Excellent MP value for fantasy TBS thinkers with lots of time and willingness to delve into details

User Rating: 7 | Dominions 3: The Awakening PC
Dominions 3 is probably the most complex and rewarding fantasy wargames you will find. With that in mind, let me briefly sketch some of its features (since I will not waste precious space recounting what one can read elsewhere) and indicate why, despite its great scope and demanding content, it may not be the best game for all strategists around. As you certainly know if you are reading this, Dom3 is a strategy game with a fantasy setting. In it, the participants play a fledgling God and attempt to eliminate all others. Since there is no “diplomacy” (other than informal handshakes made between humans in multiplayer), and since victory conditions require domination of the world map (“only one can survive!”), this game can rightly be classified in that sub-genre of strategy: “wargame”. This is strengthened by the fact that while you *can* defeat your opponents by eliminating their religious worshippers (their “dominion”), the most common way to victory by far is by military control.

Dom3 is about obtaining military units and deploying them on the strategic map against your opponents in turn-based sequences. Tactical battles are resolved automatically by the game’s modest tactical AI. Units are obtained either by recruiting them – which requires the two plentiful resources “gold” and, strangely entitled, “resources”, a metaphor for manpower – or by magical summoning, which requires the necessary mage and one of 8 magical resources (gems or slaves). The “economy” is refreshingly simplified, containing these resources, but plays a decidedly secondary role in comparison to the violent conflicts of war and its resolution. For those new to the world of Dominions, the third incarnation of the game may well bewilder you with its huge palette of options. There are hundreds of different units, spells, and items in the game – many of which, perhaps fortunately, you will, due to balance issues, not really see used. But since Dom3 (unlike its predecessors) comes with a decent manual and a tutorial, hard-core gamers will soon find their way around, despite the vastly suboptimal GUI. This is, however, most certainly not an undertaking for the casual gamer or one used to fast-paced but simple action of Warcraft. Longer games or those on larger maps will find you spending hours on a single turn, searching for that one commander you know must be around somewhere, tracking that one item you must have left on some scout, or determining which of those units were diseased or starving or burdened with any number of hampering “afflictions” a unit may obtain. For many, this is fun. This is certainly true for the vociferous and ruthlessly loyal fan-base at the Dominions forums. It is here whence you must go when you seek advice, help, or potential participants for multiplayer (MP) games. But it is not, alas, fun for everyone, and this is one of the reasons why Dom3 will, much like its predecessors, remain a niche game. The other reasons include one of the hallmarks of Dom3 itself, its complexity. Not everybody wants what appears to be nearly limitless amounts of options and the decisions with which this comes. This game is for those with time, lots of it, and love of detail. Another reason includes its dated graphics: quaint but spotty sprites make up the units of Dom3, each with an “animation” which is limited to a choice of two static images. For the fans of Dom3, this is just fine, and it makes sense: the developers have (wisely!) chosen to spend their resources elsewhere, namely in the creation of the depth and complexity this game offers. A third reason is the (alas: painfully) dated sound. While the fan-base raves about the wonderfully eerie folk-music of this game – and it *is* a nice tune –, I find it hard to comprehend how anyone can listen to one song (no matter how wonderful) for more than one hour. It is the battle sounds, however, that are truly nerve-rattling: squeaks and pips from the Commodore 64 era assault one’s ears when viewing a tactical battle replay. This, however, is fortunately secondary, since (like most games of this type) there are no important auditory cues a player needs hear to gain functionally relevant game information; visual cues are all she needs to play the game well. Hence, there is no reason for turning the sound completely off and listening to one’s own music. This is what I do, and I am much happier for it. In fact, if you are looking for a multiplayer fantasy wargame that offers thousands of options and what seems like a limitless scope of varying ways of combating your enemies, and if you do not mind ancient graphics or sound, you will probably not be able to be happier than with Dom3. In terms of thought required, this game easily beats its nearest genre competitors. If you have patience and time, this is the game for you.

While the game does have a few bugs (but nothing, it seems, that cannot be ironed out in future patches) and an ancient appearance, its true faults, however, manifest itself in a poor GUI and even worse AI. The latter includes enemies who follow no true plan, preferring to recruit seemingly random teams of unsynergetic chaff and throw them at you without regard for consequences, leaving key commanders or provinces unguarded, or paying no heed to the (fortunately: oversimplified) resource system, so that (even if they should happen to find those magical gems) they put them to no good use. The sad AI will, however, not bother a dedicated MP fan, but remains a blemish to those SP players who will be forced to stick with games with a functioning artificial opponent (like Civ or GalCiv). The makers of Dom3 can hardly be blamed, however, since constructing a decent AI which can handle Dom3’s depth would require a true team of dedicated programmers. This, alas, they do not have. They can be blamed, however, for the suboptimal GUI. With only a minimal amount of additional effort, so many of Dom3’s shortcomings could have been optimized, especially since these belonged to the largest gripes on the older Dom2 forums. In many posts, however, the publishers of Dom3 (Shrapnel Games) have indicated that they are happy the developers (Illwinter) made their game, and not another, and hence there is no point in talking about contingent alternative worlds. That is too bad, since it is the alternative that potential gamers will have in mind when struggling through Dom3’s (sadly unsatisfying) demo. It is nearly a miracle that Dom3 turned out to be what it is, considering their above-mentioned lack of resources. In fact, their lack also partly explains the loyalty of the fan-base. Astounding but true: The tiny team which is Illwinter comprises a pair of full-time schoolteachers. Yes, that means that Dominions3 was produced as a hobby in their spare time. This is to be applauded. It also means, unfortunately, that criticism or consumer-oriented support wishes are often met with inconsistently voiced claims that Illwinter is not a commercial company. The game still does, however, come with a $55 price tag, so there is an obvious gap in perceptions of commerciality. Since SP is greatly hampered by the poor AI, you will want to play MP if playing Dominions at all. For those who liked Dom2, this is good news and bad: Bad, because most of those playing Dom2 will switch to Dom3, since the hard-core fans already have, and you will need Dom3 to find a game partner. Bad also, because the changes from Dom2 to Dom3 are not huge. There is “more of the same” (more spells, more units, more nations), the GUI is browner, and there is a new option in pretender design for sleeping or imprisoned pretenders (your God comes into play later for more design points), and measures were taken to encourage the use of national troops – but some of these changes come with drawbacks: Since no-one used more than half of the old spells anyway, the new ones just seem superfluous, while the new nations are now divided into “ages”, so that there are actually less combinations possible per game; while Pretenders can now have the option to slumber, you can no longer spend design points on a fort or on special dominion options (such as “restless worshippers” or “ceremonial faith”); instead of having options to customize how expensive summons are, Dom3’s incentive to buy national troops is simply a huge increase in gold available in the world – but with this gold, you may also buy independent troops and buildings, so the incentive is “spread out”. While in Dom3, taxing micromanagement is easier with the handy new “autotax” feature, you will still be spending much time transferring items from individual commanders, searching for preachers who no longer can preach in the province they occupy, or figuring out just which of your commanders in a province commands just which troops – all of which could have been addressed without much ado.

All in all, Dominions3 is a very worthy game. If you are unfamiliar with the Dominions world, then Dom3 will be sure to offer months of MP fun in a fantasy wargame setting – provided you feel at home in the “niche” provided by the graphics, sound, GUI, AI, and complex micromanagement needs. Hence, I must give Dom3 an 8 only as my tilt, since, with just a little more effort put into things which could have been easily coded, this game could have been so vastly, vastly optimized.