Age of Wonders III is the latest title in the Age of Wonders series from Dutch developers Triumph Studios. Technically the fourth game in the series, Age of Wonders III picks the series back up after a decade on hiatus. The game merges classic 4X gameplay with RPG mechanics in a high fantasy setting.
There are two campaigns in Age of Wonders III. The first campaign follows the High Elves, led by Princess Sundren, after the death of their Prince at the hands of the Commonwealth. The second campaign follows The Commonwealth, led by the Dreadnought Commander Edward Portsmith, as they seek to conquer the world. Age of Wonders III provides a well-polished high fantasy plot that in fully voice acted to boot.
Age of Wonders III has three major parts to the game. The framework of the game is a 4X turn based strategy game, which stands for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.” The genre has been made famous by games like Civilization and Master of Orion. Unlike these titles, each team in Age of Wonders III is led by a hero that works on RPG mechanics. Each hero is one of six different classes: Arch Druid, Dreadnought, Rogue, Sorcerer, Theocrat, and Warlord. Each class have access to a wide range of research and abilities that are exclusive to their class and can create units that are unique to their leader’s class. The six races will dictate the bread and butter units the player will have access. As the leader levels up, players can assign points in different skills, spells, and attributes to create a leader that will fit their play style. During exploration and combat, hero items that can be equipped for bonuses will be dropped.
The 4X gameplay is what one comes to expect from titles in the genre. It is challenging, with an extremely high learning curve. Players will need to manage and expand their kingdoms while juggling diplomatic relations with their neighbours and maintaining an army. The spell system includes spells that are used outside combat, which adds an interesting dimension to long term combat between enemies. An enchantment at the right time against an unprepared foe can easily turn the tide of a battle and send the advancing armies back where they came from, providing the caster room to breathe and better prepare their defenses.
Age of Wonders III’s world map is separated into two distinct zones. The surface is the main area players will explore and do battle in. Scattered across the maps are cave entrances that lead to the caverns located underneath the maps. The underground can be inhabited just like the surface, but will provide players the opportunity to sneak around the map undetected and ambush unsuspecting enemies from behind.
The 4X gameplay in Age of Wonders III is filled out with the turn based combat that occurs when two armies do battle. Although players have an option of having the AI automatically generate the results of battle, a keen tactician will be able to improve their odds of victory by taking direct command of the troops. Each side will take turns moving their units on a hexagonal battle map. Each unit is assigned a certain amount of action points that must be split between movement, attacks, and abilities. Abilities and attacking will automatically end the unit’s turn. Each unit has three rings of potential movement. The green ring represents the distance a unit can travel while executing all three possible attacks, the yellow caps attacks at two, while the orange ring will only allow a unit to attack once. Hero units have the added bonus of being able to cast spells.
The turn based combat provides an extra dimension to the game that sets the title apart from other 4X titles. The battles are at its best when two massive armies do battle, leading to drawn out and tactically complicated fights. I find the AI to bit a tad on the stupid side, as they have a tendency to be drawn into really obvious distractions. For example, I was able to lay siege to an enemy city and break through the walls by stacking my entire army in one corner of the map outside the city walls, then sending two flying units over the city wall on the opposite corner. The AI promptly sent most of the army to chase down the intruders, while it could clearly see that the bulk of my army was massing for an assault on the opposite end.
The biggest failing in Age of Wonders III is its learning curve. The game recommends new players to use the High Elf campaign to learn the ropes of gameplay. Unfortunately, the tutorial teaches only the most basic of game play mechanics, then quite literally hands players a tome of knowledge and tells them to look up whatever may confuse them. The tips that serve as the tutorial from there on in only direct players to the correct page in the game manual that will help them out. 4X games are notorious for their newbie unfriendly approach and Triumph Studios has done very little to help new players become acquainted to the genre.
I highly recommend saving often with Age of Wonders III, especially in the campaign. The death of heroes will result in losing the mission and potentially over a hundred turns of effort over a poor decision or unlucky event. The auto-save function tends to be pretty aggressive in saving after any little bit of movement and only has one auto-save slot. I ended up having to restart a few missions after losing a hero in an inescapable ambush. An auto-save for the last three to five moves would help cut down the hassle of constantly saving and the pain of restarting a campaign and make the game a little more accessible to new players.
Age of Wonders III sticks to its high fantasy setting in its visual design. Though Triumph Studios did not take much risk in their design, they did an excellent job in creating the world. The turn based battle mode feels like large armies going to battle, thanks to the well-populated units. The graphics themselves are very good. With the visuals cranked up to max, the game is lush, populated, and sharp. My only complaint is that the full sized heroes in the diplomacy screen look a little dated, in contrast to the rest of the game.
Triumph Studios has put together a wonderful audio experience in Age of Wonders III. The music is a great companion for the many hours the game will suck up. The sound effects are done well. The extensive narration between campaign levels are fully voice acted and the voice acting is spot on.
If you can manage to conquer the learning curve, Age of Wonders III promises countless of hours of gameplay with its great balance of traditional 4X turn based strategy, RPG, and turn based battle mechanics. Unfortunately, the steep learning curve will mean that only the most dedicated newbies or veterans of the 4X genre will get a chance to enjoy a great game. Although the AI can be a bit spotty, Triumph Studios has created a slick package and a worthy successor to the Age of Wonders franchise.
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