Age of Wonders 3 – Review

Title   Age of Wonders 3- Review
Developer  Triumph Studios
Publisher  Triumph Studios
Platform  Windows PC
Genre  Turn-based empire builder, RPG, Strategy
Release Date  March 31, 2014
Official Site

If your foe sits atop his high stone walls and you don’t have any siege weapons, how do you get to him? Do you sit there while he calls your mother a hamster and farts in your general direction, or do you use your unicorn mount to phase through the walls and surprise him? I’m thinking the second option sounds better, or perhaps a dragon might do it. Age of Wonders 3 is the sequel to Triumph Studios’ turn-based strategy series of the early 2000s and gives you the option to do both.

The main conflict in the game centres on the expansion of the Human lead Commonwealth and the resistance of the High Elf Court. Both sides of this story are open to the player, one campaign following the adventures of the young High Elf princess Sundren, while the other has you playing as the dour-faced Commonwealth commander Edward Portsmith. With the two campaigns there are also a number of additional game modes, such as the typical skirmish mode, a series of scenarios and an online multiplayer. The skirmish mode even allows you to create your own hero units and take them online.

While it is a turn-based strategy there are a large number of RPG elements, as you level up your heroes, gaining new skills and abilities and discovering loot. This focus on heroes is what really sets this game apart from its peers. As you progress, other heroes join and become the leaders of your army units. Each hero has a class, and there are six in total, ranging from the classic magic-wielding Sorcerer to the tech-wielding Dreadnought. As you make strides through the game – and as the heroes gain experience – you start to unlock more advanced abilities, improving their stats and uniquely finding random loot items that give various stats buffs and abilities.

The world map, while mainly about taking over cities and matching the strength of your army to others, also contains a huge variety of tiles that are more about adventuring as a hero in a magical land. For example, as you move through the world you might happen to find a cartographer’s hut, which reveals an ancient tomb some distance from your hero. You head to this location and find yourself battling giants or dragons for loot – the loot itself is a little random, though, and I did end up with one character riding a unicorn, sporting a harp and some lovely black high-heel boots.

Where the game may have become somewhat stale after a while if all you were doing was roaming around conquering cities, this addition of RPG elements keeps the gameplay fresh, as you are always coming across random locations or cave systems which lead to underground lairs. I found that missions lasted a few hundred turns longer purely due to my need to explore the map and adventure. Triumph have really added something unique to the turn-based strategy genre with Age of Wonders 3, and have carved out an amazing little niche.

Research and magic play a big part in the expansion of your empire; through research you unlock new class-specific unit types, such as the Shadow Stalker or the Land Tank, unlock empire-wide buffs and gain access to new spells. Eventually, you even gain the ability to terraform the world map, transforming swathes of your empire into lush fertile plains, or your enemy’s land into a volcanic wasteland.

Like many other turn-based strategy games, empire building is very much about the balancing of resources and the building of cities. There’s little to say about the mechanics here; cities have a sphere of influence and take bonuses from resource nodes found on the map, working in a similar vein to Civilization and the Total War series. The only real difference here is the breadth of resource nodes and that, more often than not, they are inhabited by independent armies that your hero will have to chase off. Looting a tomb, for instance, not only rewards that hero with loot but, if that tomb is also within your borders, provides an empire-wide resource boost, which again provides another incentive to explore the world and create outposts.

As you spread out and expand your empire, clashes with enemies will become a regular occurrence. While there is a diplomacy system I found that this was rarely an option in the main story campaigns where it made sense for the enemy to hate you and want to stop you, so I rarely used it. Here combat is not just a case of balancing the numbers and hoping your units come out on top, Age of Wonders 3 has a full turn-based combat system, with each side taking a turn to move their units in to position or to attack. Each army can only hold six individual units and this tends to keep the combat relatively fast paced, with a focus more on unit positioning and flanking than in a balance of unit stats. If you can manoeuvre one unit to flank another there is a bonus to the attack, or if a unit is behind cover archers will do far less damage.

Heroes also bring their own unique set of skills, firing off devastating magical spells or using their unique item abilities, such as the unicorn phase to surprise an unsuspecting enemy. While the heroes are generally more powerful than other units it’s often vital to keep them alive, especially in the campaign as this is usually an objective. This resulted in me keeping them back during the heaviest fighting and sacrificing endless units to keep my hero alive.

The combat system works well in Age of Wonders 3, thanks to the use of cover and positioning, mixed with unique unit types and abilities, helping to keep things fresh. For speed though, towards the end of my time with the game, I was using the auto-resolve feature more and more to skip all the loading and lengthy combat, and hoping that I had a more powerful army than the other guy. This, I feel, is one of the major issues with a mix of full combat system and a turn-based empire builder, when you are two hundred turns in to a game and just want to go to bed, you are less likely to play though every fight or battle and get the use out of the system.

The game looks fantastic. As I’ve said, the world map is richly detailed and filled with a huge array of unique units and tiles. Over time, cities evolve as they expand, growing from small outposts to sprawling metropolises and spread out, with suburbs appearing for miles around them.You will move between surface and underground regions, which don’t disappoint, ranging from beautiful fairy-filled forests to dragon-ravaged volcanic fields. The UI is incredibly tidy and easy to navigate, with a lot of the screen dedicated to viewing the wonderful world map.The game is presented beautifully and delivered with an incredibly fantasy soundtrack that drives the adventure on perfectly.

Triumph Studios have pulled together classic elements of the Civilization-style turn-based empire building game and the storytelling adventure of an RPG to craft something quite unique. Very few games in the genre will elicit a need to explore like Age of Wonders 3 does. They have created a game that is genuinely a joy to play and so rich in history and scope that you will spend hour after hour, turn after turn, just exploring. You will find yourself drawn to every off-road, every strange forest clearing, and will likely spend hours of your time just looking for some remote tomb or castle. What other game would allow you to build a volcanic dragon lair in order to recruit dragons to help you clear a skull-faced castle protected by dire penguins?

  • A rich world to explore
  • Unique blend of empire building and RPG
  • God damn dire penguins
  • No place for diplomacy here
  • All my cities are the same

I’ve played a huge number of turn-based empire building games in my time, from sci-fi based to fantasy or even historical they all follow a set of mechanics that don’t vary very often. You build your city, you build your army and then you use that army to take more cities until you have all the cities. Generally that’s the way they play out - sure, there might be some diplomacy or a little magic thrown in, but this is the first game I’ve seen that has managed to truly succeed at embedding a storyline into a turn-based empire-building epic. Others have tried recently (see Warlock 2 review) and, in my opinion, failed, but Age of Wonders 3 pulls it off.

Gameplay stays fresh throughout as you explore classic fantasy locations, battle monsters and gain epic loot, all while your empire flourishes. There are some elements that don’t work through: diplomacy is a bit of a lost cause in much of the singleplayer campaigns and city building quickly becomes a chore as you just build the same stuff in every single one. These, however, are small road bumps in what is essentially the next generation of empire builders. With the recent announcement of a new Civilization, Firaxis should take note - more like this please.

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