Age of Wonders III PC Review
Posted by Liana Kerzner on 05.05.2014
Is the latest update a strategy game with mass appeal, or for series fans only?
Title: Age of Wonders III
Developer: Triumph Studios
Players: 1, online multiplayer
Rated: T for Teen
Age of Wonders III is a massive visual spectacle that attempts to combine the best elements of Civilization, Warlock, and League of Legends into a single, sprawling game. It is, for the most part, a turn-based strategy game, but it's got a MOBA influence in the way that it incorporates heroes that lead your armies. But there's also a two-pronged, story-based campaign that details the conflict between the human Commonwealth and a rebel alliance made up of high elves, draconians, goblins, and orcs, led by the elf princess Sundren.
I'm going to be reviewing the game for players who are new to the franchise, like myself. If you're already a fan, you probably already own the game. I'll say at the outset that Age of Wonders III is a game that defies a numeric scoring system: it's ambitious and vast, and what it does well, it does amazingly well. However, it does have its problems, and some of those problems might be deal-breakers for many new players.
The champion/hero/leader characters featured in single-player campaign mode are mostly familiar tropes – a fantasy ruler who cannot return home, a leader motivated by racially-oriented duty, a religious zealot who is noble in his intents and that somehow makes it okay, and orcs who are... orcs. Seriously, orcs need a better publicist or something. There's nothing fresh enough about the stories to justify how badly they slow down the pace of the game, but it was an interesting attempt at relevance, so I don't want to be too rough on it. And I seriously don't want to think about what they were doing to Bormac the dwarf in prison.
I'm less forgiving of the unnecessary complexity in the game's naming systems. I know that creating game lore in a fantasy setting is fun, but Age of Wonders III has a steep learning curve even without the complex naming system for magic spells, units, and buildings. Factions do have a limited number of unique abilities. Fine. But abilities that do the exact same thing should be called the same thing. In Age of Wonders III, every race has a different name for the spell that increases its number of magic points, but the spell for terraforming is the same no matter what race you play. Army unit names aren't standardized either. Every time you start a new map in campaign, you start with a new lead hero. That means you also start with a brand new list of terminologies. I really applaud the ambition of Triumph studios in the scope that they attempted, but the game is so big that the do have to hold the player's hand more than they did.
The game's tutorial is woefully inadequate. Yes, it gives you the basics of moving units, etc, but it doesn't show you how to, for instance, separate individual units from an army you've assembled. There's a game guide you can access, but it's cumbersome and not especially well-organized, so many important game functions are learned through trial and error, which makes the learning curve much longer than it has to be.
That being said, the gameplay, on the whole, is deep, nuanced, and strategic... once you get the hang of it. I would have preferred a few more difficulty settings, since even easy mode doesn't give you too much room for error. There is a lot to do, and if you want to spend dozens of hours on a game, you can do that without even replaying campaign. The downside of that is that a lot of those hours are spent not feeling like you're doing much. Age of Wonders III progresses slowly even by the standards of turn-based strategy – an already slow genre.
This is due to a combination of risky design choices and outright mistakes. The game intends to do a lot: dynamic maps like Civilization, battles you can command like various Roman games, Champions with special abilities like League of Legends, magic spells like Warlock, and a plot on top of all of it which results in quite a few unvoiced dialogues in the middle of a map. All this means that there's a lot to manage in each turn, and you can build some pretty sprawling empires. This is a good thing... except that the game features a miserly economy that I found consistently produced far more mana than I could ever use, but nowhere near enough money. The vast majority of my cities just generated revenue through the merchandize option so I could actually build units and city improvements with any speed. I'm going to put the game economy issue in the “risky design choice column”, because I don't know that it wasn't deliberate. It's just not fun.
The outright mistake comes in the fact that new units blend into armies garrisoned in cities instead of appearing as a separate stack. This means you either have to read every piddling notification the game spits at you at the beginning of a turn, or you can't camp units to cut down on your per-turn maintenance without potentially losing track of the newer units you build.
Furthermore, the pre-battle assessments the game provides are consistently overly optimistic. I found that I had to constantly downgrade the probability of success the game gave me. So if it told me a battle was a “Very Likely Victory”, that only meant that I might win. “Probable Victory meant 50/50 chance, “Closely Matched” meant probably defeat, and anything below that meant don't even bother. I learned to save before every attack, because I never knew when the Auto Combat algorithms would go completely screwy on me.
Manual combat, meanwhile, is long and tedious. I liked the idea of being able to do it, but the number of units involved and the size of the maps meant a lot of turns just moving around the map, trying to get into position to do anything of value. Before I realized it, 40 minutes had passed in a single battle. Meanwhile, the enemy usually pummeled me with magic or with overpowered cannon and flamethrower units from the fortified walls of their cities, which was really annoying: if specific Champions die, it results in an automatic scenario loss and you have to reload a previous save. Guess which units the AI focused on: yep, the instant death ones. Since most spells have field-wide range, and some of them are wildly overpowered – I'm looking at you, chain lightning – it's pretty frustrating.
And it's too bad, because, Age of Wonders also has a lot to recommend it. The game is undeniably beautiful, with surprising stability for how it pushes simultaneous multiple animations on screen. The graphics are definitely the game's strength, with little touches everywhere that are really nice. I found the sand in the barrens tiles especially beautiful during manual combat, but there's a lot of eye candy – different environments, terrains, and maps that actually incorporate structures. Even the main page displays the champion for the section of the campaign you're playing, with subtle changes, Fable-style, based on whether you play as good or evil.
Audio, on the other hand, is repetitive and nothing really special. The default music setting is way too loud, and because the campaigns are so long, there needed to be a lot more soundtrack to avoid being annoying. In fact, my husband, who is usually quite patient with the hours upon hours of noises and music that come out of my PC as I neglect him to review games, commented, out of the blue, about how repetitive the Age of Wonders music was. I ended up playing with the sound very low or off completely, because if he's mentioning it, there's a problem – this is a guy who slept through Bioshock played at full blast. The sounds add nothing, and in a few cases, even made me feel creepy: the succubus unit sounds pretty porno, and not in a good way. It just felt like out of place pandering.
Still, Age of Wonders III is, at its core, a good game. Unfortunately there are a lot of “buts' to that distinction if you haven't played an Age of Wonders game before. The numerous accessibility barriers make this highly tactical game difficult to grasp for new players, and persistent balance issues make the gameplay cheesy with frustrating regularity.
The problem with a lot of strategy games is that it takes too long to feel like you're actually doing something, and Age of Wonders III is no exception. At the beginning of every map in campaign, all the previous magic research – Age of Wonders' equivalent to technology research – is wiped out and you have to start from scratch. Because magic is essential to winning the tougher fights, you have to develop your magical abilities before attacking. But wait too long and you'll get overrun by your enemies, even on easy mode.
The game does have a multiplayer mode in theory, but I don't know how anyone would have time for it even if it worked. The login is tedious, requires you to take out a Triumph account, then wouldn't accept my steam code to register the game and access online features. I don't understand why I even need a separate login in the first place, since I'm playing through steam.
The single player campaign is lengthy enough in itself, however, so multiplayer isn't really needed. And once you finally get the hang of it, it's kind of addictive. Getting the hang just takes far too long, and feels too much like work.
Highly tactical gameplay
Lots of game for your money
Tutorial is completely inadequate
Game balance issues persist even after patch
Online features are pooched.
Stunning and stable! Definitely a highlight, despite unremarkable character designs.
At its core, a good game. Unfortunately there are a lot of “buts' to that distinction if you haven't played an Age of Wonders game before.
Uninspired, lacking in variety, and repetitive.
If you have a lot of time to spend on a single game, Age of Wonders III is a good choice. It gets better the longer you play.
A mixed bag: building sprawling empires is satisfying. The many design quirks are not.