|Submitted by Jon Peplinski |
(Apr 16, 2005)
Turn-based strategy games are a bit of a gaming niche, especially with the dominance of RTS over the last decade or so. However certain developers have stuck it out and we are the winners, as proven by Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic.
When it comes to turn-based strategy with a fantasy bent this luscious title stands apart. I picked it up looking for a newer, more refined and pretty looking experience than Heroes of Might and Magic 3 could offer and for my money I found just that.
Once I got over the initial hump of learning the interface, which is deceptively simple in every regard (don't let the game fool you with the menu style and descriptions showing up at the bottom instead of a tool-tip format, it's easy as pie), I found myself quickly lost in the huge array of units, spells, beautiful maps and layouts the overall fun of the magic system.
If you crave variety and replay value have no fear, there are 13 playable races to choose from, each with it's own unique units. Although every race has the same buildings, except for one race specific building which offers a nifty bonus feature (the Elven structure hides your town in trees while the Orc Blood Totem endows all units produced in that city with the Life Draining ability) and special, sometimes extremely powerful units (huge ent looking things and fairy dragons for elves, doom bats and the horrifyingly disgusting gluttons for orcs). It's easy to have as focused or as varied an empire as you please, since whenever you take over a new town you have the option of keeping the race taht lives there (if they're alignment compatible that is, be careful about mixing units of different alignment in the same army though) or migrating in any of the races from one of the towns you already control (assuming you didn't just burn or loot the town!).
The thing that really sets this game apart for me however is the magic system. the premise of the game is that you control a Wizard-King (or whatever) and usually fight it out with the other players on the map for dominance. Your wizard is the fulcrum of the whole game. You can move them around like a normal unit, but it's best to park them in a tower. The reason for this is that although your wizard will eventually wield god-like powers, he can only do so within his domain. When in a tower your wizard's domain is considerably larger, and when you control more towns with towers you get domain around those too. When you cast a spell you power it with Mana (which along with gold comprises the games two resources, nice and simple) but every spell has a cost in casting points, which limits the amount of spells you can cast in a turn (usually only one at the beginning). When the spell's ready, pick a target, click and watch your wizard weild some might.
I just want to take a second here and say that having the magic set up like this makes you feel like Saruman from Fellowship of the Ring. Some of the spells you can learn are extremely potent. The first map I played with a friend I specialized in Earth Magic and was doing everything from enchanting my roads, destroying city walls, levelling mountains, making my towns produce more money, the list goes on. If you're not big on crazy magic use your spells to summon some vicious units to fight for you (summoned units are the same as your permanent units produced in towns, only their upkeep comes out of your mana intead of your gold). The spells are divided into 3 categories: combat only, global only and unit enchantments (which can be cast both in and out of fights). Since the game lets you choose what to research, you can have your wizard be as specialized or broadly skilled in his magic arts as you please.
So basically the style of the game differs from Heroes of Might and Magic 3 (the gold standard of the genre by which all following titles must be judged in my opinion). Your units can move independantly, your main character usually stays put in your strongest town, and although there are heroes (and they can be very crucial when you level them up enough) you don't need them.
Which brings me to the meat of any good strategy game, the combat system. If you love a good fight this game delivers, simple as that. The units are presented in a somewhat realistic scale, going back to my Heroes comparison where a Titan looks only a head or so taller than an archmage in this game a Titan looks... well titanic. Dragons are truly a sight to be seen, soaring over the map, dwarfing lesser units as they flap their wings in an impressive display of frame rates. Basically what happens when a fight starts is you get the opportunity to auto-resolve or call off the attack or fight it out. When you choose to command the battle you are taken to the battle screen, which will be largely dependant on where the fight is taking place. Since units adjacent to the fight are pulled into it you can have some pretty epic battles when 7 different armies are pulled into one fight and they're all pretty big. The battle grounds are a 3-d hex-grid layout, you can't zoom in a la Total War but there are hills and such.
I love the fights in this game. There are so many different abilities that come into it due to the huge diversity of units. My only gripe is that it took me awhile to figure out how to get any sort of decent performance out of my archer type units. My end policy is that the archers in this game are great for defending walls at towns, not very effective at all in the field when they often have to try to shoot long distances up hill and such, and they die pretty easily. There are different units with pistols, crossbows, magic attacks and such that do the job just fine though. No matter how you personally prefer to win fights there should be at least a race or two in this game who will satisfy you, whether it be the high mobility you can get from elves and tigrans, all out brutality of orcs, bizarre powers and weird-looking units a draconian army brings to the table or the slow-moving toughness and canon fun that is a dwarf army (it must be seen to be believed, the game developers hit the dwarf nail squarely on the head) you won't be disappointed.
City battles are a real treat, there are several different abilities possessed by different units for climbing walls, sabotaging gates or war machines, tele-porting past them or smahing through them (like I said, there are some big units in this game). I've found defending cities to be just as fun, and very demanding, I find there's a balancing issue with one race on city defense, they have a really cheap unit with an area effect shot that can stop units in their tracks while doing decent damage, I hope I never have to take a wall lined with them.
I've mostly been trying to lay out the different features of the game and what I like/dislike about them with a focus on gameplay. As far as being more categorical the graphics are beautiful, 3-d models with overlays painted on them or something along those lines, it looks amazing though. The music is about as good as your going to get on a turn-based strategy game, decent enough to listen to but repetitive after awhile. The sound is top-notch, although some of the unit voices don't seem to match the unit very well. The nymphs have this turbo-slut voice that is just way over the top, I don't know whether to love it for the hilarity or resent it for the trashiness.
Difficulty is pretty well worked out on the campaigns. I haven't pushed the upper limits of CPU difficulty on single scenarios but judging but the low to average settings are pretty easy to beat. I will say one thing, if you're possessive about heroes and stuff and don't like them dying (dead hero=disaster in this game, shame on you) specialize in Life or Death magic, as these are the ONLY two schools that will allow you to bring them back from the dead. When you do bring them back don't forget to hire them (it will cost you too).
I haven't tried the online or lan multi-player, the booklet says you can do a simutaneous turn thing playing multi-player this way (as opposed to the ever-awesome hot seat) but I have no idea how that would be to play.
Overall I say get this game if you like turn-based strategy or you're a fantasy gamer or reader. If you're all of the above then close this window and go buy it now. Right now.
My experiences with this game have gone from satisfaction to pleasant surprise to thorough enjoyment, I hope you like as much as I did!