Paradox Interactive bring 4X strategy game Age Of Wonders to PS4 and Xbox One and it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Whenever we review a strategy game – and, for no obvious reason, there have been a lot of them this summer – we always emphasise how accessible and fast-paced they can be, to try and assure people who think they’re not for them that they’re actually just as fun and exciting as any other genre. But while the latter is true for Age Of Wonders: Planetfall we’d be lying if we said accessibility was high on its list of accomplishments. But thankfully it’s got plenty of other things going for it instead.
If you’re wondering what an Age Of Wonders is, it’s a PC strategy series by Dutch developer Triumph Studios that’s being going since 1999. It started out as a spiritual successor to Master Of Magic, the sister series to the more famous Master Of Orion. The first three games were all fantasy based and PC only, but this new entry is sci-fi and the first to be released on consoles.
Age Of Wonders is what is known (although we’ve only ever heard Americans use the term) as a 4X game, a strange genre title that stands for ‘explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate’ and whose most famous exemplar is Sid Meier’s Civilization. So it makes sense that the simplest way to describe Age Of Wonders: Planetfall is as Civilization: Beyond Earth meets XCOM. And, by and large, it’s just as entertaining as that sounds… and twice as complicated.
The other thing we always make a point of saying about strategy games on consoles is how well they work with a standard joypad, except that’s not really true here either. Triumph certainly do their best, but the controls are initially baffling and the amount of onscreen information, all illustrated by tiny text and icons, is enough to put off even the bravest gamer. And then the tutorial starts, only half of which is voice-acted and all of which is thoroughly confusing and not really helpful at all.
Although the plot gets more complex the more you read up on the in-game notes the basics are very simple. The main intergalactic government has recently broken apart and you play as the head of one of six factions trying to create a new status quo, which invariably involves colonising every planet they come across.
The turn-based combat takes place on a hex-based grid and works very much like XCOM’s more introverted brother. As with everything else, you do get used to the controls eventually but it’s interesting just how fussy and unintuitive everything seems compared to XCOM on consoles. Even though most of the systems, like taking cover and preparing overwatch to fire at enemies during their turn, are very similar everything always seems to need just a couple of extra button presses to get working.
Once you’ve a few battles under your belt though that doesn’t really matter and you can start to enjoy the differences from XCOM, which include a much greater variety of units, including vehicles, and mechanics like being able to stagger an enemy to stop them using a special attack or still doing a lesser amount of damage with a missed shot. The game also thinks it’s being clever by allowing up to 42 units (spot the nerd reference) in a battle, but that’s just too much and the bigger fights become bogged down and overlong.
Although combat is a bigger part of Planetfall than something like Civilization you do also get to engage in many of that game’s top-level strategy elements. Each procedurally-generated planet is split into sectors, with each having two different habitable zones that can be used for food, energy, research, and production.
Securing more and more sectors allows you to expand your capabilities, or you can simply run in and steal someone else’s resources. Although there’s a fairly complex set of diplomacy and spying options that offer a more subtle approach to galactic conquest, or at least they do when the artificial intelligence isn’t making illogical or seemingly random decisions.
There is a lot to keep on top of, especially given the complexity of the skill tree and the fact that, as is almost always the case in sci-fi games, it’s not obvious what many of the things you’re building do until you actually get to use them. Everything to do with research seems needlessly complex although arguably the biggest issue is the amount of micromanagement at every level, which gets especially tedious when you’re trying to customise military units for a fight.
You could also complain at the game’s generic sci-fi setting, which never manages to make dinosaur-riding amazons and cyborg zombies seem as exciting as you feel they should be. That’s largely the fault of the writing and the bland visuals though and the gameplay differences between the different factions, who all have their own specialities, is impressively varied.
Age Of Wonders: Planetfall isn’t short of flaws but it isn’t short of ambition either. It takes on far too much at once, but if you’re willing to compensate for its failings it’s surprisingly easy to have fun with. You can argue that it’s not the player’s job to make up for a game’s faults and that’s true, but if you put in that extra bit of effort you might just find yourself falling for the game anyway.
Age Of Wonders: Planetfall
In Short: A complex strategy game with some severe accessibility issues, especially on consoles, but give it a chance and it’s a rewarding and deep sci-fi experience.
Pros: Huge amount of depth, variety, and customisability to almost everything you do and as arcane as it all is everything does make sense once you learn what’s going on. Different factions are fun.
Cons: The controls would be unintuitive on a PC but are doubly so on console, especially on a lower resolution TV. Too much micromanagement and some questionable AI. Large battles go on too long.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Triumph Studios
Release Date: 6th August 2019
Age Rating: 16
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