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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by Epic

Ups: Nice synthesis of best parts of classic turn-based fantasy strategy games.  

Downs: Erratic AI. 

System Reqs:
P-166, 32 MB RAM, 4x CD-ROM

Some games come from an original idea.  These games usually seem new, different, and can often be unrefined or unfinished.  On the other hand, some games are created in the vision of a past game.  These can be sequels or clones, but are always very similar to a previous game.  But  once in a while a game comes along that is a synthesis, borrowing bits and pieces from other games.  This kind of game provides a fun new experience while using elements that have been tried and tested in other games.  Age of Wonders (or AOW) is this kind of game.  It borrows from such successful titles as Warlords, Civilization, Master of Magic and Heroes of Might and Magic to become a title that appears very similar to all of these, and yet is on the whole quite different.

What is AOW?  Well, AOW is a mostly a turn based fantasy game.  Why do I say mostly? Because AOW also provides a feature for all players to take their turns simultaneously.  This means that at the start of a new turn, all players can move, attack, build, and research.  While some might like this new time saving feature, I found its frantic nature to be more trouble than it's worth.  With the simultaneous mode I found myself rushing to get to that troop of mine that was inches from obliterating that puny force that had been harassing my mines and farms, only to discover that my opponent had already moved his forces out of range.  Thankfully AOW comes with the option to play in the classic  turn-based mode. 

Really the premise of AOW isn’t all that different from any other recent turn based fantasy game.  Your object is to win by being the last faction standing, or for a more diplomatic type, being allied with all remaining factions.  The only twist is that in some scenarios your objective is to defeat a faction’s leader and keep yours alive, rather than taking all opposing cities or crushing their armies.  In fact, the hero hunting is somewhat reminiscent of Sierra's Lords of Magic where you had to baby your own hero to keep from losing the game prematurely, while seeking out your opponent’s hero in hopes of winning the game quickly.  When starting multi-player games or single scenarios, you can choose to play with or without leaders; in the campaign game this use of leaders is mandatory.  This means that to win campaign levels, you can simply hunt down opposing leaders with your best group, although this takes most of the strategy out of the game and I’d really recommend against it.

AOW is primarily a tactical game.  When compared to the Warlords series or Heroes of Might and Magic series, the combat system plays a much more important role.  While you can choose to have the combats fought for you, as in Warlords, if you do this you’re missing the most enjoyable part of the game, and you’re throwing away your troops. You’re a much better general than the computer, so you ought to be telling your troops what to do.  The interactive combat system does seem similar to the Heroes of Might and Magic games, but on a whole different scale.  Since in battle you can control upwards of forty individual units, the battlefield is huge, and in comparison your units seem small.  Battles are really more similar to those seen in Master of Magic, for those who remember that old title.  All the different types of units also make combat a tactician's dream (or nightmare).  Some units use bows, some need to get within the length of a sword, and others have more insidious powers like lightning strike.  All in all, the combat system is well done; with gobs of different units and unit abilities, there are enough possibilities to keep combat interesting.  Combat’s only real drawback is the interface. In large battles moving 40+ different units one at a time can get tedious.  Thankfully Epic added an option in the latest patch (V1.1) to allow the selection and movement of many units at a time.  While this option still seems to have some problems, moving a unit or two that seem to “get lost” isn’t a big deal.  There is also an option to allow the AI to move your units, another handy little feature.

Now one of the biggest reasons AOW seems to have such an emphasis on combat is the simplicity of the rest of the game.  I’m not saying that there isn’t a lot of strategy in Age of Wonders, but I am saying that aside from spell casting, most of your actions are pretty basic.  Unit production, which is normally one of the most important and difficult aspects of many turn based fantasy games, is very streamlined in AOW.   Similar to the Warlords series, your city options consist of training a unit, upgrading a city, or destroying a city.  That’s really all there is to it.

Now I did say that the game is simple, but I’m not saying there’s nothing to do in the game.  There are enough options to keep even the most avid player busy. Where AOW really excels is in the area of variety.  AOW lets you play as any of twelve different races with everything from the Tolkienesque Halflings and Humans all the way to the exotic Azracs and Frostlings.  Each of these twelve races produces their own types of units, has their own different heroes, and has their own style of play.  This is all topped off by the Hero system where your hero can be customized in six basic statistics (attack, defense, etc) and can also learn any of over 45 other skills ranging from the mundane archery or leadership to, say, doom gaze or life stealing.  Heroes, as well as other units, gain experience as time progresses, and with enough experience can lean new skills and abilities.  Factor in that leaders can cast and research spells, and the fact that artifacts are scattered throughout all sorts of ruins and temples, and obviously the strong point for AOW is its diversity.

Now, I noted earlier that AOW was like many games, even like Civilization.  AOW does, unlike most other turn based games, allow the terrain to be changed during the game.  While cities cannot be founded as in some games, changing the terrain plays a large factor.  As in Civilization, roads can be constructed and other buildings can be made.  Shipyards can be built for travel across water, and towers can be placed to view the surrounding area.  In addition, forces can make the land more or less usable.  The undead, for example, can leave a swath of devastation through an opponent’s land, making it unsuitable for the crops that a city needs.  To further the strategic element of terrain, some areas can be turned into Holy or Unholy woods that cause damage troops of opposing alignments.

One of the parts of the game that seems erratic is the AI.  At times, the game shows intelligence unmatched in turn-based fantasy.  The computer seems to know when their armies are outmatched and fall back until they have sufficient reinforcements.  The computer players seem to be able to assemble godlike armies in the place where I can least combat them.  The biggest problem with the AI is that I wonder sometimes if it’s turned off for a turn or two.   Often armies sit uselessly in their cities while my single halfling destroys their main sources of income.   While the AI is often brilliant, these kind of relapses are definitely noticeable from time to time.

Last but not least, the Campaign in AOW is wonderful.  It provides levels that (with a few exceptions) seem to have the right difficulty.  Each scenario in the campaign is challenging, the story line is intriguing, and the levels even seem to fit together.  As if that weren’t enough, the campaign actually gives you choices.  Not just the kind of choices in some games that take you to the same place either way, but choices that affect how the story line plays out.  Depending on choices in the campaign, you could have different allies.  For example, at one moment early in the Keepers’ campaign, you can choose to rescue the dwarves from their collapsing caverns or you can try to recruit the lizard men as your allies.  In subsequent missions you then either have the dwarves or the lizard men as your allies.  What a nice change to have your choices matter!

Overall AOW is really more than the sum of its parts.  It liberally borrows the most important aspects from many other great turn-based fantasy games.  This kind of synthesis makes Age of Wonders a standout game.  While it lacks the polished feel of a Heroes of Might and Magic game, its engrossing strategy and simple to learn, hard to master gameplay really make it fun.  While it won’t get many votes for game of the year, it’s definitely going to be the game I’ll be playing into the new millenium.

--David Korus