Games like MicroProse's Master of Magic and 3DO's Heroes of Might and Magic series helped create a new kind of strategy game: Fantasy-themed strategy, where powerful hero characters who gain experience levels like role-playing game characters explore colorful maps in search of fame and fortune with armies of fantastic creatures and do battle with other armies or lay siege to enemy castles. But the future seems uncertain for the Heroes of Might and Magic series, since 3DO recently declared bankruptcy, and there's no sign of any sequel to Master of Magic, which is just as well, considering that many years ago MicroProse was folded into the company now known as Atari Games. Fortunately for fans of fantasy strategy, Netherlands-based Triumph Studios created the excellent turn-based strategy game Age of Wonders in 1999 and then went on to release an even better sequel, Age of Wonders II, last year. The developer is now putting the finishing touches on its next game, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, which will be a stand-alone addition to last year's game, featuring new races, new magic spells, and a new shadow realm to explore that bears more than a passing resemblance to the shadowy realm of Myrror from the classic Master of Magic.
Shadow Magic will continue the series' underlying story, which previously focused on Merlin, a young wizard whose adventures led him to take control of the powerful council of wizards. In Shadow Magic, Merlin is imprisoned in the shadow realm, from which strange and terrifying creatures have begun to emerge and terrorize the land. In response to these new creatures, the humans have become suspicious and fearful of all magic, and they have begun to employ ruthless inquisitors to hunt down suspected practitioners of magic. In the game, you'll play as the elf queen Julia and her allies, the world's last remaining sorcerers, and attempt to overthrow this oppressive rule and free Merlin from his otherworldly prison.
In addition to continuing the series' story, Shadow Magic will attempt to improve on one of the most highly criticized aspects of the series: its difficulty. The previous games were fairly complex and had flimsy tutorials, and one of Age of Wonders II's campaigns (the Fire Sphere campaign) proved to be too hard for most new players. Shadow Magic will address this issue with an all-new three-stage tutorial that will cover all major aspects of the gameplay, including how to manage your holdings, recruit an army, and adventure with a hero. In addition, the new game's first campaign will have a more-forgiving learning curve.
The new game will also add plenty of new features (and creatures) to the already sizeable pool from Age of Wonders II. The game will have more than 50 new units, including additions to the existing playable sides, such as the lumbering yeti unit for the frostlings, and all-new units for its three new playable factions, such as the human chaplains, which are able to boost the morale of their fanatical comrades and dispel magic effects with a single touch. The game will also improve on combat by letting you take a quick overview of your forces and your enemy's forces in a new prebattle menu screen before you head off to fight. At this point, your enemies (or even your own forces) may simply surrender if they're outnumbered or outclassed, and this new feature should help speed up the process of resolving battles. As in the previous games, you'll have the option to fight each battle in a computer-controlled "quick" mode or in a full-on tactical battle mode.
But as you might expect from the game's title, Shadow Magic will feature a brand-new area, known as the shadow realm, where time and space behave differently and where two brand-new races, the syrons and the shadow demons, hold sway. The syrons are a mysterious (and playable) race of shadow beings that had previously never interacted with the world of Merlin or Julia. Their dominion over the laws of the shadow realm let them recruit spellbinder sorcerers with the ability to steal enchantments from enemy units, as well as flying ships that can literally shift between worlds.
The shadow demons, on the other hand, are quite eager to make the acquaintance of Merlin and Julia, as well as to conquer their world. This powerful playable race of alien creatures will have a society that resembles that of an insect hive--the lowest-level units are relatively slow, weak larvae. However, the demons, like the other races, will have an array of different units to command, including the powerful harvester, which can swallow an enemy unit whole (like the orcs' glutton unit from Age of Wonders II) and then hatch a larva unit on the next turn as a result.
In the shadow realm, all non-shadow creatures suffer from shadow sickness, which reduces their movement speed to a fourth of normal, unless they can find magical aid, such as the shadow weed plants scattered throughout the realm. Sorcery itself works differently in the shadow realm, and players will find that certain areas in that realm don't allow the use of any magic whatsoever.
Fortunately, Shadow Magic will introduce plenty of other new improvements on terra firma, including a new playable race, the nomads, which resemble the azracs from the original Age of Wonders. The nomads will be the most mobile of all the races, with mounted units like camel chiefs, horse archers, and elephant riders. Even the nomads' towns will have the ability to pick up stakes and become a moving caravan after waiting an additional turn. This ability will be a decent defensive strategy and an even better offensive one, since you'll be able to bring your army-generating towns along the next time you launch a siege.
Sieges themselves will be different in Shadow Magic--they'll generally be faster and easier to resolve, since many players felt they were too time-consuming in the previous games. For instance, you'll have easier access to siege weapons, thanks to the dwarven workshop, a new neutral building that you can purchase catapults, cannons, and other siege engines from, rather than having to wait several turns to research them. You'll also have access to a wider array of global magic spells that will affect an entire battlefield, including the new "crash gate" spell, which will help you breach your enemies' front gates and take the battle to them much more quickly.
Triumph Studios has clearly taken player input about battles and other issues to heart, since Shadow Magic will include so many often-requested features, such as a return to the original Age of Wonders' magic system, which, like the system in MicroProse's Master of Magic, will let you choose a varying number of different schools of magic in combination, rather than having to specialize in a single one (as was the case in Age of Wonders II), as well as a rebalancing of the game's units to help make low-level units more useful throughout the course of a game, rather than becoming obsolete once the next-strongest forces come into play. And on top of adding even more units, magic spells, and neutral structures, such as the all-new magic-item forge (which creates magic items for hero units), Shadow Magic will include a random scenario generator that should increase the game's replay value considerably. This powerful tool won't simply generate maps haphazardly, either--it will create logical transitions between different terrain types (forests, grasslands, deserts, mountains, and so on), and it will densely pack every inch of its maps with creatures to fight, dungeons to explore, and treasures to claim. Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic will clearly attempt to offer both old and new players even more new options than the previous games in the series. The new game is scheduled for release later this year.