by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
A chance encounter
We had just finished dinner at the small, laid back party that Paradox organises for people from the industry every year. Hosted outside, it is the perfect ending to a long but exciting day of being stuck in small, often crowded and hot rooms looking at the games that will be coming out in year following the Gamescom expo. Three men passed by wearing blue t-shirts with a familiar logo printed on their chest. The logo was Triumph Studios’ and it could only mean that the third game in one of my favourite franchises was on display at Gamescom. We quickly made an appointment to see Age of Wonders 3, and my day in the process.
The presentation centred around a Dwarven leader called Gustav Gorsmog. A lover of technology, Gustav’s army is built with wood and metal and includes illustrious units such as self-propelled canons and flame tanks. His engineers can repair units, and are even able to reduce cooldown times for the heavier units. Being a Dwarf, his primary domain is below ground where space is naturally somewhat limited. Even if his sprawling city seemed huge upon the map, this is a 4X game, and it is time for exploration.
During the presentation, our armies ventured above ground while simultaneously opening up new areas underground. A new cavern opened but it was immediately clear that we were not the first to arrive on the scene. A quick skirmish broke out but the enemy forces were quickly defeated. To claim the land, we had a choice of building a fort or a settlement. With no Pioneer unit nearby, we opted to have a Builder unit construct a fort.
With the newly discovered area now defended, we were able to concentrate on our surface efforts instead. Our Landship, a huge ship-like vehicle on wheels that devours anything in its path, drove into the light and ended up near what appeared to be a small lake. There was no one around so we claimed that land for our own purposes as well but this time built a town rather than a fort so that we could build ships later. Before long, we hit upon a neutral settlement occupied by a bunch of holy undead. Once knights of the light who had spent ages fighting the undead, they had somehow ended up like them. But even in their none-dead state they turned out to be likeable fellows who gave us our first job: “take the nearby town and we will give you a reward”.
A turn a time
We decide to take them up on their offer and send our army towards the enemy town which we find well defended. Until now, Age of Wonders 3 looked very similar to its older siblings but things change rather drastically when the game changes to its combat view. For starters, battle maps are procedurally generated based on the location in which it takes place.
Battles are still fought out one turn at a time but they are no longer done in 2D which transforms the otherwise sedate battles into something far more spectacular.
For the first time in an Age of Wonders game you are able to view the battle from any angle. As the battlefield changes, you can easily change the camera’s viewpoint so that you have the best view of what is going on. Obstacles such as trees and walls no longer obscure your view and you can zoom out far enough to see the entire battlefield from above. And that’s no luxury either, since the size of every unit, object and fortification on the battlefield has increased dramatically.
Walls come crumbling down in pieces as you batter the enemy defences with your canons, flame scorch enemy units as your flame tank unleashes its fiery ray of death on the oncoming enemy defenders and engineers rush to reload the canons so that they can fire again without requiring the usual one turn cooldown period. In the mean time, the enemy commander summons beasts to aid the defenders and arrows reign death upon our band of attackers. When enemy units face you, they are harder to hit than they would from the side or from the back so you will always be looking for the most advantageous position for attacking and defending.
It all makes for a far more dynamic battlefield than in the previous games, where many of the battles played out more chaotic in your own mind than on the actual screen. And despite the transition to 3D, the developers were still able to cram up to 42 units into a single combat session. Any spoils after battle can be couriered around between heroes. There’s no need to get your armies to the same town or to drop stuff off at a central location.
A living world
Age of Wonders 3 is everything you could want from a modern turn-based 4X game. I loved the artwork on the previous Age of Wonders game, but there is no denying that the 2D engines used for them brought lots of limitations. Age of Wonders 3 breaks free of those limitations and presents the player with a world that feels alive and full of opportunity. It really just begs to be explored and conquered.