Back in 2003, there was a popular tactical RPG called Age of Wonders II: Shadow Magic. I played it years after its release, but it aged well – I loved the gameplay and design. Now they’ve released a sequel, Age of Wonders III, so like a dutiful fan, I popped onto Steam and bought it. Fans tend to cast a more critical eye over sequels – will they live up to the enjoyment you got from the last one? And by those standards, Age of Wonders III doesn’t disappoint.
The Age of Wonders games are a bit like the Civilization and Total War series, but instead of historical contexts, it’s all elves, goblins, exploring spider caverns and finding dragons on mountaintops. Settle in an area with lots of resources, build up your population and gold income, start building armies, head out and find treasure, beat your opponents. There are two types of map to explore, both with a hexagonal grid system – the world map with your cities, armies and resources, and a combat map for each time you meet an enemy in the world. Combat is always turn-based, and the world map can be set to turn-based or simultaneous play – it being a strategy game, opt for the turn-based.
You control cities as they grow and develop, armies, and heroes, who level up and gain items through quests in a system vastly improved from previous editions. Also, the combat system encourages you to send your leader into the middle of the fray to level up, risking more to gain more, unlike the previous edition where leaving your leader in your safest castle was always the best move.
By modern gaming standards, Age of Wonders III is refreshingly long – I’ve been playing for hours and hours and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface – and that’s just the story-rich single player campaign. There are also scenarios and a multiplayer online mode, with an array of customizations to get to the exact kind of challenge you’re after.
Talking of challenge – it’s not an easy game. Even on Normal difficulty, a couple of poor decisions can lead you cursing all the way to the Game Over Screen – and I completed the previous edition, so I should know what I’m doing. Part of it is your line of sight – perhaps, just into the fog, is a huge army set to sweep through your poorly defended city. Another part is the combat system, whose complexities range far beyond move points and damage dealt – resistances, spells, flanking, shields, first strike, charge, all lead to more complicated decisions. The more you use your troops the more they promote, and the more painful it becomes to watch them overrun by the tactical AI. Rushing in and hoping for the best will leave you heavily wounded with not much to show for it. It’s a thinking man (or woman)’s game.
If you want to get the most out of this game, you really have to learn the Quick Key shortcuts to as many actions as you can, as the menu system is unnecessarily dense. If you just want a city to stay idle for a turn and produce gold, it means clicking onto three different menus and scrolling down every time, which gets tedious fast. You have to learn how to cycle through your armies, and the quick key to tell them to wait one turn, else each turn becomes a progressively more exhaustive list of frustrating micro-management. Once you’re on top of the controls, gameplay speeds up and becomes much more enjoyable.
If, like me, you crave strategy games and love the minutiae of Civilization and the like, then Age of Wonders III is perfect for you. But if you’re after atmosphere and involving real time battles, stick to your Total Wars.