Reviewed: September 11, 2002
Released: June 30, 2002
Some say that there are no new stories, only new ways of telling the old ones. With a change in setting, Akira Kurosawa’s film classic “Seven Samurai” became a western, “The Magnificent Seven”, a classic in its own right. Some time later, the story was once again transformed, this time into a comedy of errors called “The Three Amigos”, starring Steve Martin and Martin Short. And most recently, the classic tale was yet again retold as, God help us, “A Bug’s Life”.
I personally believe that there occasionally are new stories, and that they can give us a whole new view of the universe. But most of the time, the old tales suffice, and the new ways of telling them make them fresh and interesting once again.
This is as true of computer games as it is of literature and film. While it’s an incredible feeling to experience that one game that defines an entirely new category, we are usually content to play updates of the types of games we’ve become comfortable with over the years.
In the case of Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne (AOW2), everything is newer, better, and prettier, and there’s a lot more of it. But it’s really only a new “telling” of an old game category. And that’s just fine by me.
Age of Wonders II is a turn based strategy game set in a fantasy realm. You are a wizard who is competing with other wizards for control of the land through the 4X formula; explore, expand, exploit, exterminate. As you explore the map, your sphere of influence increases, bringing cities and other resources under your control. Sooner or later your expansion, or your objectives, will bring you into conflict with the other wizards.
As with any good strategy title, you have a range of diplomatic options; war, peace, trade, strategic alliances, tribute. A nice touch here is the effect of alignment (good, neutral, evil) in your dealings with the other wizards. In other games, the more warlike races were more likely to, well, go to war. But here, it’s not so much the nature of one race as it is the differences between two of them that will cause friction. Good and evil don’t mix, making diplomacy between differently aligned wizards more difficult. A cool premise.
Another cool premise? Fame, might, and reputation also factor in as considerations in dealings between wizards. The stronger your wizard’s might or reputation, the more favorable will be his agreements and treaties with others.
Should it come to war, and it will come to war, there’s a lot of strategy involved. You build armies by acquiring cities, each of which can produce only the unit types native to the race inhabiting that city. There are twelve distinct races, each with its own set of unique units, alignment, and ultimately, play style. Once again alignment is important. If an evil wizard controls a city inhabited by a good race (or vice versa), the units created there will have low morale, and may desert.
Knowing what types of units to build in order to counter your enemy’s strengths and exploit his weaknesses is part of the equation. Acquiring the necessary resources and cities is another.
Of course, you must also deal with resources such as gold, and the production rates of your individual cities. Magic itself is a resource, in the form of manna, and it too is subject to “production rates” in the form of casting points allowed per turn. Your wizard’s spells are researched, like technology in a space or civ game. Overall, magic is handled nicely.
Individual battles may be played out on a tactical level, with full player control over each unit. Or you can have the computer resolve battles for you. Either way, you’re in for an interesting, well-paced game.
As a wargamer, I’ve never made pretty graphics a strong requirement for enjoyment of a strategy game. In fact, the opposite is true- I’m often more comfortable with simple cardboard counters on a hex-map (or the computer equivalent).
AOW2 goes for the pretty graphics (I don’t blame them), but does an admirable job of keeping them from interfering with gameplay. Units are clear, though small, and beautiful, like tabletop miniatures. Even the interface is attractive without sacrificing on utility. AOW2 is one of the most beautiful games I’ve seen in this category, and it doesn’t put pressure on slower computers.
Though not memorable, the music gives the game an “auditory beauty” which complements the graphics. This type of game requires no positional audio or high tech sound manipulation, and yet it sounds good nonetheless.
However, after spending so much time on games like Warcraft III, I find it disconcerting to play a game where there isn’t a lot of speech in the game itself, as opposed to the cutscenes. Role Playing Games require a lot of text reading, and AOW2 is similar in that respect.
In addition to multiplayer, there is a twenty-mission single player campaign and a large number of freestanding scenarios. And the twelve distinct races, each with their own units and play style, keep things fresh game after game.
To round things out, AOW2 comes with an editor to create your own scenarios. This was once a real bonus, but nowadays it’s almost a requirement for games of all kinds. The editor is well documented in the manual.
And an excellent manual it is. It’s thick, it’s clear, it’s comprehensive, and it’s well written. A good manual is important to me. I shouldn’t need a strategy guide to teach me how to play a game.
There is a loyal AOW2 online community, but be prepared to dig a little, especially if you want to find the better user-made maps.
Multiplayer options are as complete as one can ask for; hot seat, internet, and LAN play are all supported, as is yes, Play By Email, something you just can’t do with an RTS title. Lag is not an issue (since the game is turn based), and waiting time is cut by use of the ‘simultaneous turn’ system.
Far above competent, but short of being inspired, Age of Wonders II doesn’t, pardon the expression, explore any new territory. However, all the various innovations of gameplay, such as alignment, reputation, and simultaneous turns, combine with the sparkling graphics to put a new face on an old friend.
Newbies are welcome, and encouraged. Four X fans will find that AOW2 exercises the same thinking muscles as Master of Orion II or Space Empires IV. War game purists can test their skill at combined arms tactics in a new way, owing to the variety and uniqueness of the various units.
Age of Wonders II comes in one of those new, smaller boxes. But don’t be fooled, there’s a lot of game inside.