Age of Wonders is one of the most ambitious fantasy strategy games ever created, and also one of the most expensive: it was sold in most retail outlets for $54 or more - a good $20 pricier than other PC games. Unfortunately despite slick graphics, intuitive interface, and a nice variety of missions and campaigns, Age of Wonders lacks long-term playability due to poor AI and some repetitiveness that creeps in after you explore all the options.
The game is reminiscent of Heroes of Might & Magic in many ways. It is set in the "Valley of Wonders", populated by all the requisite fantasy races. Instead of the usual humans, Elves are the peace-loving heroes in Age of Wonders, although a faction, the rebellious Dark Elves, seek vengeance on humans for taking their kingdom. You are Leader of one of the game's twelve races, each one different from others based on philosophical alignment and combat/magical abilities - similar to AD&D rules. A difference between Age of Wonders and other games is that there are quite a variety of human race types in the game in addition to your usual undead, goblin, orc, etc. counterparts.
Gameplay in AoW will be familiar to HoMM players, although it does have some innovative features. You build and upgrade towns, recruit heroes and units, and send them to invade enemy cities or side quests similar to Warlords 3. Some of the game's more interesting features include a huge variety of spells, and vast subterranean levels complete with cities and unique maps. You often need to traverse these dark caves to surface at an otherwise inaccessible location on the surface map. A very nice aspect of the games is that you really need to play the campaign game to find out how the story evolves - and there are quite a few interest twists along the way to keep you playing to see how the story unfolds, mostly through stylish cut scenes.
There are two campaigns and 22 scenarios (23 if you include the tutorial) included in the game. There are no random maps and city placement is fixed. You can completely destroy cities but you may not build new towns. The campaigns are non-linear in the sense that there are many branching points where you must decide which direction to go. Do you save dwarves from extinction or do you move forward with your main mission? Do you take an overland route or fight your way through a subterranean path? Similar to Fantasy General, these choices keep the game interesting and make it highly replayable. You also get to choose which units and items get to go with you to the next campaign mission, although you are limited by a point system that determines how many points you get to spend to move units, gold, items, and mana forward to the next mission. The scenarios are played on maps of varying sizes and with varying number of opponents. Each scenario recreates some historical event and they are quite challenging. You can choose between three levels of computer player difficulty in the campaign and scenario games. An interesting feature in the game is your ability to set a race's strategy to aggressor, defender, expander, or scorcher. Each changes the way the race behaves during the scenario and you can set the race to normal (the strategy that the race would normally have) or random so that you do not know beforehand how the race will behave. You can play Age of Wonders versus up to 11 opponents in single computer or hot-seat, internet, IPX LAN, and play by email multiplayer games. Custom scenarios can be created with the included map editor.
Two other notable features of the game are: the choice to play in either a simultaneous or turn-based mode, and the intriguing diplomacy model. You start the game with "default" relations that are pre-set depending on your race. For example, orcs and humans are enemies by default. Your actions during the game will either improve or degrade a race's relationship with yours. Each turn either increases or decreases your relationship with each race until the default relationship is reached. Terrain can also affect your race because some races have naturally friendly or hostile terrain. Terrain relationship will affect the city relationship that will, in turn, affect production and rebellion. This intricate relationship between races and how it affect the rest of the game is one facet that makes AoW a deeper game than your basic fantasy hack-and-slash.
Overall, I had a lot of fun with Age of Wonders. It is a pity that somehow Epic Megagames decided to price the game much higher than standard - the retail price was around $57 as opposed to $30 - $40 for most games. It is not quite the masterpiece that Master of Magic is, because of poor computer AI and too many "puzzle" elements in some maps. But it is still a game worthy of your time if you enjoy fantasy wargames. I spent countless hours with the game, and the interesting storyline kept me glued to the screen with that familiar "just one more turn" feeling.
Reviewed by: Underdogs