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Age of Wonders: Planetfall makes a great case for leaving fantasy behind

A 4X offering something new

Featured post planetfall

For nearly two decades, the Age of Wonders series has been firmly entrenched in a fantasy realm, with all the tropes that accompany it: Orcs, Halflings, meddling wizards and flying lizards. Triumph Studios’ latest 4X outing, Age of Wonders: Planetfall, does away with all of that. It swaps magic for mechs, pitting alien races against each other in a galaxy reeling from the collapse of the last great space empire, the Star Union.

“We’ve been working on fantasy games all our lives, but we also had the fantasy of making a sci-fi game,” says Lennart Sas, Triumph Studios’ CEO. “It gives us more opportunities than a direct sequel would ever give us. It’s a good middle-ground between doing something that’s close to our hearts, but also something that allows us to experiment.”

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More than Age of Wonders 3 in space, Triumph seems to be making a concerted effort to ensure that Planetfall is its own thing, not just in terms of setting, but fundamental game mechanics as well. It’s still a 4X game with turn-based tactical combat, but heaped onto that frame are a multitude of new ideas, at least for the series, starting with the commanders.

Commanders are Planetfall’s leaders and a faction’s primary hero unit, able to explore the planet, chat to aliens and then murder them. Instead of having classes, like Age of Wonders 3, more emphasis has been put on their species and equipment. Instead of classes, there are secret technologies, leftovers from the Star Union, that give these leaders an edge.

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They’re the product of Imperial research divisions that allow you to do “very special things,” Sas explains. “And often very nasty things.” The team delved into a bag of sci-fi tropes and picked out a wide range of powerful futuristic or alien tricks. Take the genoplague, for instance, which lets you mutate soldiers or whole colonies with a virus that rewrites their DNA. For colonists, it could change how they deal with the environment they live in, while soldiers can become freakish monsters, able to stab enemies with their sharp but fleshy appendages. It’s a bit gross.

With a finished commander — a member of the Vanguard, an Imperial faction that’s just come out of cryosleep — the demo takes us to a new world, vibrant and alien, and upon landing, the first colony is established. Inside the colony are a few fresh-faced colonists who can be assigned to different tasks. Working on increasing the food stores is a good start, given that a young colony needs to grow. Much of the colony screen seems familiar, but there are some quality of life changes that put to rest some the genre’s unnecessary faffing.

You don’t need to build defenders! Thank whatever alien god is popular in Planetfall, because it’s always been a pain in the arse. I obviously want to defend my colony, so it shouldn’t have to be something I do every single time I make a new settlement or outpost. Planetfall’s bases are always protected by a garrison, but you can still influence how well protected they are, building new structures or setting up defences like city-wide shields.

It’s a bit early to be worrying about that, however. We haven’t even met anyone to fight yet. That’ll change soon as the Vanguard start pushing into unexplored territory. The planet is split up into sectors which could contain enemies, abandoned laboratories, alien cities or just more resources for us to swallow up.

The demo’s driver sends the commander to one such laboratory south of the colony. It’s full of genetically augmented monstrosities, and apparently they’re considerably higher level. He backs off. I jeer, internally. Fighting them, and surviving, could have netted the commander and his army flashy new tech or equippable items, but instead an easier target is picked out: a minor faction.

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“We’ve got an entirely new thing that we’re doing with PvE, with the minor factions that survived after the Star Union,” says Sas. “We’ve got things like cyber-zombies, mutated plants that can talk to you, space jellyfish that have escaped from a science centre. You can talk to them; they’re not always hostile. You can interact with them, see if you can acquire their territory through trade, they have their own questlines and needs — it’s been fleshed out a lot.”

This time, though, there’s no chatting. They get wiped out. It’s OK, they’re a holdover from the old empire and, according to Sas, not very nice people. They were the elites of the Star Union and pretty aggressive. We were doing the galaxy a favour, really.

With the area free of threats, a new outpost is established. These outposts protect the area, but its the colony that reaps the rewards. When you conquer territory, you essentially attach it to a colony, giving it the benefits of any resources or whatever else you find there. Roads also automatically appear, making travel between colonies and outposts quicker.

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Our colony has now expanded, but there’s another threat on the horizon: a race of psionic insects who were once slaves of the Star Union. They’re one of the main factions, so upon meeting them our diplomatic options are a bit deeper than they were with the minor faction. And it looks like Triumph is getting a bit more Paradox-y.

“We’ve got casus bellis,” says a laughing Sas when the screen appears. “See, Paradox has already had an effect since the acquisition. Some of these features are actually creeping into our games.”

So there’s a structure to conflict and a need to justify aggressive actions, as well as consequences if you’re a dick to every alien that you happen across. There’s no time for diplomacy now, however, and war is declared straight away. It’s time to squash some bugs.

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“It’s a lot easier to make mistakes in the battles,” Sas warns. “You need to be on your guard a lot more and be ready to develop new strategies and new tactics. With unit modding, you can tailor them to face particular threats, and this changes things massively.”

Every unit is essentially a simple template that you can customise with weapons, special ammo, jetpacks and even vehicles. Eventually, you’ll be able to cram your commander inside a mech or a tank, if you fancy it. Mods can give your unit a whole range of abilities at the higher tiers, so it affects a lot more than just the amount of damage you can dole out.

Before exterminating the insects, we take a moment to enhance one of our basic trooper units. It’s got two modding slots that can be filled. In one slot, new ammo is added, giving our troopers an advantage against organic enemies, which should help against the bugs. In the final slot, jetpacks are tossed into the mix, allowing our troopers to quickly flank the creepy crawlies. We name our new unit the Bug Killers and the battle kicks off.

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The battlefield is a ruined highway, full of rusty cars and crooked billboards — all very post-apocalyptic. The cars and debris can serve as cover, but there’s a risk involved when using some of these vehicles as shields. Red vehicles, Sas explains, can explode when they take damage, hurting anyone standing next to them. Sometimes it can be worth the risk, however, so our first unit bravely crouches down next to one of these ticking time bombs.

Triumph has tried to inject a bit more complexity into these warzones. Age of Wonders 3’s flat, square arenas are gone, replaced with battlefields that have elevation, destructible buildings and other environmental wrinkles. The tactical implications are arguably the most important thing, but they’re also just really striking places to visit for a sci-fi gunfight.

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In Age of Wonders 3, melee combat was the focus, but Planetfall’s sci-fi conceit opens the door to so many different weapons and tactics. You’ve got grenades that can stagger and stun enemies, denying them action points; guns that let units use overwatch, locking areas down and forcing enemies to cower behind cover; and mechs that can pummel enemies from afar with their giant cannons.

Our bug foes put up a heck of a fight. They’ve got a particularly handy psionic ability that gives them shields when they stand close together, so the smart move is to try to seperate them and pick them off one by one. In this instance, the devs cheat a little. Our army is given access to a wide range of devastating operations: orbital super weapons that can demolish an army. Normally these have a high cost so you can’t use them often, but for the purposes of the demo, a bunch of them are used in quick succession. Those poor bugs.

The highway is quickly filled with toxic fumes and raging fires, blinding and harming our enemies stuck inside the area. They still manage to almost destroy our stalwart mech, but with cheating devs at the helm, we manage to put the bugs in the ground.

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One thing I didn’t see a lot of was missed shots. The frustration of missing a shot, especially one that should have been a sure thing, might be a tactics mainstay, but Triumph wants to reduce how often that happens. The team still wants to create those moments where it just feels like luck isn’t on your side, because it makes the times when you make an unlikely shot all the more satisfying, but it doesn’t want players to feel like they’ve been cheated. Grazing is the solution.

When the RNG isn’t on your side and you take a shot that misses, there’s a chance that miss will be converted into a graze. If it is, the shot will do half damage and won’t cause stagger or any other effect. It’s not a good thing, it might still elicit a curse, but it does nudge that enemy one step closer to death. If it’s already taken a lot of damage, it might just be enough to finish them off. It seems like the fights might be a bit brisker thanks to things like grazing and overwatch, though it’s hard to tell from a battle where at least three of the game’s most powerful abilities were used.

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As more territory gets added to the colony, I feel pretty awful about being complicit in the murder of these insects. We’ve just nicked land from people who only recently escaped enslavement and came to this planet looking for a new start. That’s why everyone’s here, really. That, and to look for answers about what happened to the Star Union. Each game just takes place on one of these worlds, though which one is up to you. You can just go with a default world, or you can dive in and get busy tweaking it.

“Before you start a mission, you get to choose one of the worlds of the Star Union,” says Sas. “It was so big that there are thousands of worlds, so maybe you want to play on a very dry world, something like Tatooine, or you might want lots of Imperial ruins to explore or maybe you just want to be left up to your own devices to develop and terraform a place.”

So you have quite a bit of control over the worlds you play on, but there’s still randomness in the procedural generation. This extends to the campaign, as well. It lets you play from the perspectives of different factions and characters, and you’ll visit multiple procedurally generated worlds as you try to figure out this cosmic mystery across various missions.

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Mod support is something Triumph is keen to get ready for Planetfall’s launch, and there’s also been some discussion of map sharing, says Sas. He’s not settled on anything yet, and since the worlds are generated around how many factions will be in the mission, it might not be as simple as just giving people a seed number. I can already envision the Star Wars map packs though — everything you need is already there.

Planetfall reminds me a lot of Endless Legend. It’s not the tactical combat or the minor factions, even though they share those things, but rather that Planetfall seems properly new. It doesn’t have the typical trappings of a sequel, and it’s not yet another space 4X game, which is a relief. But what I saw was only the first few turns, the hardest part for a 4X game to get wrong. The proof will be in the mid and end-game.

Age of Wonders: Planetfall is due out in 2019.

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Fraser Brown

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