I'd give anything to be a kid in today's gaming world.
Growing up, free-to-play games meant flash games. AddictingGames, Candystand Games, Kongregate. And let's not get things twisted, flash games were great. Each one was always a little bit better than you expected and many classics persist today (Meat Boy, N+, VVVVV).
But today? Kids have access to full triple-A experiences on nearly every platform, without having to bug their parents to spend any cash. Granted, the F2P landscape is overstuffed with shooters and battle royales. But that makes it even more exciting when a free game comes along that truly innovates.
Enter... the dragons.
Just the Facts
Developer: Playwing LTD
Publisher: Playwing LTD
Platform(s): PC*, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S and X *platform reviewed on
Release Date: Dec. 2, 2021
Key to Founder's Pack provided by Evolve PR.
Playwing certainly had a lot going for it in the lead-up to their multiplayer-only dragon dogfighting F2P release, Century: Age of Ashes. Revealed at Keighley's Game Awards in 2020, it caught the attention of dragon gamers everywhere who've spent their lives grasping at anything vaguely reminiscent of Panzer Dragoon while trying to forget the PS3 disappointment that was Lair.
Its second appeal: It launched as a free-to-play game that set itself apart from the pack. I can't overstate the instant fatigue that sets in upon seeing another new battle royale or hero shooter and the utter joy that comes in seeing something different (i.e. Genshin Impact, Among Us) on the market. Add in an underappreciated genre — aerial combat — and you're bound to find an audience.
So how'd it all pan out?
Century has an incredibly strong foundation, but just a few months after launch, it faces a few major issues that threaten the stability of the entire experience. It's a unique experience that I can't really compare to anything out there right now, but a few irreconcilable experiential issues hold it back.
Gameplay soars high
Starting with the positives: Century's core gameplay experience is VERY good. Handling your dragon is unlike anything I've experienced in any aerial combat game out there. Early on, when you first enter the arena, there's an unwieldy feeling to controlling your dragon. There's a resistance and weight to the beast that stands out when compared to any dogfighting game before it. The learning curve you experience while trying to get a handle of it feels comparable to... well, what I imagine it'd be like to learn to "actually" command a dragon.
Once you get a handle on things though, the feeling is invigorating: zipping through the game's arenas, through tight corners and across open skies. Everything helps sell the experience, from the motion blur to the sound design.
Arenas are built to promote a natural flow and momentum. With objectives and pick-ups requiring you to dive down suddenly — to gain speed, to fly low and gain boost charges, and to burst back up into the fight via air columns — there's a deep satisfaction in picking your route through the chaos of combat. Evasion is a major key to the experience, as your opponents tend to descend in packs. If you aren't ready to change your route on the fly, you'll be ready to die.
Combat is surprisingly methodical. Homing fireballs come in slower and in more limited bursts than you might expect, and there's a surprising reliance on your rider's two unique chosen skills. Your dragon is fairly fragile too, which just makes the dogfighting experience a tale of two extremes: jabbing and running away or getting in tight to blast them with your flamethrower-esque Flamebreath on top of everything you have at your disposal.
Still, combat isn't the end all be all of the Century experience. Across three game modes, combat is only crucial in one. The game is generous in handing out points for those who are simply good teammates, and it's an important piece of the puzzle, because it's easy to get overwhelmed by veteran players in head-to-head combat.
Game Mode Crash Course
We'll break these modes down from worst to best.
There's Carnage, the game's pure Team Deathmatch mode that was certainly my least favorite. Across 10 hours with the game, I just never got GREAT at torching foes, so a combat-only game mode left me cold.
Slightly more enjoyable is Gates of Fire: The mode requires two teams to carry a flag through eight gates — in sequence and all in one go — to win. I love the idea behind this mode, but if one team overwhelms the other, matches can be over in seconds. That said, being the flag-bearer and somehow nailing a perfect run, just barely dodging an entire team of enemies, is an extremely thrilling rush.
And at the tippy-top by a large margin is Spoils of War. In this mode, teams fight to bank more gold in their base than the other. AI dragons ("couriers") fly through the arena in specific patterns, and attacking them dislodges some gold for you to pick up. To bank gold for your team, you have to get back to your base untouched, lest you risk dropping the precious bits. As someone who thrives on a gameplay approach of poking, jabbing, and dashing away scared, this mode speaks to me. It changes the focus from blasting enemies to gathering for your team and even the weakest team member has a chance to contribute in a big way.
Spoils of War has made for some of the most intense moments I've had in any multiplayer game of the past year. Nearly every round ends with dozens of fist-pump-worthy moments. Each team bites back at the other's total, and as time ticks down, you desperately scramble back to base to try and push your team over the top. It's so good.
Burn twice as bright but half as long?
Some might decry Century's lack of content, with just the three modes and four maps. But the approach to each mode is so wildly different that, depending on the combo of map and mode you end up with, you'll constantly be switching things up. That said, I'd love to see Playwing continue to add to the experience. I could see this game going through major renovations before it's all said and done.
On the whole, Century is hard to master, and kind of hard to learn. There's a guided tutorial and the game slowly unlocks its full set of content as you progress through your first few hours, but before you really get your feet under you, you're tossed into the fire. As a result, finding ANY success is extremely satisfying, but I can see newcomers getting instantly disheartened. At the low low price of free, it's easy to hop in and try it, but expect to grind out a few hours to find that satisfaction though.
And that's a problem.
One major issue the game has faced since Day 1 is a fairly busted matchmaking system. Century isn't friendly to newcomers. As you flail through the skies as a beginner, you can be matched with players at Lvl. 50+ who know the ins and outs of the maps and have ascended as dragon riders, guiding their mounts with a trained hand. You'll get crushed early on. When I first started playing, I had to grind out round after round with a 2/10 kill-death ratio to unlock the modes that didn't emphasize the killing. Only then did I have a fighting chance. It's a bummer, because it's not entirely the developer's fault. It's a vicious cycle.
Century has a dedicated player base, but it's smaller than I'm sure Playwing would like. Any new players trying to penetrate that base will find themselves quickly obliterated by the folks who've been playing for months. So they hop in and then hop off — they didn't invest any money into the experience in the first place, so there's no reason to stick around. But without players, a game like this is bound to lurch and tumble.
And there's no easy solution. Programming bots for a game like this is no easy task. If you strictly adhere to low-level matchmaking for newcomers, they could find themselves waiting hours to find a match because that subsection of the community is so small.
Avoiding burnout on this battleground
It's a great game, trapped in a multiplayer-only setting with a dwindling player base and some derailing matchmaking tools. I'm honestly glad I finally got around to reviewing this a few months down the line. Things were a lot smoother on Day 1, because of course they were. Free-to-play multiplayer games see so much drop-off that it's best to check back in later down the line and see if the time sink is worth it.
Century Age of Ashes certainly is... just not for new users, which seems to be a major chokepoint for its growth.
But it's still special! It's a free-to-play game whose shop is filled only with cosmetics, both for your dragon's rider and the nearly 100 distinctive dragons you can unlock — a fun challenge-based process that brings your scaly friends from egg to adulthood.
In the audio/visual department, Playwing has outdone themselves too. The arenas are beautiful, cinematic, and visually varied. The dragons run the gamut of traditional fantasy styles, making a purely visual change in mount feel important. And the soaring soundtrack builds momentum (and hype) with each mode's match flow.
I'm calling on the VGG community to bring some life back to this game. Set aside your battle royales, MOBAs, and hero shooters for a bit and meet me on the dragon battleground.
Century: Age of Ashes has built a fantastic groundwork that, even months down the line, is worth investing time into. If Playwing could find a way to patch up holes in the new user experience, add a few new maps and modes by the end of Year 1, and pump up the player base, this would be one of the easiest recommendations I could make.
As it stands though, it's a very tentative thumbs up from VGG. You might need to invest way more time than you might be interested in to get to the best of it, and that might be a hard sell, but I promise you there's something great waiting for you inside this rough and scaly surface.