As a person who waited in a very small line to grab a launch PlayStation 3 and dragon-riding action disappointment Lair, you could say that any talk of flying scaly wyrms fighting in a video game both bristles my scales and ignites my curiosity. After spending some preview time with Century: Age of Ashes, I’m newly optimistic that mid-air monster battles don’t have to just be flights of fancy.

Century is a third person multiplayer shooter that feels more akin to Ace Combat than Panzer Dragoon at first. Teams of three or six riders take to the skies to burn and blast their enemies to secure kills and objectives across a handful of maps and play modes. Before I did any of that, though, I had to take a pass through the tutorial mode, which does a great job at teaching you the many technical aspects of flight, as well as offensive and defensive maneuvers to dominate your airspace with. I initially learned the controls on my keyboard, but soon switched to an Xbox controller with zero down time needed to readjust to the new layout.

Skip the tutorial at your own peril though. Learning how to move your dragon is easy enough to pick up, but the trick to regain lost stamina, for example, is a less obvious core mechanic you’re not likely to just stumble across. The tutorial also gives you lots of opportunities to learn how to throw fire at opponents, both in ball and faucet form. Your fireballs act almost like bullets, auto locking onto a target in range allowing you to pepper them from relative safety. Getting closer still opens up the flame breath option, which douses your prey in a steady gout of blaze that quickly drains their health. In combination, I found that this was my usual opener/closer. The autolock feature is a welcome one, as it puts less pressure on you having fast twitch reflexes and aim, and more emphasis on positioning and maneuvering into and out of danger.

Classes include the damage-focused Marauder and the stealthy assassin Phantom.

All this heats up further when you factor rider classes, and their powers and abilities. Classes include the damage-focused Marauder and the stealthy assassin Phantom, but I fancied the Windguard, a support style class who can rush to the aid of allies and shield them, or obscure yourself and team with a trail of smoke like a Bond gadget. Both powers and abilities are skills you have to activate, but while powers are static and wholly unique to the rider, you have your choice of a pair of abilities you can ride into battle with, and some of these abilities are shared options among more than one rider class. In this closed test, that meant that Marauder and Phantoms both shared an ability, and in a game with so few abilities to go around at this stage in development, it really didn't help those two classes feel much different from one another.

Once the training wheels were off, the team at Playwing ushered me into the Rookie Skirmish 3v3 game mode. It’s a straight-up best-of-three-round deathmatch, but your additional skills unlock gradually over the course of each round. If a game makes it to the final round, each player will have their full kit available to them. This was an interesting way to ease into the sometimes chaotic combat, but potentially not even getting to full strength win or lose, is a bummer.

Spoils of War mode was where player skill, map awareness, and team balance all coalesced into a tactical and rewarding experience that stands out.

After a round or two of Rookie, Playwing called in some heavy hitters from their QA team to join us for what would be my favorite mode of the entire demo, Spoils of War. In it, two teams of six dragoneers fight to accumulate gold from neutral loot dragons flying around an expansive map. Every few minutes, new sub-objectives spawn that make gathering your horde easier, or threaten it entirely. Maybe it’s suddenly locked, and a floating NPC is carrying a key you have to retrieve and return to your base to unlock it. A bomb could spawn, and the team who can successfully secure it and bring it to the enemy horde will blow it up, spilling tons of their gold out into the air, ripe for the stealing. These kept the game tense during the entire length of a round, and was where player skill, map awareness, and team balance all coalesced into a tactical and rewarding experience that stands out among the free-to-play shooter offerings available these days.

When Age of Ashes launches on December 2nd, it will launch with a market brimming with cosmetics for your rider and dragon available to purchase with real money or in-game currency earned through completing daily and weekly missions. Maybe the most curious thing to get into between matches is hatching dragon eggs and raising new dragons. If you're lucky enough to receive a dragon egg as a reward after battle, you can equip it, and complete its list of “growth step” missions in order to raise it to adulthood. It's an interesting, if not a little tedious, way to earn now looks for your scaly mount.

If you’ve been burned by dragon combat in the past, or just looking for a new, outside the box multiplayer shooter to fire up your Winter, Century: Age of Ashes might be worth taking a scalebound spin. It’s narrow offerings in terms of classes and abilities may make teams look pretty similar over time, but its stellar Spoils of War adds enough frantic objective chasing that will surely keep the interest of adventurous action game fans looking for a new challenge.

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