With Steam’s recent release of the Age of Wonders pack, we thought it was a good time to take a look back at Dutch developer Triumph Studios’ classic 2002 turn based strategy game. For readers unfamiliar with the game, the basic premise is that you play a magic wielding wizard, commanding your armies and building up your empire’s cities from your tower. You explore, you build up your resources and your armies, you conquer your enemies. It was nothing special or ground breaking in that regard, but the game has sufficient depth and difficulty that it’s kept its fans playing for almost a decade so far, with an active modding community and tournaments still running over at Age of Wonders Heaven today. So what makes Age of Wonders 2 so special, and gives it such strong replayability value?
Well firstly, its magic system is pretty unique and quite in depth. There are 7 different spheres of magic, each granting different types of summons, buffs, and damage spells. As you’d probably expect, you also need a certain amount of mana to cast spells, and mana income is generated by magic nodes which will provide a certain amount of mana per turn; more if the node is of your own sphere. You can also find little piles of mana lying around on the floor on some maps, and it’s also available as a reward in certain circumstances. Spells can only be cast within your (or your allies’) domain, which is like a region of influence which spreads out from your wizard towers and around “magic relays”, and is also extended by your spell-casting heroes. This makes it more difficult to go and attack your enemy if he’s a far distance from you, as the battles are already biased against the attacker (if you’re not stupid enough to neglect building the very cheap walls). When one wizard has the ability to cast and the other doesn’t, you need a pretty mighty army to win.
You are also able to choose a starting ability, and can choose to research new spells and new abilities, granting a bonus to aspects that will influence your empire globally, such as the number of casting points your wizard has (this determines the number of spells you can cast per turn), population growth, production speed and income generated, amongst other perks. The abilities definitely provide a substantial boost and shouldn’t be underestimated, and as such one of the few gripes I have with the UI is that the skills are located on a separate tab of the spellbook which makes them easy to overlook if you don’t know about them, or if you are coming back to the game after a period of time. I must have spent hundreds of hours in Age of Wonders 2 a few years ago, and when I came back to it with the Steam re-release, I was on the 3rd map of the campaign before I remembered I could research skills separately. It does say <skills> in big letters on the bottom of your spellbook, but it’s not immediately obvious that it’s a toggle option.
Heroes, races & units
As well as your wizard, you are also able to control heroes who offer to join your cause, either by random chance or by using the spell Call Hero, which can summon a hero to fight with you. Your heroes can wield artifacts – either found lying on the floor, as a reward for conquering certain areas, or stolen from vanquished enemy heroes – which grant extra stat points and/or abilities. Additionally, as your heroes level gain experience they’ll level up allowing you to choose another skill. You’re offered a choice from three random skills selected from a pool of class specific skills, which means your heroes will be a bit different every time you play. It’s a shame though that you are not allowed to name your own hero (or your wizard, in single player mode) – or your cities, for that matter, except for those you build using a pioneer unit. It’s somewhat justifiable in a multi-player game as players might find it hard to keep track if you could rename cities all the time, but I can’t see any reason to prevent it in single player modes whatsoever.
There are 12 different races that you can play in Age of Wonders 2, and each has 4 levels of unit, from the relatively weak level 1′s to the powerful and expensive level 4′s, and you require more and more buildings in your city to unlock each new level of unit. The races are not simply separated by graphics however; each unit has its own different variety of abilities making them very different to play. To give a few examples of how different the units are, the Human level 4 unit is an airship which can carry units across treacherous terrain without movement restriction. The Orc level 4 is a Jabba the Hutt looking beastie called a Glutton which has a chance of swallowing enemy units whole, and the Undead’s top unit is a powerful creature called the Dread Reaper, which can steal life, cause fear (chance to make your opponent flee) and causes a path of decay everywhere it walks. And it’s not only your heroes who gain experience as they kill enemies; your normal units can also level up and become silver and gold medal veterans, gaining new abilities as they do so.
You can also conquer cities from other races, and providing that your alignment is the same as theirs, you can raise armies of their units to join your own, without risk of them revolting against you. The variety that you can create in your armies by mixing races can give you a valuable tactical edge over your opponents.
The campaign takes you, a young human wizard with the most original name of Merlin, on a journey to restore a world on the brink of destruction. At the beginning of the campaign, Merlin finds himself on the shores of the Evermore, a mysterious land far from home. He’s initiated into the ancient Circle of Wizards, where he learns that the members are bickering and vying for power amongst themselves, and guided by the rather elderly wizard Gabriel, he is sent on a quest to master the seven spheres of magic, to enable him to heal the rift in the circle and save his race from destruction. The campaign will keep you busy for a good long time. The maps are large and after taking some criticism in the original title for being a bit easy, Triumph really beefed up the computer players in the sequel and they can be pretty tough to beat on the higher difficulty settings, which gives you a feeling of real satisfaction when you do wipe them out! As well as the campaign, there are also several developer made scenarios that you can play either in single or multi-player, and hundreds more scenarios that have been created by fans using Age of Wonders 2′s map editor.
I bet you anything that when you first play, you’ll find yourself moving the wrong units around when you’re trying to split up an army. And it’s not always entirely clear at first to see which hex you’re moving into when there’s a lot going on on the map. The saving grace here is that you can turn actually turn a hex grid on with f4, but this isn’t mentioned in the manual and I only learnt this myself very recently by hitting it accidentally! When you’re moving your units around on the map, the distance they can travel is denoted by a gold trail, and if you want to move them further it will give you a greyed out trail and a little flag to say how many turns it will take to get to your desired destination which is a fantastic feature. What it misses, though, is something to indicate how many movement points will be used by a certain move – so if you want to move out of your defended city to capture something close by and hope to return to your defense in the same turn, you’ll need to rely on a bit of guesswork. Considering how much the rest of the movement system tells you, it’s a bit disappointing.
The battle map size has been decreased in the sequel to make combat faster than it was in the original, but it does still feel a bit slow if there are many units on the field simply because each takes its turn individually. It’s not too irksome though, since the strategic element of the battles is one of my favourite parts of the game, but I imagine the slow speed might irritate some people. Luckily you can increase the speed at which units move in the options screen, so this irritation can be quelled, somewhat.
Graphics and Audio
Graphically, Age of Wonders 2 was leaps and bounds better than the original title, and has stood the test of time quite well. The maps are pretty, the units are recognisable and the wizard portraits feel like old friends – and enemies! The map’s terrain can change due to various global spells and trails which some units leave behind them as they explore the map. It’s always satisfying to see the ground in your domain turning to whatever terrain is favourable to your sphere. It’s a shame some of the heroes share graphics, as if you have two heroes of the same class you’ll perhaps struggle to tell them apart, but in my experience that doesn’t happen very often and if it does, well, it’s not a tragedy.
The music is definitely worth a special mention. It’s one of my favourite game soundtracks, and I’m thinking this must be a pretty popular opinion, since the soundtrack is actually included with the trilogy pack on Steam! It if doesn’t float your boat though, or if you get sick of it after a few hours, you can also play your own music through the game’s inbuilt mp3 player. Not the most compelling reason to play a game, I’ll grant you, but it was a pretty considerate thought from the developers.
So to conclude…
Although I’ve tried to unearth a few flaws to balance out what would otherwise have been a torrent of ineffable fangirlish squeeing, the negatives are really pretty minor in comparison to the greatness of Age of Wonders 2 that if you’re at all interested in strategy games and haven’t given it a try yet, you’re robbing yourself of what I think is one of the most fun turn based strategy games out there. Go and play it!