Age of Wonders is a series that dates back to 1999, and at the time featured a huge campaign and amount of replayability. 15 years later, can the latest entry, Age of Wonders III (AoW III) to the series hold up in the modern games market?
First of all I’d like to say, I’ve never indulged in previous entries to the series. My opinions of those games are based on what I’ve heard over the years, and it’s been mostly positive. So with that in mind, I’ll run you through my experience based on the first part of the campaign that I tried.
Graphically, this game is almost flawless. It’s the kind of game that doesn’t need intense graphics. It’s subtle, the game looks great and doesn’t go over the top, it’s actually quite refreshing when compared to such modern titles as Battlefield 4. Of course, the perspective of the game is a huge part of this. Since AoW III is all seen from a top down isometric perspective, you get a nice birds-eye view of the landscape cities sprawl across tiles, and each city’s borders are shown by simple guidelines, including the enemy’s territory.
The gameplay is where things get really intense though. The learning curve for this game is insane, and admittedly isn’t helped by the fact that the only tutorial you get is 100% text. Tutorials like this really aren’t intuitive game design, but the alternative would be a tutorial that guided you through everything and, potentially, took a fair amount of time to get through. The game allows you to learn at your own pace, giving you more tutorial entries to read as you progress through the first quarter of the first campaign segment. Luckily the controls aren’t too difficult to get the hang of – the gameplay however…
Your main hero, in this case Sundren of House Inioch, can level up and gain skill points that allow you to enhance their abilities in combat, and learn new ones. For example, the skill entitled ‘Armour piercing’ gives any army led by Sundren a combat bonus against armoured units. You can also learn a variety of spells for use both in and out of combat. Some spells can affect land or cities, others can be used to attack individual units on the battlefield. There’s a huge selection that are unlocked by researching each turn.
You can also equip the main hero with different items. The first battle you encounter lands you with a nice sword weapon that can be equipped immediately to gain a melee attack. Melee attacks with your main hero are extremely risky though, I prefer attacking from a distance with magic or the blowpipe that is equipped as default. When your main hero does fall in combat, they’ll either respawn at the nearest throne after a few turns or, if you don’t have a throne, cause a game over.
The combat itself can be done either manually (the most fun option in my opinion), or automatically. The automatic combat should really only be used if you have a huge advantage, or you could risk losing a unit or two in combat. That’s another great feature, your units have permadeath. “But Rowan, how can that be a good thing?!” I hear you cry. Well ladies and gents, it’s simple: Permadeath adds a huge challenge to games like this. It teaches you to be strategic, to flank your enemies, take note of your own weaknesses aswell as the enemy’s, and use them to your advantage. That kind of experience is exactly what you’re in for with a game like this.
You control units on a battlefield made of hexagonal spaces. You move across them, and can attack enemy units from any of the 6 sides they’re approachable from. Each unit has a different movement value. Horseback units can travel a greater distance than, for example, swordsman. Some units are a lot stronger when attacking from certain spaces, the most obvious being archers. If they’re close enough to an enemy unit, and have a lot of movement points left, they can attack multiple times per turn. Position them in the right spot, let the enemy unit advance and you can barrage them with several archers from multiple angles. I’m going to call this tactic “The good ol’ bait and bombard”. Feel free to use it.
There’s a lot to sink your teeth into with this game, and I’ve only talked about the combat gameplay so far. Outside of combat, you have to manage your units across the world map, choose what your cities should produce (units, upgrades, money bonuses, etc). The ability to produce bonus money, mana, research and population are actually great additions, as they’re really useful when you’ve upgraded everything in that city. You can also use settler and builder units to increase your empire, build new cities, expand your territories and set up watchtowers. Watchtowers are extremely useful for defending a narrow route that the enemy can’t bypass. The in-combat terrain changes depending on where you are too, so if your units are attacked while in a watchtower, they’ll gain the advantage of having higher ground and strong blockades. To sum up the gameplay, it’s like Civilisation V meets a more complex Final Fantasy Tactics, and that’s a very good thing.
The game’s campaigns each have their own story, which are mostly told through intro and outro scenes for each segment. They’re very text heavy, and add a lot of lore to the game for those who enjoy deep stories. They’re also not vital and can easily be ignored by people who just want the deep and challenging gameplay.
The game features hundreds of units, of multiple races. Some require taking over a city with a certain race, such as human and orc cities. Others, like the succubus and Assassin, are gained through research. There’s even units such as fairies and unicorns – which are also surprisingly powerful. Losing units in battle is absolutely crushing too. During my time with the game I lost a battle with some of my best units, including two elven assassins, some archers and an orc black knight. I genuinely had to take a break from the game to get over it, my best units had been felled in combat and I was devastated. When I returned to the game, I came back with a vengeance. Put together four armies, and had them all attack the enemy army at once. The pic below is one of that battle.
As you can see, I have all my units lined up and ready. I outnumbered them by about 12 units. An epic battle ensued. After 30 minutes I rose from the ashes of the battlefield… without victory. Crushed again, when victory looked almost certain! Yet I couldn’t put the game down, I had to win. I upgraded my cities, got the best and highest ranked units to spawn, and tried again. It’s a game of trial and error, learning which units are the best against certain scenarios and putting together the perfect squads to take them down. This is all part of the learning process, so I hope you’re prepared to put some time into it!
The game’s soundtrack suits the game extremely well. The epic scores produced by Michiel van den Bos, a man who worked on some of Triumph Studios’ previous titles, fit nicely alongside the medieval combat, and really help immerse you in the fantasy universe. Immersion really wasn’t something I expected from this game but for me, it really gripped me and pulled me in.
So in summary, this game is perfect for RPG/RTS lovers, and will keep you entertained for hours. There’s so much to learn and utilise here, and the feeling of understanding the gameplay elements and using them to your advantage is absolutely exhilarating. Triumph Studios live up to their name in creating a great fantasy universe to get lost in.
This review was written based on the PC version of Age of Wonders III.