Hands-On: Age Of Wonders III

By Adam Smith on February 12th, 2014 at 1:01 pm.

The wait for Age Of Wonders III would have been far more painful if I’d been anticipating a return to the series since the release of the most recent game in 2003. I’d assumed Triumph were otherwise engaged though, following the release of the Overlord games and a period of silence. Last year we discovered that the Dutch developers were returning to the wonders that they knew so well, with a strategic turn-based sequel to the superb Shadow Magic and I’ve been playing a preview build for several days now. Here’s wot I’ve learned.

The angry Dwarf in the North sends a sounder of boars in my direction every other turn. His Throne City, the capital of his miniature kingdom, must have a pigsty in place of a palace. He’s so fond of the tusky creatures that he straddles boar-back when he takes to the battlefield and every firebolt that I hurl at him fills the air with the odour of overcooked pulled pork and frazzled face-whiskers. It’s like the aftermath of a kitchen fire at a hip burger bar.

Patently ridiculous, the dwarf-on-a-pig is presented in earnest, as is the rest of Age of Wonders III. There’s nothing particularly unusual in the selection of units, creatures and spells, which somewhat detracts from the ‘Wonders’ of the title, but the presentation is exquisite at times, and even the unfinished code that I’ve been dabbling with is solid and enjoyable.

Don’t expect any surprises though. If you’ve played any of the previous Age of Wonders games, or have even the vaguest knowledge of the swords and the sorcery, then the third entry in the series will feel as comfortable as a pair of slippers, a crackling fire and a mug of hot chocolate. Since there’s been a ten year wait for a sequel to Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, which was (somewhat confusingly) the third game in the series, I find less cause to bemoan the lack of innovation. This is precisely what the doctor would have ordered if doctors were groovy and unscientific enough to treat patients with strategic entertainment.

In the decades-old tradition of the Age of Magic and the Master of Wonders, Triumph’s latest has players building cities, which produce units and construct buildings. It has them conducting basic diplomacy with factions small and large. Spells will be researched, turn-based combat will ensue, and heroes will collect and equip loot as they explore the world. Structures can be explored and exploited, wandering monsters and armies are encountered, and the stakes gradually escalate as competing forces enhance their power.

There are three options when starting a new game, all of which branch out into more complex choices. First of all there are the campaigns, acting as both tutorial and long-form narrative. Hand-crafted maps, scripted events and paragraphs of po-faced fantasy stories await. I skipped through most of the story, partly because I couldn’t find a way to read the slow-scrolling text at a faster clip and had to endure it at the pace of the voice-over, and partly because it’s about an orc and an elf who don’t like one another very much.

It’s probably fine but I felt like I’d have to settle in for the long-haul to hear the whole saga, and I was playing for the turn-based strategy rather than the turn-based storytelling. The first campaign, which initially focuses on the new rogue/assassin skillset, is a solid introduction to the game. It swiftly displays the finer points of the sensible and attractive user interface, and by the end of the first scenario, it’s served up a steaming mugful and slipped something warm and fuzzy onto your feet. Like I said – it’s all very comforting.

That’s not to say the campaign is a walk in the park magical glade. Combat can be punishing if an army arrives without having properly prepared for the engagement. Send a gang of your toughest warriors to seize a castle and they’re likely to be clobbered into submission by missile weapons before they reach the gates. The key, on both the strategic and tactical maps, is flanking.

Attacking enemies head-on gives them the opportunity to strike back at full strength, but it also turns them in the direction of the assailant, setting them up for assaults from another angle. That’s during the up-close skirmishes but the process of moving armies into position for combat also highlights the importance of positioning. Using the ‘adjacent hex rule’ previously seen in the series, an army will be joined in combat by any friendly units in neighbouring spaces, and will fight against any armies adjacent to the one that it attacked. This supports and encourages intelligent placement of fortifications and cities, and means that the approach to a battleground can be as important as the stacks of units thrown at it.

All of these aspects become more unpredictable and open to devious manipulation on random maps, and it’s pleasing to find some top-notch world generation in Age of Wonders III. It’s easy to mistake the absence or presence of random map generation as the mark of a game’s replayability, but the quality of the generation tools is just as important as their presence or absence.

Will a random world be balanced, varied, bland, broken or brilliant? Now that everything from platform games to the bears of the Build-A-Bear Workshop can (probably) be procedurally generated, the existence of randomised environments and levels is often a ‘back of the box’ type strapline. The model needs to be good for the randomisation-with-rules to be a positive attribute though. I coudl procedurally generate my dinner by throwing ingredients into a pan willy-nilly but it’d be unlikely to turn out well.

With that slightly tangential rant out of my system, I’m pleased to report that Age of Wonders III doesn’t simply contain a random map option, it contains a bloody good one. That’s partly because the engine creates beautiful worlds with distinct and handsome scenery, but mostly because the possibilities for customisation are as deep as Sadako’s well. Sliders and drop-down menus control everything from biome variation to the rarity of ruins, the level of development that the various factions have reached, and the aggression of wandering armies.

It’d be possible to create a game in which every faction is already in possession of a mighty city and a spellbook the size of Don Quixote, or a world that is mostly made up of lava and subterranean horrors. Many of the options can also be randomised.

That’s it then. Rather undramatically, Age of Wonders III is very much a sequel to Age of Wonders II And A Bit. There are some changes, such as the variation in leader types. They’re all spellcasters but some are hulking great warriors as well, allowing for more variation during character creation than was previously the case. I imagine some people will frown at the reduced number of playable races as well, expecting DLC down the line, but the preview build suggests a content-packed game regardless of any future plans. There may be less variety in the races and factions, but they behave far more believably, forming alliances and working together intelligently.

Is it unfair to hope for more than a solid sequel, with all the pieces seemingly in place? I was relieved when I accepted, a couple of hours in, that Triumph hadn’t diminished in the decade since Shadow Magic. The game feels safe – a riff on a formula successfully applied many times before – and there’s something to be said for sinking into a well-constructed game, with the growing certainty that it was built by solid, steady hands. But as draconians battled dwarves and dwarves battled elves, I found myself thinking of the weird humour and strange planes of Warlock II, and the sheer oddity of Eador: Masters of the Broken World. My mind even turned to the latest Fallen Enchantress game, which was the (presumably) final manifestation of a deeply flawed experiment.

Age of Wonders III isn’t weird, strange, odd or experimental. It’s also substantially less flawed than many of its apparent competitors. I expect it to absorb a great many happy hours when the final release arrives in the near future but I also expect that I’ll spend at least some of that time dreaming of worlds more wondrous and weird.

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45 Comments »

  1. Donkeyfumbler says:

    Fine with me. Nothing wrong with AOW:SM except the graphics are finally beginning to show their age now, and the AI wasn’t terribly bright. If all AOW3 does is fix these two things, I’ll be more than happy.

    Did you get a feel for how the AI played or have you not had enough time with it?

    • Adam Smith says:

      AI seems improved – very aggressive in my experience, which I believe may be toned down slightly. edit: that is to say, the aggression may be toned down slightly. Not my experience.

      It looks gorgeous, particularly the battles.

      • Donkeyfumbler says:

        And, if you don’t mind me asking, were the battles as ‘tactical’ as past AOW – i.e. range, height, ground, etc. all making a difference to how things turn out? City sieges being fought over walls? The very basic battles of Fallen Enchantress (where not even archers were affected by range) were one of the big disappointments of that game for me and were what made AOW:SM so much better than other games of the type (like HOMM and Disciples).

      • kalirion says:

        Does the Strategic AI actually create settlers, found cities and upgrade mage towers? I recall that being a problem in SM.

  2. Edgar the Peaceful says:

    Really can’t wait for this. AOW is one of my favourite series of all time.

  3. Sp4rkR4t says:

    This verdict fills me with much happy.

  4. Gundrea says:

    Soon, soon I shall flood the land and halflings shall reign supreme.

    My only request for improvement would be to make buildings as unique as the units. I’m not expecting them to make Fall from Heaven.

    • Loyal_Viggo says:

      Indeed, a horde of Halfling Pony Riders would instill fear and be almost unstoppable…

  5. Fhoenix says:

    Was I the only person to dislike humor and silliness in Warlock?
    The only thing so far that worries me is the addiction of classes. I mean I am fine with heroes having classes, but the rulers themselves should all be great mages. Otherwise you just don’t get this feel of a global magical war. And, you know, if a thief could wield city-destroying level magic, he’d long give up thieving, I think. Or personal combat for that matter.

    • Grygus says:

      Depends on his motivations for being a thief. If it’s more about outwitting/flaunting the law, and if the personal combat is something he actually enjoys, then more power won’t deter him; quite the opposite!

      • SillyWizard says:

        A thief that simply knocks people down/dead is no longer a thief, but a brigand. The role of a thief in (some) games should be a weak, cowardly, (or even simply unwilling-to-kill) character that requires more creative use than “oh, just stab this guy from the side to do a bunch of damage to him, instead of going head-on like all the other melee classes.”

        This has bothered me for a long time. The default glass-cannon interpretation of “thief” is more akin to assassins than burglars.

        Fix it!

        • Strangerator says:

          Are you suggesting some sorts of skills that are not related to combat? What would we call them, “not-combat skills”? You’re talking crazy talk, we all know that the only thing that differentiates characters is THE WAY IN WHICH THEY KILL OTHERS.

    • darkath says:

      Correct me if i’m wrong, but there’s no “thief class”. They call it “Rogue” which designate something else entirely, and can be a valid “leader class” IMO.

      Basically rogue leaders will be unprincipled leaders using deception, terror and stealth to rule their city and lead their armies. That sounds like a good pitch.

      What i like with this leader class system is that it give another layer of customization to your faction. A Rogue Draconian will not be played nor look the same way as a Mage Draconian or a Rogue Goblin. So that’s actually quite interesting.

  6. BTAxis says:

    Re: skipping through the dialogues, my friend does that in all the games he plays, too. I wonder if everyone (or at least most players) does that? If so, that would render the industry’s efforts to use voice acting in such scenes somewhat pointless.

    • Snargelfargen says:

      Depends on the game. I’m usually too focused on learning the strategy and tactics to bother with dialogue on the first playthrough, at least in 4x games such as this.

    • Grey Cap says:

      Well, I did read every single bit of fluff in SMAC, but that was exceptionally good fluff. And there was some (minor) voice-acting in there as well, whenever you discovered a new technology, and it was great.

      So- the effort isn’t wasted, so long as the effort produces a singularly good result? Having wooden voice actors vomit forth Very Serious drivel doesn’t really elevate the drivel, though.

      • vedder says:

        I actually still have the settings file with all the blurbs on my PC, even though I haven’t had SMAC ever installed on this PC. I still know so many of it’s quotes from memory. No other game ever had quite that effect on me.

    • DatonKallandor says:

      Nobody cares about their voice actors saying the lines – but many people care about the lines. The smart thing to do is non-voiced text that can be read as fast as the user wants. But unfortunately the long winded unskippable million dollar nonsense that Bioware produces is what the media says developers have to aspire to.

  7. Horg says:

    Most anticipated release of 2014 for me. Good to hear it’s on the right track.

  8. Feet says:

    Hurrah! This means I am going to buy this, and it will be a good decision. Pleased.

  9. Didden says:

    Call me callous, but I hope the fairies still make a sad whimper when they die. For some reason that sound effect stuck in my brain. Apart from that, the main thing that needed improving for me, was the AI. Frankly the only reason I don’t play the last one.

  10. Laurentius says:

    Now we are talking. That’s exectly this type of writing that made Mr Smith my favourite RPS writer, i can get picture of the game, I can understand author’s stance and his opinion, how game is shaping up and how it does not particulalry strucjthe chord with author. Well done ! No more of this cough The Banner Saga cough , not even bothered to pay attention…

  11. azrd79 says:

    What the hell is that thing on the banner screenshot?

  12. Surlywombat says:

    Are these games that good?I avoided them back in the day. From the adverts in magazines (remember them!) it just seemed to be another in a line of games using “Age of.. ” in their name to sucker people into buying based on Ensembles rep.

    • MrRoivas says:

      Are they that good? Yes, yes, yes. They have nothing to do with the Age of Empire games, being a hybrid of Master of Magic and Civilization. The first one shows its age, but the most recently released one, Shadow Magic, is still a great game only marred by an ai was limited by processor speeds of the time.

  13. killias2 says:

    I really don’t get the hatred for Fallen Enchantress. For me, it’s the contemporary fantasy 4x to beat. Warlock is a fun little deviation, but it’s not deep enough to really compete. I have yet to jump into Eador, but it seems to have the opposite problem of Warlock. To be honest, I’ve been frightened away from taking a stab at it, haha.

    • Stepout says:

      Eador is quite a difficult game. I’ve never completed the campaign but I’ve heard it can take up to 200 hours to complete. Since you’re obviously a fan of the genre, I’d say it’s definitely worth your time though. My advice if do pick the game up would be:

      1. Play it on easy (easy isn’t all that easy)
      2. Skip the campaign and just use the random map generator (gives you access to all structures from the beginning, so you get a better idea of what all is possible)

      Or just wait for Age of Wonders III :)

      • killias2 says:

        It’s been on my “to play” list for a while, but there’s a lot of competition for the 4x/Grand Strategy slot, especially as I’m a complete Paradox fanboy. The initial issues with bugs and some lingering criticisms comparing the new one to the original also hurt its position on my backlog.

        I’ll certainly play it sooner or later.

    • RanDomino says:

      I couldn’t stand FE:LH, even with Stormworld. Unclear objectives and pacing, (seeming?) lack of introductory campaign to explain how the game actually works, waaaay too open of a map (see point one), yet, seemingly paradoxically, too much restriction on where cities can be placed and, apparently, lack of nearby terrain bonuses (especially after having been playing a ton of Fall From Heaven), a much too cramped tactical map, nerf ranged units… but especially because of the inane quest system. Every single one is “Go to this randomly-generated place and fight something”. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. And all of the target ‘dungeons’ pop up out of nowhere, have no effect on the map, and then vanish when the quest is done! As a person who craves free-form and persistent sandboxy games, that was just too much. I figured that after so many revisions and expansions they finally fixed Elemental, but even having got FE:LH for only $15 I still feel like I was robbed.

    • Zeewolf says:

      Me neither. I’m a big fan of Warlock, Eador (though the original is way better than the “remake”) and all sorts of Civ-style games, as well as anything 4X, and I kept away from Fallen Enchantress for a long time. When I finally bought FE:LH on Humble Store last year it was basically because I felt that “in theory this game is right up my alley and I really should give it a chance even though I’m sure I won’t like it”. And wow, am I glad that I did. It’s unique, it’s smart and it’s tons of fun. It took a little while to get the hang of it – there are some really weird (not bad, just weird) design elements that makes it a little tougher to get into than, say, Warlock – but once I did I couldn’t stop playing.

  14. Riaktion says:

    All of this is excellent news and exactly what I wanted to hear. Hooray!

  15. RanDomino says:

    AOW:SM was aw(e):som(e) but I always found that my random map games were made too random by the large move speeds and general lack of natural chokepoints. I feel like it would have been perfect if the maps were designed more like Heroes of Might and Magic maps, with natural chokepoints blocked off by neutral monster acting as Broken Bridges until you’re strong enough to punch through and move into the next X on the 4X checklist.
    I highly recommend the Brave New World mod for AOW:SM, which adds a pile of extra stuff.

  16. nimbulan says:

    This is the first game in quite some time I’ve been tempted to pay full price for, though we don’t know a final price yet. As long as it’s not $60…

    I wouldn’t mind this game getting some DLC to help expand it later. I really like the way Civilization games improve gameplay with expansions down the line and it would be nice to see this game get the same treatment. Just as long as they don’t go for the overpriced junk DLCs like the scrambled continents map packs too.

  17. Diatribe says:

    I tried the Age of Wonder games, but they didn’t have that certain je ne said quoi that I really loved about Master of Magic. Maybe it’s because the units are too generic, or the spells don’t do enough, or the units are just for tanking while you level up heroes, or the cities are all the same, or the races just have minor differences rather than requiring a different playstyle/thought process. I don’t know. What I do know is that I still have to go back to MoM to scratch that itch.

  18. teije says:

    Looking forward to this – spent a ton of time on the AoW series in my day. A strength of the series has been the great tactical combat engine, glad to see they have kept that. For me, it’s what always separated the AoW games from others. Although nothing tops SMAC for me in the sense of feeling immersed in a wonderfully crafted world.

    Fallen Enchantress was pretty good, and Stardock finally got it right after the disaster of Elemental. Enjoyed it quite a bit, but didn’t grab me like some of the classics have – HOMM III, SMAC…

  19. mhalemary says:

    my best friend’s step-mother makes $71 /hour on the laptop . She has been without work for nine months but last month her pay check was $17837 just working on the laptop for a few hours. why not try here

    http://WWW.jobsaa.COM

  20. squareking says:

    Well, I just went from mega psyched to super mega psyched.

  21. Neurotic says:

    IN.

  22. Arglebargle says:

    But is it modable??

    The last round of AoW:SM that I played was in the realm of Chaosium’s Runequest in a wonderfully modded rendition of that world by a fan. It was grea! — until the Dragons came….

    • Stepout says:

      Yep, to quote their FAQ:

      “The modding community is very dear to us. People are still making levels and mods 10 years after the release of the last game. So we plan to release map making tools and add a lot of new modding features in the game and its expansions to the community at some point. The editor will feature lots of content for players to build maps with. Players are now able to customize the appearance of heroes and leaders. Details on modding will come later, I think there is potential there to bring it a lot further than was possible with Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic.”

  23. They_Live says:

    Huge Age of Wonders fan. I consider it to be an essential series for TBS.

    AOW – Got into the AOW series after playing it for hours with friends on a LAN. Bitter arguments about dragons and ballistae.

    AOW 2 – Mountains of content. Took some serious effort to complete the campaign. Many hours spent listening to early Danzig records and building Dwarf VS Orc maps.

    AOW: SM – Campaign was decent. I really did not like their attempt at humor. Had some pretty stupid moments IMO. Still, tons and tons of content, new wrinkle with a shadow realm. The lesser of the 3, but still a required experience for fans of the genre.

    Conclusion – Very excited for the next chapter. I’m interested to see if they carry over any of the story line. On a final though, one of the best elements to any of the Age of Wonders games is that they all had seriously great music. The sound track to AOW is top shelf.

  24. 4u2b3 says:

    What I find strange is that none of their videos on site shows AI moves or diplomacy. Protagonist always declares war, AI does not do a thing.

    Considering that previous AOW releases were quite easily steamrolled (AI was weak compared to, say, HOMM3), I suspect that they will put AI as an afterthought in this game. Hence I probably won’t pre-order it.

    Because, you see, if I want a book with pictures I would buy a book with pictures. I kinda want games to be games first, and books with pictures second.