Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Lighthouse Interactive
Developer: Vertex 4
Release Date: February 4, 2008
I'll admit that I'm wary of games that have been in development for more than a decade, games that suffer from Duke Nukem Forever syndrome. Sun Age has been in development for about 11 years, and you can tell because the game looks and plays like a throwback from the pre-StarCraft days, which makes one wonder what the designers were trying to accomplish for the past 10 years. Some reviewers have taken a liking to the title's retro charm, whereas I see it as a dated, inferior title whose only entertainment can be squeezed from laughing at people who are willing to pay full price for what's essentially "My First Total Annihilation."
Sun Age's story wouldn't have even been original 11 years ago; the world you inhabit is completely destroyed by nuclear war, humanity has been living in biodomes to escape the toxic radiation, and mutants have a disliking to humans and wish to kill them all. In the single-player version, you control a commander who's been charged with the duty of protecting the last human stronghold in the dome. The entire postapocalyptic story has been done to death, and the feel of the narrative means that Sun Age is just one mullet away from being a direct replica of "Mad Max."
Similarly, the gameplay feels as though the world has passed it by. Simple features that you take for granted in other RTSes are conspicuously absent here. The inability to select multiple squads of units or draw a box around those you wish to command is incredibly frustrating. In most scenarios, you'll be required to move a selection of units from point A to B; this is made a tedious and repetitive task when each unit must be moved individually, and this also adversely affects your ability to form tactics, as your army cannot be grouped quickly or ordered to attack in unison. Even though you could map hotkeys to your keyboard to compensate for this, a game that asks you memorize endless combinations of buttons and design the control system yourself is half-baked and sloppily designed, which is ironic given Sun Age's lengthy development process.
Other than the absence of the tactical features, there is also a lack of pace or scale, created mainly through the inability to move your army en masse or construct a force with any real depth or variety. You can only have 25 members of a ground squad, which means that any extras will be left out and are strategically useless, serving as an easy target instead of being useful for a split-force tactic. Once these units are in the larger group, it is impossible to separate them, which removes yet another potential avenue for tactical maneuvering.
There is also an idiotic order system, so if you command a unit to go somewhere and it gets ambushed by mutants along the way, your units won't stop to attack them — despite express orders — until it reaches the location that you'd originally ordered. This means that you have to order your troops to a new location that's closer to the enemy before they will even consider attacking; this makes your controlled units feel inanimate and lacking in any kind of AI. The lack of units is scaled to the bare minimum of ground troops and a few vehicles to make Sun Age passable as an RTS title in this sense alone.
The controls are far from intuitive and make simple actions and movements a chore. Considering the simple graphical design of this title, the necessity to use overly burdened hotkeys makes the gameplay feel far more complex and confusing than its appearance would suggest. You can shift the attention of your troops onto particular enemies, making use of your unit's ability to counter certain enemies more effectively. In theory, this is now a staple of the RTS genre and is essential to the gameplay, but in practice, this leads to constantly switching between units, a task that is made more difficult due to the order system being unbearably unintuitive.
Graphically, Sun Age tries to recapture the nostalgia of WarCraft, and in this sense, you can see it as a success. Whether this is particularly appealing to you is another thing altogether. To me, it looks aged and captures none of the gameplay of its stylistic models. The whole thing is 2-D, and the inability to switch camera angles feels strange in a modern-day RTS. This lack of 3-D perspective should mean that the level design is detailed, but what it actually means is that your units won't get lost behind set pieces or fall out of view. Unfortunately, most of my time playing Sun Age was spent searching for units that were left behind when I couldn't select more than one at a time.
On top of this, the game is rife with clipping issues. Your units will get caught on buildings, other units and gum wrappers, which the enemy might leave lying around. There are a very limited number of ground troops so there would be an expectation that they would look and feel different. However, telling the difference between the light and heavy infantry is near impossible without the use of the small illustration at the bottom of the screen. The vehicle units are fairly well designed, even if they do look like they fell off the back of the Command & Conquer truck and are often the best-looking parts of any battle.
Sun Age is obviously aiming at the retro feel to sell itself, which could be forgivable if it were freeware, was free of buggy gameplay, and hadn't been in development since man first harnessed fire. Now it simply looks like a title that is over the hill and ultimately outclassed in game design by over a decade of superior developers.
The audio is similarly poor, with the weapon sounds of your troops being comparable to rain on a tin roof. Musically, there are some overlaying tracks, but they are the typical string orchestral work that's present in pretty much every war game ever released. Everything that the audio has to offer has been done before and better, much like the game as a whole. Even in the voice acting area, there is the grizzled voice of the hero, the equally grizzled but more aggressive voice of the commander, and a smart-mouthed comic relief character. None of these are performed particularly badly, but there is no degree of originality to it.
The multiplayer function is available in Sun Age and recaptures the old playability and fun of StarCraft and WarCraft. While this is a breath of fresh air and really benefits Sun Age, the same gameplay issues from the single-player mode are still present here, and the odds of winning depend on who can best memorize the keys. A game that is only half-fun cannot be judged as complete, and even though the online mode is fulfilling, it is not enough sell this title to the majority of gamers.
When I first started playing Sun Age, I felt a pang of nostalgia for the way games used to be, but it was quickly replaced by the feeling that this would have been a broken title even back then. Games have come a long way since WarCraft, and even though it may be tempting to take a stroll down memory lane, you'd likely be run over by this title. There is no sense in trying to recapture the experiences of previous games in a title that doesn't do quite it as well. Pick up StarCraft, WarCraft or Total Annihilation from the bargain bin at any game store — all of them are better than this title. It has its charm, but as a game that has been in development since the PS1 first came out, Sun Age is more old-fashioned than retro, and it just can't compete with recent RTS offerings.
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