The problem with empire-based strategy games is that designing the experience around your cities is actually pretty limiting. Different games deal with this issue in different ways, of course. Civilization, for example, gives you so much to do and so many enemies to fight, that you don’t really worry about it. Warlock 2 – an upcoming game from Paradox – physically breaks up the worlds into chunks so you HAVE to move around and be creative with your city placement. Age of Wonders III, the long awaited sequel to Triumph Studio’s classic ‘Age of Wonders’ series, has its own unique take on this problem, and is all the better for it.
At its core, Age of Wonders is a pretty standard civ-esque empire-strategy romp. The 4X’s do apply here, although Diplomacy is a relatively minor thing. Ultimately, this is a game of conquest – you have to fight until you’re the last faction (or last team of factions) standing. There is both an above ground space and an underground space with which to expand into, and depending on which race you are, your citizens will be more or less happy depending on where you set-up shop. Your starting city will usually be in a place where your race is happy to live. And you can go on from there. Expanding across the different levels is interesting, from a tactical perspective, but so far I’ve not seen any ‘unique’ resources to either area – they’re both kind of the same, and apart from the fact that you have to keep an eye on any tunnel entrances/exits within your domain, there’s little incentive to actually expand onto the ‘other’ space.
|As well as the standard strategic interface, you can zoom out a bit to get this more stylised view of the grand map. It’s pretty cool, and very detailed
‘Expansion’ in Age of Wonders doesn’t just have to be about plonking extra cities down though – you can also build ‘Forts’, which have a more limited area of control, but they do collect any resources. They also act as a defensive structure, so any units on or near a fort that’s attacked gets to fight behind walls. There’s also the ‘Watchtower’s, which have no area of control and no defensive bonus, but can look out over a large area. You can build watch-towers, and sometimes the game world will spawn in ‘neutral’ towers guarded by an NPC army. Whoever can capture the tower controls it, and if you’re not careful you can lose control just as easy as you took it. Same goes for Forts and cities too.
Being a war-focused experience, you’re going to need an army. ‘Armies’ are comprised of six units, and can wonder the map battling other armies on a separate turn-based strategy layer. They can operate on their own, or be led by a special character. This is where the game’s RPG elements come in. Every faction – whether you’re playing a random scenario or the campaign – has a ‘leader’, who is represented on the map. He can lead armies, cast spells, and is generally a beacon for hope and glory to your people. You can also hire on extra heroes to help lead your forces. Heroes and Leaders fall under six different classes, and six races – Sorcerer, Theocrat, Rogue, Warlord, Archdruid and Dreadnought, while the playable races are High elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Goblins, Humans and Draconians. The leaders are more than just figureheads, however. Choosing a race gives you a general pool of units, plus one or two ‘special’ ones, but choosing your leader can net you far cooler benefits. Choosing the ‘Dreadnought’, for example, gives you access to a variety of powerful steampunk units, like musketeers, Golems and Juggernauts. The Sorcerer can summon powerful units to field, and all of the other four races have their own specific play style as well.
Age of Wonders does a good enough job of making the world feel alive. Not to the same extent as Warlock 2 perhaps, but there’s plenty of NPC spawn points, dungeons to explore, and resource nodes to clear. Roaming dragons can pounce on you without a moment’s notice, and there are also NPC cities to interact with. Usually, you either attack them or wait for them to give you a quest, and then absorb them peacefully. Things are perhaps a bit ‘too’ easy on the easier settings, as for the most part you just plod along and expand as fast as you’re able, with the AI not really doing much around you, but you can always ramp things up if you fancy a tougher challenge. There are pre-made scenarios, random maps, and a couple of campaigns to sink your teeth into, as well as multiplayer.
|Bone Dragons. As you can imagine, this didn’t end well for me
You may remember us talking about the problem with ‘pacing’ when we were playing this game in its pre-release state. We’re happy to report that’s been fixed. There are still other niggles, but the way the game flows isn’t one of them. There’s plenty of challenge, and plenty of time to react to surprises, even when using simultaneous turns (Which is a really interesting way to play, just FYI). If we were to offer some suggestions for improvements, we’d point to the lack of general interaction with the world, the lack of incentive to move your race outside its comfort zone (rare resources, would be a good one), and we’d personally love to see more buildable entities like the fort and the watchtower, so you really can play around with your empire without merely plonking down cities everywhere. Since I never played the earlier games, I can’t make the call as to whether or not this game was worth waiting 11 years for. Saying that, I’ve been waiting since I saw the game at GamesCom last year to get my hands on it, and it was definitely worth it. Like Warlock 2, this is a game that’s trying to be more creative with the fairly rigid ‘Civ’ template, and combined with the tactical battles and challenge of a hostile world, this is definitely one of the better strategy games to come out over the last year or so. We hope long-term fans of the series are as impressed as we are with this game, and for anyone new to the franchise, we recommend jumping in as soon as you like.
AGE OF WONDERS III VERDICT
Since I never played the earlier games, I can’t make the call as to whether or not this game was worth waiting 11 years for. Saying that, I’ve been waiting since I saw the game at GamesCom last year to get my hands on it, and it was definitely worth it. Like Warlock 2, this is a game that’s trying to be more creative with the fairly rigid ‘Civ’ template, and combined with the tactical battles and challenge of a hostile world, this is definitely one of the better strategy games to come out over the last year or so. We hope long-term fans of the series are as impressed as we are with this game, and for anyone new to the franchise, we recommend jumping in as soon as you like.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Having three hostile armies suddenly emerge out of a tunnel exit gave me a bit of a heart attack. I managed to repel the invasion, but I was worried there for a second. Only for a second, though.