Age of Wonders III Review
9.0our score

Classic

Can it really be almost fifteen years since the original Age of Wonders? Lordy, how the time flies. That robust stalwart was rapidly followed by two worthy sequels, Wizard’s Throne and Shadow Magic. Wizard’s Throne gave the series its official II. Shadow Magic oddly didn’t, although it was much larger than a typical expansion.

This isn't a screenshot from the original, it's just the new tactical map zoomed out. A nice, hand-drawn look.

This isn’t a screenshot from the original. It’s just the new tactical map zoomed out. A nice, hand-drawn look.

This feels overdue, then. The game is a turn-based, 4X fantasy empire management, set in a hex-gridded world instantly recognisable to any Tolkien derivative. It’s set a little apart from that by its refusal to take itself too seriously, with a pleasingly light tone in its background fluff. It’s also very much a fantasy mash-up, with pretty much anything you might find in your local nerdy hobby store featured in some way. Undead, steampunk, fey – it’s all game.

Best of all, when your armies battle, they can do so in a turn-based close-up fight. You zoom into the action and take control of your myriad of creatures, pitting flying dragonmen against exploding spy drones or giant snakes. Or flying orcs. Or toadstool fairies. Or giants, or dragons, or killer penguins. Because you can, and if it’s a little silly from time to time, that’s a big part of the fun. I challenge even the most leadenly serious fantasy-ist to take an army of holy winged dwarves against an army of, say, seductive batwinged goblins and not giggle a little bit.

Closer, and you can start to see the details...

Closer, and you can start to see the details…

Tried and Tested

The main overhaul in this new edition is the graphics. Gone are the detailed but elderly isometric tiles, replaced with shiny new 3D. The world glitters and glows, retaining all the charm of the originals. Tiny farms, ancient ruins and strange temples litter the landscapes, which come in a good variety of terrain. This has all the panache you’d expect of a modern game, even if it’s not the most cutting edge stuff.

Closer still, and it's all coming to life...

Closer still, and it’s all coming to life…

That’s not a problem at all – the speed at which it runs is extremely welcome. This is a streamlined game dedicated to keeping the action moving. You’ll research new spells and abilities at a rate of knots, so there’s always new toys to play with in your already generously-filled pram. You can found new cities and spread out fast, or concentrate in a few mighty fortresses, and you’ll quickly find the skills to help your chosen playstyle along. The in-game help manual is excellent, with every tactical tip quickly at your hand along with entertaining snippets of lore to wash it down with.

There’s plenty of depth, however, so don’t mistake accessibility with simplicity. Most units come with a long list of labels and abilities covering their strengths and weaknesses. Even the battlemap hides depth, with unit facing, morale and cover all playing a part. Puzzling out the best way to use whatever you’ve brought with you to beat a foe is always entertaining. Mostly because it’s usually possible – although overwhelming numbers generally win out, your troops gain veterancy and skill with it, so keeping stuff alive is always worth it. Some units even grow up into entirely different creatures, like the Draconian Hatchling. Keep it in the game long enough, and it sprouts into some serious firepower.

Much closer than this and you can probably see the individual hairs on your goblin settlers' noses. But the camera is locked out here, so that's lucky.

Much closer than this and you can probably see the individual hairs on your goblin settlers’ noses. But the camera is locked out here, so that’s lucky.

What’s New, Tigran Cat?

The game used to have fifteen races to choose from. That’s been pared back a bit, with a classic six (humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins and draconians) to pick from. Where your general was always a wizard before, now they pick from a roleplaying-style choice of warlord, rogue, sorceror, druid, theocrat and dreadnought, the last being a steampunky sort of chap who eschews magic for tanks.

Yes, that's my general on a manticore. And those are his holy goblin zealots along with him, because nobody expected the goblin inquisition.

Yes, that’s my general on a manticore. And those are his holy goblin zealots along with him, because nobody expected the goblin inquisition.

Each class has its own spells, units and skills, giving a certain flavour to the empire. Theocrats, for example, can field armies of religious zealots and spread their faith rapidly across the world. Warlords excel in heavy-hitting armies that can be produced incredibly fast, and so on. The specialist units are custom matched to your race, and your general can be tweaked to give their own individual look too.

Fancy a hairy dwarf? The menu options have you covered.

Fancy a hairy dwarf? The menu options have you covered.

Or pick this hilarious bucktoothed halo goblin. Praise the lord.

Or pick this hilarious bucktoothed halo goblin. Praise the lord.

The campaign picks up a new chapter in the world lore, but it’s a familiar one. The descendants of the elven court from the original are facing a new threat to their world, and it’s up to you to pick how they respond to it. Meet violence with violence, and wipe out the nasty humans hell-bent on modernising the landscape? Or make a happy union of the world and convert them to see your ways? There are flavours of Avatar in there, the old natives-at-one-with-the-land-vs-marauding-landscape-artists/Pocahontas vibe. But if it’s nothing wildly new, it’s certainly an effective enough hook for a story.

There’s also a random world generator, various special scenario maps to play on and a map editor, so if the campaign isn’t your thing there’s plenty of other stuff to choose from. Especially multiplayer, now with modernised multiplayer capability – something the older games lacked. A human is always going to be better to play against than the occasionally rather tame AI. Sorry, Skynet, but it’s true. Please kill me with mechanical efficiency as proof.

Ah yes! The Siege of Dwarfton, famous for the legions of winged goblin saints that mobbed the skies! And the Arc of the Goblin Covenant, now being cared for by Top Goblins in a warehouse somewhere.

Ah yes! The Siege of Dwarfton, famous for the legions of winged goblin saints that mobbed the skies! And the Arc of the Goblin Covenant, now being cared for by Top Goblins in a warehouse somewhere.

Niggles

I do miss the sheer range and invention of the unit roster in early games. Not having my beloved Tigran Watchers or Dwarven Mole Riders does leave a hole that no amount of Orcish Apprentice Sorcerors can fill. The generals’ specialist units get a little repetitive as a result – see one martyr and you’ve seen them all, really. The blow is lessened by the inclusion of independant settlements of (e.g.) giants or dragons with their own tech trees and units, but it’s still a blow. It also carries the heavy scent of forthcoming DLC, which can be a mixed blessing. But time will tell.

Previous iterations featured Wizard’s Towers in your cities, essential features for casting spells at range over the map. They’re gone, leaving another hole for me. They used to unlock a broad tech tree of city upgrades including unit teleporters, auto-defence towers and instant enchantments that were fun and characterful. They could also be slow and frustrating to try and conquer on the map occasionally. Even if the new story tries to justify why they’re gone, I miss them. The leader-specific building tree is so short it’s hard to feel like you’re tinkering with interesting options. Tinker a bit and it’s all over, as the Orc Actress said to the Elven Bishop.

Losing is easily undone, with a quick save game. Unless you're playing against actual people, then you're gone gone gone.

Losing is easily undone, with a quick save game. Unless you’re playing against actual people, then you’re gone gone gone.

The campaign is a little uneven too, with some levels being straightforward romps and some being very slow and uphill. The characters in the story are usually present as heroes or your general. Your general can die repeatedly and is reborn at your capital, but lose a game-critical hero and it’s mission failed. This rankles for two reasons – the hero who may now be your achilles heel was in the previous game your unkillable general, so it doesn’t feel like it makes sense. And the AI is absolutely ruthless at hitting these game-critical units, smashing through lines with crazed abandon to land killing blows. That makes total sense, in one way, and in another is no more than a criticism of my own playstyle (where the heroes are frontliners). But it’s also frustating to get superunits and then have to nurse them in safety, and it led to a lot of irritating save game use for me.

The sound is another tiny niggle – there’s some great voice work, but it’s only in the campaign intros. More voices in the gameplay would be nice, as good as the grunts and groans of my units are. Also, the music is a tad gratingly repetitive, but so is anything if you play the game for as much as I have been. And you can always turn it off.

Wondrous

Overall, this is an excellent updating of a classic game. It wasn’t broken, so they haven’t tried to fix it (cough cough Thief cough cough), even if this might feel a little stripped-back in places. Less is more, though – it’s fast and fun. If you enjoyed the originals you’ll certainly like this, and if you didn’t, this is still excellent, polished and entertaining strategy with high production values and excellent replayability. I recommend it highly.

And I haven't even got round to mentioning the fact that the campaign map often has two overlapping levels yet! With burrowing units! Ach, there's no time. I need to play just one more turn before midnight.

And I haven’t even got round to mentioning the fact that the campaign map often has two overlapping levels yet! With burrowing units! Ach, there’s no time. I need to play just one more turn before midnight.

Pros:

  • Swift yet detailed tactical gameplay
  • Plenty of content with lots of replayability
  • A great update for a classic title
  • Lots of potential for more content
Cons:

  • A touch less full of wonder than the last title in the series, but only a touch

 
 
 
 

System Requirements

Minimum:
OS: Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1
Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 @ 2.4 Ghz or AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ @2.6 Ghz
Memory: 2 GB RAM
Graphics: nVidia 8800 / ATi Radeon HD 3870 with 512MB or Laptop integrated Intel HD 3000 with 3GB system ram
DirectX: Version 9.0c
Network: Broadband Internet connection
Hard Drive: 10 GB available space
Sound Card: DirectX 9 Compatible
Additional Notes: Open connection for online multiplayer. 1024×768 screen resolution.

Recommended:
OS: Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1
Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 @ 2.4 Ghz or AMD Phenom X4 9900 @ 2.6 Ghz
Memory: 4 GB RAM
Graphics: nVidia Geforce 460 1GB or AMD Radeon HD 6850 1GB
DirectX: Version 9.0c
Network: Broadband Internet connection
Hard Drive: 10 GB available space
Sound Card: DirectX 9 Compatible
Additional Notes: Open connection for online multiplayer. 1920*1080 screen resolution.

the author

Used to be a Doctor (Dr). Now is an actor (Ar), writer (Wr) and gamer (Gr), and would like to get all these abbreviations into general usage, because GrArWr is a much more interesting title to have on your bank card.

  • http://www.manapool.co.uk/ Evil Tactician

    Damn. For this to come out at the one time in my life when I don’t have a summer which contains a ton of spare time. And then it had to be actually good too.

    I adore AoW 2 – it’s in my opinion one of the best strategy games ever made. Certainly bang right on top of the fantasy based ones.

    Ah well – it’s solidly on top of my Steam wishlist. I’ll grab it as soon as I have either some time to dedicate to it, or it comes on sale. Whichever comes first.

    Great Review as usual, and one I devoured front to back. I really feel like playing it now.

    • Gary Thwaites

      Hmmm, a little reserved for me. I never got into the first one but Peter certainly got me into the second one. In fact it was only about a year ago we gave Shadow Magic another go in multiplayer. The points mentioned about what’s removed worries me a bit, maybe I am just afraid of change but I did like my wizard towers and front lining with my hero. (Although Peter always had all the luck in getting the better hero’s) – I too have it on my wish list so will pick it up in a sale or if I am forced into buying it to join a multiplayer game Peter repeatedly invites me to!

      • Giant

        I got it on a “cheap” pre-order, only played a few games so far but its good.

        • http://www.manapool.co.uk/ Evil Tactician

          Definitely high on my wish list. As soon as I have a stretch of time which needs filling – Age of Wonders 3 will be in it. :-)