Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne is the third entry in the fantasy-themed turn-based strategy race of 2002, and it's every bit as good as its competitors, Disciples II and Heroes of Might and Magic IV. Developer Triumph Studios clearly set out to address the problems that fans had with the original game, especially the long-standing complaint that the original game wasn't challenging enough--though the sequel may have gone a bit too far in this direction. And though some die-hard fans may wish that the game included a random map generator, this really isn't a major concern, considering how huge the game's maps are and how its loyal fan community will more than likely make good use of the included scenario editor to make new maps. Beyond that, Age of Wonders II is an excellent sequel that no self-respecting fantasy strategy fan should miss.
Make no mistake--Age of Wonders II is a very complex game, much more so than the original. While this added complexity adds a great deal of depth, it also tends to make the game difficult for newcomers to pick up, especially considering the sequel's increased difficulty. Like in other fantasy strategy games, you create an army of fantastic creatures to explore a large, colorful map, seize resources and treasure, and fight groups of enemy soldiers or wandering monsters. Like the original Age of Wonders, the sequel lets you fight each battle in a tactical turn-based combat mode or use a quick-resolve option to save time. But you'll find yourself concerned with lots of other things, including the progress of your cities and their buildings, the next powerful magic spell or new ability you're currently researching, and the constant encroachments of your computer opponents in the single-player game. These resemble the sorts of things you'd concern yourself with in the classic strategy game Master of Magic, but they're more complex, and the computer opponent is much tougher. So if you're new to fantasy strategy games, you'll want to make sure that you play through Age of Wonders II's tutorial missions and flip through its hefty manual before diving in.
A standard session in Age of Wonders II begins with selecting your wizard, a character who will appear on the map and can be moved and brought into combat, but won't gain any experience levels. It's best to keep your wizard in one place, usually in your starting city, and recruit armies from your own ranks and any hero units that show up randomly or are called up by the "summon hero" spell. You'll also choose which playable race you want to control. Age of Wonders II has a dozen playable races, and most of the original game's races return, though the aquatic lizardmen and the desert-dwelling azracs have been replaced with the swift tigrans (a race of cat people) and the powerful draconians. Each playable race can recruit armies that include priest units (which can heal and perform other actions) and siege engines, such as catapults and cannons, but the real diversity among the races comes from their different sets of military units. Like in Age of Wonders, the lowest-level units of each side are roughly similar, but the more-powerful units are increasingly divergent, and many of them have interesting and often devastating special abilities.
In the meantime, you'll conduct research each turn, either to learn a new spell or gain an additional wizard's skill--Age of Wonders II's wizards all have at least one beneficial skill that lets them cast spells more easily, allow their units to gain more experience from fights, and so on. That you can research additional attributes instead of nothing but new spells is intriguing, but most of the time, you'll find yourself researching another spell. You'll also want to keep an eye on each of your towns, which will periodically grow until they reach the size of a city (the largest size). This growth can be sped up by developing the population or building certain buildings. Towns have a uniform technology tree--the most important structures are generally your wizard's tower, which increases the power of your residing wizard, and your war and siege engine buildings, which, when continuously developed, let you create your race's most powerful units and the most powerful siege weapons.
You'll also want to form adventuring parties to scout out the land to capture the game's two resources, gold (which can be acquired from structures such as mines and windmills) and mana (which can be acquired from magical fountains called nodes). Should you encounter any enemies (and you will), you'll be given the option to fight them in tactical or quick combat. Tactical combat takes place on a 3D isometric map, as in the original game, while quick combat lets the computer automatically resolve the fight and is a great time-saver. And finally, while you're adventuring, you'll come into contact with other wizards and races, who may be hostile or friendly to you, and with Age of Wonders II's gods, who may offer you certain short-term quests in exchange for rewards of resources, items, and magic spells.
It's a lot to take in, though the game's interface does a decent job of letting you quickly jump to any points of interest (such as each of your towns and your next active stack). As in the original game, Age of Wonders II has a scrolling message box that indicates important actions, such as battles and captured resources, and you can click on each message to jump to the part of the map where the action took place. Unfortunately, the interface isn't perfect. It's a bit cramped, and the game doesn't have many hotkey shortcuts, or any kind of quick reference card that shows its hotkeys, so you'll often be stuck with clicking on the game's small text and icons. There are also other minor issues with the interface, such as the fact that you can't cancel a move order for a stack on the map--meaning that if you assign a stack to move a long distance, as you'll generally want to do in the later game, you can't change the order once the unit begins moving, which can be inconvenient if you happen to pass by an enemy who wasn't there the previous turn. Though there are a few other minor issues of this sort, there aren't any really serious problems with Age of Wonders II's interface otherwise, even though there's so much going on.
There are some other issues in the game itself, though they don't significantly detract from Age of Wonders II's otherwise superb gameplay. For instance, even though the sequel has an expanded diplomacy system that lets you contact other wizards and races, it's still rather meaningless. A hostile wizard is just as likely to declare war on you, offer a treaty, steal your resources on the map, or attempt to negotiate a joint declaration of war against a third wizard. However, diplomacy has been improved with new options, including the handy ability to trade resources and researched spells, much like in Master of Magic and the Civilization games. Also, even though Age of Wonders II still has ancient ruins, small camps, and other map structures that are guarded by monsters, the sequel no longer has the fog-of-war-covered dungeon-crawls for these structures that were in the first game. Some fans may be upset by this, but others will be glad they're gone. Furthermore, like the original retail release of Age of Wonders, Age of Wonders II doesn't let you group-select multiple units in battle to move them all at once, which can be inconvenient in large sieges in which you want to move all your armies into place--though a patch was released for the original game with this feature, and hopefully the developers will make a similar patch for the sequel. In addition, Age of Wonders II no longer has double underground levels. The original game's maps had up to three levels to explore: outdoors, underground, and deeper underground. The sequel lacks the third underground level, but the maps still tend to be huge, and the game's map editor lets you build even bigger ones.
Despite these things, traversing Age of Wonders II's large, sprawling maps in search of treasure and resources is extremely engaging, and it's a great way to spend a relaxing afternoon or a late night. It can be highly satisfying to watch your kingdom grow because you've captured and held important locations on the map and wisely allocated just enough resources and troops to fight off your enemies while not spreading yourself too thin. But you should be warned that if you're playing a single-player game, your computer opponent will often be very aggressive about trespassing on your territory and stealing your resources, especially on higher difficulty levels. Age of Wonders II also features multiplayer options via LAN, Internet, and play-by-email. Playing a turn-based game such as this can be extremely time-consuming, though in the case of Age of Wonders II, this is alleviated somewhat since by default, players take their turns simultaneously.
Tactical combat in Age of Wonders II has even more to it than in the previous game. More units have more special abilities, and wizards can research summoning spells that create powerful allies as well. It's as fun as ever to pit an army against an evenly matched foe and, through superior tactics and planning, come out ahead in the end. Unfortunately, tactical combat has one pretty severe flaw--your units' ability to hit and damage their enemies can fluctuate wildly, and often for the worse, despite the fact that many units can attack multiple times. Every so often, you'll see your powerful, high-level unit or hero miss repeatedly, or hit for a measly one point of damage, while receiving a savage beating from low-level units that should barely even be able to score a hit. This problem is especially severe for ranged units, since Age of Wonders II features a whole lot of penalties for ranged units that make projectile attacks weaker when they're outside a certain range. In effect, ranged units that have only one attack, such as ballista and crossbowmen, are severely underpowered, as they tend to miss across any kind of distance and often do a very small amount of damage even if they do score a hit. This has the consequence of making ranged units with multiple attacks exponentially more powerful than their single-shot counterparts, since they simply have more chances to hit per turn.
For the most part, Age of Wonders II is fairly well balanced between the different playable sides, and you'll want to try them all to get at their interesting top-level units and summon spells. Each playable race has a different, exceedingly powerful top-level troop, and each wizard has an affiliation with a different sphere of magic: life, death, fire, water, air, and earth. Since the game has a full campaign with about 20 different maps, plus an additional two-dozen scenario maps to play (these will let you customize your wizard, your sphere of magic, and which race you want to play), you'll find that Age of Wonders has more than enough to keep you busy for a long, long time, even without a random map generator.
And all other things aside, Age of Wonders II looks great. Triumph Studios' art team has made good use of the sequel's 32-bit color palette and higher graphical resolution--Age of Wonders II's graphics are both more colorful and more detailed than those of the original game. While you're not playing an actual game session, you'll either watch a cutscene with 3D rendered graphics, which aren't quite as good as the game's other 2D art, or you'll be looking at hand-painted 2D portraits, which are generally good and sometimes great. While you're actually playing the game, you'll generally be watching your characters explore the game's outdoor and underground maps (which all look detailed and colorful, without looking too crowded or busy) or engaging in tactical combat with their enemies. In the original Age of Wonders, your troops were represented by colorful but minuscule figures on a top-down isometric map. The sequel keeps the same perspective, and although your troops are slightly larger and more detailed, many of them seem to lack the kind of character you might expect from a game of this sort. Some even look archetypal and uninteresting. Knights look like little armored guys on horses, dragons look like dragons, and so on. That's not to say that the units look bad--they're just more functional than anything else, and their small size lets the game put many units onscreen at once. Dozens of units can join a single battle in Age of Wonders II.
Age of Wonders II also sounds quite good. The sequel features the same sort of ambient, synth-orchestral music as the original game, but it's of much higher quality. And like the music in the first game, Age of Wonders II's soundtrack complements the game well. Age of Wonders II has some voice acting as well, though it's mainly in the campaign game, delivered by the campaign's hero, the young wizard Merlin, and his mentor, Gabriel. The voice work is delivered well enough, and, like the music, it works well with the game. The same can't always be said of Age of Wonders II's combat sound effects, which, like the first game's effects, are incongruous with the game's look and feel and often quite silly. As in the original game, many of Age of Wonders II's units have only one sound sample for when they attack and one for when they get hit--usually some kind of nondescript yelp or grunt. So when you get into the thick of a fight, you can expect to hear the same thwacking, yelping, and grunting repeatedly, especially from units that can attack multiple times.
You could easily nitpick over a few aspects of Age of Wonders II, but this is only because the rest of the game is so good otherwise. Though it may seem difficult for beginners, Age of Wonders II sounds good, looks great, plays terrific, and improves on every aspect of the original game.