Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne Updated Preview

We take an updated look at this colorful fantasy-themed strategy game.

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You might have missed the original Age of Wonders, which was released in 1999. It was an excellent turn-based strategy game that took place in a colorful fantasy world called the Valley of Wonders. It was also released in the same year as two other great turn-based games, Heroes of Might and Magic III and Disciples: Sacred Lands. And though Age of Wonders had similarities to those other games, it distinguished itself by being something of a jack-of-all-trades. Though the game was mainly about exploring the colorful Valley of Wonders, conquering any hostile monsters or rival armies you'd find, and seizing treasure and artifacts, it let you choose to take control of one of a dozen different fantasy races, including goblins, orcs, elves, and dwarves. You could not only explore the plains, forests, and oceans of the land, but you could also explore caves beneath the world--huge subterranean areas that extended downward in multiple levels. And Age of Wonders had a lot of very smart, very convenient features, including the ability to take turns simultaneously--that is, rather than take your turn, and then wait for your opponents to finish, all players resolved each turn at the same time, which sped up the game considerably. The game also let you choose to fight your battles directly on the battlefield or resolve them automatically, which was another great time-saver that helped you skip through any fights you didn't want to deal with and enjoy the rest of the game.

Return to the Valley of Wonders.
Return to the Valley of Wonders.

But for a lot of strategy fans, Age of Wonders still seems to live in the shadow of one of the greatest turn-based strategy games ever made: Microprose's Master of Magic. But to be fair, so do Heroes III, Disciples, and basically every other fantasy-themed strategy game since 1995, the year Master of Magic was released. Master of Magic had all the exploration, resource gathering, and conquest of the Heroes of Might and Magic series, but it also had the management, research, and diplomacy of the Civilization series. It was a combination like no other, and to this day, many devoted fans still swear by Master of Magic--to them, it's the quintessential fantasy strategy game, and nothing else comes close. That's going to change with Age of Wonders II. The sequel will build on everything in the original game, but it will also have new features that might just make it the closest thing to a full-blown Master of Magic sequel that we're likely to see this year.

That's not to say Age of Wonders II will be some sort of shameless rip-off of Microprose's classic strategy game. The developer is sticking with what it knows best: lots of diverse playable races, lots of interesting magic spells, and huge, colorful lands to explore. For instance, like the previous game, Age of Wonders II will have a dozen colorful fantasy races you can command, and though some of the previous game's races, such the desert-dwelling azracs and the aquatic lizardmen, have been swapped out, they've been replaced with even more interesting races, such as the ferocious feline tigrans and the fire-breathing draconians. Just as in the previous game, you'll be able to build up an army of each of these powerful races by developing your capital city--once you've built the necessary improvements, you'll be able to recruit truly fearsome troops for your armies, including paladins, dragons, and wraiths, depending on which race you play as.

Create a powerful wizard with special abilities.
Create a powerful wizard with special abilities.

In addition to allowing you to choose a race, Age of Wonders II will put you in control of a powerful wizard character. There are 15 wizards in the game, each of which is predisposed to a certain kind of magic, and each of which has different special traits, such as the ability to acquire or cast magic spells quickly or to benefit more directly from winning battles. The sequel will also let you create a custom wizard with whichever traits you like, and then choose from the six elemental domains of magic, water, air, fire, earth, life, and death. Though the original game let you acquire spells over time by researching them, the sequel will actually let you balance the amount the amount of magic energy, or mana, you want to invest in your research against the amount you have on hand to cast spells, just as in Master of Magic. Even more interestingly, you can choose not to research magic spells, but instead to research additional traits. So, over the course of the game's lengthy campaign, you'll have the opportunity to create a truly unique wizard.

A Kingdom Fit for a Wizard

Develop your holdings wisely.
Develop your holdings wisely.

But in Age of Wonders II, your wizard can't do everything. Just like in the original game, you'll need to develop your base of operations by adding extra structures to your hometown. But Age of Wonders II will have all-new buildings that you can add to your town, as well as a new production score, which indicates how fast you can build improvements. And if your town has grown enough and you have enough gold, you'll be able to speed up the production of important additions (such as the war hall, which lets you recruit more-powerful troops), so that you can finish several turns' worth of building in a single turn. Age of Wonders II's new buildings include temples, which increase the happiness of your town's population, builder's halls, which create siege engines, and the all-important wizard's tower, which aids your research and increases the range of your magic spells.

Of course, you won't be the only wizard in town. Your rivals will also be exploring the valley in search of enough resources and power to conquer everyone else, including you. However, you may be able to strike a deal with some--for those wizards who may be neutral or even friendly, Age of Wonders II will have a much-improved diplomacy system. In the original game, diplomacy wasn't really worth pursuing--it was generally clear who your enemies and allies were, and it was usually too difficult to change an enemy's mind. In the sequel, you'll actually be able to bring peace treaties, gifts of gold and mana, and alliances against other wizards to the bargaining table. You can also simply use diplomacy as a handy means of trading resources.

This spell is just one of the game's many magical attacks.
This spell is just one of the game's many magical attacks.

But sometimes, peace treaties just don't work out. When you encounter enemy wizards who just won't listen to reason, you'll have to roll up your sleeves and engage them on the battlefield. Age of Wonders II's tactical combat has improved since the original game to take varying heights into account--you can stand on the ramparts of your castle and rain arrows and sorcery on the heads of your attackers, for instance. And your wizards and heroes will have all-new abilities, like sabotage, which gives characters a chance to destroy siege machines. Of course, if you don't want to deal with a particular fight, Age of Wonders II will also let you choose to resolve combat automatically, a feature that works the same way as in the original game and is just as handy.

Though Age of Wonders II will ship with a lot of individual scenarios to jump in and play, it'll also have a comprehensive campaign game. In the campaign, you'll play as the young wizard Merlin. You mission is to bring peace to the Valley of Wonders, which has become disputed territory between rival wizards. In your quest, you'll receive help from Gabriel, the previous high councilor of the wizards' circle, and you must explore six different regions of the valley to gain mastery over each of the different spheres of magic. The campaign is open-ended--you can play any scenario of any of the six branches at any time, though in most cases, you'll end up challenging rival wizards on their own turf. In addition, the game will come with editing tools that will let dedicated players build their own scenarios, complete with their own specific goals and scripted events. Considering the loyal following that the original Age of Wonders has already managed to collect, there's little doubt that the fan community will pitch in and create new maps to play long after you've been through the sequel's original campaign and scenario maps.

No, there still isn't any sequel to Master of Magic, but Age of Wonders II may be the closest thing to it we'll see for some time. We'll find out for sure when it's released at the end of this month.

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