In brief: AoD ditches many of the genre long established staples to focus on the roleplaying, and this it does amazingly well; there really is nothing quite like it out there. The EA version is very much playable (there are less bugs than in many releases). The combat, which has been much the focus of attention due to its difficulty, is not awesome, but it gets the job done and it is optional.
***Since for some reason Steam has decided to implement a character limit to user reviews (what's up with that Gabe?), you can read my whole review here: http://steamcommunity.com/app/230070/discussions/0/666827315713399977/
, but below is a very long extract:
AoD is a turn based cRPG set in a post-apocalyptic low magic/low tech world. So naturally one might think that this is something like Fallout in a “fantasy” (as opposed to sci-fy) setting. But it’s not and both games suffer from this comparison.
So, if it’s not Fallout in a low fantasy setting, then what is AoD? The best way to approach this is by considering that cRPGs tend to be very long games, with the first playthrough taking at least 20-30 hours. A first playthrough of AoD EA version, which according to the devs contains about 60% of the final content of the game, can take anywhere between an hour and 5 hours. However, while in the typical cRPG you see about 80% of the content in the first playthrough, in AoD you see anywhere between 5% and 15%.
This has a huge impact on how you are meant to play the game, the importance of which cannot be understated. It took me a long time to realize this, despite warnings from other players and the devs on the forum. You are not meant to constantly save the game and load it when you die or when something goes wrong. If you do this, paradoxically, the game becomes much more difficult and frustrating than it is, particularly when it comes to combat. This is because you can’t compensate through luck “bad” playing character stats, as AoD gives very little margin to luck. The problem is that at first it might seem exactly the opposite, because even though the to hit chances (expressed as a %) are low, you think “if I get a bit lucky with a couple of hits, I can pull this off”. But the outcome is not decided by a few very lucky rolls: you have to be consistently better than your opponent (e.g. not like in Fallout, where you can finish or disable an opponent with a single lucky shot). But, not realizing this at first, you save before a combat and reload when you fail, which you will do again and again. I’ll return to the combat in AoD in more detail later.
So how does the game play? Essentially you move your PC around in a fully 3d isometric view. Combat is never automatically triggered; it is always preceded by a dialogue window, more often than not giving you the chance to avoid it. You can talk to NPCs, examine some objects in the environment, or very occasionally pick up “loot” on the map. You don’t “hunt” for containers, checking every pixel for chests, drawers, bag, barrels, etc. You don’t worry about enemies spotting you, you can’t “turn on” sneak, there are no traps, pool of poisonous green goo to avoid, etc. The main view is, so to speak, just a convenient tool for showing how the world is and what is around you, allowing for some exploration and generally getting the character from one place to another. You can also use a map for convenient quick travel, and many times in a dialogue you have the option to appear directly in the place you want to go to. The meat of the game is in dialogues with NPCs, text adventures and combat.
As to the dialogues and the text adventures, their outcome depends a lot on PC stats, to a lesser degree on prior game choices and occasionally on equipment. And they are very good! Actually, they are so good that it is very rewarding to play a PC who doesn’t get into a single combat (yes, you can definitely play through the whole game without having any combat encounters at all). They are generally very well written (minor criticism: the swearing arsenal seems limited to the f word, which makes me miss Annah and Morte from Planescape Torment), the NPCs descriptions, motivations and actions are very solid and follow an iron logic action-consequence pattern, the PC has many different options when approaching them and more often than not they allow for a lot of roleplaying and expressing how your PC is. The mechanics themselves are unremarkable, but what AoD manages to accomplish through them is brilliant.
A warning though: because the outcome of both dialogues and text adventures is largely determined by skill checks (e.g. you must have a persuasion of 4 to convince an NPC) and as a player you have no way of knowing what level of skill you must have to pass it (it’s not shown in the text and you can’t possibly derive the exact number from the context), at first you might feel very frustrated that you don’t get the best outcome (or even fail, which in some cases means outright dying) because of something so silly and arbitrary. But it’s part of the game design that every PC can only get the best outcome in some cases and that you die a lot. Remember that each playthrough is relatively short; this is not Dragon Age where you invest 50 hours in building a PC. AoD is meant to be replayed many-many times, and the story and the world come together as you replay the game following different paths and failing in many of them . I can’t stress this enough: you gain insight into the story, the NPCs and the setting when your PC fails/dies, thus losing is an integral part of playing AoD.
As to combat, as I mentioned earlier, there is very little luck involved. If you face an opponent against whom your stats and equipment compare unfavorably (not in absolute, but relative terms, i.e. your stats and equipment don’t allow you to have an advantage over your opponent) you will lose. Again and again and again. The room for tactics in combat is also quite limited: there is positioning (counterintuitively, this usually means getting yourself into a corner where you are attacked by the fewest number of opponents at the same time), armor, quite a few different attacks (but ultimately not that different between them) and some variations between weapons of the same class and some auxiliary thingies you can use (like nets and alchemy bombs, but not much more, at least in the current version). Breaking it down, I think it would be fair to say that the outcome of combat depends mostly on the stats and equipment, somewhat on tactics, and very marginally on luck.
Personally, even though now I feel quite comfortable with combat in AoD (I better, after sinking so many hours into it) and I don’t find it too difficult or frustrating, I’m not thrilled by it. It does get the job done and it’s important to realize that without a very serious investment in AI, the most practical way of making combat hard (as is part of the game design) is to make it dependent on stats and populating the world with opponents with high stats. If tactics played a larger role, a human player would have a huge advantage over the AI controlled NPCs, which would go against the whole philosophy of the game.
Fortunately, you can play AoD without ever getting into combat. To avoid it you just have to be cautious in your dialogues and text adventures, which means as a rule of thumb behaving as you would in a real life situation (e.g. if you see some thugs, don’t approach them; if they ask you for money, give it to them). The best thing that can be said about combat in AoD is that it does succeed in making combat a very dangerous business that one should avoid unless very confident about his or her martial skills. (..,)