Wot I Think: Age Of Wonders III

By Adam Smith on March 26th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

It’s only been a month and a half since I wrote my mega-preview of Age Of Wonders III and spending around fifteen hours with a review copy of the game hasn’t done a great deal to change my mind about its many merits. It hasn’t extended its tendrils to tickle any deeper fancies either, although I’ll concede that the world is a little weirder and more wonderful than my initial expeditions suggested. I’ve spent many hours with the long-awaited strategy sequel and here’s wot I think.

When I started writing for RPS, I didn’t expect I’d ever be reviewing an Age of Wonders sequel. Now, thanks to reclaimed publishing rights and a bit of Notch magic, the venerable series has returned. It’s still capable of eating my evenings and nights, but thankfully I don’t have a degree to work on this time around. In fact, playing the game has been my job for the last few days, which is an almost entirely pleasing state of affairs. I’ve barely complained about the hard labour and long hours at all this week.

Even though I’m weary of dungeons, dragons, Tolkiens and toadstools, an army of fairies going head to head with an assembly of theocratic orcs is quite a sight to see. Mixing up classes and races creates some unusual combinations. Winged avenger orcs look like green-skinned archangels soaring across the battlefield and the dreadnaught class ensures that everyone can get involved with some steampunk sorcery rather than just the dwarves. In general, racial traits are inherent while class-specific skills and units are unlocked through construction and research.

This means that a leader’s choice of profession is considerably more important than the species they were born as, which makes the world of Age of Wonders remarkably progressive as far as fantasy environments go, even if many of the lady elves do look in danger of catching a chill. No longer are dwarves doomed to a life in the mines. Infant orcs shall no longer be placed straight into barbarian school and wee draconians can aspire to be more than a giant’s Zippo.

Leaders and the heroes they hire act as a solid core for each empire in the game. To destroy an enemy entirely, the leader must be killed and the Throne destroyed before the swine can regenerate three turns later, like a delayed Doctor Who. They are precious, those leaders, and eventually become formidable units in their own right, capable of casting powerful spells and laden down with shiny magical trinkets. From time to time, armies and dens of monsters will fall, freeze or frazzle before them but they’re not omnipotent. Without backup, even the mightiest can’t compete against the sort of odds a smart opponent will pitch against them.

Age of Wonders hasn’t evolved into an RPG, it’s just spent some time over the eleven years since it last appeared smooching with RPGs. At its core, the game is still about building settlements, expanding them and creating armies. Leaders now act as a much sharper point at the head of those armies and provide each opponent with an extra dollop of personality.

It’s been such a long time since I played the previous games in the series that I can’t remember if they were quite as combat-focused. I think they were, since most of my memories involve tactical battles and fireballs raining down from the skies, but AOW III is surprisingly aggressive. Wandering monsters aren’t anywhere near as threatening as the city-smiting creatures that haunt Warlock II but independent settlements jostle for space, and when you meet your actual opponents they’ll often make your life a misery.

That’s a good thing. Not because I want you to be miserable – we’re all friends here – but because it’s a sign of AI that is capable of challenging and confounding. I’m not going to argue that it has functionally complex routines or an in-built unpredictability because I really don’t know, but I can tell you that I’ve received my fair share of beatings during the two campaigns and on a lovely assortment of random maps.

The campaigns are fine. That’s about all I have to say about them. I didn’t finish the second one and the first is tutorial-heavy, though worth playing to get a handle on everything. It’s important to know how the game works not because it is doing anything that fantasy 4X games of the past haven’t done but because the weighting of the various elements isn’t quite as you might expect.

Some strategy games allow players to be as flexible as a politician’s promise but others encourage certain types of play through the details of their number-crunching and rulesets. AOW III rewards expansion. It doesn’t like players who dawdle, looking at the scenery and trying to create the perfect society. Cities are machines that build the tools of war, whether that calls for a granary to help feed the people who make swords or a mana battery/library combo that functions like a miniature Manhattan Project.

To gain the spoils of war, you must simultaneously act like a spoiled brat (taking everything from everyone) and spoil the party for the rest of the world. It is possible to win a diplomatic victory of sorts, by allying with some people and killing everybody else, but the ultimate goal on every map is to be the last leader standing. The flow of the game is a very direct and pure interpretation of the process that describes the genre – ‘eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate’.

With all that war to be done, it’d be more than bit rubbish if the combat was rubbish. It isn’t. It’s very very good indeed, in fact, and not just during the grid-based tactical skirmishes. On the strategic map, positioning and terrain are hugely important, just as they are in the zoomed-in combat portions of the game. Even though an individual army can only contain six units, clever manipulation of the adjacent hex rule during pre-engagement planning can lead to enormous brouhahas. Execute a plan without much thought and you can find yourself horribly outnumbered.

It’s not a new system for the series but revisiting it reminded me how cleverly the tactical combat level is integrated, allowing for battles that change in scale dramatically as a campaign unfolds, while avoiding the problem of tedious stacks of doom. As for the actual tactical combat, it can be repetitive during the early stages of a campaign, but has enough depth to keep me from automating every battle.

Special mention must go to the random map generator, which is the core of the whole experience as far as I’m concerned. Not only does it create interesting and attractive worlds, it also contains plenty of customisation options. Most of those don’t affect the way the world is constructed but rather the pace of the game – there are choices concerning everything from the size of starting cities to the number of wandering monsters.

Pleasingly, all of these can be randomised, creating not only maps but scenarios that neatly fit into whatever story you might want to apply to them. Maybe you’ll be the leader of a powerful empire, already in its prime but now beset by hordes of creatures as a new wintry era arrives. Or maybe you’ll be a plucky goblin rogue attempting to carve out a kingdom of thieves in a barren land.

More variety would be welcome, in unit types and spells. I sometimes feel like I’ve reached the end of production and research paths long before a campaign has run its course. But that’s a minor complaint given how solidly constructed the game is. I don’t find it quite as exciting as Warlock II, which has such an unusual and habit-shattering structure, but they are very different beasts, despite appearances.

Age of Wonders III could have been constructed in the golden age of turn-based strategy. In fact, given the competition it’s going to have as the year goes on, it’s an additional reason to believe that we might be heading for that golden age right now.

Age Of Wonders III is out on March 31st.

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53 Comments »

  1. BTAxis says:

    A while ago I decided to only buy games if I was really sure I was going to play them.

    I’m going to buy this game.

    • Krull says:

      A while ago I decided to only buy games if I was really sure I was going to play them.

      I am surely going to buy this one. ;)

  2. Shadow says:

    I bit the bullet yesterday and pre-ordered the Deluxe version on Steam. So far I have no reason to believe it’ll be anything short of excellent. Let’s hope my faith has not been misplaced.

  3. Lemming says:

    Awesome. Pay day can’t come soon enough!

  4. Col Sanders says:

    I am in state of emotional equilibrium with this I am excited as hell about this Age of Wonders is one of my favourite games ever but as a a consequence of that all that nostalgia has me apprehensive about it and makes me worried that if I buy it I will only be brought to tears…

    That said come the weekend I will have preordered the deluxe edition out of principle and the fact that AoW made me and still does make me happy and excited.
    Also Eric van den Boss is doing the music again so hopefully it will be on par with AoW in that regard…

    • Horg says:

      I wouldn’t worry. Triumph have been practically falling over themselves to get actual game play footage out before the official launch. So much so that I didn’t need any review to get a feel of where this title is at, and it’s honestly my contender for game of the year. If you ever want to pre-order a game without feeling guilty, make it this one.

      Also shame on you Adam for making no mention of the excellent simultaneous turn multiplayer and the inclusion of a level editor at launch.

    • Donkeyfumbler says:

      I agree. I hardly ever pre-order anything but all the reading I’ve done about the game, and this WIT, mean I’ve gone from not sure to trying to decide whether to just pre-order the standard version or the deluxe one. Pre-release buzz for this has been almost universally positive and even if it doesn’t reach the same heights as AOW:SM did (and it looks more than likely that it will) I’m sure I’ll still get value for money from it.

      Despite my backlog of games, this is one I can’t wait for to fall to the usual ‘sale prices’ before I can play it.

      • Col Sanders says:

        Well I am such a tart I bought it out of principle and to support triumph because of all the happy memories Age of Wonders 1 that I couldn’t not, and being the tart I am I bought the deluxe version.

  5. Bluerps says:

    Excellent! It sounds like the game turned out exactly like I hoped it would.

  6. grodit says:

    After the debacle with Rome 2, I promised myself never to preorder anything ever again. EVER! Just shows how long I can keep a promise…

    In my defence the preorder was done only after watching several let’s play vids. At least that’s what I keep telling myself :-)

  7. DrManhatten says:

    Honestly don’t have enough time to play both Warlock 2 and AoW3 so waiting which turns out better and go for that one. So far it looks like Warlock 2 might have the edge

    • TormDK says:

      I purchased Warlock 2 last weekend, deleted it already.

      Luckily Steam sharing works well so my friends can avoid making the same mistake I did.

      • Phinor says:

        I hate to agree with this but I have to. Warlock 2 feels almost exactly the same game as Warlock and now they can prepare for an endless flood of DLC even better than with the previous game. I mean the full game already costs 50 euros and it’s not even released yet so that price tag will only go up.

        I mean, based on previews AoW 3 is pretty close to previous AoW games but at least they weren’t released less than two years ago.

      • Hanban says:

        I feel the same way. Since I boughtit off of GMG with a voucher and some credit it was really cheap, but I am very disappointed.

      • blurstoftimes says:

        I couldn’t disagree with you more. Warlock 2 addresses basically all of my complaints about the first game and the new campaign format is a pretty dramatic change to the game’s format. Plus the whole humor aspect. Eh, to each his own.

      • razzafazza says:

        yep warlock 2 is quite a disappointment. not that its a bad game in itself but the actual new content is pretty minor and while there are some welcome gameplay tweaks ( spell research ) the major problems (awfull AI and tons of balance issues) still exist.

        doesnt help that the 2 new races are as unsinspired and bland as it can get ( seriously, dwarf-likes with a different name and then a mixed-race-race ? yawn ) – considering Warlock doesnt take itself too serious they really missed an opportunity to introduce cool & interesting races that you dont see every day….

        if Warlock- The exiled were a properly priced standalone expansion released one year ago i d have bought and liked it but as full priced sequel its very disappointing and has the smell of cash-grab all over it

      • zaprowsdower says:

        I pre-ordered Warlock II with fairly low expectations. I’ve had fun so far and the small improvements are nice but I was correct in assuming that I’ll be bored with it in 50 hours. It’s enjoyable for what it is.

  8. Enkinan says:

    I’m unfamiliar with the previous AoW’s but I am pre-ordering this evening. It just looks like a whole lot of fun.

    • Rizlar says:

      Yeah, I have never played an AoW game or similar (well, Civ would be the closest), but think I will buy this on release. It just looks so damn good – the visual design, the classes/races, the way battles are dealt with all look superior to other, comparable games.

  9. teije says:

    This does look good. Hesitant to get it now just because I don’t have much spare time. Must resist!

  10. Geebs says:

    Oh Christ, I just read “wary” for “weary”. Damn you, internet!

  11. Wulfram says:

    “fine” campaigns sounds a bit disappointing if I’m hoping for a successor to AoW1

  12. EvilLaufter says:

    The bit about depth is a bit disappointing, but I guess something has to give when you have so much cross race and class stuff (which looks totally sexy). I’m still almost assuredly getting this and I’ve never played any Age of Wonders games. The videos the devs have made are absolutely fandabulous.

    What other good strategy games are coming out this year? I know about Warlock 2, but I can’t think of much else aside from Xenonauts officially officially coming out this May/June. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some strategy games so if there’s stuff out there that my radar missed do tell!

    Also, any word about how mod-able AoW3 is?

    • Horg says:

      It’s shipping with a fairly robust level editor that will allow editing most (possibly all) map and unit variables, create custom campaigns, etc. It’s similar to what came with the previous titles but with a better UI and in client integration.

  13. JohnnyPanzer says:

    I’ve always had a problem immersing myself in strategy games with arbitrary unit scale (this one guy is your rifle company), even Civ. Still, I might just buy this based on looks alone.

    Honestly, every single aspect of the visual design seems to be close to perfect. Lighting, unit textures, menus, color schemes, all of it is just breathtaking. The fact that I’ve only heard good things about it’s gameplay is almost like an insignificant bonus at this point. As a gamer that’s very interested in design, there’s no way I can pass on this…

    • Stepout says:

      Music is brilliant as well :)

    • bill says:

      Me too. For a very long time.
      I think it’s because I always looked for games to be more and more realistic representations of a ‘real’ world.
      But recently, maybe due to getting older, or ‘getting’ the fact that these are just representations like in a boardgame or map, I’ve suddenly found that I can enjoy them.

      Which is great, as it has opened up a whole new range of possible games for me to enjoy.

    • zaprowsdower says:

      If you have or pick up Civ V, check out the R.E.D. Modpack on Steam. It scales down each individual person or vehicle substantially so you can have units like twenty-man platoons and air or tank squadrons. You can even make them smaller.

  14. gruia says:

    Yeah, I dont see myself immersing into this one. First of all 3d sucks.. some good old isometric would’ve been awesome.
    The space is too big, units too spread out, of all shapes and sizes.. not enough detail to cover the terrain.

    its like 10 years ago gaming industry all over again. cut it out with the “new generation graphics” bullshit. Its about the tactics , good clean graphics and some decent writing.

    • Krull says:

      I see great tactic availability in game play videos. I see clean graphics. What are you talking about ? Even the world map is not pure 3d, from all I have seen it seems hybrid between 3d and isometric system. Either you are not a fan of turn based strategy games or you forgot to take your chill pills today ;) No game is ideal but this one seems like a really decent successor.

  15. Loyal_Viggo says:

    No mention of the split between above ground and the subterranean levels like previously, assume this is still the norm?

    As long as I can get my boar-riding Dwarf psycho axe-wielding wall-climbing single engine of destruction like before that can self-heal, then I’m good.

    Otherwise, as your attorney, I advise you to take a hit out of the little brown bottle in my shaving kit. You won’t need much, just a tiny taste.

  16. Einhaender says:

    Any news of a demo?

    I mean I’ll definitely get this sooner or later no doubt about it, it’s just that today spec requirements don’t mean much and some games that should be able to run on a toaster have problems even on high end machines due to poor optimization and some high end games run smooth as hell, even on older systems.

    I had that issue a couple of times over the last year, mainly with MM:X Legacy which tried to turn my gpu into a solar flare and almost succeeded so I kinda need a demo or some words on performance before I hit the “buy” button in my head.

    I have a pretty decent system(Far Cry 3 dx11 maxed out – no prob) but still.. I became kinda cautious about this.

  17. MaXimillion says:

    The game’s available [Link removed due to comments] for half the Steam price. Got my code from them in about ½ an hour after ordering. Previously bought EU4 from them several months back and had no problems with it, so the site seems trustworthy.

    • Donkeyfumbler says:

      Looking at the site and the instructions for activating via a Ukrainian VPN, I’m going to guess that it’s mainly selling Russian keys (which are a lot cheaper than the rest of the world). You may well be OK, but is against Steams T&Cs so there is a chance they will take the game off you when they realise, or an even smaller one they will close your account alltogether. I realise that’s unlikely but, for me anyway, it’s really not worth the risk for the small amount I’d save.

    • Corodix says:

      I would advice against using that site. See http://forums.whirlpool.net.au/forum-replies.cfm?t=1405626 for more information on all the scamming that happens there. It seems many of their codes were bought with stolen credit card information and they frequently scam people or give bad/duplicate keys. You’re lucky that your key works, though there’s always the chance it might be disabled later anyway (in that topic I’ve seen mention of this happening to people on Origin and on Guild Wars 2, as in those cases they were able to link the keys to fraudulent purchases with stolen credit card information).
      You really shouldn’t give those scammers any money, the games are way cheaper on their site than anywhere else for a reason. If it seems too good to be true then it probably is ;)

  18. Niko says:

    Would that be a good game to play if I’m looking for something similar to Master of Magic?

  19. Asokn says:

    Having had no knowledge of this game or series before reading this, can someone help me out with a query?

    Watching a youtube trailer this seems to be a cross between Civ and Total War. I really like Civ, 4 more than 5, but find Total War games quite shallow once you’ve seen a few large battles. Is this more of one than the other?

    • Donkeyfumbler says:

      The original AOW games played like a fantasy version of CIV 4, except when the unit stacks battled, you then fought a much more nuanced and tactical version of the battles that you find in the Heroes of Might and Magic or Kings Bounty games.
      I’ve tried a couple of the TW games and got similarly bored of the battles, partly because I definitely a turn-based strategy guy rather than RTS but mainly because there didn’t seem to be that much strategy to the things and I rarely felt in control. Similarly, I also eventually got bored of the battles in Kings Bounty and HOMM because theye were too basic and quickly got very ‘samey’. AOW was different because of the larger maps, much greater variety of units and tactical options.
      Basically, if you ever wanted to play a fantasy version of CIV4 where your stacks of doom fight strategic, turn-based battles on a zoomed-in portion of the world map, this is the game for you.

      • Laurentius says:

        Actually no, AoW is differnet kind of strategy then Civ4, except being turn based, similiarites are fleeting. Map in Civ is randomized and “round”, there are no corners. Maps in AoW are predefiend and closed in frame. Aow is better version of Hearos of Might and Magic genere, ( alss Disciples). Fantasy version of Civ4 would actual mod fir Civ “Fall from heaven”, Master of Magic – old but stil supreme of this genere or Elemantal:Legendary Hearos – quite enjobale but a civilization building aspect is a bit soulless.

        • Donkeyfumbler says:

          Maps here in AOW 3 are randomized. Not sure if they are round or have corners as I’ve yet to play it, but I’m not sure that makes a whole lot of difference. Fall from Heaven is certainly a fantasy CIV4 (and a very good one) but it lacks the tactical combat of AOW 3.

          I agree that it is basically a better and deeper version of HOMM or Disciples and is most similar too Elemental or Master of Magic (though Elemental isn’t a patch on AOW:SM) but I’m not sure Asokn knows those games by the sounds of it, so I don’t think calling it a fantasy CIV4 (as it has unit stacks, unlike Civ5 with it’s one unit per tile limit) with tactical battles is too far off as a basic guide for most people.

      • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

        Just to defend Total War’s corner for a minute, the player is arguably far more control on the battlefield than on the strat map. The series is arguably much less fun when the player is very proficient at the campaign side of things, as the real fun usually comes with using tactical mastery against a massive enemy force to turn around the strategic situation. The relationship between battle map and campaign map is far more compelling in that series than either mode on its lonesome.

  20. nbringer says:

    Ordered this on GOG.com.

    Now I am looking forward to some good fantasy 4X while enjoying the art goodies in the GOG package.

  21. caddyB says:

    To me Age of Wonders is a love affair. And she gets more and more beautiful every release. I also love the fact that there are hours and hours of gameplay footage. It isn’t a hype/nostalgia fueled blind pre-order.

  22. Kurses says:

    How is the multi-player? I’m finding a lot of 4x games lately are getting stellar reviews while neglecting to mention things like the inability to save the game or see combat animations once multi-player is on. Looking at you Civ 5 and settlers 7!

  23. Quiffle says:

    I’ve been eagerly awaiting this, as most of my friends couldn’t grok Dominons 4. But they like the looks of this, and I like the idea of another AoW game, but with multiplayer! Everyone wins!

  24. tinkergoth says:

    So very, very excited to play this. Age of Wonders II and Shadow Magic are still my go to games for turn based strategy (at least on a conquest style scale, for story-heavy squad based tactical games it’s Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem).

    Question though, can anyone confirm if the Wizard mechanic still exists from the previous games? Does the leader function in a similar manner, where you keep them in a city with a tower and it allows for spell casting within a certain area of all of their other towered cities?

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