Age of Wonders: Planetfall review - depth without flavour
I promise you I have tried very hard to find something deeper, beneath the surface of Age of Wonders: Planetfall, that shows its true brilliance. I really have. It screams "hidden gem", on the face of it: a generous glob of SyFy channel space-cheese, spread over a rich and hearty mix of genres. Civilization by way of XCOM, in the ideal setting. Perfect. By any conventional wisdom you'd think, if you scratch away long enough, that the schlock on top would give way to some buried treasure. That there'd be some B-movie, Starship Troopers gold lying in wait, reserved only for those patient and diligent enough to keep digging.
If only. Keep digging at Age of Wonders: Planetfall and you will find some impressive depth, for sure, from tech trees to unit modifications to character customisation - only it's depth, unfortunately, in the sense that a twelve-page restaurant menu has depth. It's depth that inspires a sense of dread and regret, maybe some resignation, and a sigh: there is an awful lot here, I will spend a very long time working my way through it, and there's a fair chance none of it will be as good as it could have been were it left to stand alone.
A lot of that feeling is made worse than it really ought to be, too, because Age of Wonders: Planetfall simply does not explain itself well. In fact it seems confused about what, exactly, it needs to explain at all. The premise of Age of Wonders: Planetfall is that it's a mix of two brilliant but also seriously complex genres. You manage unstacked cities on a hexagonal-tiled world map, acquiring resources, advancing through tech trees, moving armies and conquering your way to more territory as you go - all very Civilization (in fact all very Civilization 5, much like 2014's Age of Wonders 3 was too). When you engage in combat, meanwhile, it's down to the turn-based-tactics level. You control an army of up to six units and move them around their own tile-based map through full cover and half cover, expending action points and improving percentage-chance-to-hits - hence, Civ crossed with XCOM.
The problem is, despite bone-grindingly long explanations of things like what "a unit" means in the game's tutorial mission, the wider principles - of both 4X and turn-based-tactics - are left completely unexplained. An example: I knew to look into the multiple win conditions, and where to look for them within one of the game's menus - but I play a lot of Civ. Would a newcomer know to go looking for that? Or where to look for it? Would they know you need to go into a city's sub-menu to find its citizens (called "colonists" in this case) and rearrange them into the most efficient, resource-pumping order? Would they know to fine-tune their economy for a single end-goal?
What about how, in the tactics battles, after a certain amount of time or some specific condition, a certain enemy unit which looks like a squelching flower seems to turn into a colossal alien nightmare that crushes everything in its path? (Honestly, I don't even know how that works myself, it happened once, there was no explanation for how it happened even in the in-game encyclopaedia's entry for the big unit itself, and I've not seen it happen since - I just know that for my poor little men it was a disaster). It all serves as more emphasis on what other games, like XCOM, do to drip-feed you principles mission-by-mission and bring you on board so well.
Meanwhile, the campaign - as well as the tutorial at first - drags you and your armies to all corners of the map on the tail of various objectives, plonking you on an open world but really wanting you to follow a linear path. It's an attempt at a more traditional RTS campaign, which is a nice idea, but it just doesn't quite blend with the urge to expand on your own. If anything it yanks you away from the foundations instead of nudging you towards them. Couple that with some extremely weak tooltips (and we all know how important a good tooltip is in this kind of game) and the only way you'll really learn is by making mistakes, which in a twenty-hour playthrough can be a bit of a dirge. The best bit of a grand strategy like this is getting it all to sing: this tech tree research leads to this mod, which is used on this unit, boosted by this skill on my commander. The more a game obfuscates that, the more it gets in the way of its own fun.
There are upshots, though. As much as the game aggressively borrows from others in the genre it does at least threaten to add the odd thing to it. The overworld map, for instance, is laid out not just in hexagons but wider sectors. Each sector has one fixed spot in the middle where you can found a city with a specific, city-founding unit, or you can colonise it, which is faster and done with any unit, and turns the sector into a resource-producing farm for a neighbouring city. You can't put two cities next to each other, and certain sectors have better resources than others, so it soon becomes a fairly interesting game of laying out your colony as efficiently as possible, juggling ownership of colonies between neighbouring cities and wresting control of others to line it all up as best you can.
That's about it, by way of new things brought to the table. Age of Wonders: Planetfall borrows aggressively from its peers, to the point where it starts to move beyond what you'd call flattery to somewhere on the border with derivative, but it's the the sci-fi, guff that encapsulates it all, where it actually falls down. The setup is promising, with future-humanity's great web of civilizations, connected across planets and systems, suddenly rendered incapable of communicating with each other. You turn up, fresh out of cryosleep, long after it's all kicked off, every planet fallen into its own kind of chaos, and at least in principle that's pretty interesting. The reality, sadly, is that this is delivered with a record-breaking number of genre-flick clichés: a great cataclysm, the void, the led-by-jocks humans, the bug-people, the machine-people, the hammy Marvel Cinematic Universe score. Even some classic android space brothels and renegade captains gone feral.
Any number of these are forgivable, or even necessary, or expected, in any game with the faintest whiff of "future" about it, but if you're not going to really engage with anything from the vast cache of interesting themes sci-fi has on offer, then the window dressing at least has to be delivered with a bit of something. A bit of humour, or self-awareness, or panache of any kind - but it's just not there. Instead the potentially rich and complex sci-fi flavour is just a drop of blue dye the tap water. If Age of Wonders: Planetfall wants to borrow without giving back - if it wants to be part of a genre that lives and dies by the little things - it has to do the work. What about the flavour text, the sound design, the little animations that can set your leaders or units apart? What about the wonderful, sinister, cynical tone of a good 4X game's world that sets you off, cackling megalomaniac of the future, to exploit and explore? Or above all that overwhelming, ineffable atmosphere - that somehow seems caused by the literal lack of it - that you pick up from anything truly great set in space?
I'm more frustrated with Age of Wonders: Planetfall than I ought to be. It's an honest work and a perfectly serviceable, functioning strategy game. The turn-based tactical battles are imprecise compared to some, but they're still enjoyable and stimulating enough, with plenty to dig into if you're really up for the challenge. The grand strategy's still compelling enough for one more turn - and the goofy genre trappings are almost endearing. It's just such a waste, to see a game freely mine its own brilliant influences and extract nothing of much use.