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Remember Age of Wonders 2? How about Age of Wonders 1? Games released back in the storied mythical time of over a decade ago, when dragons flew through the skies, elves rocked hi-top Air Jordans and only the wealthiest merchants had mobile phones. It was a time of legend, of mighty beards and warm ale.

The name Age of Wonders itself is pretty well buried in my mind, actually. It tends to get mixed up with Lords of Magic and Age of Mythology. They were all fantasy strategy games, released back in the day, and my memory hasn’t been helped by the fact that a friend of mine mocked the original Age of Wonders with the nickname ‘Age of Beards’, and it just kind of stuck...

I now call any fantasy strategy game – actually, pretty much any fantasy game for that matter – Age of Beards. So you can understand how I tend to get a little confused. Still, I’m a sucker for anything strategic and beardy.

Age of Wonders III offers two playable campaigns at the outset (or the option to muck around in custom scenarios as well, either single-player or multiplayer), casting the player as either the leader of the Human Commonwealth or the High Elven Court. These two empires naturally come to blows, and it’s up to the player to build and improve cities, raise armies, research spells and fight battles.

So far, so 4X. But there are the RPG elements of levelling up your heroes, equipping them with the occasional magic item, and exploring the map. Then there are the zoomed-in battles, where your heroes and armies face off against the enemy in turn-based tactical battles. Roads, fortresses and watchtowers can be built on the map by your builder units and new cities spawn from settlers. Heroes have classes and races which allow them countless different possible power combinations, and each city has a dominant race that defines the types of creatures they can recruit and some of the buildings that they can produce.

I’m hoping that as you read that previous paragraph, you drew comparisons with a few other games. Because comparisons are extremely valid here. Cities are built by settlers, each city has a dominion boundary around it (that widens in radius as the city grows in influence), and structures such as gold mines and mana forges that fall inside the city’s dominion provide additional resources. All very much like Civilization. The RPG elements, hero units that lead armies of minions into battle on tactical maps and species-specific cities that spawn their own creatures that can be mixed and matched in any given army – stuff you’ll recognize from the interminable Heroes of Might and Magic series. Oh, and the strategic maps are split into overland and underground layers, with gateways the heroes can use to transfer between the two – there’s a fine line between an idea that’s ‘inspired by’ another game and one that’s just nicked.

But why steal ideas if they’re no good? You wouldn’t, would you? And for all its similarity to so many other games (King Arthur and the Total War series also both came to mind), Age of Wonders has cherry-picked what works well and skipped over what doesn’t. A personal gripe of mine – a sure sign of poor RPG design – is when levelling up does nothing but increase a few numbers here and there. If bad guys increase in difficulty on the same curve as you’re levelling character, what’s the point? Levelling needs to be about opening doors, offering real choices for a character. And while Age of Wonders does allow you to spend your skill points on a few more hit points of better ranged attack damage, you can also choose to make your whole army deal armour piercing damage, or be able to climb city walls. There are real options that allow you to craft your character into excelling at the play style you want.

The campaign map is truly beautiful. Cities of different races are very different in style, from the dour red-brick of the underground goblin hives to the white-roofed elven cities. As the borders of your kingdom expand, smaller clusters of houses pop up on the map to represent your spreading civilization. Zoom out and the overhead view becomes a Tolkien-style low-detail paper map. I would have like to be able to zoom in further, however, for a more detailed look at the magical land. Moving your armies around on this map is straightforward although it took me a while to work out how to split armies and disband units. Fortunately, the help files are robust and easy to access.

On the surface, it’s all pretty simple. Build a couple of warriors, couple of archers, maybe a priest or something if you’re feeling whimsical, and go kick in a bunch of trolls or whatever. Cities are glorified troop factories, the only victory condition is military domination, and the nod to tech development and diplomacy seems cursory at best. But with time, the depth of the game’s design and the sheer choice in army construction becomes apparent. You might think that your fancy golden dwarf Firstborn warriors are the veritable hobbit’s knees, but when they’re facing the Commonwealth’s war machines which are safely ensconced behind stone city walls, the odds change. Tactical battles fought on specific types of terrain occasionally have global conditions to contend with, such as weather or magical effects, which can swing the battle overwhelmingly against the stronger side. When your favoured hero is whittling away the last remaining stone giant, while he stomps the life out of your beleaguered assault force, and it’s down to the wire, tactical battles can be exhilarating and the glorious taste of victory that little bit sweeter.

Aside from the two faction-specific campaigns, there are a bunch of interesting one-shot scenarios, each of which makes for a good two or three hours play time. When you tire of the epic tale told by the campaign, you can just shrug, save your game, and launch – for example – a battle between two dwarven factions, each vying for control of an undermountain kingdom. Gone are the elven rogues and the human machinery – now it’s all dwarven prospectors burrowing new tunnels, either to facilitate sneak attacks or to discover long-forgotten cities of giants and lost hordes of gold. These scenarios have all the character and variety of the main campaign, and are ideal for multiplay. They’re also customizable – say you didn’t want the underground punch-up to be between two dwarven lords, but instead between a draconian sorcerer and a goblin druid, that’s perfectly doable.

Each map is basically a little fantasy world of its own that you can tweak and prod to your heart’s content. Try to overthrow the humans with nothing but a swarm of angelic goblins. Use wide-reaching sorceries to turn the terrain to your favour, and then create a utopian society where everyone is as happy as can be, while simultaneously pounding your enemy’s cities with portents of doom and crime waves. Build a network of watchtowers and fortresses to ensure you’re never caught off-guard. Employ your dwarven smiths to create magic weapons and armour for your heroes before the big push.

Each of the many units has a little capsule of in-game lore, presented usually as an extract from a book, or a verse from a song, to give you an idea of the unit’s place in the world. Voice acting in the campaign is very strong, and the game’s world has enough detail to draw you in without so much that it gets tiresome.

While perhaps a little derivative, it’s all simple to learn, beautifully presented, and with enough detail and variety to keep fantasy buffs engaged for a long time. Age of Wonders feels like it’s back to stay, in all its beardy, D20-throwing glory.