When I first saw the announcement trailer for Century: Age of Ashes during The Game Awards back in December, I have to admit it piqued my interest. There haven’t been many games that let you jump onto the back of a dragon and head into combat, and none of them looked as good as what I saw in that trailer. Developer Playwing has been pretty tight lipped about Century: AoA since the announcement trailer, but with the game expected to enter Early Access on Steam sometime this month, something had to give. And it did.
Over the weekend, Playwing gave 10,000 of the players that had signed up for beta access on Steam a chance to take to the skies in Century’s first closed beta session. MMORPG was offered the chance to join in on the technical beta test, and I gladly offered to take the reins of a fire breathing beast and see what Century's aerial combat had to offer. For anyone who didn’t make it into this closed beta, there will be another beta in the coming weeks. Until then, you can check out my first impressions below.
The cash shop hints at more classes coming in the future, but for the closed beta weekend we had three classes to choose from - Marauder, Windguard, and Phantom. The dragon and rider pair of each class have their own unique look, and bring with them a primary class ability and two secondary abilities. At the beginning of each match, players are free to pick their class and which of the two secondary abilities they will wield.
The Marauder’s skills help the rider track and eliminate their target. Their primary ability, Hunter’s Mark, can be applied to a single target. While locked on, the Marauder is able to unleash slightly less powerful fireballs at a faster pace than usual. This onslaught of fireballs is harder to dodge than regular fireballs, making enemy riders expend their defensive skills early in a fight.
Frost bolts are the first of the Marauder’s secondary abilities. This trio of bolts is not only great for destroying a target’s shields, it will also slow down any unshielded opponent, making it harder for them to avoid your flame breath when you get up close and personal.
Gust is the other secondary skill that can be chosen by the Marauder. This defensive skill will destroy any fireballs that are locked on to your rider. For each fireball destroyed, your rider will restore a small portion of their stamina, turning what your enemy thought would be a devastating attack into a boost for you.
If you thought there wouldn’t be any way to hide from your enemies in the wide open sky, then the Phantom is here to prove you wrong. You can’t fight what you can’t see, and the Phantom’s primary ability, Mystic Shroud, turns your rider and dragon invisible for a short period. This also allows the Phantom to prepare a sneak attack. Not only will you gain the element of surprise, your first attack while invisible will be stronger than normal.
Both of the Phantom’s secondary abilities focus on indirect damage. First up is Blast, a projectile that creates a shockwave on impact with any surface. The Phantom can also detonate the projectile before it hits a target, making this a great ability to unleash on a pack of enemy riders.
Their last ability is the Mine. Doing exactly what you think, this device sticks to any surface and detonates when an enemy rider comes in range. It’s perfect for dropping in high traffic areas like Gates of Fire or tunnels.
Even if the Windguard’s description claims they are the support class of Century, don’t think they can’t deal out some damage as well. Salvation Surge is their primary class ability and it can be a literal life saver. By targeting an ally and activating the skill, you boost towards them and apply a temporary shield to both your and your target. You also gain a small amount of health and a faster fire rate for your fireballs. It’s the perfect way to keep a flag holder alive and take out an enemy or two afterwards.
Along with a Blast that works exactly like the Phantom’s, the Windguard can pick the Smoke Trail as her second ability. Activating this skill leaves a poisonous green fog in your wake, not only making it difficult to see you but also making it impossible for fireballs to lock on. This, just like Salvation Surge, can be used to get some distance between you and an attacker.
As you gain experience from battles and rank up you are given rewards at each level. These include gold, gems, xp boosts, and random cosmetic items. Every few levels you will also get an egg. You can equip this egg and take it into battle with you. This egg doesn't give any advantage as you fight. At the end of a match the egg will even take half of the experience you gained during the fighting.
This sacrifice is made to hatch new dragons for your riders. The XP pumped into your hatchling is well worth it. These new dragon skins look awesome! Even before strapping on any armor pieces you've collected or switching to a new skin you hatched, the default dragons are very detailed and look ready to take on anything. The added armor pieces also look spectacular. It'll be a hard decision whether to cover your dragon in armor or not.
You’ll also collect various armor pieces for your rider. One thing you don’t have to worry about when customizing your rider and dragon is skipping over your favorite piece of armor for an item with better stats. Many players will be glad to know none of their cosmetic choices make a difference to the actual combat. Choosing to show off your dragons natural beauty or wrapping it in a bunch of glistening metal doesn't change its health or maneuverability. The same goes for your rider. Even a dragon's rarity doesn't give any extra advantage other than looking fabulous as you dart around the skies.
Maps And Game Modes
Content wise Century: Age of Ashes was pretty bare bones. During the test weekend, we had the aforementioned character classes and dragons to take to the skies with. And for the play test weekend, those skies were fairly limited. There was a single map (two if you count the “rookie” 3v3 map) available for play. All three of the available game modes utilized that single map.
Open for players until they reach level 20, the rookie map was the location for your first battle. The rookie fights are cut down from the regular 6v6 battles to a simpler 3v3 format. With only a team deathmatch option available, each round of the best of 5 match slowly introduced your rider’s abilities. In round one, only your fireballs and fire breath are available. Round two adds in your secondary ability, and round three finally opening up access to your primary ability.
The rookie map is a good place to get your bearings in Century: AoA. Getting used to the turning radius of your dragon takes a few flights, and the fairly open setting of the rookie map means you won’t spend too much time bouncing up against obstacles. Over the course of a match or two you’ll start to understand the effects of speed on maneuverability, and mastering your boost and brakes is paramount for success.
Boosting at top speed is good for catching up to an enemy. It also makes you an easy target for enemy fireballs. Slowing down allows for sharp turns, perfect for evading an enemy or, better yet, doing a 180 to plant a burst of fire breath right in your foe's face.
The round by round addition of your abilities also helps with muscle memory so that when you decide to leave the beginner’s playground you won’t be flailing all over the place to make your attacks. Keeping a target lock at close range isn't as easy as it is at long range, so being familiar with your controls is needed for the split second attacks you'll have to make.
After just a couple of matches I was already growing tired of the limitations of the rookie area and headed into the big boy matches. The main map, called Hunavatn Lake, was a lot of fun to play on. Half of the map is a large open area that serves perfectly for grouping up and having big aerial dogfights. The other half of the map is full of narrow caverns with lots of branches creating some tight, twisty turns. Above the caverns is a castle complete with walls and tall spires to zig zag through as you chase an enemy or try to get someone off your six.
There were three game modes during the playtest. First up was Carnage, a 6v6 team deathmatch. To spice things up, after a set number of kills a Berserk Wraith will spawn. The player that kills the wraith gains the Berserk boon. Going berserk engulfs you and your dragon in a red aura and grants you faster speed, extra shields, and more powerful attacks.
Carnage has a couple of other surprises in store for players. Killing other players will increase your bounty multiplier. Other players will get bonus points for killing you and taking your bounty, so expect to be relentlessly hunted as your bounty goes up. If you can stay alive until your bounty timer expires, you will reap the rewards, gaining extra health, shields, and stamina for your efforts.
The final surprise in store in Carnage mode is the Drakepiercer. Every couple of minutes the Drakepiercer will spawn on the map. Just like shield boosts, you pick this item up by flying over it. When you throw the Drakepiercer at a locked target it will automatically down your foe. It’s one hit, one kill with this sweet little spear.
Survival mode takes the player count up to 18, splitting players into three teams for a limited respawn, last rider standing event. Although this was listed as one of the modes for play this weekend, I don’t think it was actually available in the game. I played for several hours and never actually took part in one of these battles.
The final mode of the trio is Gates of Fire. This is a capture the flag variant where, instead of racing back to your base to score, the flag holder racks up points by passing through special gates scattered across the map. Whichever team passes the flag through eight gates first, or has the most gates when the timer runs out, wins the round. It’s best two out of three, so these matches can fly by pretty quick.
Right off the bat I have to say that even though there are a lot of parallels between Century: Age of Ashes and other flight combat games, there are some unique elements tat come along with flying a dragon around. The most obvious difference is dragons can hover. I’d like to see an F-16 do that.
As far as actual flight, I couldn’t get used to how light and nimble I was. Even as my dragon bounced and swayed on my screen - Century’s third person view is locked slightly above and behind your dragon - it felt as though I was flying through the air like an arrow. I was riding a beast that weighs hundreds (thousands?) of pounds, but that weight and momentum didn’t translate visually on my screen.
As far as actual flight characteristics, I have mixed feelings. I really liked how majestic I felt when flying at maximum speed. Regardless of how quickly I moved my mouse or slammed my controller’s thumbstick to the side, my dragon was only able to turn so fast, it’s size defying my need to dodge an incoming fireball. And when I used my speed boost, the sense of speed I felt as my dragon pulled its wings close to its body and rocketed ahead was fantastic.
On the flip side of that was deceleration and slow flight. Although I could slow down as quickly as a car slamming on its brakes, nothing gave the impression that I was about to fly out of my saddle. And once at slow speed I was able to maneuver as swiftly as a bird, changing direction as quickly as I could flick my thumb in one direction or another. It was as though my dragon was turning on a swivel.
At least it felt like that until I hit a wall. Then I would frantically bounce from wall to wall, trying to get my bearings as my camera spun to keep up with my view. And that’s when I finally realized what my main issue was with slower speeds. It never felt like my dragon was leaning into turns enough. No matter how much or how little my dragon leaned, my view didn’t pivot proportionally. In soft turns my camera would stay horizontal. In sharp turns it would lean into the turn a little, but nowhere near as much as my mount. The result was feeling disconnected from the force of the turn, merely a spectator watching my rider as I went around the arena.
Performance and Stability
Other than the announcement trailer there hasn't been much shown about Century: Age of Ashes since TheGame Awards. We all know how those types of trailers put a game's best foot forward, so I was happy to finally get my hands on what looked like an awesome dragon riding experience. I'm happy to report that, overall, everything went pretty smooth the whole weekend.
Well Equipped Machine
My regular gaming rig (AMD R7 3700X, 32GB ram, RTX 3080) was able to consistently push over 60frames per second on epic settings. Everything about this system configuration was well above the recommended hardware (Intel i7 @2.8Ghz or Ryzen 5 @3.2Ghz, 8GB ram, GTX970 or RX580), so I would have been surprised if it wasn’t capable of handling everything the game threw at it.
The graphics options for the beta were almost non-existent. I was playing on a 3440x1440 monitor and Century defaulted to windowed fullscreen at 2560x1440 resolution, leaving black bars on both sides of the screen. Switching to fullscreen didn't give any other resolution choices, and switching to windowed mode reverted back to windowed fullscreen.
My dragons deserve a better rider
Hooking up a 1080p monitor fixed all of these issues. Multiple resolutions were available in fullscreen mode, and switching to windowed mode actually dropped the game into a 1280x720p window. Since everything seemed to work fine with a 1080p monitor, I'm guessing it's an ultrawide support issue. Many games still don't launch with ultrawide support so I wasn't surprised to run into this type of issue in a beta.
I also spent a few rounds playing on an older computer (AMD R5 1600, 16GB ram, AMD Vega 64) that came closer to the recommended hardware. At 1080p, using the default epic settings resulted in some very bad stutters when there were multiple dragons fighting in close proximity. This happened almost every time there was someone directly in my sight shooting fireballs or breathing fire in my general direction.
The only options other than resolution that could be changed were the level of anti aliasing and reducing the render scale. I left the resolution at 1080p and dropped the preset setting to High. This adjustment bumped the frame rate into the 60+ range and all but eliminated the stuttering with little change to the visual quality. An Advanced Settings tab was present but grayed out for the beta, suggesting that there will be more options to tweak the graphics when the game releases. Even so, unless there are some optimizations made before launch players with lower end computers should expect some graphics sacrifices will need to be made to make Century: Age of Ashes playable.
I don’t have any idea how many of the 10000 players were online at any given time, but it was a relief to not have any major connection issues. With dragons capable of completing 180 degree turns on a dime, any type of network lag will make tracking an enemy all but impossible, pushing players away quicker than anything. I never lost connection during a match, nor did I see any lag related issues.
Pay 2 Win?
Playwing has already stated Century: AoA’s cash shop will be purely cosmetic and won’t have any pay to win items. Monetizing a free to play game on purely cosmetic purchases requires towing a very fine line. Making items too expensive isn’t the only way to negatively impact revenues. You still have to keep the free to play players happy as well.
Century’s cash shop looks good to me
Cash Shop Items
Although everything in the cash shop was disabled for the test weekend I was able to check and see what things will be offered. The real-money currency in Century is gems. 1000 gems are currently listed for $10.00, with bonus gems given for larger purchase amounts. While some of the items in the shop are only available for gems, many of the items are purchasable with gold coins - the in-game currency - as well.
This is all standard practice, so the real question is whether the rate at which you earn gold will keep the currency relevant. Many games lure you in with the promise of purchasing items with in-game currency. Then you find out it will take months of grinding to purchase a single item.
It looks like Playwing is going to keep things reasonable in this area. Even though I am horrible at this type of game, I was able to earn 11000 gold in about 30 matches. Skilled players should be able to amass a much larger treasure horde.
That few hours of earnings would be almost enough to purchase the rare egg that was listed, or half the cost of a full set of dragon armor. Those same items could be purchased for 750 and 1500 gems respectively. Trading a few days of grinding for $10-$15 seems fair regardless which path you choose to take. In reality, you have to have both free to play and cash spending customers to keep the matchmaking process run smoothly, and the current pricing and items available in the shop should generate some revenue for Playwing.
Show your dragon some love with a new set of armor
You can’t just throw everything into the cash shop and ask free to play players to grind hour after hour without dangling a carrot or two in front of their noses. Playwing seems to get this concept, and all players will have a chance to earn other rewards through gameplay on top of the gold they earn each match.
Players can earn rewards at each level up. In just the few levels I’ve attained, I’ve gotten two eggs, several pieces of armor for my riders and dragons, not to mention a few gems and XP boosters along the way. Each item is specific to a particular class, so some of the items will be of little worth to players that only play a single class, but them's the breaks, as they say.
There are also missions to complete for additional rewards. There are 14 weekly missions to be completed. Each day 2 of the missions unlock, giving players something to strive for each day. Once unlocked, you have the rest of the week to complete them. All of the missions rewards bonus experience and gold.
There is also a daily mission reward system. Completing this daily mission will reward experience and gold. You also earn a key each day you complete a mission, with a treasure chest to unlock at the end of the week. The more keys you have, the greater the treasure. No matter the number of keys you have you will get some gold, with more keys giving you a chance to get some extra loot.
Being a technical beta, the weekend’s experience was far from a complete package. With only a single map and two game modes to play, there was only so much to do. Three days also wasn’t long enough to unlock a full week’s worth of missions or get a peek at all that class customization had to offer.
Playwing did warn us beforehand that content would be limited, so with another beta session coming soon it’ll be interesting to see how far they have progressed by then. All of their communication with their community stresses their belief that quality is more important than quantity when showing off features of the game before launch. And the quality of what I saw over the weekend was enough to show proof of concept, leaving me hopeful that they will be able to deliver a quality game when it is fully released.
Even a bad rider can have a good match.