Age of Wonders II impressions

We sneak in some hands-on time with Triumph Studios' colorful strategy sequel.

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Age of Wonders II, which is in stores today, is also in GameSpot's offices today, and from what we can tell so far, the turn-based strategy sequel to the original Age of Wonders from 1999 has attempted to improve on just about every aspect of the original game.

Age of Wonders II makes good use of its 32-bit color palette; the difference between the sequel's darker, richer color tones and the original game's simpler 16-bit color scheme is immediately obvious. However, the game's overland map areas are just as colorful as ever--more so, in fact, thanks to the sequel's larger number of tilesets, which include undead swamplands and burning grasslands (the latter is home to the game's two fire-wizard characters), as well as plenty of colorful animated objects spaced evenly on the maps, such as windmills, swaying trees, and flowing water, which help make the maps look more interesting without being cluttered. The sequel also has much-improved music over the simpler soundtrack of the original game; the music is still synthetic orchestral music, but it's considerably better than that in Age of Wonders.

We've also had an opportunity to tinker with Age of Wonders II's improved research and building systems, which let players improve their wizards by researching new skills and spells and improve their towns by adding new buildings. Much like the original Age of Wonders, and Master of Magic before it, the new game lets you research only one spell at a time. These are generally useful either while in combat, like the devastating chain-lightning offensive spell; while exploring the world, like the handy free-movement spell, which lets units traverse forests and mountains with ease; or while managing cities and territory (your own or your enemies'), like the powerful ice age enchantment, which leaves your own cities unharmed while ravaging the rest of the landscape.

As we've noted in earlier preview coverage, Age of Wonders II also gives you the choice of researching wizardly skills instead of magic spells. If you'd like your wizard to become a summoner, a skill that lets wizards conjure up fantastic monsters more quickly and easily than usual, you can choose to research the skill. Skills generally take much longer to research than a normal spell--while a spell such as haste might take four turns to research, the summoner skill might take 400, depending on your wizard's research skills and available resources. The sequel also lets you build various improvements that give universal bonuses to your city, like the war hall, which automatically makes every new unit recruited in that city an advanced veteran soldier, rather than a novice. These buildings are also similar to Master of Magic's improvements, though Age of Wonders' buildings typically get built much faster, even early on in the game (rather than waiting 20 turns for a war hall, you can often get one in five or fewer turns).

Stay tuned for a full review of Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne later this week. Until then, take a look at our preview coverage of the game.

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