Developer: Triumph Studios
Publisher: Triumph Studios
I've been searching for a new 4X addiction for some considerable time now, and Age Of Wonders III is almost certainly it. Years in the making and completed with a hefty bung from Markus "Notch" Persson, this fantastical turn-based sequel offers streamlined grand strategy, incredibly tense tactical battles and compelling RPG elements to boot. Somewhere between Civilization V, X-COM, Heroes Of Might & Magic, Warlock and Spellforce, it allows you to create your own hero from various unique classes and races, then lead their faction to victory through exploration, expansion and ruthless extermination.
But more importantly than that, Age Of Wonders III just creates a wonderful and unpredictable world to live in every time you play. This is a land where steampunk flame tanks and terrifying dragons do battle against rainbow unicorns and pixies. You'll find a "longsword of dire penguin slaying" before being assaulted by flocks of ravenous depraved aquatic birds from beyond the pale. Every hex you uncover, every cavern, temple, woodland glade and dark corner of the expansive maps holds opportunities for treasure, adventure or advancement - or new threats to desperately repel.
Wonders never cease. Which is why the review took so long.
It all starts with a hero. Six races, six classes, countless specialisations and myriad cosmetic customisation options allow players to construct a leader who plays as unique as they look. Whether a high Elf Dreadnought who wields steampunk-inspired tanks and musketeers, hulking Orc sorceress who specialises in benign creation magic or diminutive goblin theocrats whose size belies massed armies of devout templars and menacing war shrines, there's freedom and scope to completely shatter fantasy racial and gender stereotypes as you tinker with your avatar. Or pick from a selection of well-balanced presets, from whom you'll learn the finer points of deploying Assassins and debilitating statuses as the Rogue or wielding wild beasts with the druid. And more besides - this is a review, not an FAQ.
Not only do heroes dictate available units, philosophy, spells and tech progression, but they're also a powerful yet vulnerable avatar capable of leading forces into battle and dealing out ruinous damage - or costing you the game if they're killed after their designated capital city is destroyed. With new gear to find, spells to research and passive abilities to obsess over as you gain experience, moulding your avatar lasts throughout each match and adds a compelling persistent hook.
Though slightly overwrought and more than a little generic on the story front, a pair of campaigns introduce us to the familiar framework of expansion and exploration. It's a hexy beast, offering streamlined commands for movement, city creation, scouting and research; with tooltips and an accessible UI making a wealth of pleasing depth as accessible as possible. Each map is truly enormous and packed with secrets, both above ground and in massive subterranean environments teeming with natural horrors and potential shortcuts, all of which encourages you to get out there and see what's waiting beyond the fog of war.
After the campaigns and scenarios are done and dusted, the real meat of the game opens up with robust random map creation, each of which lets you create totally new, sprawling and completely unpredictable realms to conquer, each of which feels like a curated mini-narrative in its own right.
Exploration is therefore an utter joy. One moment you'll celebrate finding a cache of treasure during an underground raid. The next, you'll find yourselves battling teleporting phase unicorns and giant penguins that serve dark masters, before a massive Dreadnought Landship starts smashing its way through the scenery towards your capital city. Rewarding you with a new ring, perhaps, and new spells. Crossing water is automatic, with units leaping into ships of their own design, while capturing unguarded cities lets you tinker with other racial units to bolster your growing armies.
This is a game that rewards action rather than inactivity, pushing forward to find and secure territory and bonuses before your rivals do. Though it's sometimes tempting to just turtle up with an aim to creating numerous Tier IV units, most matches are won by players who seek adventure out.
eXploitation and diplomacy are somewhat limited, with very basic economics (just secure lots of generation sites with settler-build cities or versatile watchtowers - a considerate touch), incredibly speedy unit creation timers and bare-bones treaties or alliances keeping things simple. 4X superfans may be slightly disappointed... but Age Of Wonders III is ultimately all about the eXtermination. The combat. The utterly, sensationally superb combat.
When battle is joined, Age Of Wonders whisks us onto an instanced battlefield teeming with different terrain types (all of which boasting unique modifiers), defensive opportunities and massed fortifications if you've decided to attack or defend a city. Units all fulfil different roles, with even most melee troops boasting ranged combat options, movement speeds, spells and abilities. Unicorns phase around the battlefield to attack foes from vulnerable flanks, battering rams shatter city walls and Assassins grief priority targets. Airborne troops can bypass defences and spellslingers lock down mid-ranged engagements, but every unit has a counter or can be taken down by exploiting their facing. Heroes add yet another tactical dimension to the proceedings, capable of turning the tide with unique buffs and army-wide modifiers, while your unique smorgasbord of spells can debilitate key enemy forces, inflict ruinous damage or get put-upon friendlies out of the firing line.
It all adds up to a deep, tense and genuinely tactical experience that constantly challenges you in unexpected ways. Auto-resolve options are on hand for impatient players, but you'll rarely be tempted to use it.
Some exciting little wrinkles help to keep things fresh and interesting. Each stack can only hold a maximum of six units, forcing us to choose carefully about balance, type advantages and experience levels - but stacks from adjacent hexes can also join the fray; starting on the appropriate flank or behind enemy lines. With up to thirty six units per battle, per side, pre-battle positioning becomes absolutely key.
Units also deal the same amount of damage regardless of the amount they've taken, which is initially counter-intuitive. After all, years of strategy games teach us that damaged units have less men, and therefore shouldn't hit as hard. This takes a while to unlearn, but once you do, it rewards brave decisive play rather than just turtling back and chipping away at enemy forces. Even a single near-death unit can break a siege or wreak havoc behind enemy lines. Who dares wins, as opposed to who weakens the enemy first and waits for them to sacrifice themselves via counterattacks.
Ferocious yet fair AI makes Age Of Wonders III work. Your opponents will merrily exploit every weakness you have, surrounding weaker units or launching surprise assaults from the underground, all while taking advantage of terrain bonuses in combat and breaking treaties when it suits them. However, they're also bound by the same rules you are, so don't just magically summon ridiculously huge armies when your back is turned. They'll beat you because they're better, not because they're obviously cheating - so save often just in case.
Grievances are few and far between in that most actually boil down to controversial design decisions, not genuine flaws. That unit damage quirk is chief among them, but it rewards bold manoeuvres and makes sieges tolerable for the attacker. It just requires a different way of thinking; treating battles more like X-COM than Advance Wars. The AI dispelled our global spells with annoying zeal at launch while spamming their own, which was aggravating, but this has since been squelched in yesterday's patch alongside other smaller bugs. Performance can still be inconsistent depending on your hardware, though, especially in massive pitched engagements or after several hundred turns have elapsed.
We also hate having to create yet another account to play online, especially since save files and leaders are tied to your Triumph profile rather than Stream profile.
I daresay that dedicated fans of the series might have a few gripes of their own, perhaps in terms of the quantity. I can only vaguely remember AoW II, but recall it offering many more playable races at the very least. Hardcore followers may rail against balance changes and gameplay tweaks too. They're welcome to do so, but Age Of Wonders III stands tall on its own merits, and will only continue to grow over the coming months.
Sadly I now have to get back in there. A treasure chest guarded by arachnid horrors deserves my attention, while those penguins won't slay themselves.
- Versatile hero/class/army creation with masses of customisation options and compelling RPG elements
- Superb tactical combat against suitably ruthless AI
- Unpredictable massive multi-level maps to explore
- Thoughtful streamlining and UI keeps the big picture in focus
- Uninspired campaign storylines
- Mandatory Triumph account required for online play (boo!)
- Variable performance depending on hardware, occasional late-game lag
The Short Version: Age Of Wonders III focuses on eXploration and eXtermination in an unpredictable and customisable fantasy world that constantly reveals new secrets. A few issues and controversial mechanics might irk some genre veterans, but following the first major patch, Triumph's triumph is easily one of the most compelling strategy hybrids we've seen in recent years, and an enjoyably stern challenge for fans of tactical turn-based combat.