Age of Wonders: Planetfall Review
Relentlessly replayable and triumphantly tactical
Triumph Studios have been around for 22 years, and that is impressive in an industry that has been unkind toward strategy developers. It’s hard to believe that a smaller turn-based strategy team managed to outlive many RTS heavyweights, like Westwood, that were thriving at the turn of the century. Triumph must have had a strong management team to last this long. One that could pick the right project, hire the best staff, and produce the required result in a suitable time frame. Age of Wonders: Planetfall is another success story for them. It tweaks the mechanics from their turn-based strategy series and gives it a fresh coat of science-fiction paint.
Like previous games in the franchise, Planetfall is all about managing an empire and leading armies into battle. This is the first time Triumph have worked on a sci-fi title, although you wouldn’t know it. Instead of fighting goblins, you’ll take on reanimated cyborgs (Assembly). Along with the vanilla human race (Vanguard), there are space dwarves (Dvar), insectoid slaves (Kir’Ko), clandestine traders (Syndicate), and a race of warrior women (Amazon) that use genetically-enhanced beasts. The futuristic adaptation is surprisingly effective and faithful to the series, with many residual unit designs persisting across the six controllable races. Other influences come from popular science fiction franchises and it fits together just as well as the fantasy setting.
Everything starts and ends on the strategic map, which is an overview of the world. You start with a colony, a commander, and some low-tier units, and every turn decide in which direction to take them across a massive hex grid, given the limited movement range for each unit type. Much of the game relies on exploration because there are treasures hidden all over the map that aid empire growth. Aside from moving armies consisting of up to six units, decisions must be made regarding structures to build, units to manufacture, and research to undertake. Additional colonies can be founded and they might require fine-tuning as colonists grow unhappy when resources become scarce. Slowly, steadily, carefully, your empire grows in all the right directions.
Each colony can expand its borders by annexing neighboring sectors, which are naturally-shaped regions that contain specific resources. Conquering buildings within sectors increases resource income, so using armies to kill hostile marauders guarding a radar tower will provide research points that can be put toward, say, allowing armies to travel over water. Dvar commanders can extract more resources from sectors and Amazons can transform regions into forests. Unlike in Age of Wonders III, where cities expanded in all directions, this setup allows for oddly shaped empires. Since units travel farther in annexed sectors, it creates useful navigation channels. This freeform sector growth adds even more excellent depth to the overwhelming number of decisions. A commander that wants to build an army will be drawn to sectors high in production resources, steering them in a different direction than if they sought food to nurture colonies. But one of those directions could bring them face-to-face with another commander.
Diplomacy with AI commanders is an important part of solo play, especially in the campaign. It is more fleshed out than its predecessor. The path to peace requires many steps and it is a valid way to finish many story missions. Certain actions will cause rifts, like trespassing or expanding near borders. Gifts can be sent to mitigate the damage, should you have extra resources, or commanders can be praised by spending reputation. The AI commanders go through stages of friendliness, from non-aggression, to open-borders, to a full alliance. Even the non-controllable factions can become friendly by completing regenerating quests, which allows players to buy units or take control of locations. Given the steps involved, forming alliances can be as satisfying as conflict. Peace still means war, as there are countless rogue armies that have no interest in breaking out the olive branch unless they’re planning to hit you with it.
When diplomacy fails, or you feel a ravenous thirst for conquest, battles can be experienced from a tactical viewpoint. Up to seven armies (six units each) will appear in zone-specific battlegrounds littered with cover, explosive barrels, and the odd environmental hazard. You manually direct each unit across a hex grid and try to kill the opposition with either wiles or sheer power. These battles are tactically deep, with healing, defensive stances, and hit accuracy. Syndicate units can take control of enemies and Kir’Ko troops gain defense buffs by swarming. Given the sci-fi trappings, there are many units with ranged attacks and there is a cover feature wherein ground units gain defensive bonuses by shooting from behind partial walls. Flanking is still important, so giving a hero a jetpack is the first step to becoming a master tactician.
Tactical battles are completely optional, since they can be fully simulated from the world map. The action can also be simulated from the tactical view, and this is a good compromise as you can make corrections and use abilities (bombs and shields) when required. Witnessing the loss of units via a simulation makes it even sweeter when you reload a save and replay the encounter without losing any forces. Typically, the auto-combat is quite reliable and fatalities are predictable, but tactical battles are there for those that seek perfection.
To improve your chances in the simulated or manual battles, units and heroes can be modified with items found in the world. Basic units have three mod slots and they can be spruced up with armor or extra damage versus insects. Equipping modifications requires energy and a special cosmic resource, which is also used to produce high-tier units, so it’s a balancing act. Heroes get all the good stuff, like weapons, vehicle mounts, and skills that improve health or leadership abilities. Given the inherent existing complexity, the modification element allows gamers to drown themselves in tactical choice.
The campaign alone has dozens of hours of missions to play, framed around a competent story with some choice and consequence. Each race gets two missions, although the humans have a prelude that also serves as a tutorial. The story tells of a cataclysmic event that fractured a once-great union, sending planets into wrack and ruin. Each race explores aspects of this event. Three missions per race might have worked better for pacing, as most levels are overly ambitious in terms of scope and challenge. But at least the early missions are quite accepting of alliances and non-combative outcomes.
Characters (heroes & commanders) will reappear across missions and decisions can affect relationships. In one set of missions, you will control a first-generation cyborg commander and can choose to fight against her advanced brethren. When playing as the Amazon commander, you will pursue a defector and fend off genetically modified beasts. Although none of the mission dialogue is voiced, some of it is funny and the themes of cooperation, evolution, and exploitation tie it together. All campaign missions have story quests within randomly-generated worlds, so the replay value is exceptional before taking into account the possible switching of alliances.
While missions with alliances end on a high note, there is some late-game stagnation when war is brewing. After you’ve conquered the map, the final enemy colony might be stacked with six powerful armies and additional defensive bonuses from the colony itself. You can attack, with the help of some strategic abilities, but might lose everything. Luring forces away from their base can work, although it can turn into a game of musical chairs as you circle and recapture the same locations. Bolstering your forces is a sure bet, even if it requires many turns to both produce and move high-tier units across the map. In a possible attempt to reduce this city-stacking problem, some story missions end with an adventure quest where only one army can fight a single enemy army. This is, unfortunately, not much better because that sole enemy group is powerful and requires clumsily shuffling units via the strategic map. In any case, the end stages of some missions are akin to hitting a brick wall, even on the easiest difficulty.
Multiplayer might be a tougher proposition, although there is nothing to stop people from ganging up on the AI commanders. Like custom scenarios that you can play alone, many settings can be tweaked, including turn time, difficulty, map size, and whether battles are simulated. Unfortunately none of this information is listed in the match browser, so you must join a game to find out if it has suitable rules. Online games have simultaneous turns by default, but this still leads to quite a bit of waiting (alt-tab works well fortunately). Those who prefer classic turns can even play asynchronously, where each participant can perform their respective turns while others are offline. When players are in the same session, some minor lag issues occurred while moving armies and accepting quest rewards, but there were no serious problems.
While gameplay depth is easily praised, the presentation is also first class. With so much information to convey, the game does an excellent job of keeping it contained and easily accessible. Innumerable tooltips explain features and subtle recommendations guide players into the correct decisions. About the only menu that gets clumsy is the research tree, which contains too many icons in a long row. Visuals are also a standout, with colorful alien worlds and stunning character designs. Many of the battlefields look great, whether they are beside habitats or in the open fields. It’s hard to say if the music is better than the previous game, but it certainly seems more consistent with flowing orchestras and triumphant battle tunes. The only major technical blemish is the ~30 second wait times between turns when you get deep into a scenario, as the AI controlled forces battle each other.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall could be accused of being a mere sci-fi adaptation of the turn-based series, but that would be a tactical error. When compared to its predecessor, it adds dynamic sector expansion, better alliances, unit modifications, a highly-replayable campaign, and a colorful sheen. Many races from the last game have been brought into the future with visually appealing and interesting designs. The battlefield arenas are the perfect location for the optional and rewarding tactical skirmishes. Gameplay depth is never in question, as every turn requires many decisions that lead to supreme empire domination. No matter which path you choose, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is an addictive experience that is out of this world.