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Age of Wonders is more than just a mishmash of Heroes of Might and Magic and Master of Magic; in certain aspects it outclasses its inspirations. It's a magnificent turn-based strategy game which, thanks to its multi-branched campaign, additional scenarios and a multiplayer component, will make sure you won't ditch it for tens of hours. The joy of exploring the maps and discovering new treasure, combat units, altars and allies adds to the addiction.
Age of Wonders was co-developed by Epic Games and Triumph Studios from a prototype called World of Wonders, made by Triumph's founders Lennart Sas and Arno van Vingerden when they were still students. In a retrospective interview taken by Rock, Paper, Shotgun in 2010 with Lennart Sas, it was revealed that originally the Lord of the Rings books, and various games, such as Warlords and Civilization, served as important inspirations for the game's world and gameplay. After releasing two more Age of Wonders titles, Triumph Studios moved on to create the Overlord series, while Epic Games is best known today for the Unreal Tournament and Gears of War series, as well as for its proprietary engine.
Age of Wonders tells the story of a civilization divided by the arrival of another. In the first days of the Earth, all races were ruled by the Elfin court and the wizard-king Inioch. The world was embraced by peace and order. Everything changed when the Humans arrived from faraway lands seeking riches and adventure. They laid waste to the royal residence, killing Inioch himself and many of his followers. A split arose among the remnants of the Elves. Inioch's first-born, Meandor, having survived the onslaught, fled the devastated capital and swore vengeance on all humans. His hatred was shared by a selection of his peers, and together they formed the "Cult of Storms", bent on obliterating the entire Human race from the face of the Earth. On the opposite side, princess Julia, determined to rebuild the lost civilization in tranquility, tries to hinder her brother's dark motives. Julia's followers are known as the "Keepers".
That's the gist of the game's storyline. Two factions vie for the control of the continent, the final objective being the Valley of Wonders, once the home for Inioch's court, now in the hands of the filthy Humans. The player can select between these two factions at the beginning of the game, which will result in two different campaigns. The Cult of Storms, also known as the Dark Elves, befriend all manner of evil races such as the goblins and practice forbidden magical arts--more specifically necromancy. The Keepers ally themselves with the happy-go-lucky races: halflings, dwarves etc. There are also neutral races which can be persuaded to join your cause. The framework of your army depends very much on your decisions, because you see--the two campaigns are not linear at all. As you progress around the global map, you'll be periodically asked to choose from two potential destinations. Selecting one route nullifies the other, and thus you can lose certain allies, while gaining others.
You start the game by selecting one of the two factions. You'll be presented with the Campaign Map, where you have to select your destination. Doing so will transport you to the Global Map, where you can move your heroes and troops against the enemy in order to complete your next objectives. Finally engaging your enemy in combat will open up the Battle Map. This is where you'll do all the fighting and sieging. All movement and battles are turn-based. I gather everything up until now feels like the first Heroes of Might and Magic games, except minor differences such as more mobile battles etc.
The gameplay is addictive thanks to a handful of factors. It urges you to explore the locations on the map hidden by the fog of war. The world has a lot to show. You can take control of various cities, towers, shipyards, farms etc.; you can free prisoners suffering in dungeons and choose to accept them among your army's ranks or loot ancient ruins; you can discover new races and heroes, not to mention making use of different altars to destroy your enemy's forces or nodes to channel elemental powers. I remember having a great deal of fun in CRPGs such as Baldur's Gate reading the backstory of magical items. I rediscovered this addiction in Age of Wonders where the combat units have lengthy and engaging descriptions. I would hunt down each one of them for more delicious lore.
Adding to the addiction are the heroes. You start with a single hero--the Leader, but you can recruit more along the way. Both the heroes and the regular units can gain in levels. The regular units just receive better stats when doing so and can only have a level between 1 and 4. The heroes are much more flexible and customizable. They can learn spells and new abilities, while the maximum level is 30. You can transform them into one-man armies, capable of conquering and defending cities by themselves. Thanks to the multitude of options, it's fun to experiment with heroes specialized in different fields.
Exploration, rich lore and hero management can't bring the strategy out of a game, however. The main elements of strategy in Age of Wonders are army placement, city management/unit production and finally--the battles. You have limited options when managing a city (like upgrading its defensive system, plundering it, populating it with a different race etc.), but it's your main source of income and the main place where you can build combat units. Therefore sieging and defending against sieges are important to master. The battles themselves are pretty flexible thanks to a wide array of specialized units. Combining melee units with ranged ones, with siege machines, magic users and your hero's abilities generates a lot of options for how you can resolve a battle. It's interesting to see the results of your own tactic, and that's what makes the battles worthwhile. Of course you can ask the game to automatically decide who wins in a battle, but I think you'll lose a charming part of the game. Not to mention you can avoid casualties if you play the battle in your way. For example you can defend a town with two halfling slingers against a handful of orcs with sieging weaponry, if you take the right decisions and the right positions, but you won't have the same privilege when the fate of your troops is decided automatically.
In terms of difficulty, Age of Wonders is well balanced. It starts easy with short scenarios that you cannot possibly lose, unless you are a newcomer to the turn-based strategy genre. The game gets complicated around the middle of the campaigns, where you'll have to spend hours on a map. From then on it becomes easy for your strategic position to reach a deadlock or a standstill against the enemy forces. You'd conquer some cities at the border, only to lose them later while waiting for reinforcements. Then you'll repeat the same process in an endless cycle. My biggest complaint about the game involves how easy it is to circumvent such a situation or gain a fast victory. You win the map once the opposing leader is defeated. Thus, if you discover his position, it's simple to send a small army including your most powerful units so that you can kill him. This requires an insane amount of effort towards the end of the campaign, but is feasible most of the time.
There is one more thing I felt was broken--the diplomacy system. It may be more suitable when used in individual scenarios and multiplayer, but it's not worthwhile to mess with in the main campaign. It requires a lot of sacrifices to sway an enemy's attitude towards you. And if you do, it won't take a lot of time for it to change back and for him to declare war again.
Age of Wonders has aged extremely well. You can see this in the graphics. It supports high resolutions, up to 2048x1536. The vibrant colors give the world an enchanting atmosphere, while the 2D design have maintained it just as adorable as it was in 1999. All of this is complemented by an otherworldly soundtrack composed by Michiel van den Bos. I won't stress on it, since I always had difficulties explaining music with words, but suffice to say it fits the game world perfectly.
To conclude this review, I do have some minor grievances against Age of Wonders, such as the underdeveloped diplomacy system or some tricks that any player can exploit in his favor, but the overall experience was excellent. There was nothing preventing me from having fun in the game.
Age of Wonders was everything except boring and for a turn-based strategy, that means a lot.
- The game can also be acquired from Steam, which should probably be a better deal for a lot of people.
- The package also includes a map editor, which can be used to make custom scenarios.