PC/Mac Reviews

Age of Wonders III Review: Risk + Monopoly + Unicorns

Age of Wonders III needs a tutorial. Like, a proper, “arrows pointing to things described by text bubbles,” kind of tutorial. Sure the Tome of Wonders is great and offers you all sorts of hints, but it’s the digital equivalent of an instruction manual – the kind we always set aside because we want to get to the meat and potatoes of gaming. The reason AoW3 needs a tutorial so urgently is that the only things really wrong with this game are small interface issues, errors and omissions that make the whole experience needlessly frustrating. Twenty hours in and aided by an Age of Wonders veteran, only then had I finally clicked every button to see what it would do. But despite the frustrations faced in grasping the fundamentals of the game, at no point is the experience lacking in fun.

What makes AoW3 so enjoyable is the intricate detail of the world and gameplay, where starting out with a hero and a meager army in the corner of a map there’s never really a wrong move. Your goals and desires are always clear, but it’s the most efficient route to success that eludes newcomers. Fortunately the setup here is still a turn based strategy style, where the towns you settle or occupy only do one thing per turn (and what that is, is up to you). Moving at your own pace, thankfully you can take time to enjoy the scenery of the map, or the different fantasy based units milling about the hex-grid world.

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Though there are only a small handful of variables affecting each town (like gold, mana, labor, and knowledge production) there are several factors that alter each one in a small, but influenceable way. Do your Draconians prefer barren desert to tropical forests? Terraform the land; or research a spell to change their preference. Sure, it would have been easier to keep them happy had you not built that city next to a waterfall, but there’s always a way to recover, and always the realization that you could have done something just slightly better.

That sense of gradual progression is what keeps you engaged every turn, where just around the corner you could find a production resource to enhance your nearest town, or a random hero who wants to join your quest. Even when it comes to combat, with six different spell affinities and multiple types of resistances, abilities and units, the combinations don’t become dizzying. With the right strategy and setup, David can bring down Goliath (if David knows a Berserk spell and can entice Goliath into killing his own army, for example). But that’s something you have to learn the hard way.

There are some simple interface issues marring this experience, unnecessarily giving players reasons to dislike this otherwise great game. Speeding up combat is great in single player, and there’s no reason the option doesn’t exist in multiplayer matches when you’re still just facing an AI opponent. And even if you could come up with a justification as to why that’s not a feature, where it is implemented it doesn’t work flawlessly: speeding up enemy movement to 3x speed also mysteriously speeds up the camera scrolling, making it impossible to keep an eye on the action.

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If you’re considering this as an entry into a decade-dormant series, there are some cool new features, but it constantly feels like where any one thing was added, with it a new problem was introduced. Armies consisting of multiple units are great, as is seeing the little soldiers go flying when thwacked by a charging hero, but when corpses begin to litter the battlefield it gets difficult to tell who is living and who is dead (not to mention who has taken their turn and who hasn’t). Countless times I’ve moved the wrong unit, thinking I had a different one selected, and just as many times I’ve inadvertently charged head first into melee, when I meant to fire my ranged attack – the option the game has defaulted to is rarely ever clear prior to committing yourself to an error. And the one place where you really don’t need confirmation, the game repeatedly asks every turn if you’re sure you want to move your army on the overhead map.

The game just has a habit of doing things the way you’d least expect, like if you load a game in the middle of a turn after combat didn’t go well: normally a game would say, “Are you sure you want to quit? Your progress will be lost.” AoW3 says, “If you quit, your progress will be lost. Do you want to save your game?” Then before you know it, although you clicked a button that said “Load” then, “Yes,” what you’ve done is overwrite the save you intended to revert to. Which is a pretty big deal, considering campaign maps can take upwards of six hours to complete, and apparently Bone Dragons can swoop out of the fog and kill a mission critical hero when you least expect it. So you’re going to want to have a few backups.

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But if you can get past nagging questions like, “If I can scroll through my units on the map, why is that button not available to scroll through my cities?” and gradually rise to power, slowly building an army and laying siege to your opponent’s throne city is seriously addicting. Like the “can’t believe you forgot to eat dinner two nights in a row because you came home from work and loaded up this game” kind of addicting. Hopefully all those kinks will get worked out, perhaps before Triumph Studios releases the promised level editor. Until then there’s a wealth of content here to keep you occupied, whether forging through the single player campaign or convincing friends and strangers to give up eight hours of their lives to play what essentially equals Risk + Monopoly + a horny horse.

SCORE: 8.0 out of 10

A code for Age of Wonders III was provided to Pixel Related for review.

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