Following two years of hushed development, Triumph Studios (responsible for, among other games, Overlord) has just announced Age of Wonders 3. Almost ten years after Age of Wonders 2: Shadow Magic, turn-based strategy fans now have another title in the award-winning Age of Wonders series to anticipate.
Le obligatory announcement trailer:
Quick picks from the trailer for those who can't or can't be bothered to watch it:
- Same classic explore/expand mechanic familiar to veterans of HoMM or Master of Magic
- New 3D engine
- RPG-style "faction leader" mechanic, like COs from Advance Wars 2 but with more flexibility. Did you see that steampunk tinker with the monocle calmly sipping his tea while driving a land dreadnought?! An Orc theocrat inspiring the masses with faith and fervor?! Hell yes!
- The return of (spoilers: highlight to read) Inioch, undead king of the Elves as the narrator.
Triumph Studios has also set up a website for Age of Wonders 3. While the release date is a rather vague "Autumn 2013 (and subject to change)", the game looks pretty polished so far. RPG customization seems set to be a big new feature to the series, expanding the role of the leader that was present in the previous games. As the website notes, "In Age of Wonders 3, we extrapolate RPG style classes to be the leaders of fantasy empires. For example: as a Goblin Theocrat you can build your own holy empire, recruit little goblin crusaders or cute winged goblin angels equipped with flaming weapons, and wage war on your heathen enemies. We want players to be able to choose between lots of different play styles, without being restricted by fantasy clichés, like All Goblins Are Evil."
Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic gave us 15 playable races in all. While there's no word (yet) on how many will ship with Age of Wonders 3, we can probably expect a ballpark of anywhere from 10 to 15 based on the previous games and various screenshots showing the dwarves, the goblins, the archons, and various elves so far. It also seems that Triumph Studios is refining and expanding the previous combat system from Age of Wonders, implementing new combat rules such as flanking and increased numbers of special unit abilities or traits (from the already staggeringly high amount in Shadow Magic, no less) while including features from the previous games such as elemental damage, elevation, terrain effects, line-of-sight, and magical domain. Speaking of magical domain, it seems also that Age of Wonders 3 retains the wizard domain system from Age of Wonders II and Shadow Magic (judging from the screenshots), adding a strategic element that greatly affects the tactical flow of individual battles. In a departure from earlier games, however, it also seems that single units on the map now also represent an entire squad in the battle screen rather than just a single individual.
One of Age of Wonders' strengths has been its single-player campaigns - never just trite good vs. evil, the single-player campaigns are stories full of nuance and subtlety, although the missions do have a tendency to boil down to us vs. them (with you wiping out every enemy wizard in the "them" category). Age of Wonders III promises to return to the series roots with two campaigns in the operatic style of Age of Wonders rather than the personal odysseys of II and Shadow Magic, with players able to lead either the Commonwealth Foundation (no details as of yet) or the Court of the High Elves, founded by the reunion of the once-estranged Dark Elves led by Meandor and the Sylvan Elves led by Queen Julia. Age of Wonders III also promises to ship with a map editor reminiscent of the versatile and powerful editor that came with II and Shadow Magic, a highly moddable editor which still boasts an active fan community at Age of Wonders II: Heaven. And unlike many a turn-based strategy game, multiplayer games in the Age of Wonders series run at a surprisingly quick pace due to the simultaneous turn system. Once you finish the single player campaign, be prepared for a whole new gaming experience in multiplayer games that can feature up to eight players moving their chess pieces all at the same time.
"So, TacTican, I like turn-based strategy games but why should I care about the Age of Wonders series?"
If you liked the Heroes of Might and Magic games, or Master of Magic, then you'll probably enjoy Age of Wonders as well. To illustrate, let me use Shadow Magic as an example. In the Age of Wonders series, the original game came out in 1999, followed by Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne in 2002 and a standalone expansion of Age of Wonders II named Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic in 2003. Fantasy hex-tiled 4X turn-based strategy seems to be the closest description for the series as a whole and the games do a superb job of immersing you into a storybook world that seems like it came straight out of Tolkien's Silmarillion.
Some in-game music from Shadow Magic (composed by Mason B. Fisher) to listen and help set the atmosphere while you read the rest of this post:
"Guardians of Justice"
Here's a screenshot from Mission 3 of the Julia set from Shadow Magic (note that I'm playing in a window):
What's that? Too small? Here's what happens when I drag the window to cover more of my screen:
You'll notice, first of all, that the game is visually breathtaking. Not only does the UI scale in a reasonable manner vis-a-vis the game resolution, it also expands to display more game area rather than merely stretching what exists on the screen. Triumph Studio lovingly invested a great deal of care and effort into the game, and it shows in small details like the UI scaling. What the screen doesn't capture are the little overworld animations playing all the time - butterflies wandering in a flock, flags fluttering in the breeze, and a huge array of lighting sprites that subtly touch up the game appearance. The game's visual style is distinct, but touch-ups are subtle - a little animation there, a few particle effects here, and nothing too ostentatious, but together they add up for 2D graphics which have aged impressively well.
Screen too confusing and cluttered? Let me annotate that for you then:
And that's just one screen. I haven't even touched on magic research, spellcasting, global spell upkeep, hero recruitment, leveling your forces, city management, or most of the points of interest on the overland map. As with most games of this type, you'll be spending a lot of time managing your cities and resources so that your economy will be capable of supporting an army on the map. Cities come in four population sizes with bigger populations contributing more gold from merchandise and taxation, mana from temples, labor from the populace, and spell research from libraries or shrines. Your cities also produce units from your armies; upgrading a city's barracks and temples will unlock correspondingly higher tiers of soldiers, while upgrading the economy will unlock mechanical and siege units. Cities can be walled for extra defenses, or they can have magical defenses installed in the form of enchanted barriers, garrison boosts, magical autoturrets, and even an aetherial shield at the highest tier to immunize them to overland spells. Your cities can also install utility buildings such as item forges to manufacture magical equipment, teleportation gates, or libraries that speed magic research. Finally, the unique Wizard's Tower unlocks higher tiers of tech and expands your magical domain around the map. And speaking of wizards ...
See these guys?
This rogues' gallery is a small selection of the many wizards available in the game. Your wizard is "you" for the scenario. If you lose your wizard, you lose, period. Wizards also don't level up like other units, meaning they're locked out from the stat and ability gains that turn high-level heroes into game-breaking units, and a wizard is fairly squishy in actual combat. Fortunately, killing a wizard isn't as easy as it would appear - as long as the wizard still has at least one Wizard's Tower active on the map, he or she will reincarnate on the next turn at that tower, although the wizard will lose any items being carried at the time as well as any spells that he or she was maintaining. This means that the game isn't over just because you blundered slightly and lost your wizard early; with good management, you can still stage a comeback in the battle.
A wizard generates a small "magical domain" around himself, marked on the map by the dotted lines of his color. In that domain, you can cast spells on the overland and in any battles occurring in the domain, provided you have the necessary mana and casting points. This means that even if your wizard is on the other side of the map, he can still affect battles far away if his domain extends to that distance with potent support and offensive magic. When stationed in a wizard's tower, the wizard's domain expands dramatically, as well as also expanding through any domain-generating towers, relays, or cities that you own on the map. This adds a strategic element in the game - do you assassinate the enemy wizard to get his powerful spells off your back and disrupt his enchantments? Or can you not risk the chance that he will likely be very well guarded indeed?
Combat occurs when a stack of units moves into a non-allied stack, whether against an enemy or against neutral mobs on the screen. The battle screen then changes to a close-up tactical view with the terrain being generated by the game based on the hex tile that the defending unit is occupying at the time (credits to Gamers Hell):
In this screen, Nomads under the command of Sahira have attacked Shadow Demons under the command of the All-Devourer around a magical relay. All of the units in the defending and attacking stacks participate in the battle, along with any units in adjacent hex tiles on the overworld. At eight units a stack, this means that battles can include up to 7x8 = 56 individual units total, which can rapidly become tedious. Fortunately combat often occurs within a single turn of conflict initiation and each unit is allotted a certain number of movement points, with combat actions ending the unit's movement. Unlike the overworld map, combat is resolved in a turn order with the defender enjoying the advantage of moving first. Terrain, elevation, and line-of-sight all factor into combat resolution, adding a tactical dimension beyond just throwing your stack at the enemy stack. Deciding where to attack adds a strategic consideration as well: many fortifications offer additional defenses, magic vaults can house wildly unpredictable magic, and the Shadow Realm's all- pervading sickness will severely debilitate your troops.
The overworld map also features three distinct layers: Surface, Underground, and Shadow World (not all of which are present in any given scenario). The overworld is the map that you all know and love. The underground restricts visual range and offers advantages to tunneling races which can burrow through softer dirt to launch ambushes from terrain inaccessible to most. Finally, the Shadow World is a unique locale which hastens the traveling speed of any party which travels through it, but inflicts shadow sickness which halves the combat potency of any unit affected by it (and thus units unaffected by it have a huge combat edge). Areas which are well-fortified or impassable in one layer often are connected or weakly defended in another, and thus the prudent player can outsmart his opponent by resorting to movement through a different map layer.
There's much more that could be said about the game and its systems but I hope I've whetted your appetite for Age of Wonders 3 and to try the series in general rather than serving a full course meal. Overall, Age of Wonders feels like a polished and fun series, something that HoMM or Civilization players can jump into and love. If you enjoy a deeply immersive experience with sweeping orchestral melodies, luminescent 2D graphics, humorous (often snarky) writing, a long campaign, high customization, a flexible and powerful map editor, and of course the elusive "Just ... one more ... turn ...!" factor, welcome to the Age of Wonders.
EDIT: Where do you buy these games? Here are some helpful links:
Steam - $19.99 for the trilogy with soundtrack
GamersGate - Currently 50% off, making it $9.98 for trilogy + soundtrack (Best deal)
GameStop -$19.99 for the trilogy with soundtrack