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Game Over Online ~ Age of Wonders

GameOver Game Reviews - Age of Wonders (c) Gathering of Developers, Reviewed by - FitFortDa

Game & Publisher Age of Wonders (c) Gathering of Developers
System Requirements Pentium 166, 32MB Ram, 4x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 78%
Date Published Tuesday, December 14th, 1999 at 07:41 PM


Divider Left By: FitFortDa Divider Right

Chalk it up to slow reflexes, but I've always enjoyed turn-based strategy more than its twitchy cousin, real-time. I had many a sleepless night glued to my Amiga 500 playing Civilization, mumbling the now-familiar mantra "one more turn...." And when I discovered the Heroes of Might & Magic series, I was in hog heaven. So I was pleasantly surprised by this very well-produced (if not particularly original) HOMM clone, Age of Wonders, from Gathering of Developers.

Make no bones about it, this IS a clone. A high-fantasy setting, populated by elves and undead, dwarves and orcs (and oh yeah, humans... what are THEY doing here?). Heroes who gather items and gain levels. Collecting gold and "mana crystals", claiming mines, cities that pump out combat units like a factory. But there are a few differences.

First off is the "simultaneous turn" mode. As you're plotting your next move, you'll see the computer opponent shuffling his armies about. An interesting idea, but usually the AI will finish its moves before you've done more than a couple of things. It's a bone thrown at the real-timers, but most people will probably turn this option off or just ignore it. In multiplayer, on the other hand, it's a godsend. Anyone who's played a turn-based game online knows the pain of waiting for your opponents to finish their turns. Well, now you just have to wait for the slowest opponent (usually me) to finish his turn.

Another big change is hero advancement. Not content with giving you just a few stats to beef up, AoW gives you stats plus a SLEW of skills to learn. These can improve the morale of your party, give you better movement, make you more effective against certain enemies, allow you to climb fortress walls, etc., etc., etc. Some skills require more than one level's worth of points to obtain, making the selection process that much more delightfully agonizing. Do I boost my Damage and give myself Cave Crawling, or hold out until next level so I can improve my spellcasting? It gives the game a degree of customization that really gets you attached to your heroes.

Battles can be played out in "Automatic" or "Tactical" mode. Tactical allows you to move your units over a large map (much larger and more intricate than in Heroes of Might & Magic), taking turns swinging swords, casting spells, and bashing down walls. Automatic does the work for you, with the AI taking over both sides. It's great for those 8-on-1 battles where you know the outcome, but even a novice will get better results from Tactical in the battles where it really counts.

Unlike HOMM, your units can travel without heroes. It's great to be able to send a lone horseman roaming the countryside, looking for mines and recruits. The units are your standard bill of fare: from the lowly archers, battering rams and swordsmen up to unicorns, giants and demons. Mega-units like dragons, however, must be summoned: a process that can put a huge dent in your mana pool and take several turns to cast. Your armies will also gain experience from combat, and can increase in level, or be trained in the arena (for a small fee, of course). Unit balance is adequate, although the large battlefield gives missile-based attacks a slight edge over close-range melee. One nifty unit is the mole, who can plow more convenient passageways through caverns.

Also unlike HOMM, battles can involve more than one group against another group. Position your forces right, and you can have up to 56 units duking it out on the field. Although technically (because of stackable units) HOMM can have a lot of more, it feels much more grandiose.

You won't be micro-managing your towns as much as you would in HOMM. You're either producing units, fortifying your walls, upgrading to get better units, or "producing merchandise" (i.e., getting paid). Other than that, the only options are Raze (tear the sucka down), Loot (same as Raze but takes longer and gives you a small profit) or Migrate. No tedious clicking through every city to keep building the structures you want.

About migrating: captured enemy cities will revolt if you don't have a suitable number of forces to keep the peace, but you can migrate friendly citizens there if you don't mind holding your army in the city while it takes the 3-5 turns to complete the process. Migrating has the added benefit of making that race's units available in that town. Need a Dwarven Balloon in an Elvish city? Migrate! It will, unfortunately, lower your standing with the natives, so use it sparingly or your friends may become enemies.

Scattered throughout the landscape are a variety of goodies. There are dungeons, ziggurats and ruins to explore and retrieve items (the usual stat-boosters) for your heroes or grateful rescuees who will join you; "nodes" to boost your mana resources; shipyards and builders; and my personal favorite -- altars. With control of an altar you can rain a cloud of death (or "life", for those pesky undead), several hexes wide, on any enemies (or your own armies if you're not careful) within a certain radius. Recharging the altar takes a long time, however, and you can't use it while it's recharging unless you have a hefty mana pool.

There are a couple of dozen stand-alone scenarios and a lengthy campaign which can be played as either good or evil. The two sides of the campaign are very different, so it's not at all like playing the same campaign twice. Additionally, the campaigns have a few branches, adding to the replay value. I was drawn into the story and plugging away into the wee hours ("one more turn...") to see what would happen next. It's the usual struggle of good vs. evil, but it's well-told and you'll find yourself feeling kinship for certain races, disdain for others, and pure hatred for some. You have a certain number of "points" to allocate for armies, heroes, items and gold you want to carry over to the next scenario. Maps vary in size, from small island scenarios to huge tri-level (surface and two levels of caves) behemoths that will take you quite a few hours to conquer. A map editor is also included (although there is no random map generator).

Age of Wonders features a Civilization-style element of diplomacy, where you can approach the other races with peace offerings, pacts to eliminate an enemy race, or declarations of war. The AI, however, never seemed to initiate these meetings, so it's a feature you can easily ignore if you choose.

Multi-player works well. There's a number of multi-player maps included (with lots of user-created maps popping up on the web), with all kinds of scenarios. Races can be assigned to the AI, with varying degrees of aggressiveness and competence. Play cooperatively to eliminate the enemy, or good vs evil, or every man for himself, etc. The chat window is somewhat obtrusive, but can be minimized when not in use. Lag was a slight issue on a 56K connection, but nothing major. Setting up a multi game was quick and easy. The "innovation" here is actually a welcome "throwback": Play By E-Mail! It's nice to see this as an option, and I hope more games follow suit. Otherwise, however, AoW brings nothing new to the multiplayer table.

The interface is remarkably easy to learn: anyone with experience playing a turn-based game can skip the brief tutorial. Everything is self-explanatory, not once did I have to turn for help. Each unit has a list of stats and skills, and a background story to help you understand its strengths and weaknesses.

The graphics are about what you'd expect: very HOMM-ish. The only real difference is on the battlefield, a sprawling area that recalls X-Com more than HOMM. Spell effects are nice (Geyser is a real hoot!) but not too extravagant. Nothing special, but at least you don't need next year's computer to run it. The sound effects as well are decent but uninspiring (personally, I enjoyed the Three Stooges-esque THWACK of sword meeting flesh, but I can see how it might begin to annoy some people). The same can be said for the background music: it does the job, but you won't be rushing out to buy the soundtrack.

As much as I enjoyed Age of Wonders, I do have some gripes. When you meet the objectives of a campaign scenario, you're immediately thrust into the next mission without being given a chance to explore the map more. To make matters worse, you rarely know what the objectives are. You kill an enemy hero (and they don't tell you which one is the one you need to smack down) and suddenly you're staring at the scenario statistics screen. But wait, I wanted to see what was in that dungeon back there! Too bad, thank you drive through. Also, messages are relegated to a small box in the corner. When you're pumping out a dozen units per turn, it's all too easy to miss some important info. The AI is not very challenging, relying more on the "I've got 3 times more units than you" tactic than any real strategy (turn on "auto" in Tactical mode and watch in horror as the AI puts your archers face to face with the enemy's most powerful melee units). Each battle starts out with the opposing armies too far apart to do anything to each other, so you'll spend a bit of time clicking each unit to move it forward. It would have been nice to be able to group them up. And when you're carrying over items to use in the next scenario, you can't check to see what each one does, so you have to remember which is the better shield.

Perhaps the worst thing I can say about Age of Wonders is the permeating feeling of "been there done that". It's so bluntly a rip-off of HOMM that you can't help but compare the two. Nevertheless, I feel that the few changes (especially the much more complex battles and deeper hero advancement) and the intriguing campaign make it a worthy addition to any turn-based fan's collection. I hope GoD comes up with more original innovations for the (probable) sequel.

 

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Rating
78%
 

 

 
 

 

 

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