Out at the end of this month is the latest installment to the Age of Wonders series, a mere decade in the making. In a world of mythical lands, players fight to conquer an ancient paradise and settle an empire of their own design to perpetuate their dominion. This high-fantasy realm is vast, offering over 50 locations and a diverse blend of allies and enemies to befriend and besiege. In Age of Wonders III, players can choose to play as rouge elvin military leader, Sundren, or a human military leader (whose campaign I have as of yet to explore).
A little back-story for newcomers to the series, such as myself: In AOW2, the elvin court was destroyed by humanity, and the elves marched in two factions hellbent on destroying the league of man (who has formed the Commonwealth Empire, a sort of fantasy NATO consisting of other legendary creatures, all determined to discard the old ways that the elves champion and usher in a new world). Sundren’s mother, Julia, led a peaceful group of elves to fight against the humans and simply reclaim their land, not genocide the race of men.
AOW3 picks up here, with elves and man clashing for land and dominion once more. In the game, your chief concerns are centered around exploration, resource management, developing infrastructure and building a militia, and conquest of occupied land (a lot like Civilization). Negotiations and diplomacy figure into this turn-based strategy game, also. Unlike in previous installments of the series, alignments are formed not based on race and locale, but rather the cultures acquired and absorbed into the empire through battles and acquisitions. This is a savvy, progressive take on a franchise that has garnered a wide following and is looking to satisfy loyal players as well as attract a new generation of fans.
Age of Wonders III is a complex turn-based strategy game that offers six races to play upon release: humans, high elves, draconians, dwarves, orcs, and goblins. AOW2 offered a more diverse gamut of races, but hints have been made in Triumph’s Dev Journal concerning the release of other races in future expansion packs. As it stands in pre-release beta, I found more than enough to concern myself with using the available characters. So much so, in fact, that I exercised the option to let battles for territory acquisition play out automatically after I’d done about twenty or so myself “manually”. There is much land to traverse, and armies to gather, so the option to speed up my achievements was appreciated.
Choosing a leader before each game (which can be in campaign mode or randomly generated map) determines the race of your armies, as well as what types of technology or magic they had access to. I noticed that playing as a dreadnought, for example, was a little more fun from a tactical standpoint; this gameplay focused more on advanced and creative weapons over the magic and summoning most of my elvin leaders commanded. On release, there are six RPG-style leader classes available: sorcerer, theocrat, rogue, warlord, archdruid, or dreadnought. Despite the class of your campaign leader, you will recruit heroes throughout the game, and equip them with weapons of your design and send them to aid you in your conquests. Your character must research skills unique to his or her class to help develop your arsenal and troops, and alliances with other races proves invaluable to winning your campaign. Note: in case I haven’t made this clear at this point, this game is much more about empire building than battles. If you’ve come to the table expecting a combat-based RPG, you will be disappointed.
Empires begin as an encampment in a new area of the map and are built upon by unlocking challenges, acquiring units and assigning explorations to these units. Resources aren’t created, they are rather discovered and harvested—the map exists to be explored and developed, and making use of the elements that you discover is essential to winning your overall campaign. Lands won from neutral or enemy forces are exploited and cities are developed, and you divide your gameplay between battling enemies, maintaining the infrastructure to contain and sustain your troops, and—kind of fun—negotiating treaties with enemies or allies. You can pay other characters, for example, to pass safely, or to form some sort of alliance. While I begun my campaign eager to fight, I realized over time that sometimes negotiating gave me a real tactical edge in future advancements. There’s a combat/military element in AOW3, but it’s there predominantly to support your empire. There’s no timer or clock in the game to track or limit the time spent developing cities or building armies, which means there was no pressure to make decisions, either. Having spent most of last week and some of this working through another but very different turn-based RPG, Atelier Escha & Logy, this was a change of pace.
Battles in AOW3 didn’t reinvent the wheel; the formula was pretty standard for other RPG’s of its genre. I might be dating myself here, but it seems as if things haven’t progressed so very much further from old-old-school Romance of the Three Kingdoms days, or (Total War: Rome, for those who can’t remember voting during the Clinton administration). 3D combat takes place on a more intimate map than the world map, each camp facing off against a battalion of appropriate numbered adversaries (units consisted of a team of archers or soldiers, not just individuals). Hexes are traversed across battle map grids, some hexes providing cover to stunt attacks or lessen the effects of an enemy attack during their turn (like a bunch of boulders to take cover behind, for example, or a stand of trees). Units have a limited number of movement points, and these are restored at the beginning of each new turn. Something that I noticed later rather than sooner was that heroes all seem to divvy up a common pool of manna. So if I were to, say, recklessly blast a formidable foe with spells in one battle, my next leader would have less to draw from during his campaign. Lame. Heightened the strategic ante, though, so I tip my hat to developers for this.
I thought that AOW3 was a beautiful imagined game that depicted this mythical land with vibrancy and great detail. The graphics were on par with others in the genre, and it didn’t fall short overall. There were some inconsistencies in the artwork, however. Some scenes seemed cartoon-ish and bulky, while others were so carefully rendered and animated that I couldn’t understand the incongruity. It could be that these elements will be polished prior to release. One area that the game really excelled at was the soundtrack and sound effects; every detail here was well developed, from nature sounds (such as the not-at-all-campy birdsong) interwoven with complex and engaging background music.
Overall—if this sort of game were my thing—Age of Wonders 3 seems to be pretty top-notch. There is no shortage of entertainment if you like tactical, strategy based RPG’s. The maps are complex and engaging, and while it’s not exactly my bag of chips, I know that there are those that will gorge themselves on Age of Wonders’ intricately woven campaigns.