[This is Part 2 of our Age of Wonders III Review. See Part 1 of the review here.]
The Age of Wonders series is often mentioned alongside Heroes of Might and Magic as being one of the most influential franchises that shaped the fantasy subgenre of 4X games. Differentiating itself from games like Civilization, Age of Wonders featured turn-based combat, multiple planes like surface and underground levels, and customizable hero units that gained levels and could equip powerful magical items and cast world-changing spells. Both heavily influenced by Master of Magic in 1994, Age of Wonders and Heroes of Might and Magic did a lot to advance the 4X genre and help fill the void left behind by Master of Magic‘s lack of a follow-up.
The combat in Age of Wonders III is very well-designed and satisfying. Once you encounter an enemy army or try to conquer a city with a garrison force, you’ll be transported to a hex grid for the turn-based combat. Units use a pseudo-action points system. When you select a unit, it will highlight the hexes around the unit in green, to yellow, to orange. The color of a hex determines how far the unit can move and how many attacks they will have once they get there. Moving to a green hex generally means the unit will get three attacks, and so on until you get to the one attack provided by orange hexes. This means that you’ll often need to balance volume of attacks vs power of the attacks, as ranged weapons have range and line of sight penalties or cavalry gain a “charge” bonus if they move at least four hexes before attacking. Units are packed with abilities that can dictate their effectiveness in certain situations. Units with shields take less damage from the front, but units with the Overwhelm ability ignore shields. Units with polearm weapons deal extra damage against cavalry, ranged units with Arcing Fire can ignore some line of sight penalties, and of course there are elemental strengths and weaknesses.
Then you have concepts like attacks of opportunity and flanking, and learning how to take advantages of these concepts are a big part of gaining an edge once you become more experienced with the game. A unit walking away from an enemy they are in contact with will prompt attacks of opportunity. However, hitting a unit from behind causes it to turn in the direction that the attack came from. Exploiting this system allows you to get ranged units out of melee or move past an enemy unit without prompting attacks of opportunity. There is a lot of depth to the combat system that might not be apparent at first glance.
The AI is usually pretty good in the turn-based battles. They will exploit the hell out of what I just explained to maximize the damage they do or free up their squishy support units. The AI is very aggressive when it comes to targeting your heroes as well. Almost too aggressive, as occasionally you’ll get a battle where the AI rips apart your precious hero unit before you even have a chance to act. This becomes really apparent in naval battles, where units like frigates and galleons often have very powerful ballista and cannon attacks that can make quick work of a hero unit in a transport ship. When it comes to sieges against AI-controlled walled cities and fortresses though, the AI can be a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes they will stay back and make use of the range advantage that the walls grant them, while other times they will just charge their units outside the walls to meet you on equal ground.
If I had one big complaint about the combat, it would be the lack of a deployment zone feature. In other words, you can’t choose how your units are deployed before the battle begins. This is a big part of the problem I detailed earlier about how your heroes can be killed before you get a chance to act. I’ve also encountered situations where my slower, tanky units were placed behind my ranged units. The deployment won’t be a major issue in most battles, but it is very frustrating when such a situation arises. Hopefully we’ll see some sort of patch, or even a mod, that allows you to deploy your units the way you want them before combat.
Unfortunately, the strength of the combat system comes at the cost of city management and diplomacy. Cities don’t have a huge number of buildings or customization like some other 4X games out there. The focus of Age of Wonders III is very much on just building up your city to the point where you can produce higher Tier units and conquer everything in your path. Very little emphasis is placed on city and economic management, but to be fair this is sort of the case with previous games in the series as well. Age of Wonders, and Heroes of Might and Magic for that matter, have always been more focused on hero customization and combat over all the economics and diplomatic victories in a series like Civilization.
Which, on that subject, the diplomacy system is very basic. You can set up peace treaties, alliances, and exchange cities or resources, but that’s about it and the AI’s intelligence in combat doesn’t exactly extend to diplomacy. In fact, the AI can be pretty schizophrenic outside of combat. I had a game once where, upon encountering a High Elf Rogue, she immediately hated me and declared war. She blitzed her forces into two of my smaller, less defended towns near her territory and razed them to the ground before sending me a peace treaty request. Another game saw a Dwarven Dreadnought employ a rather extreme scorched earth strategy on his own cities. Every time my forces got within two or three turns’ march of one of his cities, he would just destroy it and pull back to the next city. Denying your opponent resources could be seen as a brilliant gamble, until this dwarf ended up with nothing more than his capital city and not enough resources to pay the upkeep of his existing forces, much less think about affording new ones.
For the most part, Age of Wonders III is a game that just oozes polish. Triumph Studios has clearly put a lot of heart and soul into this title. While some animations are a bit silly (particularly when units are on transport vessels or human assassins are just phasing through terrain like ghosts), most of them are actually pretty good. Once again, I must bring up that the dire penguins have some hilarious animations. The effects of some of the more advanced units and spells are particularly nice. Giants will send groups of infantry flying with a swing of their hammers, dragons and flame tanks shoot some very visually impressive cones of fire, and heavy siege weapons like the Dreadnought’s cannon produce a real feeling of impact when they hit a fortress’s stone wall and it comes crumbling down. The developers even went so far as to change the appearance of class-specific units based on their race. Goblin Exalted with angel wings and halos, High Elves with muskets and WWI-style uniforms, and Dwarven succubi in all their chubby, bearded glory are fully detailed and modeled. Even the Warlord’s Mounted Archer units have different mounts based on their race.
Triumph Studios did a fantastic job of transitioning the franchise from the 2D, hand-crafted sprites of old to a modern, 3D graphics engine. The environments are gorgeous, as is the soundtrack that helps to evoke a feeling of wanderlust and awe in the player as they slowly peel away the fog of war and discover more and more of the map’s secrets.
Age of Wonders III does stumble in places. Some mechanics could have been better thought out, or some of the animations aren’t up to the same quality as the rest of them. But, try as I might, I can’t think of a single truly major issue that has prevented me from getting the most enjoyment that I can out of Age of Wonders III. I haven’t even encountered any bugs or glitches that are often associated with the genre. Age of Wonders III is a perfect example of reviving an old franchise right. It’s a worthy modern installment of a beloved series that hasn’t seen a new game in over a decade. I’d even say it works as a solid standard for all future fantasy 4X games. I’ve already put around 50 hours into the game and still don’t see myself putting it down anytime soon. My productivity and sleep schedule have been abysmal since this game came out, and I’m totally fine with that. If you have any interest in fantasy 4X games, go get Age of Wonders III now. You can find it on both Steam and GOG for $40, or $45 for the Deluxe Edition, which includes the Dragon’s Throne scenario and the soundtrack. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go teach a tree-hugging goblin hippy a lesson about gunpowder and flamethrowers.