SunAge (PC) – Review

It took ten years of development for an indie studio to create a classical RTS. Are the fruits worth picking?

When considering the prior decade’s dark horses in the real-time strategy genre, Auran’s Dark Reign and Beam Software’s KKND series are understandable suggestions. These two franchises feel like compelling precursors to SunAge, with their similar themes and comparative aesthetics coupled with equally entertaining game play. Dark Reign and SunAge appear to be kindred spirits in game play options and levels of difficulty at times, similarly KKND with aesthetic tenets of both being a post-apocalyptic tale and featuring triple-sided combat.  However, being compared to titles  many years its senior is not indicative of SunAge existing as sentimentality for sentimentality’s sake.  SunAge takes much of what gamers loved about the genre during the heyday and updates the experience for today.  This new dark horse warrants closer examination from anyone who enjoyed any of the titles from the classic era of real-time strategy  games.

SunAge has been an long labour of love, its initial concept and development having begun in the late Nineties. Independent Austrian studio Vertex4’s dream became a reality in 2007 and, while something should not be solely judged on the effort placed into its production without balancing it on merit of the final outcome, there is a certain feeling of triumph and glee of knowing this when playing SunAge.  The game takes place during the catastrophic events under a dying sun.  As though kindred spirits, the Federacy mirror KKND’s Survivors or Patrick Tilley’s  Federation from the Amtrak Wars novel series; a people who bunkered down in geodesic dome-cities to ride out the radioactive pulverisation and intense heat of the decaying star.  The ones roaming the wasteland are the Raak-Zun, a mutant clan of zealots not unlike the Evolved, the warped and weathered overland people from KKND.  These mutant folk lived outside the domed cities in the scarified landscape, with all but one Federacy city falling to either Raak-Zun raids and attacks or structural and environmental degradation.  The third force to enter the post-apocalyptic fray is some sort of self-replicating extraterrestrial guardian species, mechanical in body and technologically advanced in nature, the Sentinel being akin to the once-agricultural robot army of the KKND universe.  They are the custodians of a distant world known as Elysium, a place deemed the only means of escape and survival for the Terran inhabitants.  The story of SunAge is not particularly impressive, nor is it conveyed with any great prowess, but it serves a purpose and provides a convenient platform upon which to place the experience.

Like Blizzard’s Starcraft, the ubiquitous reigning champion of the genre for the past decade, SunAge has provided a much deeper set of units and their abilities than simply mirroring unit types for each side, ala SSI’s Dark Colony. Resource collection differs with the Federacy and Sentinel having to manually collect the four specific minerals; nitrium ore, plutonium, iberium and zirkonium, with collector units running between mineral deposits and depots. Raak-Zun however build slave-operated mines over mineral deposits that connect to power grids, feeding the collected mineral units back along the connection to the home base. Raak-Zun have the ability to gather  resources much faster, but unlike the Federacy and Sentinel forces who use individual gatherer units for resource collection, a Raak-Zun operation can be severely crippled if a connection tower is destroyed and the link to base severed. Balances such as these encourage opponent-specific tactics to be implemented, as there are four different armour classes – flak, plated, synthetic and structural – to offset four particular weapon classes – bullet, explosive, flame and laser. Many Federacy units tout powerful ballistic weaponry, but if these forces come up against plated armour, their offensive capabilities are downgraded dramatically. A vehicle sporting plated armour is made short work of via some weaponry found in the Sentinel arsenal, with the Federacy needing to switch to explosives to deal effectively with such an opponent. Much like any good game of its ilk, SunAge offers an exhilarating sense of accomplishment when players find the right unit combination and side best suited to their playing style.

SunAge is a traditional game in the genre, in the sense that – unlike the style of play originated in Bungie’s Myth: The Fallen Lords and honed in Massive Entertainment’s Ground Control series and later, World in Conflict – there is base construction.  Buildings are constructed in the same way as one would do in Warcraft or Command & Conquer, with the added consideration of power.  Installations not directly attached to the main base building must be connected to the power grid via pylons; defence batteries guarding a remote mineral depot or staging area for troops need a series of power lines to run across the landscape from their position  to the main base. In a similar idea to the wonderful Moonbase Commander, once a pylon is destroyed, the outlying facilities go offline and the area becomes open to enemy advance.  Unlike Moonbase Commander, the powered-down facilities do not self-destruct, they can simply be brought back online with the construction of another pylon. Other facilities range from classic RTS elements such as unit population increasers, ala slave pens for the Raak-Zun to supply domes for the Federacy, to gun batteries, science outposts and specialty buildings like the Sentinel Dominator platform, a construction rig for the colossal Dominator flying battleship.

Returning to the units themselves, SunAge possesses a broad range of vehicles and troops from each faction, bolstered by some great upgrades via scientific research. The simple Sentinel drone trooper is quite a tough opponent when operating in a group, but with a simple scientific upgrade, they can deploy portable shields at the press of a button.  Each unit has an alternative attack or defensive mode, all  capable of being used ingeniously during the game.  The light troops of the Federacy can be taken to higher ground at a choke-point and be ordered to switch over to sniper mode.  The troops then have unstoppable anti-infantry capabilities at the expense of speed. Strategies such as driving forward a line of Federacy artillery guns against an enemy base, with a row of tracked anti-air batteries set in alternate-fire mode behind them – the AA alternate-fire being medium to heavy vehicular repair beams – are a joy to uncover and refine, especially when using the brilliant unit control method.

Much like Homeworld 2’s fighter creation, infantry are not constructed unit-by-unit, but in teams of five.  When units are expelled from the training facility, they group at the rally point and, if prior units have not been relocated by the player away from the rally point, the fresh troops will automatically join into a larger squad of the same unit type to a maximum number of twenty-five soldiers per squad plus the option of attaching a commander unit onto that squad.  It is possible to select individual units, and also to group different unit types, such as vehicles and infantry, but the strength of the alternate fire command makes a compelling argument for squads to remain homogenous in composition – at least with infantry units. Commanding unit and squad movement is the trusted “left-click to select, right-click to move” setup, with the added dimension of choosing not only the direction of a squad once they arrive at the designated point, but also their depth and breadth of rank, popularised by the Total War series. This is all achieved by holding down the right-mouse button; swivelling the cursor to whatever degree the troops should be facing, then dragging the cursor away from or closer to the new location point to assign the formation. To create a wide, two-row deep line– a perfect formation for Federacy snipers engaging enemies in an open area or from along ridgelines – the player simply has to assign the new location, and with the right-mouse button still held, drag away from the location. Circular icons, representative of each unit within the squad during this relocation procedure, appear on the ground to gauge troop location, making pre-positioning a breeze. Troops can also be moved in a static formation; clicking a new location with the CTRL key held down enables units to move in the formation they were selected at.  This is effective for mobilising ranked units towards or away from a particular area in step while maintaining formation-dependent offensive or defensive capabilities.

The visual style of SunAge evokes the hand-crafted bitmaps and sprites of the late Nineties strategy titles; each structure, every piece of flora, the highly-detailed units – while all rendered in 2D, SunAge features a wonderful high resolution contrast. Engine glow, explosions and weapons fire are impressive; reserved by their very nature of being 2D but by no means lacking in being spectacular. Unit animation is good, especially with vehicles switching between firing modes and adjusting their chassis accordingly. The landscapes are illustrated with astute detail, created with a level of care that reflects that found in Ellipse Studios’ little-known but loveable Submarine Titans from 2000. The massive mechanical architecture of the dome cities are intricate and grand, with the wasteland being a dusty, desolate environment filled with abandoned encampments and Raak-Zun derelict structures. The antithesis of the post-apocalyptic world comes in the form of Planet Elysium’s jungle setting; a rich tropical palette washes across the screen and recalls the semi-terraformed Martian greenery of SSI’s Dark Colony or a more refined version of Dark Reign’s jungle maps.

SunAge has a solid skirmish mode with AI opponents as well as robust LAN and online multiplayer. Maps are well designed and while there are not many to choose from, each map has been carefully conceived with a decent resource spread and plenty of opportunity for tactics both offensive and defensive.

SunAge is not going to impress in the same way Supreme  Commander or World in Conflict does, nor does it offer the dramatic leap gamers experienced when Homeworld showcased a totally three-dimensional arena to play within. With the finely-tuned mechanics of control and differentiated and wide selection of units and abilities, there is something irrepressibly wonderful about SunAge. The feeling perhaps comes from its humble origins; SunAge was not the product of a large studio with endless bankrolling, nor a studio with a large group of QA testers with countless hours to burn in working out the game’s issues. While SunAge did release with parts in dire need of testing, a more recently-released version or with the latest patch applied, the title is more than playable. It can hold its own against the likes of the bigger titles; against the Starcrafts and the Command & Conquers of the genre. SunAge could very well be a competitively-played title, as it features fast and furious gameplay, bolstered by player-driven nuance. While the initial reviews were perhaps right in their lambasting of the games’ technical flaws, SunAge did not deserve to have marks detracted for being “from another time” or “an unwarranted production” simply because it bears resemblance to the former greats of the genre. Nobody decries Capcom for creating a new Megaman title in the same vein as its NES predecessors. SunAge is a smooth, seductive homage to the past glory of the genre and, at the same time, a stunning game not just relative to the size of the creator studio and its post-production support, but a stunning game where it counts – with enjoyable gameplay and sumptuous graphics.

If you’re interested in tracking down SunAge, which is sadly not available digitally after the bankruptcy of publisher Lighthouse Interactive after the release in 2007/2008, you can find physical copies online on Ebay or Amazon.  More information can be found at Vertex4’s SunAge website.