One could say that Age of Wonders has lost its magic, others could say that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Brace yourselves; it’s time for the magical wonders of Planetfall.
Type: Single-player, Multi-player
Developer: Triumph Studios
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Franchise: Age of Wonders
Release Date: 6 Aug, 2019
Age of Wonders is a game series I have dabbled with in the past. From my first encounter with Shadow Magic and later the original, to the hours I sunk in to Age of Wonders 3, I am quite familiar with the series and what it has to offer. Being a strategic games fan who has been stuck in a JRPG rut lately I was quite thrilled to have another hexagonal 4X science fiction turn-based combat game to play, especially one from a familiar series. Age of Wonders: Planetfall brings to the table almost everything that made the previous Age of Wonders games fun. Unfortunately along with all the fun came all the things that remind me just how bad I am at these sorts of games.
First off, this game is quite a departure from its predecessors. Rather than sticking to its roots, it has opted to reach out for the stars. Set in the age of space travel, different races and factions now battle for supremacy over the resources of various planets. Age of Wonders: Planetfall has a choice for you to make right at the very beginning. Do you play in the sandbox giving you access to all the races from the start, or do you play the campaign and choose from the initial three for now? The sandbox is definitely a good place to start as it will help you learn the ropes much better than the actual tutorial does. The tutorial does a good job, don’t get me wrong, but it tends to just inundate you with a ton of information in a short period potentially leaving you reeling from information overload. Once you get the hang of it though, it really isn’t so hard to follow. Unlike your typical game, choosing one faction doesn’t send you down a series of missions specific to that faction until the game is over. The game actually makes you play all three of the initial factions in order to push the story along. Different missions have different unlock requirements. Typically, this means having to finish the mission that directly precedes it for that faction, but in some cases, specific missions from other factions as well must be completed in order to progress the story along. I kind of like this disjointed story telling. I encountered it somewhat recently in Dawn of War III and thought it was a little squirrelly then but it grew on me to the point where I liked the idea that you were seeing the story unfold for all factions at the same time rather than viewing one side at a time. Age of Wonders: Planetfall does it in a way that I liked a little better. In Dawn of War III, you had to play the missions in the order you were told, but in Age of Wonders: Planetfall you can at least progress somewhat at your own discretion. If you want to power your way through one faction first you can do it until you encounter the roadblock then power through another faction, or you can play them in the order they are presented or basically whichever active story mission you want.
Each faction has its own unique units with some of their own unique abilities. The strategy you used when playing one faction may not work as well with another faction. I won’t really go into the details of the faction specific variations, but I will talk a little bit about strategy in general because it helps frame the game for those that have no idea what an Age of Wonders game is like. When you first make Planetfall (start a mission) you land in a zone on a planet. Around you will be various other zones. At the start of the mission typically the zones near you are unclaimed although might have wildlife or non-factional NPCs inhabiting them that might need a little persuasion by force to leave the area so you can collect whatever resources they were protecting. When you first start out the game is relatively calm and it feels like you have plenty of time to tech up or otherwise build your base. You will also be able to expand your influence into the areas around you and exploit the resources. You will be given a mission objective and a few other tasks to complete but no real sense of urgency to complete them before you feel ready. The issue is, the various other factions are doing the exact same thing. If you went to the mission objective early on, it likely was in still unclaimed land, but wait too long and another faction may have expanded its control and influence over the area. This leads to you either having to diplomatically engage the other faction to give you access or control of that land or for you to trespass and risk going to war with them. This is where the strategy really comes in to play.
In Age of Wonders: Planetfall you need a lot of time to do anything. If you make an army of units, the army will only be able to move as far as its slowest unit per turn. If you expand your territory too much you will have difficulty maintaining control over it should a war break out, if you don’t expand your territory enough you will find yourself struggling for resources. A single unit won’t be able to stop an army, nor will an army that is several turns away be able to move into position to defend your capital if you have overextended yourself. It can take a few turns to produce a single unit so you can’t rely on just building a quick army if you see the enemy roaming around the outskirts of your territory. Besides just deciding what units to build and what to do with them when you have them, you also have to build base elements as well as define how you want to exploit the individual territories you control too. Lastly another major element you need to do is decide what things you want to research, giving priority to things you need over things that would be nice to have, or simply figuring out what you need to research before unlocking the thing you actually want. The tech trees are quite expansive and will take a long time to research everything so prioritizing your path is likely the best course of action.
Your heroes and units are not immune to selective customization either. When it comes to units, you will be able to install mods into them to enhance their capabilities in battle. Once you have designed a modified unit, you will be able to build the unit again with the mod already installed or else produce your regular units. For your heroes, you will need to deal with mods as well as figure out what skills you want to spend your limited skill points on as well as what primary and secondary weapons you want them to be equipped with or if you would rather, they drive a vehicle. All of this individual customization can make Age of Wonders: Planetfall quite a daunting challenge for inexperienced players. While technically you can go without doing it, it truly is in your best interest to modify your units to suit your needs in order to turn the tides of battle.
Combat is played on a hex field. This hex field is littered with impassable terrain, traps, explosives and defensive cover. Various abilities can also introduce new harmful elements to the terrain. Each unit has a limited amount of range it can move, and the further it moves the less it will be able to do that turn. The game nicely lays out the ranges around the unit to give you an idea of how far you can move and still perform an action. Different actions take differing amounts of action points to perform. Moving through a harmful tile will cause your units to take damage. Standing behind cover can help shield you from damage, but if that cover is an explosive object, it could do more harm than any defense it could have offered. Combat is turn based for the most part, each combatant takes the time to move their units where they want to be and take the appropriate actions. Either attacking the enemy, using an ability or taking a defensive posture. Some units have the ability to automatically attack the first unit that comes within its “overwatched” area. It’s a handy option if you are out of range of the enemy, but anticipate them getting close enough to fire upon (or melee attack) on their turn. Eventually the side with surviving units wins the battle. With there being a wide number of units when counting both the available designs as well as all your modded variants, it can really make combat interesting. Also, if you try to be clever and quick save before combat to get a feel for the mods you will need, you will still need a turn for the mods to be installed. If you are being attacked odds are you won’t get your mods installed in time for them to be used. One other thing we can mention about combat is army strength. If you have multiple armies on the world map within range of the enemy you are attacking, those additional armies may be able to join in the combat. This isn’t always the case such as when you are going inside of an object on the map rather than just attacking an enemy on the map, but most of the time it works well. Strength through numbers will often prevail.
As eluded to earlier, the campaign map is quite large. Each zone has its own hex fields you can move units in to. Some of those fields have special characteristics and others are just filler. The special hexes usually have guards to contend with if you want to capture it for your own. Each area has one control point that if you annex makes the entire zone yours. You can also just claim areas or expand your colony’s bases as well allowing for more production. It’s important that you grab as many zones as you can safely control as early into the game as you can as the more turns that progress the more likely for those zones to be claimed by another faction. This leaves you unable to expand your territory without provoking another faction.
Factions are interesting. You will be able to enter into diplomatic arrangements with pretty much any faction you meet. From complimenting them to trash talking them, you are able to influence the opinions of other factions as well adjust your own standings. Perhaps another faction has something you want, you could barter for it. Offering “this for that” is an effective way to gain the resources or access to territories that you might desperately need. Eventually you will use this to form alliances with some factions and go to war with others. You can’t please everyone and sometimes no matter how hard you try, you just can’t come to a reasonable understanding through peaceful needs. If the mission is sending you to a specific area and another faction owns it now and won’t let you visit, you will be forced to either trespass and risk going to war with them, or cut to the chase and just begin blasting your way through their territory cutting yourself a path to glory.
I did have an opportunity to play online, and I can tell you that the other players are even more ruthless than the AI. I could talk about the online in great detail and share my personal experience there, but since it basically plays the same as I already described and I actually have something more interesting to share. Age of Wonders: Planetfall offers asynchronous gameplay for multiplayer. This means that you and your friends or other players don’t need to coordinate when you will be able to play a group game session. Each player gets to take a turn when they have chance to even if the other players are not available at the time. Sure this is likely to draw a game out over a much longer period but it still allows for even busy people to have a chance to enjoy multiplayer game.
Overall, you can see that Age of Wonders: Planetfall has a ton of things to contend with when you sit down for a game. It isn’t unusual for your plans to go completely out the window and for your empire to fall apart simply because you decided to check out something a little too far away from your area of influence and a rival faction took the opportunity to capture your territory. The AI in Age of Wonders: Planetfall is good. It doesn’t tend to make that many mistakes and will take advantage of any opportunity you present for it. Did you decide to speed things up by sending your armies to the various objective points on the map simultaneously? A faction you were having a rocky relationship with might declare war on you and send its army to your defenseless Capital capturing it before you have a hope to regroup. Sometimes sacrifices are needed too. You might enter one of the battles that don’t let you bring backup armies with you. The enemy army might overwhelm you, but you will leave them bloodied enough that you will be able to send in another army to mop up. I’ve found that having an expendable team made up of fast building lower cost units can really help soften up well entrenched enemies and reduces the risk to my better units. The reason why Team Expendable is useful is that anyone who survives will likely get enough experience to level up. The stronger the units get the better they perform so they might graduate from the rank of Human Shield to Front Line Infantry.
Graphically, Age of Wonders: Planetfall looks wonderful for the kind of game it is. Even if you turn the graphics settings down the game still looks good, so those of you who have to sacrifice graphics in order to play newer games will likely still have quite a visual treat. Each hero has its own look, and even your own hero can be customized to your own tastes. There are quite a few different units to use and each faction has their own look to it. The terrain is varied enough that it keeps it interesting and each planet looks different from the previous. The character designs for the various factions does help with the feel that they are all their own unique alien race rather than just being humans acting like jerks to each other which is quite refreshing. The combat had enough variations between weapons that it was interesting, to watch the battle unfold.
The sound effects in the game worked very well for it. Nothing was overly quiet nor was it obnoxious to listen to for an extended period of time. The characters that spoke had pleasant enough sounding voices that were easy to hear and understand. The atmospheric background music was good in such a way that I had to launch the game again to see if it had any. Its absence would be sorely missed, but it isn’t overshadowing the gameplay so much that it is overly memorable. I actually kind of liked that about it. That isn’t to say the background music isn’t well crafted, because it actually is, I just feel that it blended into the game so well that it added to the experience rather than distracting from it.
The controls and user interface are acceptable for this kind of game. It’s a bit on the complicated side at times, but the game spells out to you what buttons you need to press to do what so it never becomes overwhelming. Navigating the menus is very easy while at the same time offering a decent amount of information and option for you to play with. The path your units will follow, the distance they can travel and their abilities after moving those distances (if in combat) are all plainly laid out for you and you would be hard pressed to get confused as to exactly what will happen when you move. Sometimes you may accidentally miss click and send your unit to the hex next to where you meant, so an undo option would have been nice before you committed to the move, but it is understandable that that option is absent. The only thing that I could think of that someone might have trouble navigating is the base management screens. Rather than listing everything on one panel, the game breaks it into several sublevels for you to navigate through. This helps keep the user interface clean and not overly cluttered, but it may make you forget to take certain actions if you don’t switch subscreens. Lastly, the game will hold your hand quite a bit if you let it by reminding you of which units still need to take an action, that your current research is finished and that you need to start new research or that a new unit/building has finally been produced. Overall the user interface and controls work well and after the steep learning curve has been surmounted it became quite easy to navigate.
So, should you pick up Age of Wonders: Planetfall? If you are an Age of Wonders fan already, then you likely wouldn’t even need to ask this question. It’s a great addition to the Age of Wonders series and you will most certainly want to pick it up. If you are a science fiction fan looking for a new game to play, you likely would also find something to enjoy with Planetfall. If you are strategy fan who enjoys 4X games or hex grid games in general, then you will also probably find a new challenge here. If you are looking for a new space-themed game to casually play, then perhaps this isn’t for you. You have to be willing to sink a few hours into a single mission just to have it all go wrong for you and then need to start over and try again. The game isn’t overly forgiving if you make a mistake. It also forces you to plan at least 5-10 turns ahead if you even stand a chance to win the mission. Your units will take a long time to get where you need them, and will take just as long to get back to base if you are in desperate need of them. Building new units or buildings can take several turns so you can’t really waste a turn debating what to do next. While you can save the game when you want, you might need to roll back quite a few turns just to get yourself into a position that you can salvage your efforts. Even then, like almost any classic time travel movie might tell you, messing with the past can cause a different future for yourself. Overall, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is definitely one that I am willing to Save.