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Retrograde – Dark Reign: The Future of War

If you live anywhere besides the great antipodean nation of Australia, you would not have been able to access weekendwarrio.rs these past couple of days. I hope you were able to cope in our absence. We appear to be back now, worldwide, but the situation got me thinking about an Australian game that had a big impact during my teenage years.

That game is Dark Reign: The Future of War.

It was the mid-nineties. Warcraft 2 and Command & Conquer may not have been the first games to define what we now know of as Real-Time Strategy, but they certainly popularised it. This led to expansion packs, eventual sequels and, inevitably, imitations.

Most of these clones had little vision, little originality and little going for them, but one was able to set itself apart, and will forever hold a special place in my formative gaming history.

Dark Reign: The Future of War, developed by Auran and published by Activision, came out in 1997 and was everything this teenage boy could have wanted. Command & Conquer never held my attention, and as great as Warcraft 2 was, it was fantasy. Along came a science-fiction game with brilliant and varied units, an unconventional mechanic driving the campaign, and a fleshed-out narrative featuring evil empires, suicidal freedom fighters and the promise of time travel.

The Imperium (Boo! Hiss!) could field infantry-decimating, spinning blades of death, beetle-esque brainwashers that would turn enemy combatants into suicidal zombies under your command, and giant, floating donuts of mass destruction.
The Rebel Scum – sorry, I mean Freedom Guard – had suicide bombers, fast, lightly armoured units for both land and air, and the ability to phase troops and tanks underground to any point on the map.

But it wasn’t just this selection of unique and interesting units that helped to elevate Dark Reign – it also allowed you to alter the AI of your units so they could carry out a handful of tasks autonomously. This was revelatory, and as far as I’m aware has never been replicated since. As someone who finds the ‘micro’ of using spells and abilities in Warcraft and Starcraft irritating, this system was perfect.
You could set your hovering death blades to Search and Destroy mode, with a low threshold for damage so they would automatically seek repair between bouts of automated homicide. You could set your agile aircraft onto Harass mode, and you could send troops out to intelligently Scout the terrain for you. With buttons, sliders and presets, the possibilities were endless, giving you all the time you needed to perfect that base defence while your army hassled the enemy for you.

I evangelised Dark Reign constantly, and was so excited about it I even entered a competition that Auran ran to look for ideas for a new game. 14 year-old Corey excitedly hand-wrote a detailed plan for a multi-tiered, sci-fi RTS where the battle would be fought across multiple planets and the space between them… So, basically Planetary Annihilation, sans weaponised asteroids, but 16 years before Uber would launch their Kickstarter.
I never received a reply, and when I saw the winning entry I remember being underwhelmed. Perhaps their presentation was far superior, but my ideas were grander.

[Doing some research I find that Auran now goes by the name N3V games – an abbreviation of the extremely unfortunate N3VRF41L – and their headquarters is a mere 10 minute drive from my house. Once upon a time this would have excited me to no end, but their more recent output of train simulators inspires only apathy.]

In 1998 an expansion pack dropped – Rise of the Shadowhand – with more fantastic cutscenes, more sci-fi intrigue, and more interesting units. The downside was a brutally hard Single Player campaign that I never progressed far in (in the 90s expansion packs were always brutally hard, as if the developers assumed only the most hardcore would be interested), but I sunk ever more hours into the Skirmish mode with the new units at my disposal.

…But 1998 was also the year of Starcraft, a game so monolithic it would need its own retrospective post. If there was only room for one sci-fi RTS, then Dark Reign didn’t stand a chance; and if I’m honest it seemed Total Annihilation stole a lot of attention from Dark Reign before Starcraft even arrived on the scene.
Total Annihilation gained popularity thanks to the sheer scale of the battles you would find yourself in. Players could field hundreds of units on land, sea and air, but I found the conventionality of the armies uninspiring.

Not only did Starcraft and Total Annihilation push Dark Reign from people’s minds in the 90s, but they’re still enduring now. Starcraft 2 still has another expansion pack in the pipe, and Total Annihilation‘s spiritual successor Planetary Annihilation had a hugely successful Kickstarter earlier in the year, but Dark Reign had been largely forgotten.
The fans that do still remember are passionate though, using the game’s map-making and modding tools to create new content, and even one group of fans remaking Dark Reign for modern systems, eventually receiving support from Activision and a release on Xbox Live Arcade.

If you missed Dark Reign: The Future of War back in the past but have an affinity for real-time strategy and good, old games it’s well worth a look. The sequel traded anything interesting or unique for 3D graphics though, so perhaps don’t bother with that one.

Dark Reign and Rise of the Shadowhand are available from GOG. The sequel is also available, but perhaps tellingly it is cheaper than its 2D predecessor. Dark Reign Redux is available for Xbox 360 via XBLA.

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