By Jason Parker (Ragachak)
A Step Back in Time, Destination: The Future
As a youth, I spent much of my time at a close friend’s house, absorbing myself in the PC title Master of Magic. In it, you played as a spellcaster in charge of a kingdom, and your goal was to crush the other forces beneath your superior magic skills. Unfortunately, that was much easier said than done. Triumph Studios and Epic Games, among others, collaborated back in 1999 to form the first Age of Wonders game. Several have come in its wake, and recently, the third official title, “Age of Wonders III” has been announced! I was fortunate enough to get the call to play this fascinating title. It is really a step back in time for me, as in my youth my favorite PC titles were Civilization 2, Heroes of Might and Magic, and Masters of Magic. This game takes all of the best pieces of these titles and puts them into one magical computer game. This could spell disaster if done incorrectly, but I really think Triumph Studios has something great on their hands.
In Age of Wonders 3, you essentially play the role of a military dictator, a political power in charge of a small kingdom, where you force your will upon a randomly generated map controlled by the AI, or even your friends. You can use one of the pre-generated heroes that Triumph has offered, or you can create and save your own for future use. There are so many choices, from the body type, race, and class, down to what posture they will use on the diplomacy screens. I tried several, and made a host of different characters as I played, because frankly, I love character creation. That is certainly a point where this game shines: there are tons of options for you to choose from. You also choose their base skills, from elemental preferences to whether they have a predisposition towards good or evil. Good and evil really do matter in this title, too! It affects how other forces view you, from major kingdoms to small hamlets. If you are aligned in a fashion that suits them, they may offer you quests to help them, with worthwhile rewards. I received things such as Frost/Fire Titan units, all the way to their villages joining my force. It pays to go out of your way, but ultimately, you can only trust you.
The Campaign itself is pretty in-depth, but I will leave this brief, as to avoid spoilers! In this, you pick one of two factions, The Commonwealth, led by Edward, is a group of races that banded together for mutual interests/protection. Like many fantasy commonwealths, it is led by a human, with “benign” intentions. As time passes, the humans progress and spread, bringing technology and their society with them. On the opposing faction is the Elven Court, previously battered and splintered by the humans. The humans came to the Blessed Continent, and shattered the once-powerful elves, splitting them into two groups. The campaign is worth the time invested, but I actually think I had more fun with the random maps and scenarios.
DTA: Don’t Trust Anybody
Aside from the Campaign, there are a few other modes to enjoy, where the fun is only limited by your own determination. There are two additional modes plus online play, where you can play random maps against friends or strangers on Steam. On random maps, you can change the settings in almost every way, from the climate and geography to the difficulty settings of various enemies. The difficulty of the enemies is pretty steep, so perhaps be warned before starting on the highest difficulty, unless you have plenty of experience in this style of gameplay. The goal is, of course, domination.
You can win as a team, or you can win by yourself, if you feel brave enough. One bit of advice I would like to offer, not just in this mode, but all modes, is be aware of what type of topography your faction prefers. There is a skill you can research called Terraforming. You can use it to adjust the landscape to something that will benefit your people more. I encourage you to keep this in mind! Random maps also have a fun setting where you can change the start of the map. Whether you want Empiric building (a settler and a unit, build your own empire from nothing), Battle (a powerful city and a huge army waiting to do battle) or perhaps Adventurous (a decent army, but not quite as powerful as that in Battle), the choice is yours.
Next up we have Scenarios. Scenarios are a series of pre-constructed maps that have a set amount of players. Each is different in the goal, size, and construction. They are very reminiscent of Heroes of Might and Magic 2 and Warcraft 3 in that they had these selfsame extra maps offered. Perhaps Triumph will offer a kit to make our own soon, but as of yet, I have not seen anything to that degree. Offered are things such as 1v1, 2v2, all the way up to the extra large 8v8 map, where you can set up teams, or everyone can do battle against each other for supremacy. I spent more time on the gigantic map, and thought it was pretty fascinating. Each of the factions were battling for the “Dragon Throne” and had an egg that would inevitably hatch, giving them a unique dragon mount for their hero. The goal is to destroy the other pretenders, and claim the throne for yourself. Nothing about this is easy, or anything else in the game for that matter! It might start off simple enough, but it scales up to a challenge suited to any tactician.
Something For Everyone
The classes your faction can be in this game are varied and amazing, without a doubt. It’s really something virtually anyone can enjoy. Are you a fan of steampunk technology? We’ve got you. Mysterious creatures dredged up from beyond the void? Got that, too. Do you prefer to work for a holy empire, steeped in righteousness, or perhaps you are more sneaky and cunning? No matter what playstyle you want, Age of Wonders 3 certainly has something right up your alley. The following is a brief description of each class, and what they have to offer players. Normally, if one of these heroes dies, they are gone forever. Your main hero will return, thankfully. But with the right investments of research, you can raise fallen heroes, and not let their hard work be for naught. When a hero levels up, they are given five skill points a level, which can be used on a variety of powers, or stored up for later (see below, with “Master Illusionist”):
Dreadnought: Progress. That is the word that defines the Dreadnoughts. Technology moves the world, and the Dreadnoughts move technology. However, this is not powered by magic, but by the fruits of the earth, resources pulled from the land itself. It is with this in mind that the Dreadnoughts push across the land, in search of resources, and power. Cannons, Landships, and Mana Fuel Cells are all trademarks of this faction. They are in search of ways to power their technology, and perhaps they have finally found it.
Theocrat: Although the Theocrats lead with their hearts and hold the will of the people, it would be wise not to underestimate them. The power of religious zealots is mighty, and they mark those who are not with them with the wrath of God. They wield great power in the name of the lord, and are not to be ignored simply because they are fanatical in their worship. Martyrs, the Mark of the Heretic, all the way to Armageddon are units and powers that they are armed with.
Rogue: Get the job done. That is what matters. Stealthy, subtle, or outright murderous, Rogues do what it takes to get the job done. Leaders that fall under the category of Rogue are not to be trusted, even in the best of circumstances. Good to their citizens, they manipulate everything around them with poison, a knife in the dark, and scouting terrain with the greatest of ease. Goblin Rogues with Explorer are pretty terrifying. Scoundrels, Succubus, the Night Wish, and a Rain of Poison Blades are all their trademarks.
Archdruid: Nature is powerful and untamed; even the Archdruid does not tame nature, instead, they commune with it. Their cities are sustained by the natural forces found all around us. Unlike Theocrats, they do not protect all life. Death is an important part of the circle of life, and when it is time, they choose not to interfere. Ancestral spirits, hornet swarms, the Horned God, and Twisting Roots are trademark powers to look out for.
Sorcerer: Tearing their power from the leylines and from the cosmos themselves, Sorcerers harness powers that most mortals would not dare tamper with. Simply the use of magic is dangerous, and these go farther than mere parlor tricks that other factions or classes may go for. Instead of tangling roots and satyrs, Sorcerers summon innocent wisps, Mana Node Serpents, a random assortment of Fantastic Creatures, all the way to my personal favorite, the terrifying Eldritch Horror (which you will no doubt see my prolific use of in some of the game images).
Warlord: Warlords find sanctity and safety in battle. Clad in armor, they travel the battlefield, operating under the only code of law that they recognize: Strength. The Law of the Sword is their guide, and while this would lead many to think they are mindless barbarians, that will be the undoing of the unwary. There are many brilliant minds lurking behind that shiny armor; one would do well to not underestimate them. Shout of Intimidation, Authority of the Sword, Wreck, and Steadfast Ward are abilities one can expect them to use to their fullest.
Combat in Age of Wonders 3 is truly a cut above the rest. Everything in combat is 3D; despite being a turn-based strategy game, the units all move in fluid motions, and spellcasting coming from the heroes is a beautiful sight to see. There is a lot to be said about seeing a hideous, black-winged dragon swooping down upon the enemy forces - hapless, terrified crossbowmen - and breathing death upon them. You can set combat to auto, if you are feeling confident, and the computer will tell you of your chances of victory or failure. At any time in combat, you can also choose to automate it; however, you obviously lose your control. It may be better to control combat, to cast spells and move units at your leisure. However, simply pitting a higher tier unit versus another weaker unit won’t secure you a win. This game utilizes other factors such as flanking units. Learning to flank can be the difference between victory and defeat. Having that edge of location of your units will certainly pay big dividends, especially if you have multiple heroes facing off against one potentially superior foe. Ultimately, combat phases are beautifully orchestrated, and can change vastly depending on your heroes, skills, and units. Each battle is unique, able to swing to and fro at an instant.
Motion In The Ocean
Travel in Age of Wonders 3 takes place over a large map, where your hero units (essentially the generals of your army) lead monsters, soldiers, and mercenaries in their quest. While you can send out armies consisting of just minions, they will not get any of the bonuses that are garnered from a truly leveled up hero, packing weapons, skills and spells. Each unit has a set amount of movement, or hexes they can cover each turn. Using these, you travel the map, moving towards nodes (things like Gold Mines, Magma Forges, Mana Nodes, or ruins that you can explore), and ultimately enemy towns and castles. Your hero levels as it wins battles, or experiences certain events in the world, and picks up skills that can greatly influence how you handle combat. One of my personal favorite skills was “Master Illusionist,” a hefty cost Sorcerer upgrade that hides their entire army in an invisible shroud! Now that’s power. There is more than just traversing across land as the hobbits did. There are also massive boats that can sail the open seas, in search of new lands and new enemies to conquer. This game offers so much that one article can hardly contain it all.
There are so many different units that one can come across in this game. Everything from Dragons, Cannons, Faeries, all the way to downtrodden Goblin mercenaries just trying to make a buck. Then there are Independent forces constantly in motion to be aware of. Some of these units are pushovers, and will try to flee; you can choose to do the evil thing and show them no mercy, or be benign, letting them flee into the wilds. However, some of these are no pushover. I was unfortunate enough to come across a flight of dragons that punished me for my impunity.
Age of Greatness: 4/5
It has been ten years since we have seen an Age title come out. The community is strong however, and it is easy to see the hard work that Triumph Studios has put in to this title. It is more than my nostalgia talking though. It is a strong strategy title, with beautiful graphics and delightful themed music; it has lots of options and choices to make, and I can see having hundreds of hours of fun playing this with and against friends and strangers alike. It can be incredibly challenging, but honestly I think players will revel in it.
This game is absolutely beautiful, and it shows in every little detail. From energy sparkling off of mana nodes to the details adorning units both on and off the battlefield, everything is just stunning. I loved the work the artists put into this game, even in the character creation; I saw more options in the character generation than most MMOs I have seen to date. There are so many little things to see and appreciate as a fan of fantasy literature and games.
Controls for the most part, are very solid. I do have to say I found it annoying that all things used the Right Mouse button as default. I am not used to that and constantly left clicking made it very tedious to click things again and again. I don’t take points off for that, but there were times when trying to move a unit across the map would simply be a chore; another annoying thing was not being able to click into the fog of war to explore (such as you can in Civ or Warcraft). Not a bad thing, but certainly it can be frustrating.
Features: 4/5 (post review edit - Confirmed the map editor and customizable scenarios will be present at launch)
The features for this game are good, but I really hope to see some kind of map editor like you would see in Starcraft or Warcraft. The scenarios are fun, but there are not too many of them just yet. Hopefully they do not charge to get additional scenarios later on. That would not be shocking, but perhaps disappointing. The random maps are a ball, providing a simple game that quickly can turn challenging and complicated, but I would like to see more. Perhaps a ladder for online competition? That could be something to bring some excitement to this budding title.
I do love the music, and I feel it is suitable to the setting of this game. Perhaps a wider score might have been nice, but what they have produced is very genuine. The sound effects were fantastic. I could hear the swoop of leathery wings, the clash of steel on steel, and the sizzle of fireballs whistling through the air. The unearthly howl of horrors from beyond, desperate for the blood of my enemies. This was truly a title to remember. Anyone who is a fan of challenging strategy, technology and magic, I feel will love this title.