Cast a glance at screens of Age of Wonders 3 and you'll notice two things. The first is that its fantasy-themed world is really very pretty - tall spires tower over lush forests that gradually give way to craggy peaks and glistening clear glacial waters, while quarries, mines and mana nodes pulsate with an industrial glow. The second is that, despite its aesthetic differences, Age of Wonders 3 looks to owe a lot to Civilization 5.
Certainly, its uncluttered UI, hexagonal base tiles and colour-coded delineation of territory suggest that Triumph Studios has paid close attention to advancements in the 4X space since 2003's Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. However, thanks to a host of cleverly interconnected elements, a refreshing combat system and a goofy-looking golden wyvern or two, Age of Wonders 3 reveals itself as a strategy title brimming with personality. Triumph has done a fine job of honing a handful of unique features to a fine point with which to carve out a niche beside its contemporaries, and it's one that belies the series' long absence.
Nowhere is its personality more apparent than in its varied hero units. These range from the typical snooty high-elf sorcerer to the more exotic theocrat draconian. Each of the six races and classes boasts a range of unique attributes, predispositions and intolerances that determine how well they thrive on varying terrains and what spells, empire upgrades and passive bonuses they can research. Hero units can also be customised with loot drops that randomly occur when defeating certain enemy units or exploring some of the many structures and raider sites spread above and below ground across the world map.
Triumph has a clear understanding of the frisson of excitement players feel as they push back the fog of war and march ever onwards into unexplored territory. As such, the early to mid stages of any game are enhanced by the discovery of a host of hidden terrain features, as new independent territories are encountered and brought to heel by way of coaxing or conquering. Occasionally, you'll also meet NPCs that issue quests or ask favours of you before willingly joining your side, bringing with them additional territory and armies of their own.
In this way, it's not unusual to gain access to new heroes and units from other races, adding further variety to your armies as you recruit goblin warg riders, draconian elders and baby kraken. While most base unit types are broadly consistent across all races they'll often have small variations, so an orc razor-bow archer has a chance to inflict bleed status but its human counterpart has higher base attack stats, for example.
The differences are subtle but welcome as they lend a more distinct feel to playing as a different race. Age of Wonders 3's campaign levels offer a logical starting point for new players, with some varied maps and objectives acting as an introduction to the notions of exploration and city building. Basic guidance is also offered when establishing watchtowers, forts and cities in order to claim territory and begin production of units and buildings. That said, it's not a particularly exhaustive tutorial and doesn't go far enough to explain some of the game's core concepts.
As such, you'll need to frequently delve into the Tome of Wonders early on, which is an optimistically titled in-game encyclopaedia that helps you to understand why terrain considerations make it a bad idea to establish an elven colony underground and how best to tailor your research to maximise the benefits of unique race and class powers. The game is complex enough that a certain amount of reading is necessary but the tome is at least well laid out and features links to related entries that make navigating it as painless as possible.
"Age of Wonders 3 delivers a more tightly focused experience than Firaxis' behemoth Civilization series, to which it initially appears to owe so much."
Once you've sampled both sides of the corny but resolutely po-faced campaign story there's little reason to venture back. Instead, most of your time will be spent either in scenario mode - where one to eight players can battle it out on predefined maps in a combination of free for all and team-based play - or in the custom map generator, both of which are available for online and local hot-seat play. Age of Wonders 3 boasts a multitude of options for setting-up games and while it would benefit from a few more landmass types, the option to tweak terrain types and play on maps set both above and below ground effectively doubles the available game area. A comprehensive level editor - that includes the option to for budding scriptwriters to pen their own campaign narrative - should ensure that Age of Wonders' predominantly good-natured online community will be on hand to produce a variety of levels that go above and beyond the canned options in the coming months.
Despite many a familiar empire building strategy, Age of Wonders 3 is light on diplomatic wrangling. There is but one way to win any given level, scenario or campaign and that is by domination. While alliances can be forged and bargains struck, talk is cheap and it is through action on the battlefield that the victor will ultimately be decided. Happily, combat is one of Age of Wonder 3's greatest strengths and it's Triumph's work in this area that most clearly distinguishes it from its peers.
Combat is a gloriously tactical affair and the first consideration is getting the right mix of ranged, melee, magical and mechanical units to form the backbone of your armies. Up to six units can be stacked to form a single army and it's best to have a hero unit leading the motley bunch so as to confer bonuses to their base stats and abilities. These armies are represented by the lead unit on the world map to ensure things don't get overly cluttered and they move, explore and fight as one. However, when initiating combat, any armies - friend or foe - positioned adjacent to the intended target of your ire will muck-in and so battles can range from a measly two units up to a titanic full scale war involving forty-two units. It's during manual combat that Age of Wonders 3 really shines, and it's here where terrain considerations, hero abilities, researched spells and battlefield position come together to present a rewarding change of pace.
Auto-resolving combat against minor foes can save time, and as you can watch a replay of the battle it can also be a useful way early on of exploring the nuanced action point system. Colour-coded hexagons highlight how many actions a unit will have left after they move, as well as any free hits they might have to weather should they attempt to sidle past an enemy to gain an advantageous flanking position. Later in the game it's tempting to auto-resolve all but the most epic battles but the AI can very occasionally make a mess of relatively straightforward skirmishes and so manual battles are often the safest course of action. However, in multiplayer matches it's usual practice for battles with the roaming AI to be to be auto-resolved in order to keep things moving at a fair clip.
For the most part, the AI of Age of Wonders 3 offers a robust and reasonable challenge. However, there were some hiccups along the way that meant I tried to spread my game across multiple save files in response to a couple of early examples of AI cack-handedness. On a positive note, Triumph diligently monitors its forums in response to feedback and has issued a couple of patches that have improved matters since the game's release.
Overall, Age of Wonders 3 is a solid, enjoyable and rewarding addition to its genre. It takes a risk by predicating its victory conditions on combat alone and its scope can occasionally feel limited as a result but Triumph has crafted a well-balanced and rewarding tactical battle system bolstered by a wealth of units, classes, races and abilities. Despite some familiar trappings and a shortage of genuine wonders, Age of Wonders 3 delivers a more tightly focused experience than Firaxis' behemoth Civilization series, to which it initially appears to owe so much. In doing so, it proves that even after a decade away the Age of Wonders series can still stand proud beside its modern-day contemporaries.