Sequels seem to come in three flavors: the “more of everything” flavor, where gameplay doesn’t change any, but there are more weapons, units, races, and so forth; the “it’s not an expansion pack” flavor, where it’s really an expansion pack, despite what the developer and publisher say; and the “overhaul” flavor, where the developer re-thinks several design decisions and makes significant changes to try and make the game better. As game players go, we always hope for the third flavor, but we usually get one of the first two.
So what does Age of Wonders II: The Wizard’s Throne taste like? It seems to be a mix of the second two flavors. Age of Wonders II is still a fantasy-themed turn-based strategy game where you control cities for resources, use those resources to train troops, and then march those troops around the map to conquer your enemies. In fact, much of Age of Wonders II is identical (or nearly identical) to 1999’s Age of Wonders. There are still six spheres of magic containing roughly the same spells. There are still 12 races of creatures, and while some of those races are new, the new races are similar in theme to the old races (such as the desert-living Tigrans replacing the desert-living Azracs). And the gameplay is still about the same. Anybody who played Age of Wonders will be right at home with Age of Wonders II.
So what did developer Triumph Studios change? Other than some minor things, like finally being able to dismiss troops, the changes come in two areas: cities and heroes. In Age of Wonders, cities were fixed in size and could only be developed to provide better troops. In Age of Wonders II, not only can cities grow in size, they also have numerous upgrades available to them, and you can even train “pioneer” units to create new cities. Those are nice changes, because now cities are a more important part of the game, and they provide more strategy. Do you build a library to help with research, or a war hall to provide better troops, or a temple to make the inhabitants more happy, or do you do none of those things so the city can grow faster? Those are decisions you have to make during the game.
Triumph Studios also made a couple interesting changes with regard to heroes (units that gain experience and have special skills). One of the main differences between Age of Wonders and the Heroes of Might and Magic series was that Age of Wonders actually let its heroes take to the battlefield. New World Computing liked the idea so much they implemented it in Heroes of Might and Magic IV. So how did Triumph Studios respond? They went backwards in a sense and created a special wizard hero, sort of a mix between the Age of Wonders hero and the early Heroes of Might and Magic hero. It’s a unit in the game, but it can cast spells during combat without physically being at the battle, provided you’re in the wizard’s domain. This is another nice enough change, because it means you have to pay attention to your wizard’s domain, and because it allows you to research “skills” for your wizard (wizards don’t gain experience) so the wizard can use more mana or help cities become more productive.
What Triumph Studios failed to do was figure out a way to allow heroes take part in battles, but not let those heroes get so powerful that they can do everything on their own. Age of Wonders had that problem, as does Heroes of Might and Magic IV to some extent, and so it’s curious that Triumph Studios didn’t even address the issue. But as things are now, a level 30 hero can pretty much kill any army on its own, as long as there isn’t another high level hero involved. That makes the end of the game pretty boring, because all you have to do is walk your heroes around and click on the quick combat button whenever they run into an enemy. Ho hum.
Age of Wonders II also has some of the same pacing problems as Age of Wonders. It still takes days to produce buildings and troops, and so if you want to get to a race’s special champion troop, it takes a city a full month of doing nothing else just to produce the first one. Battles also tend to be lengthy affairs, simply because they can include up to six armies of eight troops apiece. Luckily, Triumph Studios changed combat slightly so that armies start closer together now (thus avoiding the boring first move from Age of Wonders), but, unluckily, the quick combat option is still mostly just a way of getting your troops killed, and so you have to manage all the battles on your own if you want to win. (And you should even manage battles with your high level heroes. Otherwise the AI will waste all your mana.)
But the worst pacing problem is something brand new. The single-player campaign is largely made up of six separate mini-campaigns, one for each of the six spheres of magic. All heroes and equipment and spells and wizard skills carry over during the mini-campaigns (there aren’t any more carry-over points to worry about), and heroes only have a simple level 30 limit rather than an increasing limit as the campaign progresses. That’s all fine -- except it means there’s absolutely no incentive to finishing scenarios early. You’re much better off hanging around doing nothing so you can gain some more levels for your heroes or research extra skills for your wizard than you are finishing a scenario. All finishing a scenario quickly does is make the later scenarios more difficult, so why do it?
Triumph Studios could have spiced up the game a little by making an interesting campaign, but they didn’t. There are some evil wizards, and you need to defeat them -- and defeat them, and then defeat them some more, and that’s about the gist of the storyline. There are some quests to the scenarios, but they’re handled so badly you might not even realize they’re there, and they’re considered so secondary to the game that there isn’t even a menu option to see the scenario objectives. You just kill those wizards over and over. Really, with a mini-campaign for each of the six spheres of magic, and consequently controlling about half of the 12 races in the game, the campaign is really just a primer for multiplayer, and perhaps that’s where Triumph Studios expects the bulk of the game to be played. But poor pacing plus a boring campaign is a bad mix for me since I rarely play a game long enough to get into multiplayer.
Overall, Age of Wonders II is similar enough to Age of Wonders that I didn’t really like either game for the same reasons (mostly the pacing). When I finished the campaign, it was with a sense of relief that I could move on to something else. But other people seem to like Age of Wonders II, and it has nice enough production values (graphics, sound, and cinematics) and its races seem to be well balanced, and so it’s probably a worthwhile game to check out if you’re a fan of turn-based strategy. Sometimes there are good games that I just don’t like -- as fans of Battle Realms would have you believe -- and maybe that’s the case here.