Age of Wonders III is almost great. This fantasy strategy game has nearly everything a fantasy strategy game needs, including some things other fantasy strategy games don’t have. Clever combos of races and classes that make you want to keep starting new games. A broad tree of skills and spells that makes you want to keep starting new games again. Distinct and detailed armies that make battles a joy. Superb tactical combat that makes battles even more of a joy. A wonderfully competent AI. Let me repeat that one because it bears repeating: A wonderfully competent AI. Invaluable heroes who develop unique roles as a game progresses. A fantastic terrain model that provides beautiful evocative worlds with meaningful gameplay effects. A welcome flexibility in terms of how you can play. It’s nearly a complete package that rivals Warlock, Dominions 4, Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, and Eador for the superlative ways you can get your elf on.
But it’s missing one important thing.
After the jump, the ultimate feature.
Two of the most important elements of any narrative are the beginning and the end. The beginning should make you stick around until the end. The end should make it all feel worthwhile. Plenty of games know the importance of a strong beginning. It’s a fundamental fact of good game design at a time when games have formidable competition from each other and from other forms of entertainment. But why don’t more games know the importance of a strong ending? Why doesn’t Triumph Studios, a veteran developer with nearly decades of experience making Age of Wonder fantasy strategy games, know the importance of a strong end?
The most glaring gap in Age of Wonders III is the endgame. There isn’t one. The only victory condition is to take the enemy’s capital city. You and the other factions will build up your empires, level up your heroes, and cultivate veteran armies of advanced units. It’s thrilling stuff and it’s done well. I have had few randomized fantasy worlds grip me quite as effectively as the random maps I’ve rolled up in Age of Wonders III. I got to the point where I was even sketching out maps on a notepad by my computer to keep track of which cities were which and where I was protected by rivers and which swathes of forest were ideal for my elven army as opposed to which deserts were best conquered by my dragon men. It takes a really good strategy game to make me care this much. For all the design smarts of Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes and all the snappily epic battles in Warlock, those games never made me care enough to sketch out a map on a piece of paper.
But the more you play Age of Wonders III, the more an ugly truth emerges. Eventually one of the players will stop being a fantasy kingdom and start being a janitor, adopting the unenviable role of the player who has to mop up a game that was won a hundred turns ago. Everyone else gets to endure the long painful decline to an inevitable defeat. There will be no skipping this phase in Age of Wonders III. In fact, it is the bulk of your playing time and you might not even know it, because so much of the grand strategic overview is locked into a black box. For all the wonderful transparency in the tactical battles, Age of Wonders III offers you scant information in the wider world. The diplomacy in particular is an exercise in eventually fighting everyone at once for no reason you can discern. For strategy and diplomacy, you are driving blind down a long tunnel.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of an endgame. It’s not just another feature, like the interface, the AI, the graphics, or the unit variety. It is literally the ultimate feature. Every game you start will lead to an endgame unless you just stop playing in the middle. It is constantly looming, sometimes in the distance, sometimes right around the corner, sometimes directly over you. There is no way around an endgame. It’s where every game leads. It’s where every game should lead. Why would you climb a mountain that doesn’t have a top? One of the most terrible questions Age of Wonders III poses for me now is why should I start a new game?
Among the great innovations in strategy games since Civilization established the basic formula is ways around the endgame slog. Some games imagine a grand apocalypse. Others imagine a vote. Some have economic or cultural victories. Some give you a technological victory or a magic victory. Nearly every 4X strategy game concedes that no one should have to conquer every last city, any more than you should have to hunt down every last worker in an RTS. Given Triumph Studios’ long experience, it’s surprising they haven’t built into Age of Wonders III any of the usual endgame systems. I can think of very few strategy games that don’t somehow try to circumvent lategame tedium. Age of Wonders III stands defiantly alone.
Another unique aspect of Age of Wonders III is how it’s a lovely combination of beautiful and functional, sleekly built for combat instead of empire management. Much of the empire management is cleverly couched in the terrain, which you use spells to terraform in lieu of assigning workers or building farms or whatnot. This also figures into battles by giving certain armies better chances of getting critical hits or fumbles. Everyone knows elves are best in forests and dwarves are best underground. Age of Wonders III codifies it. This is why it doesn’t adhere to the usual concept of playing as only a single race. Instead, in most games, you will employ a variety of races, each uniquely tweaked for different situations. This is a game where elves march both alongside and against orcs.
The tactical combat, arguably the heart of the game, is fantastic. On an aesthetic level, it’s really gratifying how many different kinds of battles you’ll fight in different kinds of places. Let me show you a few because they’re worth showing off.
All these places, and the armies that fight in them, are drawn with a nearly absurd amount of detail. What a wondrous multi-faceted fantasy world. And on a gameplay level, it’s even more gratifying for how you can unpack so many different bags of tricks, and for how the AI seems to understand these tricks, and for how these tricks are all laid bare, with nary a black box in sight. You’ll know why you won or lost. You’ll remember the close battles. You’ll come to care about specific heroes, armies, and units because they are finely articulated bundles of gameplay mechanics and therefore personality. The tactical battles in Age of Wonders III bring the races and armies alive as surely as the grand strategic map they fight across.
But the more you play, the more you try different game types, the more you experiment with different races and paths along the skill tree, the more you develop favorite combos and hated opponents, the more crushingly disappointing it is that it doesn’t know how to end. A game this good deserves a good finale. It deserves anything other than the long tedious slog to finish a game that was over a hundred turns ago.