That I had to shift this review to Thursday speaks well of Age of Wonders; I spent so long playing the damn thing over the weekend that I didn’t have any time to write about it.
Age of Wonders III is Triumph’s long-awaited return to the series after a decade-long hiatus (most of which was spent making the not-very-good Overlords). I had some doubts about the quality of the final product after it had lain fallow for such a lengthy period; ten years is a very long time in game development and most of the people who worked on the original games will have been long gone. On the other hand the intervening period has been littered with wannabes and also-rans – most notably the profoundly mediocre Elemental series — that didn’t even come close to matching the brilliance displayed by AoW’s predecessors, let alone the series spiritual ancestor, Master of Magic. It’s possible, then, that my perception has been somewhat biased by the almost total lack of decent competition, but despite my healthy degree of scepticism going into it, and after taking a sufficient amount of time to form a decent opinion, I still think Age of Wonders III is really fucking good.
That verdict doesn’t come without its caveats, of course, and there’s plenty of changes and cuts that have been made that I don’t think have been for the best, but what matters here is that Age of Wonders successfully updates the series while preserving its atmosphere and general feeling of… well, wonder. Nearly all of the basic gameplay elements have made it through intact; you are a wizard/warrior/lord of machines/religious zealot, and your job is to use magic, diplomacy and military might to spread your dominion over the land. Said land is absolutely chock full of treasure, dungeons and independent settlements that can be swiped, explored, bribed or coerced over to your side, which I think has always been the nicest thing about Age of Wonders; its maps have always felt far more vibrant and alive than its contemporaries, partly because of Triumph’s excellent art direction but also because they’re absolutely covered with stuff for you to find. You start most maps with a city of your own and send forth armies to explore and conquer, and when you start a fight the game switches over to a tactical battle mode where things like line of sight and flanking become very important. The world is also populated by any number of rival wizards who are trying to do exactly the same things you are, and sooner or later you end up butting heads. You can cast spells both on the strategic map and in the tactical combat; heroes can be periodically recruited who function as slightly less powerful versions of your sorcerer avatar; and these heroes can be outfitted with weapons and items either found in dungeons or crafted in your cities that grant them special abilities in combat.
In other words, it’s Age of Wonders. The 4X-with-a-fantasy-twist core of the game has survived the update, which was the most essential thing this sequel had to get right after ten years away from the series. Triumph have resisted the urge to tinker with the formula too much; they’ve recognised that what a lot of people wanted out of Age of Wonders III was more of the same, and so aside from the graphical and quality of life improvements you’d expect from a modern game they’ve made just enough changes to stamp Age of Wonders III with its own particular character, and no more. Perhaps if its competitors had managed to make any progress in the decade since Shadow Magic this would result in a game that felt dated and sluggish, but since they’ve instead struck out one after another the field is clear for AoW to pick right back up where it left off. I think this approach was the best one to take, and one that has paid off spectacularly.
Nevertheless, this is not the same game as Shadow Magic. There is one big change that did leap out at me when I started my first game, and that is a drastic reduction in the number of races and magic spheres available during character creation. Shadow Magic had somewhere in the region of 20 races, each with its own set of units and traits. Age of Wonders III has just six: humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins and draconians. This reduction in scope chafed with me at first – mostly because the undead didn’t make the cut – but it’s been made for sound reasons. First, there is the practical problem of rendering 20 different sets of units in 3D, a much more daunting task than doing it in 2D. Age of Wonders III might have been developed with the aid of investment from Notch1, but that just means the game gets made in the first place, not that the developers have unlimited resources to throw at expensive 3D art assets. Second, and far more pertinent to Age of Wonders’ gameplay, is that choosing a race is now only half of the character creation process. Race determines both your basic selection of units as well as your general unit look and gives them some passive traits – Goblins are better at underground exploration, for example, while Draconians get some inherent fire resistance – but much of your actual unit roster will be decided by your choice of class.
Classes are a new addition to the series (previously you were just stuck as a Wizard) and one that has a far-reaching impact on how a game unfolds since each class plays very, very differently. Each class gets a different set of special units that can be built in all cities no matter which race inhabits them, as well as a set of spells unique to that class. The spells and units emphasise a particular playstyle unique to that class. Take the Dreadnought, for example, who holds the line with tough ranks of Musketeers while Engineers reload the Cannon bombarding the enemy fortress. Then compare that to the Theocrat, a class which overwhelms the enemy with hordes of fanatically devout Crusaders whose faith protects them from the holy rays emanating from their Shrines of Smiting. It’s the class units that provide your character with its flavour now, since in most cases they dramatically outclass (ha) the racial units, which consist of stock spearmen, swordsmen, archers etc; racial units are enough to get by on in the early game, but sooner or later your armies will mostly consist of the class units and nothing else. An excellent touch is that the look of the class units does change depending on which race you’ve picked, meaning that you can have Goblin Crusaders and Elf Musketeers if that’s what you want – and thanks to the way the system’s been set up this will likely be a perfectly valid combination.
So the changes to the character creation system and race roster have an element of give and take to them; Age of Wonders III has lost some of the flat out variety provided by the bloated race rosters of the original games, but each of the six available classes is more interesting than any of the old races were on their own. Fortunately one area where Triumph haven’t skimped is the bands of wandering monsters and dungeon guardians dotted around the map; these are made up of a weird and wonderful selection of creatures that you cannot directly build yourself – including the series staple, the Dire Penguin — and they do much to preserve a sense of variety that might otherwise have felt somewhat threatened by the narrowed scope in player units. With so many units in the game Triumph have wisely decided not to try too hard to balance them all, and while there’s nothing as completely broken as the Doom Bats of Shadow Magic (who were capable of slaughtering entire armies if you hadn’t brought any ranged units) there’s a lot of powerful units like dragons and giants who can wreak havoc appropriate to their epic nature. Its nowhere close to perfect game design, but it’s yet another quality that adds to the game’s sense of character.
Speaking of units, I should spend a paragraph talking about the tactical battles. These work as combat always has in the Age of Wonders series; each hex on the strategic map can contain one army of up to six units, and most encounters take place between single armies and are resolved in just a couple of minutes. Each unit gets three action points per turn which can be used to either move several hexes or attack (most units also have special abilities of one kind or another, but we’ll stick to the basics here), with a unit that remains still getting three attacks and a unit that charges across the battlefield to reach a foe only getting one. Units that are attacked in melee from the front can retaliate, but this uses their action points for the next turn and eventually they’ll run out, meaning it is possible to swarm bigger units with smaller, weaker ones and emerge victorious. A flanking attack from the side or the rear both gets a damage bonus and avoids retaliation; an attacked unit will automatically turn to face its attacker, so it’s also possible to chain together multiple flanking attacks if you position your units correctly. Ranged units can attack without fear of retaliation, but they’ll incur a hefty damage penalty if they’re too far away and/or don’t have unfettered line of sight to the target. A unit that tries to move past an enemy unit to attack a juicy target (such as the aforementioned ranged units, which are predictably terrible in melee) will suffer attacks of opportunity for every hex it moves to while adjacent to the enemy. It’s a really, really solid version of Age of Wonders combat that draws inspiration from a lot of sources – Blood Bowl, XCOM, and many others – to produce something that’s genuinely quite intelligent and taxing at times.
It can also be astoundingly epic. Most encounters are between single armies, but if an army has an allied army in a hex adjacent to the enemy army it’s attacking, the allied army will be pulled into the battle too. This is just as true of the defending army, and so it’s possible to have up to seven armies – 42 units – in a battle at once. The AI is good at clustering its armies around valuable cities – such as the capital — so the final battle between your forces and the AI player you’re currently preying on tend to be titanic struggles with dozens of casualties; the most memorable battle I’ve fought so far was a bloody struggle for the throne city of the Cerrin Treefolk, where my horde of summoned Phantasms (who can just float over obstacles) fought human Knights for control of the city walls. Many good ghosts died a second death buying time for the my heroes and Apprentices to bludgeon their way through the gates , but I evened things up with some judicious casting of the Chain Lightning and Cosmic Spray spells (you can cast one spell per turn in a tactical combat, with the total number being limited by your casting points) and eventually carried the day.
The AI in AoW III is surprisingly competent, in that it plays almost exactly like a really annoying human player would. If a city is under threat and it knows it doesn’t have a chance of defending it it’ll pull its garrison out rather then leaving them there to die; it will almost exclusively found new cities in narrow canyons and next to rivers where you can only bring a limited amount of force to bear on them; and while the tactical combat AI puts too much priority on securing a flanking attack it’s good enough that battles aren’t a walkover unless you have a sizeable advantage in terms of numbers or troop quality. It takes the performance a little bit too far with its settler units, which will retreat to the very back of the map during sieges and force you to spend several turns moving to and killing them after you’ve mopped up the last of the combat units, but it’s a sterling effort nonetheless.
Age of Wonders is a pleasing mix of the modern and old-school, but one area in which I think it’s a little bit too old school is the way it deals with a plague which has afflicted 4Xes ever since the original Civilization back in 1991: Infinite City Sprawl (or ICS). ICS is a syndrome whereby the most efficient way to play the game is to vomit out cities absolutely everywhere, since the more cities you have the more money you make. Modern 4Xes combat ICS by including mechanics that ensure it is not cost effective to build a new city until your empire has the infrastructure to support it – maintenance in Civ 4, happiness in Civ 5 – but Age of Wonders III chooses to ignore the problem entirely; it is never not a good idea to build a new city in AoW III, and since the location of your city has comparatively little impact on its efficiency you can build them pretty much anywhere and always see a positive return on your investment. On its own this would be irritating, but what turns it from an irritation to something potentially enjoyment-shattering is that the AI is well aware of how beneficial having a lot of cities is, and consequently builds them nearly everywhere it physically can. A mid-sized AI empire has around 10-15 cities; a large one has around 25 with no upper limit. With anywhere up to eight AI empires in the game, this means that any human player who wants to win Age of Wonders III by conquest had better get used to managing an empire that consists of 40-50 cities; I don’t know about you but that’s not particularly my idea of fun, let alone the process of actually capturing the damn things in the first place. This is why, despite 20 hours spent playing it now, I still haven’t finished a game of AoW III; I get to that point I always reach in most 4X games where I know I’ve won and that the rest of the game will just be a formality, except in this case I can’t face the mop-up operation. Getting to that tipping point is great fun, I’ll grant you, but I really wish they’d taken out the ability to found cities completely and just had you build up your empire by grabbing and assimilating independent settlements. I think it would have made for a much more interesting endgame.
Still, if the biggest criticism I can make of Age of Wonders is that it falls apart somewhat in the last hour of each game I think it’s standing on pretty solid ground. The gameplay is excellent, the maps are gorgeous (even if the art style took a while to grow on me) and filled with loads of stuff to do, and the accompanying music is just as lovely as it was in Shadow Magic. It sucked up nearly all my free time over the weekend, and I rarely get that addicted to games these days; it’s something that I can easily see myself spending a couple of dozen more hours playing before I get bored of it, and I’m a special case who is only interested in playing on randomly generated maps. If you’re interested in the campaigns and scenarios that come packaged with the game then you can probably add another twenty hours on top of that. There is a lot of game here. Age of Wonders III is by far the best fantasy 4X I’ve played since the last Age of Wonders2. While I think it probably misses out on being the best 4X period thanks to that ICS issue it’s still a really strong contender, and one that could easily pick up the title given a year or two of patching and expansions. I couldn’t be happier that Triumph have decided to return to the series, because Age of Wonders III genuinely is one.
- Which I applaud; Notch might be a bit of a dick, but when you have literally more money than you could possibly ever spend in your lifetime I can think of worse things to do with it than funding the development of games you enjoy that wouldn’t be made otherwise. ↩
- Caveat: I have not played Warlock. ↩
I didn’t have as positive impression of the game cause I went for campaign. Seems that you haven’t. Campaign is not crap, but it’s linear and boring. They’ve done one big mistake with campaign, I think: heroes. You start every mission with a new leader hero and others are just there and have to survive. In the second mission of elven campaign you have THREE very useful heroes who make you loose your game if some stray arrow kills them. I think we’ve grown over it in the times of HoMM4: it’s not a strategy game when you can’t have casualties. Also maps are linear. And AI is passive. So you have to be careful and slow before snowballing the enemy. They also didn’t bother with campaign movies or speech: there’s one voice for whole campaign reading some text between mission acompanied by some pictures. Not very good storytelling.
There’s also this framerate problem: game is very slow after an hour of play. Also it will crash sooner or later. I love the game but currently wait for some patches. And while they’re at it they should do something with campaign pacing and balance (high level units make everything else useless).
Warlock 2 is coming. AoW3 may be good, but Warlock 2 may beat it. Good times for TBS fans.
Ah… HoMM4. How I do wish that Heroes had continued expanding in that direction of thought. There were many issues with 4, but the new ideas at the core of it were really taking it in a new direction. Even with the changes in 6, it’s still kind of the samey Heroes of HoMM3, and while that was great… well… it’s still there and ready for one to play.
There’s a reason I ignore the campaigns in Age of Wonders games; I got a few missions into the one in Shadow Magic but I got really annoyed that I kept having to start my empire afresh on every single map.
I haven’t encountered this framerate problem you speak of, though. The worst bug I’ve seen is consistent desync issues in multiplayer games, which is a non-trivial problem if you’re interested in multiplayer but which can be worked around as an organised group with regular saving.
Note – Warlock is not really a 4X. It really has more in common with turn-based tactical games than with big 4X strategies. I would argue.
From what I’ve played of Warlock 2 so far it’s pretty damn excellent, but it scratches a different itch and approaches it all quite differently.
AoW3 really is hitting the big strategy spot for me though. Actually in a way that HoMM6 didn’t quite manage. I’ve always preferred the HoMM series, but while 6 has advanced the game and style a fair way, it hasn’t quite got everything as right or fun as it could.
Regarding the city-building – I do recommend having a go at the no-city-making advanced rule. It makes for a very different, and more interesting dynamic I feel.
> but while 6 has advanced the game and style a fair way
Couldn’t even play it after god-awful Inferno campaign. Had it become better? Is community keeping HoMM6 (sorry, MMH6) alive?
As for the genre, who cares. I’m making Android RPG now and you have research, economy and war it, so I’m calling it 4X and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The original campaigns are a bit patchy, but the DLC and Shadow of Darkness campaign are really rather good. Still, it requires you to have got on board with how HoMM6 works broadly speaking.
The campaigns get lots of points for allowing you to play them in whatever order you want. HoMMV was a terrible slog that forced you to play each faction in order.
Perhaps this is the reason I’ve played Inferno campaign and it felt like David Lynch trying to make DnD module. I still don’t understand how the hero became demon, what did he try to accomplish and who the hell where those faceless guys.
Also, cheap effortless castle conversion and common pull of recruites is a nice way to tell the player he only needs one hero. And if you try to recruit some other guy we make his icon small and obviously insignificant. Is this King’s Bounty influence?
You know, it’s been a while since you decried the Elite Dangerous Kickstarter. They’ve done a fair bit of work since. What do you think of the project as it is stands now?
Good review! About this part:
“I really wish they’d taken out the ability to found cities completely and just had you build up your empire by grabbing and assimilating independent settlements. I think it would have made for a much more interesting endgame.”
If I’m not mistaken, there is a setting that disables founding of cities in the random map setup screens, which would allow that.
This is one big reason I’m enjoying the game — the level of customization for game maps is very good. The main thrust of the game is to reward aggressive expansion, but you can set it up for slow-expanding opponents spread far apart, with lots of dungeons to explore before you have to start beating up on the AI. It’s still not a game meant for extended turtling, but there’s a lot of flexibility here.
There seems to be a problem with “T4 spam” in the late game, where the only viable strategy is filling your army with nothing but identical tier 4 units, which is boring. The devs are working on it though.
The one thing that still bothers me is that they went a little overboard in making Class matter more than Race. You can “absorb” the cities of other races with minimal effort, and include their units and abilities in your armies. That’s okay, but the Heroes who volunteer for your empire are randomized between races. So you have the same weird situation that exists in the Endless Space game — Hereos that aren’t from your own faction, leading your armies while you set out to destroy their faction. Doesn’t make sense, and it kills some of the roleplaying. I don’t mind leading conscripts of other race units in my armies, but I’d like the Heroes leading them to be my own Leader’s race. Maybe they’ll add that option at some point on the setup screen.
I agree that loss of identity is part of the tradeoff for classes, and part of the problem is that most of the time you don’t even have to make an effort to keep your population of sky-hating Goblins happy as an Elf leader. All the races are very middle-of-the-road and there’s no Pure Evil or Pure Good races in the game (who were at permanent war with anyone who wasn’t at least Evil/Good). I haven’t really noticed the T4 spam, but then I admitted in the review I haven’t really played into the late-late game.
Will try a game with founding cities off at some point; it took some digging to find the actual option in the game setup, which I think is why I missed it the first time around.
Oh dear, there goes another packet of money.
I’m enjoying Warlock 2, though as Kenti says I think it’s got a different feel. More like some hyper-militaristic cross between Eador and Civ 5. For all the media surrounding it though, the Ardania/Majesty setting feels a touch flat, even if there’s always something happening. I suspect you’d come out of it with one of those “enjoyed it but…” situations.
Warlock minus points: very bland and generic presentation and UI.
Warlock plus points: getting my skeletons to build a tax office so that I can construct a vampire mansion.
Like I said below, I don’t think it’s actually that good, but it is a fascinating spin on the concept.
I have _really_ been enjoying this, and I say this as someone who still has yet to really click with the civilization series (I know it’ll happen eventually).
The battles are superb; in every similar game I would auto-resolve most of the time, but in AOW3 I have enjoyed the hell out of every single one (watching the developer do a playthrough video prior to release probably helped).
What has struck me that I don’t quite understand is how much it makes me think of the HOMM series, and yet how different it is to play. I’ve sunk something like 10 hours into Heroes VI, but it hasn’t gripped me in the same way that AOW has (despite there being a lot to like), there’s something very clinical and precise about the Heroes games. I think it helps a great deal that a unit’s capability doesn’t degrade with health like in the Heroes games, which makes battles much more tactical as opposed to just superior numbers.
You know what? I think that’s the secret sauce. Triumph got the tactical part of the game so superb it makes you enjoy the other parts more.
It’s certainly far more developed than it was in the previous games, in part because it’s not so easy to summon a bunch of Dark Angels and faceroll the enemy, and I think that having the majority of battles take no more than a couple of minutes was inspired. Tactical battle fatigue starts to set in when playing a campaign of XCOM, but it never does in AoW; that’s the fault of the strategic layer.
in regards to the ICS issue, I’ve been playing the new Warlock, and their solution is a hard cap on manually controlled production cities, whereby you transform said production cities into passive ones of which there are a few options when you reach the cap. While the AI still spams cities, transforming them wholesale, at least the player doesn’t need to micro an overload of cities endgame. It’s an interesting take.
Warlock 2 is a really, really interesting game. This is not the same thing as good, and I’m not sure how different it is from the first Warlock (which I didn’t play), but some of their solutions to the typical issues 4Xes face are fascinating.
>not sure how different it is from the first Warlock
Not very different. You can check out InoCo’s Elven Legacy and other wargames which were basically updated Fantasy General (which was Panzer General WITH ELVES). Warlock took some UI from Civilization, added basic city-building, global spells and terraforming to almost classic Panzer General formula, and as Civilization 5 was influenced by PG too it looked like Civilization on drugs to many. Warlock 2 is iterative upgrade with more of everything + sort-of-campaign game mode.
Their older games (Elven legacy) are much more conservative (you have more traditional branching campaign), though unforgiving: your army moves from mission to mission and you can lose guys forever (to be replaced by newbies for money) or miss an opportunity to recruit some guy or get some artifact. Kind of Fire Emblem. This sort of campaign makes those campaigns you don’t like (the one with every scenario starting from scratch) look much more benevolent. You won’t get to mission 6 and see that you can’t win the scenario cause you’ve lost your flying ship in mission 2.
Great review – I’m really enjoying this game as well. At first I was a little unsure, but it’s really growing on me.
Definitely look at the setup option to disable founding cities, and you can further tweak the amount of cities that are seeded into the world afterwards. Great option for those who don’t like the city-spam nature of things
Hah, part of the reason I haven’t messed with those yet is that Civilization has conditioned me to think of messing with the random map generation in any way as a form of cheating, but I’ll definitely have to get over it because Triumph really have provided a kitchen sink of options for game customisation.
I’d just like to say that I think Notch is NOT a dick. Not at all. He had some apparent stress or irritability issues a while back (the Yogscast fight in which he was definitely not the only asshole in the room) but the way he conducts himself otherwise is frankly inspirational. How can you say that when you’re talking about a wonderful game that he saved from ruin?
Yeah okay, that was a bit harsh. Better to say that he is behaving exactly like you’d expect a nerd who has become a multimillionaire to act, which has its ups (funding Age of Wonders III) and downs (knee-jerk reactions driven on prevailing internet wisdom and his own gut feeling, like cancelling Minecraft for Oculus RIft because he didn’t like the Facebook acquisition).