After a successful detour into sci-fi territory with Planetfall, Age of Wonders 4 returns to its roots in a more familiar fantasy setting. However, the latest entry in the beloved 4X strategy series shakes things up by emphasizing customisability and more freeform scenarios.
The story picks up where AoW3 left off, with the Wizard Kings now freed from their shackles and hopping between realms. Both mortal champions and Wizard Kings seek to consolidate their power, and players can choose between these two types of leaders to helm their chosen race.
Mortal champions have better relations with free cities, higher city stability, and gain experience and gold faster. On the other hand, Wizard Kings are more magically attuned. They can be of a different race than their followers, have access to the Overchannel ability - allowing them to cast an extra spell during one of their combat turns - and have more casting points and mana.
Although there are a sizable variety of pre-made races that allow you to quickly jump right into a game, it is recommended that you create a custom race at least once. The race creator available at the start of each scenario offers plenty of options to adjust, allowing you to customise both the appearance and playstyle of your race.
You have the ability to fully customize your race’s bodily form, including the length of your followers’ arms and legs, as well as choose the color of its armor. Additionally, you can select its origin culture and societal traits which determine the types of affinity and units it starts with, initial gameplay style, and principles that guide your empire. This may also nudge your alignment towards good or evil.
For example, the Dark culture offers additional Knowledge used for research and focuses on applying negative status effects to enemy units. Industrious races produce units and buildings faster, while their soldiers receive additional defense after getting attacked. Choosing a Mystic path increases mana income and strengthens troops when spells are cast.
Once your selections have been made, you then choose your very first Tome of Magic, which acts as a chunk of a tech tree granting initial bonuses alongside five or six researchable technologies. You can choose to lean into your already chosen affinity, such as creating a race of harmony-seeking toads who do good and rely on faith to heal their units. Alternatively, you can choose a different affinity, combining the search for harmony with cannibalistic tendencies and a tight relationship with nature’s more poisonous side.
Throughout the game, you will collect multiple tomes, stretching across five tiers, which provide opportunities to build upon and unlock affinities and powers, as well as access new ones. With numerous options available, you can guide your race in vastly different directions, allowing for unique and evolving gameplay experiences.
Alternatively, you can focus on just one or two affinities, either playing the role of a knight in shining armor who inspires their troops, or a shadowy necromancer who summons endless hordes of minions, without delving into other types of magic or abilities. With a total of 54 Tomes of Magic to choose from, there is an impressive amount of variety that allows you to generate interesting and engaging races from a roleplaying perspective.
Your chosen affinities also impact your relations with other races, depending on the similarity of your principles. The decisions you make during text events that periodically appear can push you towards a good, neutral, or evil path, further influencing how others perceive and interact with you.
Affinity plays a crucial role in your Empire Development tree, which comprises multiple branches. However, your race can only access the general neutral branch along with those belonging to an unlocked affinity. By dedicating yourself more to a specific affinity, you can unlock new nodes faster, using a resource called Imperium.
The effects of these nodes enable you to specialise your empire further, such as gaining more tribute from vassals or receiving extra morale while defending during sieges. If you have a darker inclination, you can equip heroes with the Cryptblade weapon that resurrects killed targets as zombies. On the other hand, opting for a more nature-oriented path can grant your units quicker regeneration while on their home turf.
These new elements spice up the otherwise familiar 4X strategy framework of Age of Wonders 4. As a player, you take turns managing various resources along with a growing number of armies and cities, alongside other players.
The game has separate building and unit queues. As you produce more food, your population increases, allowing you to acquire nearby territories and expand your empire. Gold is essential for numerous things and can expedite your recruitment processes.
Production rate determines the speed at which you finish building and improving structures that increase your resource yield. Drafting, on the other hand, affects the speed at which you can deploy units without incurring additional costs.
If the available realms don’t interest you, you can create custom ones, with various options that allow you to modify their shape, the predominant terrain type, and the size of the underground - a separate map layer accessible through specific entrances. You can also choose the type of creatures you’re more likely to encounter and other features.
According to the developers, Age of Wonders 4 relies “almost exclusively” on randomly-generated worlds, and the realm traits you choose will determine the overall difficulty level of your game.
Age of Wonders 4 provides players with flexible difficulty settings, including the AI’s efficiency, which mainly affects economic bonuses, and combat handicaps or advantages that impact damage dealt or taken.
Additionally, you can adjust the level of World Threat, which determines the power of all non-player units, including independent guards, infestations, and free cities that you can vassalise, integrate, or destroy.
Tiered skirmish realms offer four victory conditions. The traditional method of defeating all other rulers is an option, but you can also expand your empire to construct and protect the Beacons of Unity. Additionally, a score victory is available when the game reaches the maximum number of turns. For magic-oriented rulers, there’s a race to research a tier 5 tome, build three special province improvements, and defend them against attacks.
Unlike its predecessors, Age of Wonders 4 doesn’t have a linear, guided campaign. However, the game offers story realms that provide a similar experience. These realms are based on a narrative centered on two factions - the Covenant and Shad’rai. They introduce custom objectives that offer more stories and rewards or an alternative path to victory.
These objectives work with events that further develop the narrative, adding weight to the story. For instance, in one realm, the focus is on reuniting a race and forging a new path. You encounter Sundren of House Inioch, and your decision to accept or reject her help determines whether you take the easy or hard story path.
In another realm, you must stop a malevolent Siren Goddess who enslaves followers while seeking perfection. You can choose to blitz straight to her city or take time to assist the local populace to learn more about her and obtain more aid before the final battle.
Age of Wonders 4 also has spells available on the strategic map to damage enemies, heal your troops, or apply unit enchantments that alter the type of damage they deal. These spells are also available during turn-based tactical battles, which are kept engaging due to the large unit variety.
Battles can vary in size, from small skirmishes with just a handful of soldiers to large encounters in which a maximum of 36 units clash. Unlike other games, there is no initiative order, and you must spend the three action points of all your troops before the enemy does the same.
Each unit’s role is clearly depicted by flags, making it easy to spot where your shock troops and vulnerable ranged units are located. In addition to your initial roster, you can take control of mercenaries or integrate cities belonging to different races, creating a multi-ethnic empire. However, when you add enemies of different races, the game can become overwhelming, especially in the later stages.
My first major defeat came during a risky fight against a very unlikable mystic toad. When I simulated the battle using auto-resolve, my three lower-tier armies were wiped out. I decided to retry the battle manually, which I could do without reloading the save.
The detailed battlefields are easily readable, and you can take your time to inspect each unit. Skills and their effects are clearly displayed via helpful Crusader Kings 3-style nested tooltips. However, I was clearly out of my element and struggled to keep up with the pace of the battle.
After specialising in fire damage and wearing down burning enemies, I found myself making significant progress. However, my strategy proved less effective when facing units and heroes resistant to fire damage.
Facing a range of magical mystic toad tricks over three turns, my troops’ morale dwindled, resulting in a mass rout. I could only watch as they failed to escape the enemy.
Although I didn’t win the battle, the experience felt surprisingly epic and taught me valuable lessons. Knowing when to attack, adapting strategies, and deploying higher-tier units are crucial to success.
Victory in scenarios enables characters to ascend and join the Pantheon, expanding the list of playable avatars available to both players and the AI. This system also tracks long-term progress across multiple modes.
Playing Age of Wonders 4 earns Pantheon experience, unlocking a variety of cosmetic items, new weapons, traits, and origins. These options increase the possibilities when creating your race.
After spending time with the preview build, my main takeaway is that Triumph Studios has created a 4X strategy game with an abundance of choice. The game’s looser scenario-based structure prioritizes replayability over a linear campaign, keeping me engaged throughout.
While some fans of a more traditional approach may not appreciate all the changes, and its AI can pose a challenge that will ruin your day sooner or later, experimenting with a race’s evolution is thoroughly satisfying and a valuable addition to the series.
Most Anticipated Feature: Experimenting with more traits and Tomes of Magic to evolve races in vastly different directions.