Age of Wonders has returned, and this past week I spent a lot of quality time with the latest in this long-running strategy series. However, at the time of this writing, I have not yet been successful in playing Age of Wonders III online. This means I'm not ready to pass judgment on the game just yet, but I wanted to share with you my thoughts and impressions on what I've played thus far.
Age of Wonders III is at its best when you're leading your army in glorious battle. From flanking bonuses and line of sight to magical research and the industrial infrastructure of your empire, every detail in this turn-based strategy game contributes toward making the battlefield as complex and rewarding as possible. And because its managerial aspects are kept to a minimum, Age of Wonders III is easy to pick up, moves at a fast clip, and frees you up to focus your attention on the action.
Your path to glorious battle starts with building an empire. You settle cities and expand your kingdom in much the same way as in Civilization; however, in Age of Wonders III, all empire management is geared towards fielding and enhancing your army. Your cities do not require a lot of micromanaging, so you can concentrate on your troops. When you engage another army in battle, you are transported to a more intimate arena that's separate from the world map. The fighting takes place on a hex-based grid, which is usually filled with trees, boulders, or, in the case of urban assaults, city walls. Using the terrain, your skills, and every other tool at your disposal is paramount to victory. Rushing headlong into the fight only gets you slaughtered.
The key to victory lies in internalizing all these different factors and working out a solution that forces your opponent to make a mistake.
Similar to the XCOM series, Age of Wonders III gives you plenty of opportunities to screw up in battle. Flanking attacks from teleporting foes, shield-bearing enemies who can deflect arrows, and a wide variety of harmful spells are just some of the dozens of possibilities you must juggle in a given encounter. The key to victory lies in internalizing all these different factors and working out a solution that forces your opponent to make a mistake. There's a lot to keep up with, but the game does a good job of presenting all this information in an easily accessible way. When you emerge victorious, it's because you outmaneuvered your opponent and successfully capitalized on his or her mistakes.
Woven between the combat and empire building is your empire's research tree, where you research new spells and technologies for your people. It's one of your most powerful assets, but also one of the most unpredictable. Depending on your class and race, there are always a few staples on the tree--such as basic seafaring or the ability to cast more spells per turn--but the rest are randomly selected and can be unlocked in any order. If you start out with a few direct-damage spells, you may wish to press that advantage by being extra aggressive, while on the flip side, if you have a magical ward for your city, you may wish to stick close to home. While they may be unpredictable, your available research options are always balanced in such a way that you never feel at a loss or underpowered. Adaptation is the mark of a good leader.
While Age of Wonders III does a good job of providing variety in most aspects of the game, there is one area that is underrealized: the classes and races. In the end, your class and race selections simply apply subtle variations on the same core set of units, and as a result, encounters can start to feel similar in spite of the game's elements of randomness. Sure, the orc archer may have a -1 penalty to damage while the elven archer has a +1, but in the end, they both behave largely the same. This isn't to say that the core set is unbalanced or not fun to command; however, it would have been nice to see the differences between these different factions pushed a little further to open up even more diverse strategies and tactics in battle.
With its tactically rewarding battles and streamlined empire management, Age of Wonders III is a well-crafted strategy game that doesn't let itself get bogged down in needless busywork. It pushes your focus onto its strongest suit, the battlefield, while keeping everything else in the background. Some smart elements of randomness help keep you on your toes after multiple sessions, though you will find several go-to strategies still apply regardless of the sort of army you lead. Hopefully the odds will be in my favor when I take the game online. Be on the lookout for the full review of Age of Wonders III on the PC ahead of the game's March 31 release.