When it comes to 4X – the crudely conceived title for games that pit you with the consistent management of a nation to ultimately reign supreme – it’s not like you’re drowning in options. If you’re partial to a spot of Civilization (whichever version it is you’ve deemed superlative enough to haul a triple-figure number of hours into) then, often, you can feel a little bereft of choice. Firaxis remains the master, of course, but as PC gaming becomes increasingly assorted, genres such as 4X can begin to thrive once again. Age Of Wonders III would not have happened had PC gaming not evolved into such a suitable environment for traditionally niche games, but here we are. And we’re rather glad.
Though comparative cornerstones often don’t do a game justice, it’s first worth pointing out that, though it may share some similarities with the Heroes Of Might And Magics of the world, Age Of Wonders III is actually far more akin to Civilization than Ubisoft’s equivalent. Though the conceit isn’t quite as grand, the principal mechanics do feel largely familiar. You’ll begin with a settler, from which you’ll found a suitable starting city and expand out, meeting new factions, likely squishing them beneath your boot and gradually growing in power to become de facto ruling nation. So far, so 4X.
In fact perhaps the biggest criticism of Age Of Wonders III is simply that it doesn’t do much to mix up this formula at all. It’s a widely reputed strategy series and to anyone interested in the genre it will likely be an anticipated game, but there aren’t many changes here (good or bad) to really warrant such excitement. Perhaps it’s enough to return to the series after so long – and there is merit in that – but by and large there isn’t much, besides the visual upgrades, to distinguish this from its earlier releases.
Accessibility is perhaps the biggest selling point, but don’t worry – there’s no negative connotation of the word here. Much like Civilization V before it, Age Of Wonders III has streamlined a large portion of the game’s gradual progression to make it feel more consistent. You have to consider if this was in a bid to focus a little more on multiplayer or not, but overall the game does feel all the better for it.
And it’s clear that a large inspiration for these improvements is Civilization V, with many of Age Of Wonders III’s underlying systems brought to the surface in a very similar way. Event-log tooltips, building construction being more progression-based and even overworld icons that represent the particular income you’re receiving from a nearby resource all bear the hallmarks of Civ V.
However, as sad as it is to say, the city management does not compare to Civilization’s and it remains Age Of Wonders’ weakest area. Where Civilization as a series has often presented you with myriad important options when it comes to which structure to build next, the lack of reliance on resources in AOE – at least in a strategic sense – means there’s little reason to put too much thought into what your next choice should be, especially for those safer cities located away from the main focus of a war.
It’s in the combat that Age Of Wonders III excels, however. Again it is more of a refinement of what has come before, but it is compelling all the same. Battles take place on terrain-based arenas, with a familiar hex-based grid taking up the core strategy – placement of units and getting that advantage is key here, and the AI is particularly adept at picking holes in your flanks. During the campaign sheer wealth of numbers will usually be enough to see you through to the end of each stage, but randomised maps, scenarios and even multiplayer games will require a little more precaution, planning and precognition.
Though each race comes with their own equivalent across the core unit types – infantry, archer, cavalry, and so on – they all play mostly the same. Some races might deal lightning damage instead of blight (poison), but mechanically they feel no different. This is in aid of balancing, however, to ensure that no one particular race or class has an unfair advantage over another. Instead Irregulars and a bevy of grander units – the Tier IV units, basically – provide the personality to an army, and it’s here that you’ll make or break your strategy by playing off against the opposing force’s own large-scale war-monsters.
Age Of Wonders III ’s longevity depends significantly on what exactly you want to get out of it. Though the actual tale that the campaign missions have to tell is mostly forgettable, they do still provide a good number of hours of content for you to wade through – even if it is mostly a long-form tutorial on each of the different races and classes. But then there are just as many hours in the randomised maps – whether you choose to play multiplayer or not – and it’s here where the finely tuned balancing is more noticeable. At this point you are up against thinking opponents, and they won’t always wait around for you to build your forces. This results in a necessary reliance on the outcome of battles at a tactical level, rather than waiting a handful of turns to pump out Golden Dragons.
So while Age Of Wonders III doesn’t really offer much that you can’t get elsewhere from the 4X genre, it feels fresh and distinctive enough – it has been over a decade since the last Age Of Wonders, after all – that strategy fans will have something to get their teeth into all the same. Hopefully next time won’t be quite so far away, and a little more consideration for the city management screen wouldn’t go amiss.