Age of Wonders 3 Review
An addictive grind as you lead your fantasy empire to victory
Magical armies under my command readied for battle as they trekked into enemy territory. These armies were reinforced from previous encounters with monsters and men. Army leaders wielded powerful spells that forced enemies to stand together or face certain defeat. Additional units, produced by sprawling cities within my domain, bolstered the front line and patched defensive holes in my growing empire. The opposing enemy army, who had promised my demise on turn three, perished in a tactical battle after three hours of strategic exploration. This first mission would prove indicative of the enthralling adventures found within Age of Wonders 3.
Fifteen years ago the strategy genre held a commanding position in the PC games industry. Strategy titles were abundant; both real-time and turn-based games competed strongly and held popularity that rivalled shooters. Times have changed and a newer audience has brought a reduction in big-budget strategy releases to just a few per year. Devoted strategy gamers now seek products from independent studios to quench their tactical tastebuds. It is fitting then that Age of Wonders 3 was developed largely because of Minecraft, one of the most popular independent games ever made. It is unclear what monetary figure Notch (Markus Persson) put towards this title, but it was worth every cent.
Age of Wonders 3 is a comprehensive and addicting sequel by experienced developers Triumph Studios. It is a faithful recreation of the base mechanics seen in the original Age of Wonders, released in 1999 by the same developers, but has all the trappings of a big-budget release. It harks back to the days when it was normal for games to consume hours of your time without relying on cheap tricks or collectibles. It is a game that succeeds largely because of compelling player control, exciting tactical battles, exceptional art-design and wonderful exploration. Players create armies, forge alliances, build cities, explore ruins and expand their empire one turn at a time.
The world map is where you begin empire management
Every match in Age of Wonders 3 begins on the world map, or strategic map, and from it you command armies, track resources and manage strongholds. The map is formed from a hidden hex grid that consists of a terrain type which determines how far your armies can move; roads allow grounded units to travel further than jagged mountains. Armies on the world map are formed of up to six units, from mythical to mechanical, and strong armies might be led by heroes. Heroes are unique units that cast spells and grant buffs to solders under their command. Each hero belongs to a class, such as a Rogue or Dreadnaught, which determines their magic powers and class-specific units. The typical goal for each match is the eradication of the enemy leader(s) and this usually requires domination of the world map.
Exploration is vital before the victory flag is raised, for you cannot destroy an enemy unless you know where they are. As you move your armies across the gorgeous landscapes they stumble across tombs, independent units and resource nodes. Uncovering the unknown is rewarding, but you also find gold, equipment or knowledge that can increase your productivity. Independent armies often defend resource nodes, so they must be defeated before you reap the rewards. You can ask independent cities to join your empire if you have the coin, or perform a quest to absorb them into your dominion. Exploring the world efficiently will help the continual growth of your empire and provide consistent enjoyment each turn.
Managing your domain is all about tracking resources and maintaining a healthy production line within cities. When the population of a city increases, its borders expand and you begin to earn income from any resource nodes it absorbs. You can create your own cities to gain all the resources within its newly-formed borders, but this costs money, time and an army to protect its construction. Cities also expand their borders by purchasing structure upgrades, one of which is a stone wall that will also help to defend against incursions. All information pertaining to empire management is easily accessible and understandable, minimizing obstacles as you command your empire. After humble beginnings, the gradual expansion of your empire is perhaps the most empowering aspect of the game.
You can create your own leader for random maps or multiplayer battles
The leader of your empire, who is also a controllable hero, is able to research and deploy global spells. Researching spells requires multiple turns and the knowledge resource, but the spells can shift the balance of power with a single click. Researching spells is randomized, aside from key spells, and some are underwhelming stopgaps to the game-changers. The critical spells might allow you to transform the land or you cast devastating spells that damages the health of opposition armies before you engage them. The range of spells and the random research progression brings an element of uncertainty in every match. The research choices will influence the direction of your empire.
Playing Age of Wonders 3 is about making numerous small decisions while preparing for larger goals. The first of those is which direction to explore. You could summon a scouting unit now, or save your spell points for a tricky battle. Another choice involves the preparation of your city, which is related to resource nodes you hold. Without a shrine, your mana income might not be high enough to produce the class-specific units. In almost all cases there is risk and reward element which needs to be evaluated, so this makes it compelling to be thorough with each successive turn. Towards the end of matches, you will be managing dozens of armies and just as many cities. Keeping track of it all requires some serious concentration but you are not constrained by time. Even on the same map, featuring the same enemy armies, there are hundreds of different outcomes based on exploration, spells and city upgrades.
Tactical battles also have varying outcomes, depending on how you order armies after they collide with an opposing force on the world map. Every battle can be simulated, but manual combat adds a strategic layer and depth. In tactical battles you witness your army dispatching a huge range of creatures, from Kraken to Unicorns, on varied arenas. Each arena is based on where the battle begun and from which direction you attacked; the different terrain types and races make the arenas feel unique. Being able to either simulate or manually control battles gives the player authorship over the experience. It was always satisfying to control small armies and avoid taking damage when the simulation indicated only a probable victory. As you deal with a wide range of units, the tactical battles are also varied from one another.
There are a broad range of beautiful tactical arenas
Like the world map, the battle arenas are made of hex grids, but the strategy is different. Units are typically represented as small squads, but this is a visual fallacy because that unit will perform the same damage regardless of how many troops remain. The first tactical lesson you learn is to maximize damage and kill enemies so they cannot return damage on their turn. A colored hex grid shows how far a unit can move for a specific number of attacks (action points), but this can mean it will be counted multiple times. Vulnerable units can be shifted out of range or used as fodder to block chokepoints. Units can be flanked, which increases damage dealt against them and exposes their backside as they turn to counter. The various strategies make for involving tactical battles as you weigh each decision like in a game of chess.
Heroes bring a range of spells, skills and enough hit points to threaten the highest tier units in tactical battles. When heroes lead an army, that army gains benefits depending on what choices you made when levelling, such as damage increase, higher morale and resistances. The heroes can equip weapons or mounts, found in mythical tombs, to further increase their capabilities. Spells deployed by heroes in tactical combat can limit enemy movement, protect friendlies or even take control of an enemy unit. You will often want to control tactical battles with heroes, just to protect them from needless damage. Heroes create focused armies and make the tactical battles more interesting with an element of risk.
Tactical battles are lengthy when there are many units. The adjacent hex rule means that a tactical battle can have seven armies of six units, or a total of 42 units fighting to the death. Waiting for 20 enemy units to move and attack takes too long even when the speed is increased. The sweet spot for tactical battles will depend on preference, but 2 to 4 armies (around 8 to 24 units) was more than enough for interesting tactical battles. The problem with the adjacent hex rule is that it creates frequent stacking of armies around cities regardless of the difficulty setting. When your empire controls most of the map, finishing off the enemy AI is difficult because they cluster around remaining cities. The grouping of the AI makes sense, because it’s something you do yourself, but it makes the end-game tedious.
When the AI stacks armies on their cities, bring plenty of reinforcements
Age of Wonders 3 includes a long single player campaign told in two halves; one half for The Elven Court and one for The Commonwealth. The bulk of the story is presented between missions using painted scenes and complementary narration. Text offered during the missions is weaker but thankfully sparse. You will cross paths with heroes that stick with you for the remainder of each campaign. Subsequent missions will have these heroes take command to gather forces or eliminate threats. This smart technique exposes players to different classes and races so they can witness the strengths of each first hand. The variety between races is less drastic than the difference between classes, as races tend to be comprised of similar types of units.
On normal difficulty the story levels are challenging due to AI and mission structure. In almost all missions you start with low funds and even less structures. The game coaxes you to be aggressive early to prevent the AI building armies, but being too forward will leave your empire exposed. Making rookie mistakes on the world map can set you back multiple turns. It’s a delicate balancing act to attack, explore and defend you empire in equal amounts. The normal AI has the uncanny ability to move armies just one Hex away from the movement range of your closest army. They also always know when your cities are left unguarded, despite having no scouting forces in the area.
On easy, the game presents you with the same enemies but demonstrates flawed tactics from the enemy AI. The most noticeable mistakes occur during tactical combat, where the AI will throw their heroes in the middle of your forces and refuse to finish off damaged units. On the world map, you will see the AI fail to protect scouting squads and leave more towns unattended. Easy is the mode you might want to start with, but the game offers a serious tactical challenge at higher difficulties.
After messing around with port forwarding, you can dive into online multiplayer that proves underwhelming against strangers. You will need extra patience because you must wait for players to use every second of the time limit; then you’ll curse that same time limit for being too short when you have multiple things to accomplish. Perplexingly, every player must watch tactical battles, even if they are on the other side of the world map. While a novelty at first, this will soon give the alt-tab shortcut a workout after witnessing a ‘battle’ where one army hides behind a rock and calls down fireballs. It also raises potential strategic issues as you can see armies and spells of players you have not yet encountered. The excellent tactical battles from solo play become a liability in the multiplayer realm.
Multiplayer is meant to be played with friends or a small community, so you can agree on settings to get the most out of the experience. Although this doesn’t excuse other problems that crop up during online matches. Movement of armies is delayed as you wait for your orders to register. This might mean you’ll move an army twice by mistake and have exhausted all your movement points. These delays also happen for building production and it becomes quite combative during shorter time limits. The multiplayer is a viable experience, if you can tweak it and find the right human opponents, but the campaign is a better fit for the mechanics.
Exploring the maps will lead you to hidden treasures and dangers
The presentation package is high for a game with this much depth. Units are diverse, yet maintain a consistent visual appearance that will make you wish you could zoom in a little closer. The world map rarely looks like it is composed of individual hex tiles, although unfortunately you cannot rotate it like you can tactical maps. Cities look amazing when housing sprawls into the countryside within its domain. Music changes gently during empire management and remains appealing after 60 hours of play time. Fortunately the game runs well regardless of how many cities and armies are present on screen. Triumph Studios could not have done much more to improve the presentation aspects.
Age of Wonders 3 is a successful strategy release, thanks to the depth in tactical combat and rhythmic empire management. The AI provides a powerful challenge, even if its perception of distant events is unrealistic. Players have massive ownership of the experience as they direct their empire or simulate tactical battles. Replay value is exceptional with a healthy number of units, tactical arenas, spells and strategies; plus the random map generator can set you forth on endless adventures. Age of Wonders 3 is a fantastical sequel and a wholly impressive turn-based strategy game.