A Paladin’s Review: Age of Wonders III. The Golden Realms are a Triumph of The Eternal Lords.

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  • Genre: 4X Turn-Based RPG with Empire Building and Strategy.
  • Developed & Published by: Triumph Studios.
  • Platform: Windows, Mac and Linux.
  • DRM: Free Triumph Studios Account Required for Multiplayer. SteamWorks. Both Are Optional For Offline Singleplayer and HotSeat Multiplayer.
  • Business Model: Single Purchase plus Special Edition and Two Separate Expansions. Expansions aren’t required to play with other people who own them.
  • Base Game Gifted By Friend, Expansions + Special Edition Purchased by Myself

As an experiment, I have created a video version of this review to go along with the written review. It’s pretty much the exact same as the review plus or minus some changes to make it more palatable for audio listeners. The gameplay was added to give people something to watch, it doesn’t follow the review at all. Yes, this is an experiment to see if video reviews are in demand. I’ll be taking feedback and analytics from this experiment and seeing how people respond to it.

Preamble

Age of Wonders was initially developed and released back in 1999 by Triumph Studios, a studio based in the Netherlands. The studio is known primarily for its work on the Age of Wonders series though they also worked on the first two Overlord games published through Codemasters. After the success of Age of Wonders, Age of Wonders 2: The Wizard’s Throne launched in 2002 with improved mechanics, graphics and a continued storyline. It was met with success as well so work began on an expansion shortly after. Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is the third game in the series, released on July 25th, 2003. It was probably planned as an expansion to Age of Wonders 2 but was made into its own game instead and served as the highlight of the Age of Wonders series for a long time to come. Eleven years later, Triumph Studios crafted and released Age of Wonders III in early 2014 to critical acclaim. A polished 3D entry with refined mechanics, random generation and promises to be a complete package. It would be followed up with two expansions: Golden Realms released in September 2014 and Eternal Lords released in April 2015. Both expansions added significant content, abilities, new mechanics and races/classes to the base game. The game is still receiving regular updates but no future expansions are currently planned/public as of this review. Furthermore, development has slowed significantly since Eternal Lords and a Modding patch was added late last year. The game doesn’t need development, but it’s something to keep in mind if you plan to buy into this game. Oh and side note? The patch notes are insanely long per patch. The Triumph devs do a ton of work and it’s an impressive reading if you ever get around to it.

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Personally, I’ve only played Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic before Age of Wonders III came onto the scene. I own copies of the other two entries but I haven’t devoted time to tackling them just yet. I enjoyed the hell out of Shadow Magic, I thought it was the craziest mix of mechanics that still somehow made sense when all combined together. When I heard that Age of Wonders III would be coming out back in 2014 on a modern engine with a lot of new updates, I was really looking forward to getting my hands on it. And boy, I didn’t regret the wait. Still, let’s take a look at Age of Wonders III and its expansions.

Initial Overall Thoughts

Two years have passed since I was gifted the base game of AOW and purchased the expansions along the way. I’ve put in over 100 hours of play in the single player campaigns, online and play-by-email multiplayer modes. I’d say I spent most of my time in online multiplayer. From the get-go, I was already enjoying this entry and I think it’s for the simple reason that there aren’t a lot of 4X strategy titles like this on the market. The blending of RPG, 4X and Empire Building mechanics is still rare despite the resurgence of turn-based games in recent years. Age of Wonders seems keen on proving that it still deserves its place.

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This is the kind of strategy game I like to sink an entire Sunday afternoon and evening into. Where time simply goes by completely unawares. I get sucked into managing my noble empire of good Humans against the undead scourge of the evil Necromancer (aka: Managarmr). That one-more-turn addiction is ever present and I’ve burned many happy days trying to explore, determine the next resource to take over, training armies and expanding the empire as best as I could. With the random procedural generation, each match will feel unique, even when playing on the same map settings. Just the experience of roleplaying a fantasy character, that’s in charge of any number of types of empires,was engaging on its own. However, maybe that’s the roleplayer in me talking. Evil, neutral, chaotic, elemental, destructive, good or peace-seeking, the game allows you to build your own experience and try to play to the conditions you set for yourself. I’ll explain more in the mechanics below.

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AOW3 is about victory through expansion, fighting and conquest. As the leader of a powerful empire, you should always be exploring to find hidden treasures and places to setup new cities. To expand your empire as quickly as possible by taking over resource buildings and conquering your foes. You should move quickly or else you’ll get left behind. The basic structure of your empire are towns, cities and outposts. These places let you build units, upgrades and more that grant access to more powerful units, increasing your revenue streams and giving permanence to your empire. Which you’ll need for the army and taking over rival Throne Cities. Even with the alternate victory conditions brought about in the expansions, military prowess is what the game favors for victory. The diplomacy system is simplistic. It gives the very basic functions of diplomacy (declare war, allow armies through territories, etc) and that’s about it. It also provides a way to talk to players if needed. Otherwise, the AI doesn’t use it very well and trying to barter with it is near impossible. Side note, you could technically win a victory through peaceful means, but that would require forging alliances with other players who win the game for you. It’s not that enjoyable nor encouraged by the game or myself.

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As you open up Age of Wonders III, a lone deep bell chimes to mark your entrance and the music builds to a muted soaring orchestra score. The menu presentation features whatever hero your single player campaign is currently on while buttons are presented to get you started. The menus are designed competently, allowing you to get into games quickly and easily without any fuss. Which is good, because there’s a ton of content both built in and available through mods for you to experience. In the game, there are four official campaigns (with all expansions installed) providing the player with access to storylines that depict both sides of a global conflict going on. For those that want more, modding support was greatly expanded at the end of 2015 and the modding community has been growing ever since. I haven’t touched any of the mods myself but perhaps I will one day. As for multiplayer, the devs give players several options. Hotseat local multiplayer, online and play-by-email.

Multiplayer Experience

Play by email and hotseat can only be played in the traditional turn-by-turn style but online multiplayer allows for simultaneous turns. Where players can play out their turns at the same time and are able to see what their opponent is doing during said turn. The upside to this style of game is that players aren’t just waiting for their turn half the time. The downside is that each action will have latency and moving units will have longer latency delays as well. This will be especially noticeable the farther people are apart. I played with people from Sweden and while the lag is noticeable, it wasn’t a huge problem unless one of our connections was really poor. It’s a turn-based strategy game, so it’s not like you need to perform actions instantaneously anyway. When manual fights are started, all players are brought in to watch the events unfold. This is both cool and potentially annoying to watch these fights break out. As such, you’ll want to have manual fights sparingly or turn them off if you want to keep the game moving quickly. Oh and the game will tell you if you’ve setup your network properly with an open port allowing a strong connection to other players. It is possible to play AOW with other players on a network that hasn’t been properly setup, but you’ll experience worse latency as a result and may not be able to create and run the game yourself. So, generally it’s best for all players to open a port in their router for AOW to work properly.

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An average game is going to take a very long time to complete. I’d wager about 8-12 hours for a medium map on default settings. It could take a few weekends to get through a single online game and half a year in real time to play a single game in the play-by-email system. Especially if there are any players taking an unusual amount of time to complete their turn. I, of course, can’t say for certain because there are a lot of factors that can change how long a game will take. From players really fracking it up at the beginning of the game to the RNG system deciding to drop high level tier bone dragons and marauding Spider Queens right by your starting home city. Or, worse, a giant stalemate at the end game that goes on forever. It’s impossible to know for certain. The RNG system isn’t designed to be evil on purpose. At least, that’s what the developers claim but some games I wondered. Still, there’s always a reasonable chance of being the winner, even if you don’t have the best of starts.

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AOW’s play-by-email system is very good, allowing the player to join a maximum of five games at the same time. Downloading and uploading games is both simple and fast. The only problems I ever ran into with it was when players decided to update to BETA patches. Every player needs to be on the same version when playing (PBEM does allow for patch updates). Players should avoid using BETA updates unless everyone’s agreed to using them beforehand. In my experience, I’ve only successfully finished two games out of fifteen in the PBEM format. Most of the time, people dropped out early or quit taking their turns until eventually there was no one left. It probably doesn’t help that BPEM takes such a long time but it’s worth mentioning that my completion rate was rather low. When I last played PBEM games, there was a small amount of games not locked behind passwords but your mileage will vary. There are forum communities out there so I’d consider checking them out.

Leader, Heroes and Units Examination

Each player controls an empire led by a Leader, a powerful character with vast control over their elemental and racial magic. These leaders can function in the role of a supporting hero or go on the offensive in the front lines with spells and abilities. They can also ride mounts, equip weapons, items & armor as well as level up. During the game they are casting spells that can affect cities or other units as well as learning new spells through knowledge research. There are plenty of spells to learn from not only based on their class but their specialization and race. They are your most powerful units but they are also a potentially crippling weakpoint of your empire. If taken out, they can no longer cast their spells, research is stopped dead and whatever existing spells are cancelled. Leaders will return in a couple of days at their home base but that leaves the empire vulnerable to attack and can slow everything down to a crawl. Generally, it’s a good idea to not lose them. You can completely customize their appearance, race, class and specialties or pick from several defaults included in the game. The leader builder in the game is definitely good if not the most powerful I’ve ever seen. I’ve created several unique heroes and always liked coming up with new ideas for mine.

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There are seven types of hero units. Dreadnoughts, Theocrats, Rogues, Archdruids, Sorcerers, Warlords and Necromancers. They’re all pretty self explanatory but I’ll briefly go over them. Dreadnoughts use advanced technology (cannons, muskets and warships) to give themselves the edge. Theocrats use their divine powers to buff units, cleanse the land of evil and lean on holy abilities for might. Rogues, on the other hand, use stealthy units and powers that hide your actions from other players until its too late. Then there’s Archdruids that use the powers of nature, animals and old gods. Sorcerers use arcane powers to devastate and counteract other spells. Into swords, boards and horses? The Warlords have you covered there. Finally, Necromancer’s use the dark powers to bring up the undead and other horrors that can devastate the battlefield. These seven classes are distinctly unique despite having to play by similar rules and have different ways of attacking and defending. This customization possibility is further expanded with the nine races (total with expansions) that the player can choose from. Humans, High Elves, Dwarves, Draconians, Orcs, Goblins, Halflings, Frostlings and Tigrans.

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Every empire has a structure to its army and AOW3 is no different. Besides your powerful Leader units, Hero units will show up occasionally to enhance your army. They basically function like the Leader except that losing them isn’t as devastating. These heroes don’t necessarily have to be of your race or class either. Then there’s the myriad of units to build. Ranging from the lowly soldiers to priests and knights all the way to siege weapons and powerful end-game units. These units are governed by their own stats but the more important stats to consider are experience, what tier they are and their morale. Units range from tier 1 to 4, with each tier becoming more powerful at the expense of more resources and longer build times. Experienced troops (XP is gained through fighting) gain extra benefits with some evolving into stronger units while others become hardier and more proficient at their jobs. Morale, on the other hand, affects how likely they are to critically hit, fumble an attack or desert your army. So, even a lowly army of tier one units can win out against an unhappy tier 3 army, if they ever get so lucky.

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Each class, race and specialization has a chance of winning in Age of Wonders 3. They just have different methods to reach their victory and it’ll be up to the player to use those capabilities to their advantage. I don’t think I’ve played the game enough to make this assertion, but I don’t feel there is one particularly overpowered hero class. But, it’s probable that I may get some disagreement about that. At the very least, in the hundred hours or so of playing the game, I never felt at a particular disadvantage playing as a certain race or class. One last note, I do have to say that I wish Leader spells that affected the empire were a little bit more diverse and interesting. The majority of those spells tend to be buffs or debuffs for enemies and fairly generic ones at that. I wish they had a little bit more power or capability to change “the land” as it were. Right now, it feels a surface level. I get that this would make balance far more complicated and possibly less fun, I’m just throwing it out there that I don’t think spells on the strategic map are that interesting.

Managing Your Empire and Fighting The Good Fight

Keeping track of your empire and its units is essential to maintaining a productive and successful empire. Cities and units have a morale meter to gauge how happy they are. Morale can be affected by the land they’re in, how successful the nation has been and whether they get along with other units. Along with that is the race relationship system. Depending on how well you treat races within your empire will determine whether you get significant bonuses. So, it’s important to keep people happy (or rule with an iron fist) if you want to win. Failure to do so will lead to widespread unhappiness which has several effects including: units potentially abandoning your cause and becoming rogue, cities spawning rebels or asking other empires to liberate them and combat/production effectiveness severely reduced.

This looks decidedly easy to me.

This looks decidedly easy to me.

Fighting can be handled through either the auto-battle or manual fight system. Auto-battle lets you instantaneously decide the fight and it will give you a reasonable idea of whether the game thinks you’re going to win. However, auto battle isn’t 100% reliable. I’ve had battles that should have been victorious, only to have all of my units slaughtered by a couple of enemies. It also won’t estimate approximately how many units may die during the battle and I’ve often found causalities are much higher with the auto-fight system over manual fights. Sometimes the likeliness of winning can also be wrong and fights that it considers a lost cause are actually quite winnable if you take control. Outside of just doing manual battles, your only option to guarantee victory is to roll the dice or bring two-to-three times the firepower required. I sometimes wonder if it was intentionally designed to kill/severely injure units as a consequence of skipping the battle. However, if that is the case, I wish the game would show you what units could potentially end up dying as a result of that choice. Otherwise, it just makes the system feel like it randomly decided to punish you for no visible reason. I definitely wish the system was far more transparent about itself.

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As for manual battles, these are large hexagon grids that take place on whatever terrain depicted by the tile the army was standing on. And there are a lot of 3D environments that were created that surprised even myself. Recently, I had a battle on a bridge tile and the battle actually took place on a bridge. I had never seen that in the 93 hours of the game and I thought it was really cool. If you have battles underground, they will take place underground. Most battles will just have a few destructible objects or places of cover but it will depend on the terrain or place you’re fighting at. Battles are designed around flanking, cover, range and movement actions. Your units should always be in the best position to flank enemies, have enough action points to do damage or retaliate and avoid units that are their counters. While horsemen can theoretically defeat pikemen if they flank them, they may take a ton of damage for it when the unit retaliates. So, you should assess strengths and weaknesses and position your units in the best place possible. Even an ugly fight can easily swing your way if you’re careful/lucky. For more advanced plays, you should also consider what the next move the units surrounding your army might make and plan appropriately. Simply charging in and hoping for the best is not always the best idea. During manual fights, heroes and leaders can cast spells and leaders can also cast combat spells even if they aren’t present at the battle. It’ll just cost twice as much mana. Spells are limited by not only the amount of mana but how many casting points the leader/heroes have. So, careful application of spells are highly recommended.

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I really like the manual battle system. It’s quite robust, creating all sorts of interesting battles and allowing for clever plays to get you out of some bad fights. Provided that you aren’t screwed beyond all belief that is. Sieges are quite a sight as a giant army comes down with lots of units and siege equipment against a beleaguered force of defenders. What’s even more cool (or aggravating) is seeing those defenders hold the city they’re guarding. Or just seeing a line of trolls absolutely wreck face on a poor army is pure joy after spending so long building them. However, I do find the early game of manual battles to be a drag. For the most part, battles are generally one sided and the only reason they are played is because auto-battles aren’t reliable and every unit counts. Once you start hitting the mid-to-late game, things start getting more interesting and tactical. By then, you’ll have spells to choose from, units to fight with and ways to move around. Granted, late game battles can also drag a bit as these large armies move their units around. It’s a tricky balance admittedly so unless you’re ok with long and sometimes repetitive battles, it works really well. I just wish the game was a little bit more open to casting spells early on.

Single Player Campaign

While AOW has five unique campaigns, they are the weakest aspect of the game. The first one, a supposed “easy” campaign is anything but. You play as the High Elves and are working to fight off the evils of the Human Commonwealth while raising the Draconians to greatness once again. The Human Commonwealth is a separate campaign where you play as a captain in charge of fighting off the Frostlings in the north that threaten to throw the entire region into chaos. My main problem is that the second mission in both campaigns shoves you into the deep end of the pool and expects you to swim with weights equipped. In both starting campaigns, the first, second and third levels are heavily scripted and its very noticeable. The player starts out by liberating/setting up new cities and armies to fight with. The game is oddly generous and allows the player to create as many units as they want before striking the first blow and starting a war. This is probably due to the fact that the first serious city you run into has eight individual groups of Tier 3 enemies and other powerful units. This generally wouldn’t be an issue, if the game didn’t restrict your own forces to mostly tier 2 units with one tier 3 support unit. So, the game puts you at a disadvantage out the gate, forcing a long slug-out attrition war. Sure, you might think that you could try flanking them and starving them out, but the game already has that covered with more units and if you “aggro” them, then your problem goes from bad to worse. The AI is extremely predictable and will leave most of its units in cities while only a few roaming band of tier three units will be let off the leash and try to roam behind your backlines. Oh and you better avoid aggroing the attention of other factions or you may go from a bad to worse situation in a hurry.

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I spent an unhealthy amount of hours and retries to beat the second Elven mission. After the long slugging war, it felt like I had completed an entire game. Only to realize that the next mission was starting the same with the same restriction of units. Except this time you were playing as the Goblins. Yay? The story is so poorly paced that by the time something story-related happens, you kinda forgot what happened by the time you get there. I was hoping this only happened in the first story mission but it seems to happen in every mission. It makes for a thoroughly unpleasant and difficult for difficult’s sake experience. What about the other campaigns? Well….as far as I can make of the Human Commonwealth campaign, it plays about the same. I never got around to the expansion stories, but I can only assume the difficulty is the same or worse, as stated by the game itself.

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Having campaigns that are a long attrition slog just aren’t fun, especially not in the first few missions. I mean, I don’t mind difficult missions towards the end so long as you grant the player the tools to deal with them. But this game handicaps you and then throws you into the deep end. Resulting in a constant repetition of building as many units as possible, hoping that enemies don’t flank your backlines, conquering the city and then repeating over and over for every new city. It’s not necessarily the fault of the AI, (though the questionable AI doesn’t help), it’s just that these are poorly designed campaigns from what experience I’ve had in them. There definitely should have been more attention devoted to these campaigns.

Taking a look at: Golden Realms Expansion

Golden Realms takes where AOW3 started and expands the content in multiple different directions with a few new mechanics. A new race of Halflings are re-introduced to the series with their own unique units and their main stat called “luck” which allows them to dodge attacks while in good spirits. There’s new map locations to capture, new units to use and/or fear and many new items for your heroes to discover. The Halfings aren’t my favorite race to play as and I never really got around to trying them out. But fighting against them can be tricky due to that luck mechanic of theirs. My favorite feature of this expansion are the “Empire Quests”. These optional quests grant you rewards if you build your empire in a certain way first before other empires. It’s a nice little way to create rivalry between empires and rewards certain playstyles. There’s also a new victory condition that I’ve never tried for called “Seals of Power”. Apparently it’s where players must capture and hold structures for a certain amount of time before winning. Of course, other players and beings won’t take kindly to that so its not a simple walk in the park. It’s a neat idea, just never got around to tackling it.

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Golden Realms is perhaps less distinct or expansive than Eternal Lords is. But the upgrades it does have are numerous and well thought out. Halfings, new units, items, etc and so forth. I can’t think of any reason not to get this expansion, (outside of my complaints about the base game), especially if you’re willing to buy Eternal Lords, so definitely check it out.

Taking a look at: The Eternal Lords Expansion

Eternal Lords is the bigger of the two expansions. It comes with a whole new Leader class: the Necromancer. A class devoted to creating and maintaining an empire of the dead. Two new races can also be used by the player: the Frostlings and the Tigrans. The Frostlings are about using warships and frost magic while the Tigrans are fast and capable of changing their shape along with cultivating their necromantic prowess. There are a significant amount of features that were added to the game in this expansion, even in the free update. This is when play-by-email was added and a lot of balance changes were made as well. More significantly, at least to me, was the expansion of the good/neutral/evil specialization system, Cosmic Happenings and the Race Governance mechanic. Now when you play the game and stick to being good/evil or even neutral, you’ll get some good rewards for doing so. Cosmic happenings are essentially events that can happen randomly and affect your units in ways that may benefit or harm you. Race governance is how relations between races are handled. As you improve the race(s) under your guidance, you’ll get benefits. But, if you mistreat the race or other enemy races, your race won’t respond very well. This also builds into the second alternate victory condition: Unifier. If you max out your governance of a race(s), you’ll be able to build special buildings that, once you meet the requirements, allows you to win the game. I haven’t tried for this victory condition either.

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Eternal Lords is quite the expansion and brought some of my favorite features to the game. I still say that Golden Realms is worth getting even after Eternal Lords was released and I stick to that. Triumph Studios did a really great job on both expansions that added a lot of content, features and new mechanics that expand the game out beyond what was initially introduced. They also don’t add too much additional complexity that would make the game too difficult to learn for new players. I have to give them kudos for the work done. I would recommend picking the expansions up if you’re going to get this game. It’s simply good value for money.

PC Settings & Audio/Video

Confirmed by PCGamingWiki.

Game Options What the User Can Configure
Resolutions, Multi-Monitor, Ultra-Widescreen and 4K Support. All resolutions supported and others can be configured.
Windowed, Borderless FullScreen and Fullscreen Supported. Recommended that the user keep the game in fullscreen for best performance.
Anti-Aliasing, V-Sync and Up to 120FPS support. Only FXAA in-game. V-Sync is on/off.
Keyboard remapping allowed. Up to two keys per action, though most of the game will probably be controlled by mouse.
Separate Volume Controls, subtitles and closed caption support. No colorblind support. Master, Music, Effects, Ambiance, Speech, Units, Events and Interface can all be changed via audio sliders.
Local, LAN and Online Play Supported. Play-By-Email also supported (up to 5 concurrent games). LAN play requires Triumph Account authentication. Online play will tell you how good the connection is to players and suggest fixes to improve performance.

Age of Wonders 3 is incredibly performance demanding for a turn-based strategy title. Achieving 60 FPS is difficult for myself and even for others I know with high end machines. It’s gotten significantly better since the game initially launched but big battles and lots of effects will be demanding on any machine. At least the visuals look impressive to make up for the heavy drain. There are certain graphical settings like FOG and particle effects that you may need to turn down to get your framerate up. The game has largely been stable for me since the latest expansion came out and before then I only experienced a few odd bugs and crashed a single time.

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The soundtrack is absolutely fantastic. A sweeping orchestral fantasy-based soundtrack that sucks you into the game. The soundtrack can be expanded with 10 additional tracks from the expansions as well. Sound effects and animations are also on-point and do a good job of communicating what’s going on in the world and individual battles from a distance.

Final Thoughts

Age of Wonders III combines empire building, role-playing mechanics and turn-based strategy into one glorious mix. I don’t regret the 100+ hours I’ve sunken into it. It’s got great multiplayer support and a pretty decent multiplayer community to go along with it. The sheer amount of content that you can find is incredible as well. I haven’t even touched on everything I could have in this review. I’m going to keep playing Age of Wonders 3 in the future even if I do have reservations about its pacing. What AOW3 does right far outweighs what it does wrong and it’s been a hell of a memorable experience. I just wish the early game’s battles were more interesting and less one sided. I additionally wish magic was a little less restrictive and more interesting in the early game as well. The game only really seems to get interesting once you hit mid-to-late game levels. But maybe that’s just me. The RNG system is robust and fair along with the game’s overall balance giving players a more-or-less equal chance to win. At least, from what I can tell of my 100 hour experience.

Far and away Age of Wonders III is one of my top strategy games of all time. It’s memorable for all the right reasons despite its flaws and shortcomings. I heartily recommend it for both new and experienced 4X strategy players. This is well worth giving a look.

GOG Link

GOG Link

Thanks for reading this review. If you enjoyed it, you should check out my other reviews I have on the website or share this with your friends. I spent a considerable amount of time crafting it, so any support is highly appreciated.

-KingIsaacLinksr

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