Age of Wonders 3 review: Sleep when you're dead

Last Saturday, at about four in the morning, I found myself locked in a war of attrition with an angry orc. He'd sacked almost the entirety of my kingdom, forcing my meager remaining troops to hole up in a labyrinthine cave system beneath the surface. There I waited, biding my time, as my generals rallied new soldiers. A few dwarven prospectors, a human assassin and a pair of red dragons eventually joined our ranks. As I once again spurred my faithful giant lizard steed onward toward daylight, I could clearly make out cries of terror in the guttural patois of the ruling orcish class.

In the end, I lost that fight. The orcs fell, but a few hundred turns later I was betrayed by a High Elf who had, up until that point, been a useful ally. The world of Age of Wonders 3 is a cruel place, but it's also incredibly addicting. Moments after my former ally ended my quest, I started a new one, this time as a Goblin religious zealot with a fondness for arson.
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Age of Wonders 3 (4/4/14)

There's a simple elegance to the turn-based, strategy gameplay in Age of Wonders 3. Most of the time, players will find themselves navigating the overworld map, which resembles a lushly-detailed board game. A left-click selects units, towns or any other item on the map, while a right-click confirms orders to a unit or the casting of a spell. Hotkeys are available to speed these processes, but they're entirely optional, and it's very easy to spend an entire game without ever touching the keyboard. This design simplicity helps greatly with combating the learning curve, and what's not immediately intuitive is explained in the Tome of Wonders, a massive in-game repository of both lore and mechanical information. Think of it as a really excellent, comprehensive manual. To weigh Age of Wonders 3 against its contemporaries, there's more depth here than in the superficially similar Civilization, but basic competency demands far less dedication to learning core gameplay systems than Crusader Kings 2.

Combat is also immediately accessible thanks to an intuitive, attractive shift in design. When two armies meet on the overworld map, they're both transported to a fully 3D recreation of their immediate overworld surroundings, complete with buildings, plants and random debris. Here, up to six units from each army square off in turn-based combat. A maximum of six armies can compete in each battle, so while most will be small skirmishes, you'll occasionally witness huge conflicts that are surprisingly intense, despite being turn-based. In Age of Wonders 3, as in many strategy games, cavalry beats foot soldiers, foot soldiers beat archers and archers beat cavalry. However, each unit's individual skills and stats can greatly shift the tide of battle.

You won't need to memorize a lengthy list of stats to play Age of Wonders 3, but know that almost every unit offers far more utility than you'd initially expect. Dwarven footsoldiers, for instance, would basically be cannon fodder if not for their ability to throw rocks. That simple addition moves a standard footsoldier into the realm of legitimate threat, and each unit features this exact same kind of unexpectedly clever design. Age of Wonders 3 may offer only six basic types of armies, but the huge variety in individual units more than makes up for this minor flaw.

Resources are key to victory, of course, and in Age of Wonders 3 your most crucial resources are towns. Towns build units, generate income and cast a large area of influence around themselves that serves as your native territory. Every town has a basic complement of units and structures it can construct, but each can also create certain racially dependent units. A human village is as unlikely to spawn a horde of goblins as a subterranean goblin village is to birth an armor-clad knight. Despite these unique units however, towns are largely similar, which stands as an oddly beige design choice in a game that's otherwise defined by its wildly diverse creatures and realms.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Leaders, which serve as a player's avatar. Leaders hail from one of six classes and one of six races. These are all traditional, high-fantasy fare, drawing as much inspiration from Tolkien as Dungeons & Dragons. Orcs are muscular beasts who excel at combat, while elves lend themselves well to ranged warfare. Likewise, the Rogue class relies on stealth and deception while the Arch Druid battles foes by summoning giant-sized versions of woodland creatures. With the possible exception of the steampunk-inspired, techno-fetishist Dreadnought class, there's not much here you haven't seen before. Though Leaders can stand on the front lines of a fight and hack enemies apart like your other units, you generally don't want to risk them in the middle of a fray. They're simply too valuable. Most gameplay modes actually use the death of your Leader as a loss condition but, more than that, Leaders are the units who guide your armies, capture locations on the overworld and cast devastating spells both in and out of combat. They're also the focal point of the deep customization options that have been baked into every facet of Age of Wonders 3.

Age of Wonders 3's greatest strength lies in its random map generator. The developer-crafted campaigns and scenarios are wonderful adventures, and their engaging stories both entertain and highlight the game's many unique features, but eventually you're going to exhaust this content. That's when the random map generator steps in with a nigh-infinite variety of new realms to explore.

Generating a new map is simple: First you choose a map size, the style of its landmasses, and the type of game you'd like to play – "Battle" is focused on combat, "Adventure" is focused a blend of exploration and story elements, you get the idea – then you dig into the intricate details. A list of sliders, ranging from Arctic, to Wetlands, to Volcanic, determines the geographical makeup of your new map, offering immense variety and a quick way to throw together a random adventure using only a few basic parameters. In 30 seconds you can create a unique, interesting map that will take 40 hours to complete. It's a credit to Triumph how well these random maps turn out, as disparate features like oceans, mountains and deserts gradually transition into one another in realistic fashion – or at least as realistic as a map can be when it's populated by ogres and lightning-spewing dragons.

Compounding the wide range of scenarios the random map generator provides are two subterranean levels that can be applied to any map, effectively tripling their size. There's no such thing as truly infinite replayability, but the random map generator, coupled with the newly released custom map editor, should keep players occupied for months.

After losing most of the last two weeks to Age of Wonders 3, I'm no less enchanted by the game than I was in my first few hours exploring its rich fantasy world. This is a deep experience backed by intricate mechanics and a concerted polish that makes gameplay immediately intuitive and rewarding. Age of Wonders 3 will keep you up until the wee hours of the morning, constantly muttering that you'll crawl into bed after just one more turn. A few areas could benefit from being fleshed out by inevitable DLC, but Age of Wonders 3 is as glorious a resurrection as the series could have hoped for.

This review is based on a Steam download of Age of Wonders 3, provided by Triumph Studios. Images: Triumph Studios.

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