Age of Wonders isn't ostentatious or innovative. Though it does do a handful of new things, its basic gameplay involves exploring a map, claiming as many resources as possible, and generating units at your towns to form armies to wage war with your opponent's similarly created armies. Specifically, its map exploration, resource management, and unit-based armies bear a striking resemblance to other turn-based strategy games that have been released before it. Age of Wonders encompasses many facets of games that have preceded it, but it adds improvements of its own and is consequently a complex and highly evolved strategy game.
Age of Wonders' visuals are inconsistent; its menu screens and opening movie are graced by elegant hand-painted art, whose effective use of shadow and simple color contrasts lend it a distinctive and pleasingly understated quality. Unfortunately, this picturesque style isn't carried over to the maps on which most of the game is played. Though the maps themselves have the same colorful and detailed look of New World Computing's Heroes of Might and Magic games, the same can't be said for Age of Wonders' units, whose miniscule size, stilted animation, and sometimes downright silly appearance contrast oddly with the game's otherwise high fantasy look.
Age of Wonders' sound is also inconsistent; at any given time, there's always some sort of music playing in the background, and it's usually stirring and thematically appropriate and never obtrusive. However, one of the most important - and frequent - components of Age of Wonders' gameplay is combat. Unfortunately, between the scurrying of poorly animated units across the screen and the alternating sound of the generic loud slapstick thwack when a melee unit hits its target and the accompanying generic yelp of pain, combat sometimes seems more like a Benny Hill skit than anything else.
Whatever else may be said about how it looks or sounds, Age of Wonders is a solid, if not entirely original game to play. Its resource management system, which mostly consists of moving your units over mines and other resources on the map to claim them as your own, is essentially identical to that of Heroes of Might and Magic. Of its two combat systems, Age of Wonders' isometric-perspective tactical combat is reminiscent of Master of Magic. Age of Wonders borrows its quick combat system from SSG's Warlords III: Darklords Rising, along with many other features, including the ability to create war parties without a hero in the lead, to create eight-creature army stacks, to raze and loot towns and other structures, and the ability to play turns simultaneously against your opponent.
However, Age of Wonders does manage to distinguish itself from its peers with several interesting new features. First and foremost is the sheer number of different factions to play: There are 12 races to choose from, and in turn, 12 corresponding sets of combat units. Though the sets of units may seem similar enough at first (and are therefore equally accessible at first), each distinguishes itself from the rest thanks to various inherent abilities and increasingly divergent upper-level units.Another important way in which Age of Wonders exceeds its fantasy-themed turn-based brethren is by having two combat systems: Any and all conflicts can be resolved either through tactical or quick combat, which helps expedite messy battles or easy walkover fights in an otherwise very time-consuming game. Neither system is at all innovative in and of itself, but the ability to choose between either makes combat so much more convenient, you'll wonder why other similar games haven't done the same.
Age of Wonders' interface is also decidedly unoriginal. Though each of the four windows - the overland map, the minimap, the status menu, and the Warlords-style message ticker - can be resized or simply closed, each one must remain open to play effectively. Fortunately, once you acclimate yourself to them, you'll find their functionality goes a long way in compensating for the space they take up. The overland and minimaps are as useful as any found in any similar game, while the message ticker provides quick summaries of important events. The status menu in the lower left-hand corner is particularly useful, since it contains information about all of your holdings, troops, and heroes and lets you jump to any of them with a single right-click.
As in some other similar turn-based strategy games, Age of Wonders lets both heroes and units advance in experience levels. However, the path of your hero's advancement is entirely up to you. You can begin with default heroes or customize your hero with one of more than 70 different portraits and further customize him with fully adjustable attributes and the full list of any and all available hero abilities. And when your hero gains an experience level, you're not given a single choice of advancement from a restricted list. Your hero is instead awarded with a certain number of points and can choose from the same list of all the special abilities available. Naturally, some abilities cost more points than others and will require your hero to advance an additional level before purchasing them. In any case, you have a great deal of control over both the creation and development of your heroes, especially as they gain levels; this is particularly important in Age of Wonders' campaign, in which you carry your main leader hero from scenario to scenario.
The Age of Wonders campaign itself can be played in one of two ways, either as the good-aligned races allied with the elves or as the evil-aligned races allied with the dark elves. In either case, the campaign game consists of scenarios that branch off in a nonlinear fashion dictated by the game's story: You'll be forced to choose from different paths based on the path you previously chose, and the end result will in fact affect your standing in the final scenario. This branching structure adds to Age of Wonders' replay value, as you can always reload a previous saved game and try exploring a different path.
The game includes 22 scenarios, two branching campaigns, and a map editor, which collectively provide many hours of solid gameplay. Unfortunately, Age of Wonders doesn't have a random-map generator, so jumping into a new quick-and-dirty scenario isn't an option. As such, after you've tried all the scenarios and the campaigns and familiarized yourself with all the maps, you won't have much new material to look forward to outside of player-made maps.
Age of Wonders looks and sounds good for the most part. It doesn't break much new ground, but it does integrate some of the best elements of some of the best turn-based strategy games out there with a few of its own features.