Dominions 3: The Awakening is a test of how much you are willing to invest in a strategy game. If you're the type who scoffs at reading manuals, who revels in state-of-the-art graphics, and who wants to be able to dive in and be successful in a game within minutes of installation, you'll be sorely disappointed. But if you are willing to invest the time to dig in and read a thick manual, experiment with more options and variations than you'll ever be able to completely explore in an average lifetime, and patiently learn a complex but well-designed game system, Dominions 3 will reward you with one of the richest strategy-gaming experiences available on the PC today.
A simple perusal of the features hints at the depth and level of options. You are the divine leader of one of more than 50 nations, set in three different eras. The nations span the gamut from Norse-mythological to Roman to Japanese, as well as everything in between. Your choice of nation results in very different options and playing styles. Each era provides a different gaming environment: The Early Era is a world emphasizing magic, the Middle Era blends magic and more conventional arms, and the Late Era represents a time when the magic arts have faded and thus emphasis is on standard (as defined by "standard" in a fantasy environment) military operations. Each era has a distinct feel and requires development of different strategies for success. In addition, there are more than 1,500 types of units, as well as 600-plus spells and 300-plus magic items, and note that these are not merely hundreds of slight variations on the same spell or troop. In the role of a god (here called pretender) attempting to establish yourself as the ultimate deity due to the vacuum left by the previous Big Guy, you get to design just what type of divine being you want to be. The types of creatures that can be used to represent you range from a wide and weird assortment of icons, such as a dragon, a grey-haired wizardlike character, a fountain of blood, and many others. You then decide how to distribute your magic points and your "dominion," which is essentially your divine influence (you win when the entire world worships at your altar).
The range of combinations that you can put together in creating your pretender produces very different results during the game, and thus you can spend a lot of time just experimenting with different types of pretenders. You also decide whether to start the game dormant, for a gain in points, or fully awake and active. Even that relatively simple decision results in strategic debate among Dominions 3 aficionados. Some will argue that not a lot happens in the first couple of dozen turns, so the extra points you gain by starting dormant is the way to go. Others contend that there's a lot you can do with your pretender being active from turn one. And yet others point out that the best decision depends upon whether your rivals start active or dormant, which you won't know when setting up the game. That's the way it is in every aspect of the game. There are an almost infinite number of choices and variations that provide an extreme breadth of approaches to victory.
Once the game starts, your pretender and a couple of heroes are placed in a province on a nice map that looks hand drawn. Dominions 3 includes a number of maps that vary in terms of terrain and number of land and water provinces, and it also includes a random map generator that does a very nice job of creating maps to your detailed specifications. In addition, Dominions 3's mod-friendly nature allows almost any graphic map to be turned into a Dominions map. You've got a lot of options right from turn one, such as deciding which specific military units and heroes to recruit, sending your scout out exploring, and deciding who you want to assign to research, as well as which of the seven magic schools to pursue, and more. Each of these options provides you a myriad of choices, with the choices growing as the game progresses to the point that it can be overwhelming to the Dominions newbie. Enter the exhaustive 300-page manual. The manual includes a tutorial that introduces the basic features and gameplay concepts in a witty, conversational manner. The entire manual is extremely readable, which is good since it is really required reading to be able to effectively play the game. If you're the kind of gamer who does a happy dance when you see a thick, well-written manual chock-full of useful information and tips, you're going to love Dominions 3. If your reaction to a phone-book-sized manual is a groan, this probably isn't the game for you.
A typical turn will have you scouting other provinces, recruiting heroes to lead your armies, assigning units to search a province for magic sites, assigning research into various magic paths to learn selected spells, recruiting military units for your heroes to lead into battle, attacking provinces, building fortresses and temples, checking out mercenaries who may be available for hire, setting taxes and other variables for your provinces, dealing with random events, sending an assassin on a mission, arming up a commander with a variety of powerful items, and much, much more. Battles are fought by armies led by commanders, and while you can set up a myriad of formations (such as putting archers behind infantry and elephants, and mages and heroes even farther back) and assign every unit specific instructions (for example, archers fire at opposing cavalry, infantry attack closest enemy, mage use a specific series of spells, and so on), you don't control the tactical action once the battle begins. You do have the option to watch the battle after it is over, and some of the battles later in the game, which involve huge mixed armies of mages, monsters, dragons, archers, and infantry, can remind you of a heroic Lord of the Rings-inspired clash. The icons and graphics are very simplistic, but you can learn a lot by observing what worked and what didn't during the fight.
Speaking of graphics, they are functional but highly simplistic. Unit icons are small and look like something from a shareware game. Make that a shareware game from 1998. You'll squint trying to differentiate the javelin-armed unit and the sword-armed unit. If that ruins your ability to enjoy the game, Dominions 3 is probably not the game for you. For people who love deep strategy enough to look past a woefully unimpressive presentation, the graphics are perfectly functional. The audio takes a similarly functional approach, with some nice background tunes, but not much else.
Another sign of the hardcore nature of Dominions 3 is the way that turns and saved games are handled. Once you make all of your decisions and hit the end turn button, all other players make their decisions, the turn is resolved simultaneously, and you are presented with the results. There is no going back and changing anything once you hit that end turn button. If you choose to save the game, it saves it at that specific point within the turn, and you can only restore to that point if you have not ended the turn.
The sheer breadth of options and approaches, combined with decent artificial intelligence, makes Dominions 3 a great single-player game. But to truly appreciate the ultimate experience, you need to play online. You'll have no problem finding a multitude of online games that will welcome you, no matter what your level of experience, and an online game with 20 other players, divided into opposing and shifting alliances of nations, can provide an epic feel unmatched by many prettier but shallower games. The wealth of options means that no single strategy or nation is a sure win (as opposed to other multiplayer games, where playing as certain factions and using certain units and tactics can practically guarantee victory), and you are likely to encounter something you've never seen before every game.
Therein lies the beauty of Dominions 3. Whether playing single-player or multiplayer, you can experiment with a practically infinite variety of tactical and strategic choices and never find a "best" one, because your opponent has the same breadth of options. Dominions 3 is a world both deep and ultimately mesmerizing to the strategy fanatic. If you prefer your games fast and flashy, you'll hate Dominions 3. But if you're the kind of strategy gamer who revels in hunkering down with a highly complex and deep game with a phone-book sized manual and a steep learning curve that really makes you pause, ponder, and think, this is definitely the game for you