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Age of Wonders III (PC) artwork

Age of Wonders III (PC) review

"Take Civilization V, greatly simplify city management, throw in tactical RPG battles and replace all the ethnicities with classical fantasy races. You now have a close approximation of the addictive experience that is Age of Wonders III. It took a great deal of willpower to pry myself away from the game long enough to write this review."

Take Civilization V, greatly simplify city management, throw in tactical RPG battles and replace all the ethnicities with classical fantasy races. You now have a close approximation of the addictive experience that is Age of Wonders III. It took a great deal of willpower to pry myself away from the game long enough to write this review.

Age of Wonders III mostly revolves around managing cities which occupy a region known as your "Domain" on the hexagonal grid that represents the world. Cities produce money, mana (for casting spells), knowledge (used to research new skills and enhancements) and population (growth increases Domain range and income). Cities can either train army units or build upgrades, which improve on all of these factors.

Campaign mode is a welcome single player addition which doubles as a decent tutorial. You can play as either the wise, nature-loving Elves or the ambitious, technologically-advanced Humans. It was a fantastic choice to include plot-driven content, but the narrative itself is nothing special. The two factions are enemies in both campaigns, so while it's nice to hear both sides of the story, I would have preferred to see separate plotlines with different races. But there's always DLC for that.

Other gameplay options include crafted scenarios, randomized maps, and multiplayer battles, which are essentially the same experience if your friends happen to be kind of dumb. There's a wealth of options for map customization, including the size of oceans, slider bars for features like terrain types and destructible walls, along with various stages of initial civilization development (for those who prefer to jump right into the exploration aspect of the game).

Age of Wonders III (PC) image

Age of Wonders III distinguishes itself from its kin by functioning as both a strategy game and an RPG. Battles often revolve around Hero units, which can equip items, complete quests, cast spells and learn new abilities by leveling up. Each player's starting Hero is their Leader, which will continuously revive at their Throne City until that city is captured while their Leader is "in the Void" (causing them to lose the game). Leaders can also use global enchantments, which do things like spread disease, incite a city's inhabitants to revolt and generally annoy the crap out of the other player. The AI loves to spam these.

Each Hero has both a race and a class. A player's race affects the units they can build, their preferred terrain, and a few other subtleties. Class affects the skills Heroes can learn (passive and active) in addition to adding another group of trainable units. It's even possible to create characters that combine, say, the sexy female Rogue body with a Goblin head. "Shnaga the Pretty" is anything but.

The game's battle system is impressively strategic. Encounters take place on a separate screen, which is also divided up hexagonally. Two armies gradually move toward each other, exchanging spells and arrows while trying to maintain a strong defensive formation. Battles often occur within fortified cities, so the type of wall the city has built makes a big difference, as does the enemy's arrangement of ranged attackers. These refreshingly difficult skirmishes are the meat of the game's RPG elements.

Everything depends on the calculated use of "Action Points." Movement and abilities both expend these points, so it's easy to mismanage one or the other and accidentally leave yourself defenseless. Units will also counterattack approaching enemies multiple times, potentially using up all of their Action Points for the next turn. This both prevents players from relying too heavily on any one character and allows for the strategic disabling of enemy units by forcing them to counterattack your strongest fighters. These considerations, combined with the Flanking damage boost and the wide variety of available spells, make combat in Age of Wonders III a legitimate tactical undertaking.

Age of Wonders III (PC) image

Unfortunately, even with all of these options, battles can still become repetitive. The maps are all too similar, and each encounter starts with the same basic phases of movement and strategic preparation. More importantly, fighting is slow-paced--so much so that the developers saw fit to include a triple speed fast-forward button for the enemy's turns. There's an auto-battle function, but at that point you'd just be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The AI could also use some work. Enemies don't seem to understand the tactical advantage of walls. Or, conversely, the tactical disadvantage of remaining within walls when your opponent has Trebuchets and you do not. Lucian van Kesburgh surrounded his entire city with a magical wall of fire only to send his army straight through it to attack me. A recent patch improved on this behaviour, and the AI is a bit smarter on the strategic map, but tactical battles still produce a lot of questionable decisions.

Artistically, Age of Wonders III goes out of its way to remind you that it's set in a fantasy world. There's a good variety of environments, from arctic wastelands to sandy deserts to active volcanoes. Most maps also feature an area called the Underground, which is a secondary network of caves full of lava and crumbling walls that certain units can tunnel through. Some races prefer the Underground's dark, earthy conditions. It's a nice feature that impressed me all the way back in the first Age of Wonders. Little touches like this really help to flesh out the fantasy aspect of the game, which, again, is one of the main reasons to play Age of Wonders III over some of the more in-depth strategy games on the market.

There are two strange things about the game's graphics, however: 1) there's minimal difference between the Medium and Ultra settings; 2) even the mid-level options are surprisingly GPU-intensive. Fortunately, you'll spend most of the game zoomed out anyway, so lowering the quality settings will appear to magically increase the framerate without noticeably changing anything else.

Age of Wonders III (PC) image

Musically, the game's problem isn't quality, but quantity. There are a handful of decent songs which fade into each other continuously. They set the mood well for grandiose, fantastical warfare, but end up repeating far too often over several hours of gameplay (and it's basically impossible to play this game for less than several hours).

The biggest problem with Age of Wonders III is that it isn't big enough. Why are there only six races? Why does each race produce the same basic list of units and city upgrades? Why can't I play as the Undead, and replace the usual Hospital and Public Baths with a Portal to the Netherworld or Satan's Swimming Pool? Fighters are a bit more racially diverse, but they still fill all of the same niches (Archer, Pikeman, Weird Flying Thing and so on). It's a shame to see the game stagnate in the area with the most room for creativity.

Dwellings help to mitigate this shortcoming. They're neutral settlements that house Fairies, Giants and other such magical creatures. Quests can be used to gain their favour and access to their unique unit pool. Unfortunately, dwellings also tease you by showing off a fully imagined species that you'll want to play as instead of your own. They're a significant strategic addition, but with four dwelling types and only six full races, I can't help but think some of those ideas could have been put to better use.

The game is also quite buggy. Most of its issues are easily fixable (and some have already been patched out), but the sheer number of them deserves mentioning.

Age of Wonders III (PC) image

My Leader once had the "Walking" ability twice. Sometimes the game fails to tell me that I have movable units remaining and prompts me to end the turn, but stops itself because I have movable units remaining. The most egregious offense is that I was able to lock the game by telling a unit to defend just as the battle switched over to the enemy's turn. This somehow sent the game into an endless loading state. I couldn't even reload my save, since that menu isn't accessible in battle, and tabbing between applications only turned the screen black. One time, the launcher just refused to launch.

There are also miscellaneous minor problems with other aspects of the game. The battle camera has a habit of swinging around to a different angle at the start of each turn, completely throwing off your perspective. This function can be turned off, but doing so also disables the nice zoom-in on individual encounters, making it difficult to tell who is attacking whom. There are some balance issues with certain abilities (I'm looking at you, Chaos Rift), and the Tome of Wonders also isn't very informative; many of its glossary entries just repeat the one-sentence mouseover description that originally made me start looking for more information. Comma splices are a plague on the game's otherwise enjoyable flavour text.

In a way, though, I actually like that Age of Wonders III has these problems. The game hearkens back to an older age when such titles were rougher around the edges because their creators were so focused on bringing a creative vision to life. In this case, that vision was a strategy/RPG fusion that connects the franchise's early-2000s roots with modern improvements to both genres. The developers succeeded, and the result is really, really fun.

After years and years of playing video games, that's what I want: not a title that tries to appeal to everyone, but one that picks its niche and really owns it. Age of Wonders III might not be the most feature-rich or obsessively polished experience, but this game has that most coveted quality of being impossible to put down.


Whelk's avatar
Freelance review by Kyle Charizanis (April 15, 2014)

Lifelong gamer and unabashed nerd. Not even a little bit bashed. He was originally drawn to Honest Gamers for its overall high quality of writing. He lives inside his computer which is located in Toronto, Canada. Also, he has a Twizzler (@Whelkk).

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