Fifteen years ago. I had a lot more hair back then, but more importantly I needed a lot less sleep to get through the day. Much of that ‘found time’ was spent playing turn-based strategy games deep into the night, with Age of Wonders high on the list of ‘one more turn’ time-wasters. Fast forwarding to today, my balder head absolutely requires the recommended 8 hours a day but as of last week, the second sequel to Age of Wonders is again quietly but assuredly eating away at my time. In many ways, it’s as if an old friend is visiting and reliving all of the good times as if it were yesterday. The last time he visited was back in 2003 in the guise of Wonders Shadow Magic, so we did need a little time to get reacquainted, but not long.
The more things change
Like its predecessors, Age of Wonders III sits somewhere between Heroes of Might & Magic and Civilization. It is a purebred 4X game in which up to 8 budding empires fight for supremacy one turn at a time. You pick your avatar from a list that includes characters from six different races and an equal amount of classes. If that sounds limiting, it’s not really. Heroes from all walks of life will offer to join your cause, giving access to magics and skills specific to other races, though it should be said that only your own character will ever reach its full potential.
Once on the campaign map, your adventure truly begins. Frustratingly difficult at first, the game does not come into its own until you are well underway. Relieving resource buildings of occupying armies, clearing the way for settlers to found new towns, meeting and dealing with hostile factions and cities, you’re continuously treading on thin ice. All the while, your low-level heroes and armies don’t tend to fare all that well against any of these unless you play at the absolute lowest difficulty level. The first hour or so of a new game requires some perseverance, and I would not have it any other way as it makes the mid and end-game phases of Age of Wonders III so much more satisfying.
As the map slowly reveals itself and available land becomes scarce, the neighbours are starting to eye your territory – and you, of course, theirs. War is unavoidable, unless you are able to make allies out of everyone you meet which is technically possible but a pretty tough ask. Besides, war is fun!
Clashes between two armies come in two basic flavours. No matter what variation of scenery you do combat on, you are either meeting on equal ground or in a siege. Both can play out quite differently, where meeting on the battlefield means everyone springs into action immediately and siege warfare means that the defending party is trying to stay inside the barricades for as long as possible. The AI understands this fairly well, though has a tendency to wait for a little too long before breaking out. On several occasions, I was able to take out a third of the defending forces by hurling magic at the units on the wall before the AI realized waiting wasn’t doing itself any favours.
That small flaw is easily overlooked when taking the rest of the combat AI in consideration. While not big on spell casting, the AI is very capable in applying tactically advantageous manoeuvres such as flanking and ranged combat. More than once, I saw my units getting devastating blows to their flanks, turning around to meet their attacker, only to expose a new flank to an incoming enemy. The AI will, if possible, also pound on a single target until it is dead before moving to another one.
I won’t say the AI outsmarts a human commander, but I often felt it made similar considerations in its attacking strategies as I would have made. That’s no small feat considering the versatility of the combat mechanics. Flanking, for instance, only works on units that have not been set to ‘Guard’ and the fact that flanked units turn towards the attacking unit means that you can actually flank with several units if you play your cards right. Better yet, you can ‘release’ heavily damaged units from being locked in combat with an enemy unit by attacking that unit from the other side. A locked unit will get bashed in the back as it tries to withdraw, so now you get to walk away to fight another day!
Very polished, incredible attention to detail.
The defending AI in towns could be a little smarter and the differences between races a little more emphasized.