I once again find myself in the archer's dilemma. This is my pet name for when I want to move my archers into harm's way to ensure they deal maximum damage, and hopefully kill their target. Of course, if my archers don't kill their target, they might be torn asunder on the next turn. I could move my archers back to safety behind my other troops, but then they would incur a hefty firing penalty since something is blocking their line of sight. Do I risk the all-out attack, or play it safe?
The fantastical battlefields of Age of Wonders III are filled with such dilemmas. These tiny dramas spawn naturally from the carefully calculated combination of dozens of different systems all working together. 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.
Each game of Age of Wonders III begins with you taking up the mantle of a mighty hero--such as an elven sorcerer or a dwarven theocrat--and guiding your people through conflict to prosperity, assuming all goes well. Before you can get to the conflict, however, you're going to need an army, which means you're also going to need cities to produce your army. Cities are the backbone of your empire, and they factor heavily into the games main objectives. Victory in Age of Wonders III means protecting your capital city, while defeating the enemy's hero and capturing his or her capital.
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.
Cities are largely self-sufficient, requiring little more than your input on which buildings to construct. Your recommendations determine which units a city can produce, and whether those units come with free upgrades from specialized structures. Sometimes a city's populace will become unhappy with their living conditions, but this issue is easily remedied with a magical enchantment or the ever-popular bathhouse structure. Happiness aside, the game doesn't demand much more of your time for empire maintenance. Age of Wonders III is all about its tactical combat; all other duties are in service to this feature.
Once your army has been trained and is on the field, it's time to explore your kingdom. Each of the game's procedurally generated maps comes packed with treasure sites, such as caves and abandoned temples, for you to stumble upon. These sites are usually protected by roving packs of bandits or low-level monsters, both of which are great for testing your new army before challenging one of the main players.
Regardless of who, or what, you're fighting, your army is always gaining experience and leveling up. Basic units, such as archers or knights, move up in rank as they gain experience, which awards them a flat bonus to their abilities. When a hero unit levels up, it's a bit more involved. Hero units earn skill points, which you can redeem to either increase the hero's stats or unlock new skills. There are a multitude of skills to unlock, and they can benefit either the unit or the army that unit leads. Deciding whether you want your hero to be a highly skilled frontline brawler or a leader of men who sits in the back is a way to give your army some extra personality.
When you feel your army is ready--or you get ambushed--it's time to wage war. Open warfare against equally capable opponents is where Age of Wonders III really shines. The rest of the game builds towards these sorts of encounters, and they require a satisfying amount of tactical finesse. 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.
Open warfare against equally capable opponents is where Age of Wonders III really shines. The rest of the game builds towards these sorts of encounters, and they require a satisfying amount of tactical finesse.
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 defect 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. And 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 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.
Regardless of the class or race you choose to lead, your rise to glory will likely begin in one of the game's offline modes. Two campaigns serve as a good introduction to the game's mechanics and its mythos, while the scenario and randomized map modes are great for just whaling on the AI. However, when you're ready to take the fight online, you may experience some hiccups. On two different machines, I encountered connection errors with the developer's servers, which prompted me to seek aid outside of the game through the developer's website. If you're not already well versed in firewall port forwarding, you may find their solutions woefully underdeveloped.
Online foibles aside, 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. Age of Wonders III is the welcome return of a long-absent strategy series and a tactically rewarding game.