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Age Of Wonders 4 review: a plain good magical strategy that hasn't really turned me either way

More cursed toadlings, please

A powerful mage holds a ball of pure white energy in her hand in Age Of Wonders 4
Image credit: Paradox Interactive

I don't feel very strongly about Age Of Wonders 4. But I’ll be fair; it's definitely good.

I've enjoyed most of my time with it, and the parts I didn't were probably down to caning it too hard in too short a time. Such is that reviewz lyf. Played less intensely over a longer period, I imagine more of its intricacies becoming clear, and more custom playstyles emerging to encourage more replays and challenges. As it stands though, its generally high quality and interesting systems just haven't captured my imagination.

It is not unimaginative, though. Some of its playable races are the usual elves and goblins, but most have a twist, like the cannibalistic dwarves, gold-obsessed necromancers, or the "cursed toadlings" I picked almost reflexively: a people transformed along with their warrior Queen Charming. Each comes with a starting hero and traits for their cities units, plus a set of spellbooks that determine what research you'll have access to upfront.

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Like Master of Magic (or its surprisingly faithful remake), AoW's magic replaces research in the traditional 4X structure, divided into flavoured schools that align with a key resource, and encourage certain playstyles or unit types. Nature increases healing and food yields (ie: population) while also summoning beasts and forest spirits to poison and ensnare foes. Materium is industry, siege engines, and money for bigger armies. Shadow magic is curses, backstabbing, and harvesting souls to reform into undead monsters. With every handful of spells researched, you pick a new tome from any school, adding five new spells with a common theme to your researchable pool. Although you start out with a fixed set, you may find a hybrid approach useful. Focusing on one school gives access to expensive high-level spells, but even a late dip into a new school gives you a mid-level tome and broader options.

Coupled with the variety of races and rivals, the faction design is very freeform and responsive. Independent cities assimilated through diplomacy or conquest will produce units and hero characters with race-specific powers. They, too, are not fixed; certain spells permanently transform entire races to suit your whims (provided you govern enough of their world population, occasionally adding a wrinkle to diplomatic relations). Random events occasionally prompt you to accept or reject a change in a race's fundamental values. This might turn your farmers towards money worship or see your necromantic raider goblins stacked to the hilt with swarm-friendly magic ask to become a faction of pacifists. The petitioner was brave, I'll give him that.

A fantasy map displaying different forts and battles in Age Of Wonders 4
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Most of your time will be spent exploring and emptying the map of monsters, in a Heroes of Might and/or Magic fashion, to gather gold and level up heroes and armies, and the variety is really impressive. Naturally, battles swap you over to a tactical, hex-based map where your minions take turns to bash each other (excellently, you can manually retry a fight if you didn't like the auto-resolve results). Facing and positioning are critical, as is working out which order everyone should move in. The principles are straightforward, but the sheer breadth of powers and spells and status effects can become sort of alienating.

Given equal power levels, you sorely need to know what every unit can do, necessitating a lot of memorisation or plain trial and error. But army sizes are limited to six units, making losses expensive and slow to replace. Nearby armies will back each other up, so by the time you're in a real war you'll regularly be fielding 18+ units, and things quickly get messy and frustrating. The UI is generally clear and covered in well-linked tooltips, but with three or four races and a dozen unit types in a fight, it's a lot to analyse in a system that's at its best when it's pacey and smooth.

Selecting a unit can be a little tricky amongst all the busy icons too. AoW4 is after the modern 4X fashion of being visually busy in general. Pretty, certainly, particularly in the tactical maps set on its underground sections, which any unit can wander into, and where some races even do well-founding cities. But busy. It's made for a hard time taking screenshots that show off its strong art, as has a rather heavy load on my graphics card (which may be less true by the time you read this, given that the version I'm playing is weeks old).

A colossal firmly titan stands above several bands of troops in Age Of Wonders 4
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun
A battle takes place within a rocky canyon showing different factions at war in Age Of Wonders 4
A short text paragraph describing an encounter with cursed toadlings in Age Of Wonders 4
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

I found, quite bizarrely, that this entry inverted my usual experience; I came to dread the large confrontations and instead enjoyed the side questing in monster dens, which often generated little flavoured events too. Fire giants are trashing a forge, evil spirits have killed a benevolent wild animal, some ogres are arguing over how to cook their captives (when I got this one, the captives were from the mindless undead civilisation, an utterly trivial oversight that added some amusing silliness to their terror and fawning gratitude). You'll often get your choice of rewards in resources, items, or units here, or bonuses and penalties to a nearby city.

"I came to dread the large confrontations and instead enjoyed the side questing in monster dens, which often generated little flavoured events too"

Cities themselves must spread to a new province each time your people count ticks over, turning them to farms or mines, and optionally upgrading them to a special province that gets bonuses for certain adjacencies or conditions. Disappointingly, there's little opportunity for races that favour specific terrains like swamps or deserts unless you generate a world based around them, and I found myself settling new cities based on distance rather than the land itself.

A city with a giant purple towers sits majestically on a fantasy map in Age Of Wonders 4
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

City growth, though is very involved without being overwhelming and necessitates premeditation about which cities will take which provinces, especially when other civilisations are nearby. Cleared monster dens will offer ongoing resources if that province is annexed, and city buildings often require a specific number of mines, farms, or quarries. They might also let you train special units, and even your heroes can come with traits that do the same in a city they're governing (which itself adds bonuses depending on their stats). It's all heavily interlinked, and this is why I feel like Age Of Wonders 4 will have its fans: longevity.

It's perhaps unfair to slam it for its best parts apparently coming after many more weeks of experimenting and practicing (although I will slam its utterly tiresome ‘progression’ that has you unlock cosmetics and world generation options with points awarded after a campaign. It’s pointless time-wasting, but thankfully a great many worldgen options are available upfront, saving it from outright condemnation). I enjoy its city management, its freedom, and sometimes its battles. There's some solid, intricate design I can appreciate. but I never really connected with the factions, spells, or fighting of Age Of Wonders 4 the way the phrase "cursed toadlings" promised.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the publisher Paradox Interactive.

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