By James Archuleta |
Al Gore's darkest dreams have nothing on SunAge. This real-time strategy game from Vienna-based Vertex4 takes place in a future when Earth has been turned into a crispy fritter by a combination of global warming and centuries of war. But this forward-looking setting is hampered by the presence of dozens of crippling bugs and screwups, such as no multiplayer support on launch despite promises to the contrary. Add in a backward design that was last in vogue when people were still freaking out about what Y2K was going to do to airplanes, and you've got an RTS that couldn't be more offensive if it came to your house and kicked your dog.
SunAge was released in a spectacularly unstable state that included the gold standard of bugs: crashes that corrupted save files and sent you right back to square one. Other major flaws included the game's refusal to start after installation, mission-breaking scripting errors, absurdly long saving and loading times, and the complete absence of the multiplayer modes plugged right on the back of the game box. A series of patches now up to version 1.08 have made the game much more stable and have added the MIA multiplayer, but there are still loads of major bugs. Troops regularly stop responding to commands and sometimes move off in a random direction after being selected with a single mouse click. Buildings occasionally can't be placed, even in apparently clear areas. Mission objectives are regularly impossible to complete. Previously explored areas are lost in saves, so every time you load a game you've got to start peeling back the fog of war all over again. This game was obviously kicked out the door way too soon, which is awfully odd because it was apparently in development for about 11 years.
Even if we could venture to a fairy-tale land where SunAge is bug-free, the dull design wouldn't win it many fans. This is an old-fashioned three-civilization RTS like Blizzard used to make, with the nice-guy human Federals, the evil mutant Raak-Zun, and the neutral robotic Sentinel factions being about as bland as minute rice. Aside from the mild innovation of making the Raak-Zun dependent on slaves, the three sides offer no surprises. This is deeply derivative RTS gaming, where you build bases, scrounge for resources, and grind out generic troops and tanks and aircraft for use in nonstop mindless battles.
And "mindless" really is the key word. Combat is a blend of the dumb and the obtuse. Head-on tank rushes are your main pastime, given the general absence of anything like terrain or a sensible rock-paper-scissors formula. The AI always attacks full-out, charging your troops no matter what, so all you can do is respond in kind. As in all the best old-time RTS games, this sort of mayhem is oddly satisfying. But it isn't mixed up with even the slightest bit of tactical thinking, unless you're figuring out how to navigate the often mazelike maps. So after a couple of missions, the gameplay becomes as monotonous and predictable as the ticking of a metronome.
Battles also feel clunky due to a bizarre design choice to take firing orders away from you. Instead of right-clicking on enemy troops to get the guns blazing as in almost every other RTS ever made, here you have to move your troops within range of the bad guys to make them open fire. Also, your troops don't automatically follow enemies once battles have started, which turns many battles into irritating chase sequences where you have to run after enemies to keep them in firing range. It's hard to understand what Vertex4 was trying to accomplish here. There aren't any obvious pluses to making this drastic change to such a longstanding RTS convention, so this offbeat movement mechanism will only frustrate players.
Virtually all of SunAge's frills are as ineptly handled as the core game design. While the music is stark and ominous, the visuals are absent any personality. Buildings and troops lean on a standard RTS style that's about as distinctive as blades of grass. Cutscenes are even more amateurish, thanks to the worst comic art this side of early '90s Marvel. Gameplay options are just about worthless beyond the three solo campaigns played from the perspective of each race. You can skirmish against the AI only by hosting a multiplayer game and choosing computer opponents, which doesn't give you the option to save progress. And the actual multiplayer involves free-for-all and team games limited to just four players (which isn't much of a problem, actually, since there are never more than a couple of people hanging out in the online lobby).
Trudging through a game like SunAge is painful at best. Retro-RTS gaming is a great idea if you're into nostalgia, but the number of bugs and design miscues make this one an uncomfortable trip back in time.