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.