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.