SunAge (PC) review
"Whether through great AI programming, great mission design, or both, I very often find myself outmanned and outgunned, forced to fight an uphill battle and struggle for every scrap of ground I gain on my objectives. SunAge's singleplayer is challenging, in a way I haven't been challenged by an RTS since I first played StarCraft."
Remember back in the old days of RTS gaming? Back before adjustable camera angles and full 3D-rendered units and alpha blending? When the battlefield was a two-dimensional plane divided amongst low ground, high ground, and aircraft?
I sometimes long for those days. For the days of Starcraft and Warcraft, of Command and Conquer and Dune 2000. For the days when strategy games were simple, but at the same time boasted considerable depth. For the days when you needn't a dual-core processor and a powerful graphics card to enjoy epic battles - that I have both these things is beside the point. Starcraft, though it be classic, begins to bore me these days, which saddened me because it was, as far as I knew, the last of the great 2D strategy games.
I was wrong. My copy of SunAge arrived in the mail on the 21st of last month. It is quite possibly the best Christmas present I recieved this year.
I say this a lot in my reviews, but if retro graphics throw you off, if you'd rather look at normal-mapped models than 2D sprites, click the back button right now because SunAge is not for you. SunAge is far from the cutting edge of graphics, but with that said, it is visually one of the most impressive games I have ever seen. Each sprite, each tile, every environment and unit in SunAge is magnificent; everything from the barren deserts of Earth to the struggling Dome cities to the lush jungles of Elysium boasts is wonderful to look at, with a level of detail you don't often see even with 3D graphics. The best part is, with today's technology and skill these retrographics probably freed up a lot of development time/money/manpower for actual gameplay, and it really, really shows. But we'll get to that later.
The units and architecture of the three factions are all very distinctive and equally impressive, which is good because, by modern genre standards, there's not a lot of them. But hey, this is good too. Each has its own distinct flavour and look, between the bare, utilitarian Dome Confederacy, the religious mutant rabble of the cult of Raak-Zun, and the cold and alien Sentinals, robotic guardians of the planet called Elysium. Rather than handing you a specialized unit to deal with every possible situation like a lot of games to nowadays, SunAge throws each faction about a dozen unit types to pick from, all with their own strengths and failings, and forces you to adapt your tactics to deal with bad situations rather than simply encouraging you to build everything on the tech tree.
That said, the four armor types (Flak, Plated, Synthetic and Structural) and four damage types (Bullet, Explosive, Flame and Laser) do not match up in the same perfect Rock-Paper-Scissors manner that other games default to. This means that very often a player will run into a situation his army is not properly equipped to deal with. For example the Confederacy has a lack of laser-based weapons, and consequently is not as suited to dealing with units using plated armor as, say, the Sentinals. Thus, the Confed player has to settle for using explosives against heavy armor, which are better than bullet weapons but about half as effective as lasers.
At the same time, the Sentinals deploy a lot of light units with Synthetic armor, which is effective versus lasers but weak versus explosive. But being light units, Confederate heavy troopers have difficulty hitting them with their slow-aiming rocket launchers, thus forcing the Confed player to again seek a suboptimal solution and use bullets.
I rather like this. I like being forced to improvise and compromise, instead of just building a Super Rock to counter my opponent's masses of Doom Scissors. I also like that every single one of these units has an alternate weapon mode unlocked through research. Confed infantry can switch their MGs into sniper rifles, or rocket launchers for grenade launchers, Centurion walkers swap their gatling guns for plasma cannons, and Cougar tanks trade in their dual guns for vastly improved radar range. And the best part is, they can all be toggled on the fly and in the heat of battle, adding considerable tactical depth to any engagement. Even the BMR, the basic construction unit, can act as a temporary power transmitter in emergencies.
Ah yes, power transmitters. The power system, which some might call the game's fifth resource. Evey building in SunAge, from mines to turrets to factories, has to be connected to a powered "floor grid" in order to function, which just means that it has to be built directly adjacent to another structure that has power. Your starter building is where you get this power, but if you want to expand, you need to build transmitters within range of it. These transmitters allow you to set up powered floor grids at a distance from your headquarters, and branch additional buildings off of them. Here's the kicker: you can't build another HQ. For every building you want to power, you need to build a line of transmitters between it and your start location, so if there's an important resource deposit on the other side of the map, you need to build transmitters all the way to it, and any of your enemies can knock out even one of these transmitters and render the whole rest of the branch useless, just like taking out a power line.
In other words, suddenly there's a reason to perform hit-and-run raids in a genre previously defined by head-on assaults. If you're getting shelled by a firebase, all you need to do is get some fast-moving units moving fast and knock out a transmitter further down the line, then move in for the kill. If you're the one doing the shelling, you need regular patrols up and down your transmitter line to make sure your enemies don't try anything.
Again, I like this. I like it when a game tries something different, and I like it even more when it gets it right.
I would also like to talk about SunAge's story, but unfortunately two weeks of off-and-on playing have left me stuck on the fifth mission of the Confederate campaign, and unable to comment on further developments or the Raak-Zun or Sentinal storylines. I can say that SunAge is set far in Earth's future towards the end of its life, where our once beautiful world has been turned by countless wars and rampant consumption to a barren husk of a world. Things are pretty bleak until a Confederate scientist discovers, or possibly constructs a gateway to a distant planet, one still young and teeming with life, but defended by legions of killer robots.
That's about as far as I've gotten. Writing and voice-acting is "Meh", but not nearly enough to detract from the overall effect. Speaking of effects, I often find it difficult to make them on my computer-controlled adversaries. Whether through great AI programming, great mission design, or both, I very often find myself outmanned and outgunned, forced to fight an uphill battle and struggle for every scrap of ground I gain on my objectives. SunAge's singleplayer is challenging, in a way I haven't been challenged by an RTS since I first played StarCraft.
Speaking of StarCraft, SunAge too has its share of bugs and glitches upon release, but a look at the official forums tells me that the developers are still coding away at patches and fixes - one of the most active threads is one that asks players what the biggest and most game-breaking bugs are so that they can be fixed ASAP, and as of v1.06 nearly all of them have been. This makes Will a happy gamer, because if there's one thing that makes or breaks a game it's post-retail customer support. Arguably, Blizzard's continued support of StarCraft was one of the biggest reasons it remains the most popular video game to date, and I sincerely hope that Vertex4 realizes this, because if they do, if they keep patching the game, fixing glitches and rebalancing mechanics, SunAge might become pretty popular in its own right.
Freelance review by Will Roy (January 03, 2008)
Will is grumpy, sarcastic and Canadian. He occasionally crawls out of his igloo to cover sci-fi and strategy games. Has a love-hate relationship with cats. And the colour purple.
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