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. ↩