Friday, April 11, 2014

Age of Wonders 3: Review

Version Reviewed: 1.09
What I like: The tactical battles are well done. The A.I. has more 'I' than most 4X strategy titles. Great unit & leader ability system.
Not So Much: The end game can be a bit of a slog. Under developed and sometimes unexplainable diplomacy.
Other Stuff You May Like: Multiplayer is available with simultaneous turns.
The Verdict: The good outweighs the bad and offers a lot of enjoyment if you like tactical battles.
About my reviews

Official site: Age of Wonders 3

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Triumph Studios.


Many 4X strategy fans have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Age of Wonders 3 (AoW3), since the prior Age of Wonder games are some of the most beloved 4X fantasy games of all time. AoW3 mixes the typical elements of 4X games - exploration, research, city development and military conquest with tactical battles fought on a separate map. While much of the gameplay is 'the typical 4X stuff', much of it seems to exist to support getting to the interesting tactical battles. Because of this, the economic, city building, and diplomatic aspects of AoW3 are lighter than one might find in a game like Civilization. AoW3 is primarily a game of raising troops, unlocking spells and abilities, and using those tools to crush your enemies - which is usually everyone. There aren't any peaceful victory conditions here.

I played a little of the original Age of Wonders, but was turned off by the size of the tactical maps. While they provided a good deal of room to maneuver, it just took too long to resolve a conflict. I also played some of the sequel and enjoyed it, but wouldn't call myself a diehard fan. Even so, I couldn't help but get drawn in by the excitement at the Quarter To Three forums leading up to the release of AoW3.

Getting Started

The AoW3 team must have accidentally smashed the PDF manual with a Staff of Smiting because there is none to be found. The in-game Tomb of Wonders does have the vast majority of any information one may look for, complete with a nice search function and hyperlinks, but what it is missing is game play instructions organized in a manner a player might like to read from front to back. The game concepts are organized alphabetically, which doesn't really lend itself to how a player can easily learn the game. There is a tutorial of sorts tucked into the Elven Campaign, but I did miss a well organized manual. Luckily the UI is good and the lack of manual didn't pose a major obstacle.

Game Play

AoW3 offers several modes of play - 2 story driven campaigns, 8 stand alone scenarios, and random maps. I normally enjoy campaigns in strategy games, but I quit the Elven Campaign at the 3rd scenario. The 2nd scenario took a long time to conquer, not because of the difficulty but because of the size of the map and the number of armies defending enemy cities. Once I started steamrolling the AI, I did eventually make use of the combat auto-resolve feature to pick up the pace. Unfortunately by then the desire to play the next scenario was sucked out of me.

Luckily, the random map games were more enjoyable. While they do tend to bog down in the end, it wasn't as bad as in the campaign. Choosing 1 of the dozens of pre made leaders is probably the easier way to get started, but tailoring one to your liking is fun once you have the basics down. 6 classes and 8 specializations define which skills are available for research. The choice of class determines which special units are available to recruit in your towns.

The Early Years

AoW3 starts as many 4X games do, right down to the clouds which obscure unexplored areas - unless you've turned off map exploration and can see the entire map. One thing AoW3 has that many other games don't is a large number of options to customize that start. Do you want to start off with a highly developed city, a strong army, and many skills already researched so you can quickly spread across the map? How about a tiny town, a weak army and no skills? How about a settler instead of a town so you can choose your starting location? You can even start with no town or settler so you have to conquer your first town. The advanced setup options lets you mix and match settings to your heart's desire. Triumph has also provided presets for those looking for some guidance. Map features and terrain types have their own set of options to adjust their frequency - or randomize things for a surprise.

I think I've been here before

Even the medium maps are quite large and provide the opportunity for much exploration, as you can see from the 'cloth map' view. Like prior Age of Wonder games, the world can also include an underground layer, accessed through caves dotting the land above.

Lots of room to explore on a medium map.
The world is attractive - lush fertile plains and forests, dry craggy mountain ranges, ice covered lands. There is a lot of visual variety to the maps, unless you've customized the settings to create a map tailoring the landscape. By default, AoW3 is pretty generous with special locations dotting the landscape. These locations may provide bonuses to cities when located within their domain (radius), generate resources, provide magic items to equip your heroes with and more.

While the maps are attractive, the caves to the underground layer can be very difficult to spot. I've gotten into trouble several times because I didn't notice a cave, until troops started coming out and attacking my lightly defended cities. They are easy to spot on the cloth map, but that requires remembering to zoom out to activate the cloth map as new land is explored. While technically you can play much of the game from the cloth map, it isn't nearly as friendly to do so as in the Fallen Enchantress series. I wish there were more choke points on the map. Practically all terrain can be traversed, albeit at different speeds. Fliers can zip around unhindered. This essentially means a player must either have troops in every city, or be very careful to visually monitor all approaches to their cities. The AI is pretty good about searching out weakly defended cities, but I never got the feeling it was doing so unfairly.

Cities are the resource centers of the empire. As the city's population grows, so does its domain. When resource locations lie within the domain, the resources are added to your coffers. Much of the early game is about defeating the guards protecting these resource locations and scouting out new places to settle cities - one with lots of resources and in terrain which will make you race happy. Happy populations grow faster and provide a boost to the economy. Gold pays for troop recruitment and maintenance, and building construction. Mana is used to cast spells, some of which require upkeep. Research unlocks abilities and spells. Economic management is pretty simple as there aren't a lot of different resources or workers to manage. I think it can use further balancing. In every game I've played, I've had more mana than I know what to do with. Gold has to be spent carefully, balancing city improvement, troop recruitment and hiring new heroes. If you don't have the funds to hire heroes when they show up, they will leave for greener pastures. It is interesting to note that even the ability to settle cities is an option that can be turned off. The world can be populated with independent cities to conquer instead of settling your own.

You won't find the type of city building options available here as you would in a game like Civilization. AoW3 is very much focused on war  and as such buildings typically exist to unlock troop recruitment, improve troops, and build walls to protect the city, although a few other types exist. You won't find anything terribly interesting or be racing to build unique wonders.

Research is also quite simple. Up to 12 items are available for research. New ones appear semi-randomly when research of the current item is complete. Gradually, more powerful options become available based on the class and specialization of your leader.

Let's Meet the Inhabitants

While there are 6 playable races, I didn't find them different enough to make playing each one a compelling, unique experience. Each race does get bonuses (or penalties) to differentiate them from the rest, but it felt very subtle. It also doesn't help that the troops of each race are very similar, just tweaks on the standard troop types - irregular, archer, infantry, pikemen, cavalry, priest and siege weapons. There are some that shake it up more than others, but as a whole I was disappointed by the lack of variety.

More variety is introduced by the empire's leader. The leader's class adds 1 to 6 other units that fit a common theme. But again, they are very similar across the different races. I do think the basic and class specific units are very well done, but they just don't have enough variety. There are also different types of creatures you encounter on the map, so that does help to spice things up.

While each empire starts as 1 of the 6 playable races, conquering or peacefully acquiring other towns can make other races available. Again, due to the lack of variety it just doesn't feel like getting a new toy to play with. The distinguishing feature is that each race has terrain types that affect its happiness. The happiness affects the productivity of its cities and the performance of its troops. Some leaders will eventually get access to spells to change the terrain of the land, or convince its population to be more accepting of a terrain type. The interplay between managing different races could have been a way to add interesting choices, but there really isn't anything in that department either.

Triumph Studios has the foundation for a very satisfying happiness (morale) system. There are global happiness modifiers that affect all cities and troops. Lose a battle? People start to get a bit unhappy. Conquer a city and your empire's happiness increases. If an enemy enters the domain of one of your cities, that city becomes unhappier. There are other factors too and they feel natural. The main problem with this system is that it has been too easy to keep everyone happy, or at least content. I only had 1 city threaten to revolt, and that was in my first game before I understood how terrain affected happiness. I have occasionally had unhappy troops, but it never had a significant impact on my battles. Again, I think it is a balancing problem.

Triumph studios did succeed in creating fun, different abilities. Many of these are a part of the units and creatures encountered in battle. Others are particular to your leader. Even the more mundane ones contribute to the overall enjoyment of the system - different damage types and resistances, being more effective against a particular troop type, healing friendly units, and more. Some units can move more easily through some terrain and even conceal themselves so they can more easily penetrate enemy lines. During the late game, it is always advantageous to have armies of the more powerful troops as long as the maintenance is affordable. Since there isn't a lot of troop variety for players,  it would be nice if the early troops could remain more relevant. If their situational bonuses were more pronounced (such as a pikeman's strength vs. mounted and flying units) it may be worthwhile to keep one in your main armies. Since units gain experience and improve, maybe offering greater leveling bonuses or raising the level limit past 5 would make these units more valuable.

Leader abilities provide even more powerful and interesting options. This is one area the game shines. If I could offer one criticism here is that some of the unit buffs are too subtle - I'm looking at you Bless. In so many cases it seems more productive to cause damage to the enemy instead of taking the time to buff a unit. Hopefully this is another balance issue that will be addressed by increasing the effectiveness of some of the spells, increasing the ability to cast spells in combat, or allow unit buffs to be cast outside of combat. Otherwise they go unused, by me anyways.

Speaking of spells, they are regulated by casting points. A leader can use a certain amount of casting points each turn. This limit can be increased through research and is one of the early areas I usually focus on. These points are shared between the strategic and tactical battles, so that can lead to some interesting choices. There are interesting and powerful creatures to summon, which helps alleviate some of the troop 'sameness'.

Expect War

There are no victory options other than complete domination. Eliminate each leader and their throne city to become victorious. If a leader is killed, they respawn in the throne city several turns later. If they don't have a throne city, then they are eliminated. In theory, this should cut down on the end game slog, but in many cases there is still plenty of slog. First, the leader and throne must be located. As I've said the maps are large. Even if the throne city is conquered, it only takes a handful of turns to build a new one. So, the leader and throne city have to be conquered within a short amount of time of each other. Sometimes you get lucky and find them in their throne city. I think there are several ways to improve that aspect of the game, such as limiting the ability to relocate the throne city to when the existing one is still under control, or requiring the leader to be in the throne city to initiate relocation.

There isn't much in the way of diplomacy, and it doesn't always make sense. This is probably the weakest system in the game. War, peace, open borders, trading and alliances are the available options. There are times where simply greasing the leader's palm with be enough to get them to like you. Other times they are disagreeable, even when they aren't as powerful. One of the impediments to a sane diplomatic relationship is how border conflicts affect the game. Cross the border into another empire's domain without an open border agreement and they start getting unhappy. Seems reasonable. If they enter your domain uninvited, then they still get unhappy. When this happens enough, they will hate you which will probably lead to war. There is no way to stop them from entering your lands other than declaring war. This hurts your relationship with others since you started the war. I would like an option to kill their trespassing units without declaring war or warn them that if they do it again they will be automatically declaring war as the aggressor. Independent cities will also declare war when first discovered for no apparent reason, they can even have a similar alignment. I'm not even going to get into the alignment system because it doesn't really make sense to be and can pretty much be ignored.

I've already said a lot, probably too much, and I haven't mentioned the tactical battles. These are clearly the main feature of the game. The basic system is simple enough. Many ranged attacks and virtually all melee attacks can be performed 3x per round. As the unit uses movement points, the number of attacks it can make decreases. Different damage types, resistances and abilities make some units more effective against others. Dictating the matchups plays a significant part of the battle. Spells can be quite powerful and easily be the deciding factor. My army has been severely outclassed, but a judicious use of spells turned the tide.

These tactical battles are the best I can remember in a 4X strategy game. Ranged attacks can't reach the entire battlefield like in Fallen Enchantress, and line of sight matters as units can take cover for extra protection. Units make attacks of opportunity on the enemy if they try to leave its zone of control. Flanking attacks inflict more damage. Powerful units feel powerful, but can be taken down if outnumbered. The AI typically makes intelligent moves in battle and finishes off units where it can. This is important because a severely wounded unit is just as deadly as one at full health. This can be confusing at the start because many units are depicted with multiple individuals that die as the unit takes damage. This is a visual effect only. I think being able to injure units to make them weaker would open more tactical options. To be fair, some attacks can make a unit weaker by inflicting a status upon them - like setting them on fire. Nobody fights as well when they're fire. I know I wouldn't.

Cities can build wooden and stone walls to keep their soldiers protected while ranged units can soften up the enemy. Ranged units gain an advantage when positioned on the walls. Other than the walls, these play out in a similar fashion. There are a couple problems with sieges. First, it seems too easy to knock down the gate and get inside - even with regular units. Second, with flying units, infantry that can climb walls, and the ability to phase to a different location, it sometimes seems too easy to get inside. Third a couple of trebuchets on the attack can rip apart the defending AI. With their long attack, sturdy defense and big damage, trebuchets can pick apart most ranged units sitting on the walls. Once the AI has decided it is going to stay put (if it has a lot of ranged units), it will typically stay there unit the ranged units are dead or severely thinned out. Hopefully Triumph comes up with some solutions, such as making trebuchets more vulnerable and walls sturdier.

One of the features of AoW3 is that armies in adjacent hexes on the strategic map participate in the tactical battles. This usually stays manageable with most battles having 1 or 2 armies per side, but towards the end of the game can really slow things down when an enemy has 5 armies defending a city. This was a bigger issue in the campaign, but still exists in some random map games. Some players may like the battles with a lot of units, but I think the battles shine when there are 6-10 units per side. I will resort to auto resolving if battles have too many units even though I hate giving up control.

The UI

I have just a couple thoughts on the UI. I noticed I didn't make a lot of notes about the UI while playing and that is a good thing. When it comes to the UI the less you notice it the better. I like to keep the overview panel open, but it covers up the leader portrait, research button, and empire happiness. It would be nice if the panel ended just above those items. I have difficulty determining where to move ranged units to in the tactical battle to eliminate the penalty for being too far from my target. There are crosshairs that are overlayed when the unit is selected, but sometimes after I move it isn't quite what I expected and I'm not sure why. Road building is very cumbersome - select builder unit, select build menu, select road, select tile and repeat.

Graphics and Sound

The visual presentation and audio are quite good for a strategy game. As mentioned above the only problem I have is with the difficult to see underground entrances.

Technical Performance

When the game was released, I experienced some slowdowns in the tactical battles as the game went on, but those were fixed in the first patch. I'm really impressed with how fast the game loads and especially the quick AI turn times, even late in the game.

My specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i& 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 7870.

In The End...

Age of Wonders 3 is an interesting mix of 4X strategy and tactical battles. Because the game is enjoyable overall and excels in some areas, the weaknesses stand out even more. I think many weaknesses are balancing issues that can be addressed, or features that can be tweaked. Triumph Studios seems in it for the long haul, so I believe they are interested in listening to suggestions and continuing to improve the game.

The game provides many options to customize the experience, so that increases the likelihood of finding a combination that works for you. One thing I don't understand, and this isn't particular to AoW3, is why don't games provide more granularity for the options. Take difficulty level for instance. Instead of offering 5 discrete levels, why not let the player adjust the resource bonuses the AI gets manually. What if the jump from 33% to 66% is too much? Let me type in 45%!! Have presets to help the user make a choice, but give the user more flexibility.

The AI seems to play a better game than most 4X games. It is rare a see a truly mind boggling move. The AI knows how to expand, seeks weak cities to exploit, and knows how to use the tactical combat system. It doesn't always seem to visit special locations on the map, because I find many areas unexplored. I'm not sure why it has been fairly easy to beat on Lord difficulty, despite getting a 33% bonus to gold and production because it really does seem to play a good game. It is probably time to increase the level to King.

For me, it is worth playing now, but isn't the holy grail of 4X gaming. I think it does have the potential to really stand out. I can't wait to see how the game is improved with patches, or content expanded with DLC.