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First Look: Sins Of A Dark Age

Sins Of A Fantasy Empire

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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