Every 4X purist knows it: you’ve put hours into a play session, built a strong bond with your chosen leader or civilization, and when the victory screen pops up, you feel both satisfaction and sadness. All your hard work; gone. The next play session starts from scratch again. Age of Wonders 4 aims to put an end to this ambiguity.
Age of Wonders is a 4X series (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) that flew under the radar of many strategy fans. Although volume three received excellent reviews, Age of Wonders did not begin to cause any stir until the sci-fi outing Planetfall. This is undoubtedly why Age of Wonders 4 holds a special position: fans of the series will find plenty of new things to discover here, while beginners will find an excellent springboard to dive into the deep end.
Your world, your rules
In Age of Wonders 4, the player is constantly in control, even in the creation of the civilization you play. Your typical first game is undoubtedly the beginner scenario or perhaps the first few Story Realms, but soon you discover the brightly colored Create Realm button. A long list of options looms that allow you to conjure up exactly your playing card. A world full of mountains, forests or desert is just the tip of the iceberg. How about a land that transforms every turn, where giants roam the fields and where the concept of “peace” has not been invented?
You almost imagine yourself as a god to conjure up your own civilization from the primordial soup after the creation of your world as well.
We are not there yet. You almost imagine yourself as god to also conjure your own civilization from the primordial soup after the creation of your world, an innovation as far as the Age of Wonders series is concerned. The choice of a body type, such as humans, goblins or rats, and a physical and mental characteristic earn you an aesthetic and passive bonus, while the choice of a culture and civilization characteristic distinguishes your entire race. Nothing like evil dark elves, I’m playing with feudalistic frogmen! Warhammer is nothing like it.
‘Just’ a sandbox
While you can absolutely choose a prescribed world and civilization, these options seem to exist only to introduce you to the wondrous combinations you can create. Thus, I felt drawn to a new world of my own making after each story mission. This is not to say that the story is disappointing. On the contrary, the way the numerous worlds within Age of Wonders 4 are tied together by an overarching organ of gods led by almighty Godir was downright refreshing compared to the average linear campaigns.
Still, there are caveats. The fact that you hop from one world to another creates a certain distance from the setting. Nothing I did had any real impact; I was mostly left playing in a sandbox, nothing more and nothing less. Developer Triumph Studios makes an attempt to strengthen these interconnections: you can elevate your faction leader to Godir status, so that as part of a pantheon, he or she can return later as an antagonist. Sounds nice, after all, so the journey of your self-created leader and civilization does not stop after a play session, but this results in little more than the leader being able to return as an adversary. Absolutely more could have been done with this.
So Age of Wonders 4 you play primarily to experiment. You do this with two game systems: the 4X gameplay on the overarching playing card, which can best be compared as Civilization meets Heroes of Might and Magic, and the XCOM-like combat. On the playing map you spend most of your time, as on it you explore the land, exploit the cities and adjacent provinces and move the armies.
Building cities is by far the most fun part. By raking in food, you produce population. Each puppet is equivalent to farming one province on the playing card. You choose what to farm: a farm, gold mine, quarry, manaproducing conduit or research post. Once your city is upgraded, you can create more specialized provinces that depend heavily on your chosen civilization. These also provide bonuses for neighboring provinces of a certain type.
While this province puzzle is very entertaining, the rest is rather boring. In cities, you construct buildings, each of which produces a passive bonus for one of your resources. The idea is that you can specialize cities, but in reality you need some of each resource. As a result, every city benefits from high production of money, mana, food and empire (for several purposes). The only variation that felt somewhat tactical is the choice between lots of research (to unlock spells faster) or lots of draft (to create combat units).
To lick your fingers off
I mentioned it before: you actually always need money and mana. Money to maintain your armies and mana to … well, also for your armies. Mana is additionally used to use spells on the playing card and in battles, as well as for the upkeep of permanent spells. The latter are very entertaining: for example, you can transform your civilization into demons to provide them with various bonuses, or permanently enchant all your archers with fire arrows.
Even if you choose a civilization that relies heavily on physical strength, it’s a good idea to have enough mana for spells. After all, in Age of Wonders 4 you don’t have the average tech tree like other strategy games, but Tomes of Magic. You choose a new Tome every so often, varying between various affinities such as chaos, matter and nature, and within it you research new spells. With some fifty Tomes in all, there is something for everyone, though the Tier 4 and Tier 5 spells in particular are finger-licking good.
Brainwashing enemy units, halting time and even destroying entire provinces; it’s good to be a mage. I genuinely had the most enjoyable experience with Age of Wonders 4 by going all in on magic, purely because of the many possibilities offered by the higher levels of Tomes. The opposite is also true: if I stayed away from magic and leaned mainly on the strength of my units, I soon felt weak. Moreover, it did not enhance my enjoyment of combat; there was immediately much less to do.
Combat in Age of Wonders 4 is a special blend of Heroes of Might and Magic and XCOM. Army units move across hexagonals and can be divided into various types, such as spearmen, magic users and archers. Each has its advantage, making maneuvers such as flanking highly recommended. Each unit, including your army commander, has three action points that can be used for moving and attacking. Thus, you are usually at an advantage if you move as little as possible, because every action point that goes to attacks is one more.
To my surprise, the combat in Age of Wonders 4 disappoints me the most. The AI is not particularly smart even on the hardest difficulty, which means you can outsmart it with a reasonably tactical setup. Moreover, the AI handles spells incredibly clumsily, making it easy to take on even stronger armies if you have the right spells (and mana) yourself.
To my regret, most of my battles therefore went via auto-resolve. This is mainly because every combat looked the same at some point. Graphically, it also makes little impression anno 2023. In addition, manual combat can be interesting in itself, but the controls leave much to be desired. Animations can be sped up with the click of a button, but this must be done on a per animation basis. So in battles with over thirty units, I found myself clicking like a madman. Even in a hack and slash game, I don’t mistreat my mouse like this.
Age of Wonders 4 is a wonderful breath of fresh air for the 4X genre because it does everything just a little differently. From world-changing spells to self-made civilizations; you can experiment endlessly to have a different experience every play session. At the same time, this volume is fairly superficial at its core. Civilizations differ on a number of levels, but you soon see everything. Moreover, the gameplay regarding city building feels too linear, and the combat quickly becomes repetitive. Such ups-and-downs can be seen throughout Age of Wonders 4; the UI is nice, but leaves much to be desired in clarity, and the graphics are generally nice, but too often I struggled with bugs and crashes. In other words: great fun for strategy fans who want to put their own stamp on the game, but don’t expect extreme depth.