I’ve always had a soft spot for the Age of Empires series. Though I had played Command & Conquer years before, Age of Empires and its sequels were what truly got me hooked on real-time strategy. In fact, its influence was so strong that I subsequently developed a keen interest in all matters of ancient warfare; a scholarly pursuit that continues to the present day (and to think conservatives don’t regard games as educational!). Taking all this into consideration, it’s no wonder that I’d be easy prey for a history-infused indie RTS like 0 A.D..
The first thing you’ll notice when playing 0 A.D. is that it’s really, really pretty, especially for a free game. Rather than sprites, the game employs 3D models which are highly detailed, surprisingly fluid and well-animated. Lights and shadows are professionally-rendered and the water effects are simply gorgeous. The use of soft ambient music compliments the mood and really helps gives the impression of living in the ancient world complete with all its nuances.
Of course, being the cynical bunch that we are, we all know that good graphics and pretty music don’t mean jack if the gameplay is rubbish, but fortunately 0 A.D. delivers quite amicably in this regard. There are several civilizations to choose from, each with their respective strengths and weaknesses. There are loads of military units and figuring out how to respond to a particular threat is an ongoing trial of rock paper scissors. There are loads of economic bonuses to exploit and technologies to research, and before you know it you’ll be weighing the cost of development versus military might, just like any RTS worth its salt.
There are a few noteworthy aspects. For example, military units can also build structures, mine, chop wood and tend to farms, so they’re not useless and just taking up space when you’re not in battle. Civic centres (the game’s term for your central base) can produce basic military units in addition to workers and, if a specific tech is researched, houses can also generate new workers. Walls and towers are strong, fairly cheap and quick to build, encouraging players to adopt a more defensive stance. The AI is quite good, and even on the easiest setting they can quickly send other players into ruin with coordinated attacks. In many ways it’s a spiritual sequel to the Empire Earth games; the look, feel, resources and even “border” system is reminiscent of that classic series. [I don't remember Empire Earth ever having a border system. Wasn't that Rise of Nations? Or am I experiencing a bit of brain fail? SOMEONE PLEASE SAVE MY MIND FROM THIS TURMOIL. – Ed.]
Now would be a good time to mention that the game is currently in an alpha state and assorted bugs are present while some features are yet to be implemented. The biggest issue I encountered while playing was experiencing lag whenever massive numbers of troops were created. Colossal armies of four or more players on a big map can cause the game to slow down quite noticeably. There is also no campaign to speak of, but rather just a basic skirmish mode. The developers promise that these issues will be fixed in a future release, but in all honesty it doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment all that much.
0 A.D. is definitely worth a play if you’re an RTS aficionado. Despite still being in alpha and having a few bugs, it’s quite playable and stands out as a testament to just how pretty a free indie game can actually be. Best of all, it’s open source and available for Windows, OS X and Linux. Direct your troops over here to get started fighting for glory.
While you wait for your download to finish, you can drool over this trailer: