Age of Wonders 4 Review
During my time with Age of Wonders 4, I led nature-loving cannibal rats, benevolent halflings, and necromantic cats with a knack for the arcane towards both victory and doom. Whether I mashed together opposite philosophies or followed familiar fantasy archetypes, choice and variety were always at the forefront.
It’s obvious from the get-go that Age of Wonders 4 takes customization seriously. Although it does give you several pre-made factions that are well worth trying out, you’ll want to tinker with its race creator at least once, as it’s an integral part of the experience.
You start by picking a physical form – which you can then tweak at the end – and key traits, before deciding upon your race’s culture. Whether you opt to play as a feudal lord, dark necromancer, or chaos-loving barbarian, this choice determines not just the baseline units you can recruit, but also your starting affinities.
The six available reflect what your empire specializes in alongside how other factions view you. Chaos affinity revels in destruction, Materium revolves around manipulating the physical world and improving your production capabilities, while Nature affinity focuses on regrowth and deadly poison.
Society traits can have a significant impact on gameplay and help define your race’s principles. For instance, selecting Cannibalism as a trait aligns you with Chaos and nudges your alignment towards evil, but also grants units the ability to devour corpses during battle for healing. On the other hand, opting for Gifted Casters improves your spellcasting abilities and provides access to arcane secrets.
Age of Wonders 4 is now available on Fanatical for £36.53/$17.99 using discount code 3OFFAOW4.
The more you specialize in an affinity, the quicker you progress through its dedicated branch on the empire development tree, which lets you spend a resource called Imperium to gain additional powerful effects as the game progresses.
Also associated with an affinity, your starter tome lets you research different spells and units over the course of the game. You can unlock multiple tomes spread across 5 tiers as the game progresses, getting to periodically pick one of three random technologies. Once you learn enough of them, you move on to a different tome, adding new potential picks to the pool.
As an Order race, you can tap into different facets of your philosophy. On the one hand, you can use the power of faith to cast healing spells that grant temporary health in battle. On the other, you can explore the zealous side of your followers, condemning enemies and rendering them more vulnerable to attacks or pushing workers to build faster at the cost of city growth.
What’s even better is how nothing stops you from having your industrious toads briefly walk the dark path and learn soul manipulation, unlocking a new resource that lets them field bone constructs and deadly reapers, just like your zealous halflings can get a taste of the arcane and master lighting magic.
Sticking to just a few affinities does help you progress through tome tiers faster, unlocking more powerful spells – some of which can ravage entire provinces or turn whole races into demonic beings – sooner. But there’s nothing to stop you from adding as much variety to your race as you want. It’s a refreshing level of freedom and a rewarding process that keeps playthroughs interesting even once you familiarize yourself with its unlocks.
Tomes also allow you to access new units that you can both recruit in cities and summon using mana. The latter are excellent when setting off on campaigns against distant enemies, letting you replenish your armies before you can establish a foothold away from your homelands.
On normal difficulty, having a plan and mainly sticking to one or two affinities felt as fun as going with the flow and choosing new picks that seemed interesting at the time. Pairing different spells, bonuses, and perks gained by heroes as they level up paves the way to new tactical possibilities on the battlefield, where you’ll spend a fair bit of time.
The turn-based combat in Age of Wonders 4 is a beast of its own that can be both exhilarating and overwhelming. Smaller engagements let you comfortably get a sense of what each unit can do while still maintaining the surprise factor when a higher-tier phoenix you’ve yet to face casually burns an entire defensive formation with a single attack.
You can bring up to three armies (adding to a maximum of 18 units) to any battle, and towards the late game it almost feels mandatory to do so. When hovering above your target on the world map, a red outline indicates how close to it armies need to be in order to participate.
Although the approach of bringing up to three armies for battle is straightforward, it can become problematic when you’re traveling with more than three armies. During my playthrough, I brought reinforcements to aid me in major objectives such as conquering capital cities. However, this resulted in wounded units being dragged into unwanted battles during the AI’s turn, while healthy reinforcements waited a hex away. The AI also faced similar issues.
When fought manually, these bigger battles can also get very chaotic. It was hard to keep track of things at times, despite the icons clearly depicting individual unit types. Things can end up becoming overwhelming even in simpler environments that don’t have hazards or obstacles like rocks or city walls.
Each army takes its turn, which lets you plan the order in which your units attack before the enemy does the same. From the front, most melee units risk triggering retaliation attacks. Flanking removes that risk and helps deal extra damage. Ending your turn in defensive mode removes the possibility of being flanked.
Ranged units have to take line of sight into account, while magic wielders may have to forego moving in order to use stronger abilities that dish out area-of-effect damage or debuffs.
The units making up Age of Wonders 4’s rich roster all have particular traits or weaknesses. I quickly learned that playing a fire-centric faction and setting the ground alight only gives you an advantage if your opponents aren’t immune to burning.
Conquering cities belonging to a different race also enables you to recruit its units, so creating multi-ethnic empires is very much an option. Delving into ancient wonders, completing quests, or picking certain choices in narrative events can add other creatures you otherwise wouldn’t be able to recruit – like dragons of fae spirits – to your armies.
The AI poses a challenge in normal difficulty battles, making use of defensive formations, picking off stragglers, and targeting ranged units using shock troops. It keeps you on your toes and encourages you to learn your spellbook, unit abilities, and defensive bonuses.
Auto-resolve is also a very trusty companion, giving favorable outcomes even in certain battles deemed risky, without ever feeling like it’s helping you cheat. On top of that, if you’re not a fan of its results, you can fight the battle manually without having to reload the save.
On the world map, the AI is more prone to nonsense. Although neutral infestations send units regularly to attack your domain until you clear their lair, AI players felt fairly passive outside of their own territory. They answer to trespasses using force and do send relief troops to cities under siege. But, in my experience, they were more conservative when venturing outside of their lands.
Although I did have skirmishes with enemy armies out in the wilds, one particularly egregious situation left me puzzled. After foolishly backstabbing a powerful Ice Queen I had previously allied with, my single city soon ended up surrounded.
Despite having a four-to-one power advantage that could have easily wiped me out, the AI resorted to pillaging the province improvements around my throne city, then casually moved on.
This happened several times during that one playthrough and, while it did put me in a position where I couldn’t reestablish my economy because said Ice Queen kept constantly returning to harass me, I’m not entirely convinced I just happened to deal with a particularly sadistic AI that one time.
Diplomatically, things can also get a bit chaotic. Friendly AI tends to casually seize territory you had a claim on, despite supposedly wanting to play nice. One turn, they’ll tell you they dislike the fact that you’re the better researcher, the next they’ll call you their friend.
The grievances system tracks all manners of trespasses, giving you the option of forgiving your opponents’ or paying gold to have your own forgiven. It tries to provide more legitimate reasons for declaring war, but fails to make diplomacy feel particularly deep or relevant, outside of extreme cases where you keep attacking people without much justification. The lack of a means to coordinate attacks on common foes is also disappointing.
Empire management in Age of Wonders 4 doesn’t stray too far from genre norms. You start with a throne city and can expand your empire by placing down outposts, vassalising free cities, or conquering those belonging to other players.
Separate building and unit queues allow you to increase resource yields and bolster your army. You need to juggle several resources at all times. Food determines how quickly you can grow a city’s area of influence by claiming map provinces and their resources. Production determines how quickly you build things. Research then influences how swiftly you obtain new technologies from your currently active tome.
The provinces you control can host special improvements that grant higher resource yields or special effects like blocking enemies from using spells. You do need to put thought into their placement, as they often impact city stability – reflecting your citizen’s happiness – and determine what that city excels at.
Strategic placement of improvements can greatly benefit you in the late game, as costs for gold and mana increase. This is especially true when you need to maintain enchantments on a larger number of units and pay upkeep for high-tier fighters. However, this part of the game is also where you can establish a routine most easily.
Age of Wonders 4 moves away from a traditional campaign, favoring procedurally-generated levels and narrative events that come up as you play. Its five-story realms do have some handcrafted events that attempt to tell separate tales, all thinly linked by a common thread. Sadly, they don’t scratch that itch for a fully-fledged story campaign.
These narrative events do, however, add more flavor to regular skirmish realms. They can tap into your culture and afinities, adding a bit of RPG flair to the proceedings.
If you’re knowledgeable in the arcane, you can convince neutral magical units to leave without having to fight them. Particularly evil leaders who lack access to buildings that maintain city stability can just use force to have their people submit.
Unfortunately, these do repeat after a while and don’t contribute a ton to the emergent story you weave as you march towards your chosen victory condition. Instead, they feel more like occasional textual interludes that provide a short break before diving back into the game’s systems, which benefited from the majority of our attention.
Age of Wonders 4 is now available on Fanatical for £36.53/$17.99 using discount code 3OFFAOW4.
AGE OF WONDERS 4 VERDICT
Age of Wonders 4 reshuffles some elements of the traditional 4X strategy formula in rather significant ways, making for an entry that puts choice and customization at the forefront. It does so excellently, offering plenty of spells and culture combinations that let you roleplay a variety of archetypal or contradictory factions while seeking the most overpowered spell and unit mix.
This replayability does come at a cost, as it lacks a traditional campaign. Its narrative events add flavor but can’t quite carry things, while nested tooltips effectively refresh your memory about how mechanics work, but fail to compellingly deliver snippets of lore.
It’s very much an assumed systems-first approach that won’t resonate with all fans of the series. But if you count among those who fancy sinking deep into the innards of how everything works, you’ll find a lot to love.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Demolishing opponents with a massive forest spirit I had earned by completing a difficult dungeon.
Good vs Bad
- Flexible race customization system
- Plenty of spell and unit choice
- High replayability
- Helpful auto-resolve tool
- Visually pleasing
- AI can keep you on your toes, but it can also exhibit strange behavior at times.
- Lacks a proper campaign
- Diplomacy feels less relevant than it should