Adam takes you on a journey through high fantasy in the long-awaited return to the Age of Wonders universe.
10 years since the last Age of Wonders game, the latest rendition has been eagerly-awaited by long-time fans of the series. Age of Wonders 3 (AoW3) is a turn-based strategy game developed by Triumph Studios which places you on a world map, leading your armies to ultimate conquest, whilst discovering treasures, developing your cities, and levelling your leader and heroes in an RPG-style. Set in a high fantasy world, you will come across elves, orcs, humans, and fey, amongst others. It’s kind of like a less micro-management focussed Civilization meets Lord of the Rings, with XCOM-style combat.
There are extensive single player campaigns, commanding you to take control of a leader and their armies, and work your way through their story. I played through the Sundren campaign first off – Sundren is a High Elf who’s been unexpectedly betrayed by a powerful force. You must lead her armies to bring justice and set right the wrongs of her foes. With not playing an Age of Wonders game before, this campaign eased me in to how the game functioned, along with presenting an interesting and engaging story.
The in-game tooltip system, the Tome of Wonders, is an encyclopaedia for everything in the game – it comes in really handy, especially if you’re new to the series or this genre. It’s loaded with info, but doesn’t overwhelm with complex descriptions; it’s straight to the point and concise, so you can get straight back to playing the game.
With less focus on city management, and more on improving your armies, AoW3 lets you enjoy the action regularly, levelling up your leaders and heroes, and exploring the map at a decent pace. You can opt for auto-combat when you attack or are attacked, but of course there are risks you could lose a much-loved unit, or even worse, a whole army. So, I manually controlled my encounters most of the time, that way any mistakes were on me, and I couldn’t just blame the AI.
If your army is overwhelmingly powerful when targeting a group of independents (groups of smaller enemies with no ties to a leader) you may get the option to let them flee, which will gain you ‘good’ alignment points. Alternatively you can slaughter them, if you’re so inclined, which will gain you some ‘evil’ alignment points. Throughout the course of the game you will come across many choices which will affect your alignment, from deciding on whether to let a band of independents live, to what kind of spells you choose to cast. Your alignment will affect your negotiations with other leaders, and how they react to you.
There are plenty of spells you can research for use in or out of combat too. For example, you could research various terraforming abilities to improve your empire’s lands, spells which hinder your enemies’ cities or combat abilities that range from unit buffs and heals, to high damage arrow volleys.
Aside from the Campaigns there are various Scenarios you can play too, which only adds to the already infinite hours of play time the game delivers. Once I’d played the campaign through and dabbled in the scenarios, I took my chances in the Random Map mode. This is where AoW3 really opens up, allowing you to fully customize the type of game you’d like to play. From the number of human and AI-controlled players, to the type of terrain you will encounter, and abundance of resources. With plenty of pre-made leaders to choose from you’ll no doubt find one that suits your play style, but you can create a unique leader with the customize option too. Choose your race, gender, class, and even customize their look. Establishing which specializations your new leader will have means you can create an ultimately benevolent force in the world, or the most malevolent evil sorcerer ever known.
I love character creation in games, I often find myself spending hours just making unique and obscene characters, such as my Human Sorcerer Kraven de Burgors here.
I found the Random Map mode to be the most fun by far, freeing you up to experience and conquer a world that nobody else has. Advancing your custom-made leader and their armies across the land, plundering treasures and overthrowing the other players, essentially creating your own story of a rise to power, or defeat.
I played my first Random Map on ‘Knight’ difficulty, which I would say is the normal difficulty setting. But don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security, AoW3 is punishing when you make mistakes. But that’s the general nature of the genre, however, it doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun to play. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, and you’ll lose units, armies, cities, even entire matches, but you will learn, adapt, and understand that it’s not the game being unfair. It’s just that with each move, city or leader upgrade, and battle you engage in, it’s all dependent on your own strategic mind. What will you build, when will you upgrade, and how will you plan your attack, or defence. All of these factors play a part in whether you will conquer or be conquered.
I did play the harder difficulties, which are brutal, and definitely for veterans of the genre. But that’s great, AoW3 caters to all levels of player, and will ease newcomers in to the series and genre slowly with no sacrifice of enjoyment. Experienced players will be well challenged, and enjoy the often-tense online multiplayer.
You can upgrade your leader and heroes when they gain enough XP. There are some standard upgrades such as increased health or mana, but there are some unique abilities to help you tailor your leader exactly the way you want it, and give buffs to the army they’re commanding.
Your cities can queue and construct new buildings to enhance or train new units to join your army, as well as improve your population, gold, or mana output, amongst others. Beyond these things there isn’t much more to say about the city aspects of the game, but like I said before, city micro-management is not really a factor in AoW3. It’s not to the game’s detriment in any way, however, the focus on rapid expansion, exploration, and combat is more than enough to keep you satisfied.
When completing quests or exploring ruins you can be rewarded with items to equip your leaders and heroes with, which provide much welcome stat increases or special abilities.
On the world map and in combat positioning is key. You can position your armies in adjacent tiles on the main map, meaning if you attack, or are attacked, the friendly armies next to you will join you in battle, giving a powerful tactical advantage. This is perfect for launching a siege on a city or keep. In combat you can flank enemies by moving behind them, but also by distracting them. One of your units can attack an enemy, causing it to turn and face their attackers, whilst this happens your other unit to which they were originally facing is now in a flanking position, ready to deal extra damage.
There are also line-of-sight penalties, meaning you could position some of your tankier units between some of your weaker ones and the enemy; any ranged units attacking through yours to get to the ones behind will receive a ranged line-of-sight penalty because of the obstruction to their target. Little intricacies like these open the tactics up in so many ways, meaning you’ll have to plan each move you take carefully, and try to stay a couple of steps ahead of your opponents.
AoW3 is a great looking game, from the details of the main world map, to the lush and varied environments during combat. The individual units are in-keeping with fantasy aesthetics, but Triumph Studios have put their own stamp on them, keeping them fresh and unique. If you zoom all the way out on the main world it seamlessly transitions to a paper-style drawn out map, which gives you a good overview of your territory and unit positions, as well as your enemy’s.
During combat you can alter your view to a top-down perspective, allowing you a tactical overview of the situation, but if you want a more engrossed feel then zoom right down to ground level and get in the thick of the action.
The combat is just as tactical as the map exploration - besieging an enemy city will take a lot of resources, and all your tactical knowledge.
I tried out the Multiplayer, which takes the Scenario and Random Map Mode elements, and lets you test your skills with other people online. It certainly put me in my place, as the two players I was against in one of my matches wiped the floor with me. I’m fairly competent in Single Player, or so I thought, but once I got online I was made aware of clear failings in my strategy. But this is good, it only helped me to improve both on and offline - observing how other people played, and what kind of leaders they’ve created too. Even though I was on the receiving end of their superior tactics it was still fun to play online. Most matches I played were between two or three people max, as I didn’t want to be in a game for hours on end for the purposes of this review. However, you can create matches with up to 8 players, human or AI, along with altering the map size and other features available in the offline Random Map mode, so if you want to pull an all-nighter playing an extremely long match, you can.
In summary, Age of Wonders 3 is a must-play for fans of ‘one-more-turn’ inducing games, like Civilization and XCOM. It will provide plenty of enjoyment through the campaigns and scenarios, plus countless hours of customizable action in the Random Map and Multiplayer modes. If you’ve never delved into the strategy-rich world of turn-based games before then this could be your first step. AoW3 won’t overwhelm you into submission before you can even enjoy the game, and will keep you engrossed enough to increase your skills and eventually develop your own strategies for use online. Veterans of the genre will feel right at home, being able to delve right in and discover a whole new world, pushing their tactics to the limit.
Have you been playing Age of Wonders 3? What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.