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Age of Wonders 4 review - a 4X for the curious

Era lot of good things about this one. - Recommended badge
Taking inspiration from RPGs breathes new life into Age of Wonders 4, which balances exciting breadth and surprising approachability.

With every new edition, tactical strategy fusion series Age of Wonders has changed up exactly how it works - and Age of Wonders 4 showed its priorities as soon as it let me make a faction of mystical, arctic-dwelling wolf-riding dwarves.

After choosing a campaign, the first choice you make is whether to use a pre-made faction or customise your own. Where in Age of Wonders 3 you could alter your leader's appearance, your empire was functionally a combination of race and class - Orcish Theocrats, or Dwarven Dreadnoughts. Here, I find myself picking my way through a menu that feels a lot more like RPG character creation: choosing a body type (with swappable perks), culture, society, and early specialisations by way of that first Tome of Magic - and, of course, appearance customisation.

Culture, and your first Tome of Magic, determine the pool of units you get. A dwarven knight in a feudal society is the same as a human knight in a feudal society - but I can upgrade them very differently. But taking enchantments through the Tomes of Magic - whether its unit enchantments that apply to just support roles, or racial enchantments that apply to all dwarves in my empire - can take base armies down a very different route, especially with the ability to mix tomes of different affinities. Mixing Order and Nature tomes within a feudal culture feels distinctly different to mixing Chaos and Nature tomes within a barbarian culture. Even with a nature tree in common, it's druidic paladins versus primal hordes.

Here's an Age of Wonders 4 trailer to show it in action.Watch on YouTube

As you play across the strategic map, the units you can recruit and how they play vary even further, as cities you vassalise and ancient wonders you explore will also free up unique units. It's a kind of depth that allows for incredible min-maxing, but Age of Wonders 4 makes a point to advise you not to worry about the numbers, and to explore themes and aesthetics you find interesting. Therefore: mystical, arctic-dwelling wolf-riding dwarves.

Despite this complexity, I'm surprised to find Age of Wonders 4 to be incredibly approachable. It's removed so many of the easy shortcuts - that an orc fighter plays like x, and an elven archer is countered with y - and so tactical fights could be incredibly dense to parse if you were solely relying on tooltips and recognising models. Instead, unit types have big, readable icons above their heads that make it easier to read the field at a glance.

Age of Wonders 4 review - screenshot showing the character creation, with male and female body types and more choices in a column on the left

A nymph's ability to convert enemy units is an entirely different kind of support unit to the Wildspeaker's ability to summon and empower animals, and I'd likely keep them in entirely different armies, but being able to identify them at a glance - and whatever unit enchantments might apply, and how I might consider them in turn order and positioning - makes tactical play so much cleaner. It's not a substitute for considered tactics, but the breadth of Age of Wonders 4 would become a slog without it.

In general, Age of Wonders 4 tries to avoid being a slog - to the extent that you could almost ask the game to play itself. Your cities can be automated, your exploration can be automated, and your tactical combat can be automated. It's a little hit and miss - the cities I let automate their own expansion seemed to contribute poorly to my economies, and the auto-explore often sent my scouts to the corners and edges of maps - but the auto-combat is mostly very good, struggling only with multi-hero stacks.

Age of Wonders 4 review - screenshot showing the tactics screen of a battle
Age of Wonders 4 review - screenshot showing a zoomed-in view of a siege, with orange desert walls and a lowered drawbridge gate
Age of Wonders 4 review - screenshot showing the overworld map and boundaries of your territory
Age of Wonders 4 review - screenshot showing two large armies facing off for a 'risky battle'

Where I'm used to auto-resolves relying on comparative calculations, Age of Wonders 4 appears to model out the fight behind the scenes. If it calls a victory with one archer lost, and I hit replay, I get to watch a fight where that one specific archer goes down, rather than them being a low-tier sacrifice. It's nice to be able to trust it to mop up fights that were overwhelmingly in my favour - and get my hands dirty for the interesting ones.

Fights against opposing heroes (the limited number of units with unique equipment and special abilities), twenty-four vs twenty-four fights, Ancient Wonders, and sieges are some of the most involved tactical battles Age of Wonders 4 offers. Sieges get a special mention for being Age of Wonders 4's solution to the slightly boring, static problem of city defence: instead of keeping a garrison around, highly fortified city centres take multiple turns for an attacking army to break down.

As the attacker, you can spend resources on siege projects to shorten that time, but the idea is that it gives the defender sufficient notice to zip back to their centre before it becomes vulnerable. Once fully besieged, battle plays out around narrow chokepoints in broken city walls, and it's a real test of whether you've assembled the right armies, and know the best way to use them.

Age of Wonders 4 review - screenshot showing the race transformation screen, for a target race to become angels

For me, some of the most interesting strategic decisions in Age of Wonders 4 are diplomatic ones, not military. On one map - because realm maps are also deeply customisable - I played with close factions, on a land mass divided by a sea, with endlessly recurring infestations of wild creatures.

I end up in a position boxed in by my neighbours to the north and south of me, with coast on one side and heavily infested mountains on the other. My northern neighbour - a fan of aggressive expansion - initially takes a liking to me as I expand into the south. However, he ends up upset when I try to mollify my southern neighbour by paying them off for my grievances.

Age of Wonders 4 review - screenshot showing the diplomacy screen between two factions

My attempts at diplomacy go poorly, as my southern neighbour refuses to be pacified and declares me their rival - making it so that their grievances with me matter far more strongly than mine with them. As they begin to act aggressively against me - settling outposts directly on my borders - I still can't declare war on them without it being considered unjustified, and therefore evil, because in the balance of things, I've aggrieved them more. My northern neighbour, meanwhile, is increasingly unhappy with my lack of aggression.

Strategically, I made a series of poor choices - I should have declared my southern neighbour my rival, and made an ally of my aggressive northern neighbour - but my desire not to be 'the bad guy' in the scenario backed me into a much more interesting corner. I battled two wars, won, ensured both my wars were 'justified' and came out with room to expand and no hits to my alignment. I was also so busy taking care of this situation that I failed to manage the mountainside infestation, and now there are roaming wolves with a taste for blood.

Age of Wonders 4 review - screenshot showing the tech tree sprouting into seven branches
Age of Wonders 4 review - screenshot showing tomes

Age of Wonders 4 makes for excellent sandboxes, and so the sudden restrictions of the campaign scenarios made me like those less. On large maps, with pre-determined scenario villains, and occasionally fixed relationships with surrounding independent cities, there's less room for this push and pull of enmity and alliances. The tension between 'this map is trying to explore a story' and 'this map wants me to snowball towards a specific victory' left me frustrated and, paradoxically, lacking direction.

While I've mostly sung praises for its design choices, my time with Age of Wonders 4 was also burdened with a number of bugs and performance issues. I regularly experienced crashes, and more often had to save and reload to fix a problem with soft-locking or broken UI. Less disruptive, but still troubling, were the moments I noticed my economy counters not quite adding up at moments when accuracy was crucial.

Age of Wonders 4 makes room for curiosity-driven play, bringing new meaning to the "exploration" part of 4X. It's striking how it balances depth and customisability without being dense or overwhelming, letting "what if?" be as valuable a question as "what next?" I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a smooth resolution to the performance issues I experienced before diving back in, but I'm still looking forward to one more turn.

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