Sins of a Dark Age preview

When we first heard about Sins of a Dark Age, Ironclad Games' free-to-play follow-up to Sins of a Solar Empire, we really didn't understand how it was going to work. Was it a League of Legends-style MOBA, or a StarCraft II-style RTS? Turns out it's both... and neither. It's a strange mixture that looks like it has the capability of creating an entirely new sub-genre altogether, which is something we're totally excited for.

At face value, SoaDA (as all the cool kids are calling it) looks like a four-on-four MOBA. Each player chooses a Hero, which can be outfitted with items and leveled up to gain different skills and abilities. There are giant spider Heroes, big snake monsters, strange mages, weird faries, and all of the different archetypes you expect to find in a MOBA. There are even the same skill types, with each character having a passive skill, three abilities, and an "ultimate" move. Ironclad made some small changes to the typical Hero setup, like crowd-sourcing the recommended item build for each character to allow the community to continually inform new players of effective builds, but otherwise the gameplay doesn't look all that different from other MOBAs.

But looks can be deceiving. Though there are only four Champions on either side, there's a fifth player on each team: the Commander. As much as the Hero's gameplay looks like a typical MOBA, the Commander's looks like a typical RTS. He starts off with a castle and a bunch of units he needs to send to mine gold and crystals for him. He can build structures, upgrade his units, and even build expansion bases around the map, all the while trying to destroy the enemy base.

Above: The Commander has skills, too, including the ability to summon this guy

When these two elements are combined you get something Ironclad is calling "Hero-and-Commander Strategy," which is actually a pretty good way of describing it. The teams need to work together, with the Heroes wandering the map and killing neutral enemies while the Commander keeps them safe by assigning them units and using his different abilities on them. It's strange, high-concept stuff, but it looks like it works quite well from what we saw. We watched as the Commander assigned squads of archers to one of the slower, more tanky Heroes, and then saw as he summoned a giant dragon (by spending his power, which is gained from harvesting crystals) to take down a massive group of neutral enemies to save his team from an ambush. It's almost like the Heroes are powerful, self-aware RTS units - a big departure from the typical MOBA formula.

Another way it differentiates itself from others in the genre is in its maps. Most MOBAs only have one real map type: that three-lane area with a river cutting the level in half. SoaDA isn't having that be the "default" level, instead opting for having a few different RTS-style maps that will offer different experiences. Ironclad also said that it plans on having some randomized elements in these maps, such as caravans of gold driving around that can be sacked, and roving barbarians that will slaughter anything in their path. It hopes that in creating these unique situations it will lead to more varied gameplay, which we think would definitely work to shake up the genre even more.

Above: Expect over two-dozen Heroes when beta starts

One area where it's not changing things up too much is in its pay-structure. Following in the steps of League of Legends, SoaDA will be free-to-play, charging players for different cosmetic items while allowing them to spend in-game currency on everything else. It will be slightly different, however, due to the inclusion of the Commander class, and Ironclad plans on taking advantage of this unique element by offering cosmetic upgrades for all of the Commander's units, as well as different Commanders (with their own abilities) and armies.

After getting a chance to actually see Sins of a Dark Age in action we're happy to report that it really looks like a unique experience. The way the Heroes and Commanders interact is clever, and might make for extremely engaging relationships and experiences when the game goes into beta this summer.

Hollander Cooper

Hollander Cooper was the Lead Features Editor of GamesRadar+ between 2011 and 2014. After that lengthy stint managing GR's editorial calendar he moved behind the curtain and into the video game industry itself, working as social media manager for EA and as a communications lead at Riot Games. Hollander is currently stationed at Apple as an organic social lead for the App Store and Apple Arcade.