, it was repeatedly emphasised to me that the game was going to be so much more than another game in the DOTA genre. It would apparently have more emphasis on storytelling, with backgrounds to the playable characters, and relationships between them, as well as the rather significant Commander role changing things dramatically as well.

There will be various Commanders to choose from, each of whom comes equipped with special skills, and also opt for a particular faction. I was shown a Dragon Lord picking the Imperials, who are made of Human. And then you start your RTS-style game, with a town hall building and a few basic units. Harvesting nearby gold gathers the resources to start building defensive towers, and you’re off.

Except here four of your units are played by real-life people, under your charge. It’s up to the Commander to issue the orders to let players know where to attack, scout or defend, while also balancing any deficiencies the squad may have. The bossman can also issue useful units to accompany players, such as equipping a tank with a group or archers, or offering foot soldiers to a magic caster.

A really neat-looking system lets the Commander lay out dynamic paths for any other player, just by clicking on them, and the destination, putting down a clear guide for any player to follow. And when it’s time for the big battle, the crucial moment in any match, there’s one more Commander trick: the special. In the demonstration I saw, when enough of a special crystalline structure had been harvested, he was able to unleash a vast dragon into the battlefield. And I mean vast – this thing took up half the screen.

“We love beasts,” explained Creative Director, Craig Fraser. There’s a determination to move away from the more traditional cartoony Warcraft characters that tend to dominate the DOTA field, with much more elaborate and peculiar creatures to play as. Creepy insectoid beasts were surprisingly there to play as, rather than attack, as well as Mongol centaurs and giant snakes. There was one guy, a twisted-looking man, who carries with him a sack of pig fat. You know the sort. His fat, when thrown on the ground, can then be set on fire. Any who might survive this fiery onslaught are then beaten to death with, well, the sack of fat.

And playing as this peculiar bunch offers a completely different experience. Here you’re playing something much more akin to a DOTAry action RTS, with your gang of troops in direct combat as you explore and battle, under the instructions of your Commander.

Matches are intended to last between 20 and 40 minutes, and the whole thing will be free-to-play… [record scratch]

The topic was brought up extremely tentatively by the two developers, nervous that I would explode into a rant about the evils of the F2P model, as I assume others before me must have. The relief when I said it had become a perfectly valid model in the last couple of years was palpable, but of course I still asked how they planned to make money from players.

“Anything that affects the game can be gained in-game,” they explained, emphasising that the real motivations to spend money would be cosmetic. But then emphasising that they were attempting to make their cosmetic changes far more worthwhile than simply changing your snake beast from blue to green. For instance, the elaborate insectoid creature I mentioned earlier – they showed me an alternative version one could pay for, and it was a completely different model, a whole new version of the creature. While I personally can’t imagine caring less about such a thing, clearly others quite validly do.

The other neat twist on the model is what characters you can play. Rather than offering a basic few for the non-payers, the rest opening up when paid for, here the complete collection will be on a rota. One week you may have one set of five, the next week another, the third yet another set. It means you’ll get to experience all the game offers without paying, but of course with the twist that if you discover a favourite, a good deal of the time you won’t be able to get at it. Paying will obviously open them all up to you, but apparently there will also be ways to unlock them through playing too. The same goes for the various Commander types.

Clearly DOTA games have something of a reputation for the aggressive nature of some of those who play, and this is something they wish to address in their take. “Positive reinforcement” was the mantra, with an emphasis on teamwork, and the mentorship of a Commander. One example was a way to balance out games. Should you opt to jump into a short-handed match, you’ll receive a greater amount of in-game currency as a result. And if your group pulls a come-back victory as a result of your joining, that bonus will be even greater. And, on top of this, that you’re the sort that helps out in such a way will show up on yours stats for others to see.

They’ve also worked out a way to prevent kill stealing, with a “complex algorithm” (aren’t they all?) that recognises all who contribute to a kill, and rewards players appropriately. Again, they’re trying to put this emphasis on your being a team, and thus working together.

It was also interesting to hear how open they are about what they’re borrowing from elsewhere, and what they’re improving upon from their competitors. Part of the reason they’ve waited until the last moment to announce the game exists is to try to prevent others from copying their new ideas before they’re out, but that hasn’t put them off doing the same! For instance, Riot’s “recommended items” idea from League Of Legends is in there, with the game offering a guide for what best set of tools will suit their particular character. And they’re cleverly working with this to have it be constantly updated by how others play. If a particular build for a character proves effective, the game will recognise and record that, and start recommending it to others. The motivation, they say, is to smooth out the experience for new players, so they’re not left lagging behind.

There’s also code in there that means if you crash out of a game, you can get right back in where you fell out, so you don’t let your teammates down, with AI taking over while you’re out. And there’s a spectator mode for those who want to watch a match, with complete freedom to move the camera around the matches. The computer will be doing the same, recording your best kills for you to show off with later, as well as a trophy room to boast of your achievements.

And there’s a co-op mode on top of all of this. The one example I was shown was a castle defence, against constant attack from the AI. The castle is fully destructible, and obviously your job is to prevent that. But there was all sorts going on alongside that, with various map objectives to complete for bonus help. There was a stranded captain, being attacked by some beasties, who if rescued can come back to your castle with more troops. Or discover a missing engineer and he can fix up a catapult, greatly increasing your defensive capabilities.

This is all on a completely new engine, and one that has some really neat tricks. The first to be shown, I had a sneak peak behind the scenes, that revealed an engine that could be created and augmented on the fly, while the game was actually being played. Terrain was raised and lowered, scenery was painted, beasts were added, even the spell effects could be adjusted, with the game running in a window within the tool, and still being played by others on other machines. They’ve yet to decide if they’re going to release this tool, but I can imagine there will be a lot of delighted modders if they do.

This is all aiming for a Summer beta, with the developer also releasing a huge Sins Of A Solar Empire expansion very soon too. They’re busy men. And as someone who is terrified of RTS, and never won over by DOTA-likes, I came away from it all wanting to play a game. I like the idea of having a Commander, someone who actually knows what they’re doing, being in charge of me. And I know others who would make great Commanders. It seems a really interesting prospect, although I say this without having played it. With the pedigree of the team, and the potential shown, this seems like one to keep an eye on.

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54 Comments »

  1. Evilpigeon says:

    You know, I love DotA variants and I love RTSs, Sins of a Solar Empire being one of my favourites. But I won’t be playing this. I don’t think there’s actually any more room for these DotA-like games, the kind of player numbers that are going to be commanded by Valve with DotA2 and Riot with LoL… These games might be free to play but they all take ages to learn to play and to get to the meat of the experience. I just don’t see any MOBA variant taking off.

    • Ultramegazord says:

      Don’t forget HoN, it usually has 100.000 players online, it’s a huge player base.

    • Pathetic Phallacy says:

      This game does not sound like DoTA or HoN or LoL. Taking it away from that same god damn map is different enough. This game has a commander. It has resources. It has buildable units. Essentially it is like a standard RTS, except that you will be able to control some of the special units.

    • Boozebeard says:

      I think it’s doing enough different to do well, if it’s executed correctly of course. Even more so if they include mod tools.

    • Apolloin says:

      I feel the need to buy a banner for the next E3 that simply reads “SINGLE PLAYER or GTFO”

    • Dragon Master says:

      I think it is for the best that the majority of the community will be hogged away. This way ragers/whiners/people not actually interested would eventually stop playing, leaving the game to a kinder part of humanity…I hope.

  2. AmateurScience says:

    My instinctive response to the word ‘DOTA’ is to immediately think ‘this isn’t for me’.

    I need to get over this. I just find it so hard to get into games built around competitive multiplayer.

    • Godsmith says:

      I’m in the exact same boat, and I haven’t even played a DoTA game, ever. The whole premise just totally puts me off. It doesn’t really bother me though, because I can miss out on the entire genre and still not have enough time to play the games I KNOW that I like.

      • The Sombrero Kid says:

        Defence of The Ancients?

      • AmateurScience says:

        Good point! I just feel like I ought to give it (DOTA-likes/BF3/TF2) a fair innings, it’s not like there’s a massive financial barrier to starting. I’m not even averse to multiplayer in general – I’m currently actually rather enjoying the ME3 multiplayer: and trust me that was against all expectations – but I definitely find co-op play against AI more compelling (like Borderlands, WoW) than PvP.

        • Grygus says:

          That’s just perception, though. I don’t play DotA or LoL or HoN, because I suck and don’t want to put enough time in to not suck. However, when I did check them out, I was playing co-operative with my team against the AI. It just so happened that a few of the AI units were bosses; stronger, with better AI, and unique names above their heads. What did it matter to me that they were other people? It did not.

    • Eamo says:

      I would say to play League of Legends if you feel like giving the genre a try. The co-op vs. AI game is pretty decent in it and can help ease you into the game. In effect you can play the game as a 5 player co-op vs Bots game for as long as it takes you to get the hang of the mechanics and play.

      The thing about the game is it is hugely about timing. When to attack, when to run, when to bait, when to go buy etc. It makes for a much richer game than the relatively shallow mechanics would imply.

  3. The Sombrero Kid says:

    Count me in. It’s weird how the games industry works, after my current project I was planning on making a foot-to-ball version of this exact concept.

  4. Wunce says:

    I’m guessing you don’t get a close, third person view if you are controlling a hero.

    That’s one of the things that put me off MOBA games – instead of being in the thick of the action you sit high and dry.

    Maybe if I ever got into an intense match where I knew what I was doing the camera position wouldn’t matter any more.

  5. caddyB says:

    I don’t see it making a big impact with the market being saturated with LoL and HoN and Dota and Dota2 and others. Everyone interested in the genre already plays one of those, no?

    But then maybe they can deliver something truly exceptional.

    • Fearzone says:

      There is already a high enough entry to DOTA games which is not sucking too bad, but millions of people play so it must not be that bad. This will have a higher one still, which is that the commander dynamic will make pugs almost impossible, and even the less organized teams will have problems with it. You’ll need a well organized team of 5 each time you play, pretty much. That would be a pretty select community.

      I see DOTA games, and see that they all play out same, game after game, and I quietly drift away wishing they were an RTS instead. I appreciate any RTS elements here, but if it is 3 lanes with minimal tech, building and economy, then each game is going to look similar to the last, and victory determined by the best execution of play, rather than interesting strategies.

  6. sneetch says:

    I was excited when I saw the title and screenshot, then I read the words. I have to say that I’m kinda disappointed that this is another DoTA, it seems like ages since we had a good, traditional, fantasy RTS. Maybe the commander mode will differentiate this enough for them but in general DOTA-likes don’t seem all that inviting.

    • LuNatic says:

      This. I was hoping for a nice traditional empire builder, or even a straight up 4x given the Sins name. Think I’ll give this a miss.

  7. Gassalasca says:

    Looks a bit like those old Myth games. They were cool.

  8. skyturnedred says:

    Looks and sounds good. Hope they can pull it off.

  9. Vexing Vision says:

    Of course then you have players who ignore their commander entirely.

    I can definitely see myself getting involved though. It does look rather fabulous, and I am so sick of the cartoony look of LoL.

    • The Sombrero Kid says:

      I’m pretty sure the commanders job will be to manage the creeps, not the other players.

      • Screwie says:

        Doesn’t sound that way to me.

        “A really neat-looking system lets the Commander lay out dynamic paths for any other player, just by clicking on them, and the destination, putting down a clear guide for any player to follow.”

        • The Sombrero Kid says:

          Yeah but looking at the screenshots, there’s clearly a full featured rts in there instead of the dota creep waves.

  10. Jutranjo says:

    So it’s like Savage 1 and 2 with more NPCs? Made by S2, who then remade DOTA into HON. And with LOL’s rotating hero selection.

    Doesn’t sound too good but best of luck, Sins of a solar empire was/is awesome.

    • AngryAnt says:

      Pretty much what i thought too.. Savage with more NPC’s/LoL thrown in.

      I love Ironclad for Sins of a Solar Empire but i think i’ll pass.

    • mmalove says:

      This was my thought as well: sounds like Savage played from a isometric view instead of 1st/3rd person, and with smaller teams to give more weight to each player’s contribution.

      If done right, I’m very interested. I loved the idea behind Savage and Nuclear Dawn, but limited choices, often lopsided teams and balance issues quickly left me disappointed. Here’s what they need to get right:

      1. Hero/faction balance
      2. Match Speed (Nuclear Dawn is infamous for making losing take 20 minutes)
      3. Match Balance (something like LOL’s ELO system, which in turn is highly dependent on getting enough players to form games of roughly equal skilled players)
      4. Match Making Speed / Player adoption (any pvp game requires hitting a critical mass of players such that match making is fairly quick).

      That and of course, the game’s got to be fun. Looking forward to trying it if it’s f2p or has a demo :)

      • dayhot says:

        In this game, you will be enrolled in a team consisting of one Commander and four Heroes. If you decide to assume a Commander’s role, you are supposed to bring about strategic plans for the construction of the base, the deployment of your defense, and the search for resources, etc. Above all, you are to observe your army in the grand battles. If you choose to be a Hero, you will go straightforward to the battlefield and put your power and skills into good use. Aside from gaining rewards for your army, you can also prove yourself to be the mightiest one ever!For more information regarding it, please check http://www.dotmmo.com/sins-of-a-dark-age-7525.html

  11. Cosmo Dium says:

    I trust Ironclad. They know what they’re doing. The play experience is free, to boot. Definitely keeping an eye on this.

  12. Screwie says:

    This sounds like an excellent evolution of DOTA games. Hopefully their plans for a friendlier, more supportive community around the game also bear fruit.

  13. Moraven says:

    Sounds like some War3 maps that pre-dated DOTA. Which Demigod was (More control over your NPC fonder than DOTA). Good to see an update.

    • Dreforian says:

      Definately like Demigod with control of the faction troops/home base handed over to a commander. It’ll be interesting to see how roles are managed as I can imagine some people would much rather play as a hero than a commander or vice versa. Much like how I preferred the style of the assassins over the generals (The Oak excepted).

  14. Miltrivd says:

    The only thing I can say to all the people that think “I haven’t ever played a MOBA because seems hard” and stuff is… YOU ARE RIGHT. Do not try a MOBA if you are not interested, there is no point. Sounds like sarcasm but you are correct. MOBAs have a pretty flat learning curve, which means time passes, but you are not getting any better because of the sheer amount of information you have to absorb first, then learn the skills necessary to put that information to use, and then be able to predict teammate and enemy actions to actually use all that in the mayhem that are team fights, when the whole 10 player clashes. To learn a MOBA a lot of dedication, time wasting, reading, experimentation and able to not get frustrated are necessary.

    Now said that, I think you are in the wrong putting Sins of a Dark Age in the same boat as DotA, LoL, HoN and DotA 2. As a player of the previous ones, this one looks really fresh and new, with a bigger focus on cooperation than personal skill. I could be wrong, but I would say do not give this game the same treatment as the more typical MOBAs.

    As I said before, this type of game and “innovation” isn’t new at all, it has been done before, it failed, but the game that did it were fun, fun as hell. It wasn’t the same feeling I get when I play a MOBA, so I have pretty big hopes for their success to blow some fresh air into the genre and build some really cool stuff. Besides, they seem to be in the right path about their objectives, I loved that competitive play isn’t even in their sights, they are aiming to create a fun game, and that is all.

    DO GIVE IT A TRY WHEN IT’S RELEASED!

  15. Fumarole says:

    You had me until DOTAlike. Something about it just turns me right off, and I’m not just talking about the reputation of the players.

  16. DarkFarmer says:

    Dislike. I don’t like the Sins name being applied to anything other than epic, grand scale strategy, not a bunch of dudes nonsensically fighting and re-spawning in a tiny forest. That’s what Ironclad does well, I don’t see why they deviated from what made them successful to do something that looks wonky and kinda bad. Best of luck though. Sins, although it made me rage very hard at release, still filled me with wonder and inspiration as a great game in a terrible time for PC games.

    DOTA Clones and reworks aren’t necessarily bad, by the way. I am a HoN player and I do acknowledge that it is a very bad game. Punishes you for not fighting as a team but then punishes you for sticking together as a team at the wrong time. Etc. But the game can be fun at the same time. We just need a game that makes it always fun, and guess what: the rage will go away. The DOTA player rage comes from the fact that the game’s fun is so dependent upon winning. its so stupid to have to sit in a game for 20-30 minutes 5 levels under everybody else, going 2-20, because your team sucks.

  17. DK says:

    Ah yes, Ironclad. The folks to claimed that Sins of a Solar Empire would have “starcraft style” race differentiation, but refused to let the beta testers actually beta test all races for fear of spoiling – then had 3 identical races.

    Ironclad, who in 2008 claimed they couldn’t animate turrets because it would take too much hardware power, when Homeworld 1 managed to do it easily on 1999 hardware.

    In short, Ironclad are incompetent liars that to this day manage to bait the games media into believing them.

  18. LintMan says:

    DOTA-alikes seem to be the new gold rush genre for game developers, surprising since the MMO gold rush is still ongoing.

    I predict next step is for some developer to make a persistent online DOTA MMO, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one is already being made. Maybe they can fill the map with low walls and make it cover-based.

  19. Brise Bonbons says:

    I’m just not convinced by this, though I want to be excited given the pedigree of the developers. Unfortunately at this point it sounds like they’re mashing together a generic fantasy RTS with a generic MOBA, but not doing much to innovate on the component parts – which means all I read in this article is “we mixed very familiar idea with extremely familiar idea”. I’m just not excited about that.

    Peons collecting resources, for example, strikes me as an extremely bland choice, and I wonder why they didn’t explore other areas of strategy that might mesh more with a MOBA metagame. I could see a deck building army-selection system working very well with the MOBA drafting process.

    We shall see!

  20. Valhuen says:

    Is anyone making a traditional single-player collect/build/conquer RTS these days? Find myself constantly playing (good) older games because nothing new worth noting has been coming out, and I hate the DoTa take on the genre.

  21. rockman29 says:

    Definitely going to try. I do find SOASE way too difficult though. Maybe this will strike a balance where I couldn’t find in SOASE.

  22. Blush Response says:

    Why are the screenshots so small? I have a 1920×1200 monitor… these are like postage stamps…

  23. cptgone says:

    “with the developer also releasing a huge Sins Of A Solar Empire expansion very soon too.”
    \o/
    i preordered that one :)

  24. Lulzbat says:

    Fuck dota.

    There i said it.

    Make a real rts ffs.

    • Sillywhiteguy32 says:

      A real rts?

      So as opposed to Dota, where you make strategic decisions in real time?

      You my friend, need to define your stupidity before enunciating it.

  25. Mark says:

    Very excited about this.

    People can slag off Dota/Moba all they like and say there’s too many games etc, but it’s actually a great gametype which is really fun.

    This seems like it’s going some of the way towards addressing the problems with Moba format for a lot of people, namely being slightly too hardcore, fast, and matches which snowball from the first few minutes with little hope of a comeback.

    In Moba games 1 bad player can screw a whole team, not just because he’s rubbish and can’t kill anything but their dying gives the other team’s players lots of gold/xp (“feeding”) which makes things worse for the other players in his team.

    Most mobas are ruined by their angry trolly playerbases, rather than the game themselves. If I was making one i’d consider banning chat between the two teams like in WoW.

  26. olpolpolpolp says:

    http://lnk.co/ILTHN
    this stuff is very cool

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