Golden Realms fulfills the promise of Age of Wonders III. And adds hobbits.

, | Game reviews

Halflings? Halflings? Really? The race that no one wants to be because you might as well be an elf for the charisma bonus? The most human of non-human races, which is quite an accomplishment next to half-elves? Those homebodies who so rarely go on adventures that when one of them finally does, you can barely get three whole movies out of the tale? That’s what developer Triumph Studios is going to offer as the cornerstone of Golden Realms, the DLC for their arguably incomplete fantasy strategy opus, Age of Wonders III? Halflings?

After the jump, it’s not the size of the race that counts.

But before I express further incredulity at an add-on featuring halflings — I mean, come on, halflings? — Golden Realms deserves to be known as something more than the halfling DLC. This should be more correctly known as the Seal of Power DLC. Seals of Power are part of a new victory condition that manages to address a major weakness of the game as released: namely, that it didn’t have an endgame. To win in Age of Wonders III, a combat-based strategy game rather than an empire-building strategy game, you had to fight to the death every last AI opponent, which usually involved rooting him out of his biggest and best defended cities. It made Age of Wonders III a game of a hundred exciting battles and then a few dozen Verduns just to make sure you didn’t have too much fun.

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But Golden Realms adds Seals of Power to every map. These are well defended by neutral monsters you won’t be able to budge for a while. Eventually, you beat the defenders, occupy the Seal, and start a countdown timer to your Seal victory. But unlike the victory point locations in other games with “capture and hold” victory conditions, an occupied Seal of Power will periodically defend itself by spawning another army. If you haven’t left a hearty force to defend a Seal, you’re just going to have to capture it again. Of course, if you haven’t left a hearty force to defend a Seal, an AI opponent is probably going to try to take it from you before that happens. I love how well the AI seems to understand the new victory condition. So the end result is that you have to bank a powerful army to hold a Seal of Power, at which point you have to wait until you’ve racked up the requisite number of turns for your victory condition.

The beauty of this new endgame is that it’s just something you would do anyway in Age of Wonders III. You were going to use powerful armies anyway. So Triumph has given you places to use them, and it’s made them locations for epic battles with you, neutral monsters, and your AI opponents banging into each other. Furthermore, the Seals of Power don’t give you any bonuses. You’re just holding them for the win. This isn’t a rich get richer concept. It’s a “rich run out the clock” mechanic in place of “the rich have to beat their heads against every last enemy city”. No more Verduns!

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Also lending some mid- to late-game structure are empire quests. These are basic goals like “have five cities” or “have 100 units” or “get a hero to level 15” that you might have done anyway. But now, the first player to reach one of these goals earns a reward. It reminds me a bit of the brilliant dominance system in Big Huge Games’ final RTS, Rise of Legends. The difference is that there were fewer categories in Rise of Legends and the interface tracked how close every player was to each goal. This made it a great way to note the progress of your opponents. Were they booming or rushing? It furthermore passed the reward around among whomever was in the lead. Empire quests in Age of Wonders III are more of an added grabbag than a gameplay system, but they put structure into what was a sagging middle and late-game.

Other goodies include a new school of magic, called wild magic, that throws a little chaos into the mix with some distinct spells. A revamped spell system controls the magic economy more carefully. New diplomacy takes into account city borders and lets the AI surrender, further sidestepping all those pointless Verduns in the base game. There are new sites on the map hidden inside dungeons you have to conquer, at which point they offer unique upgrade paths in nearby cities. Many locations add interesting global modifiers during battle. Irregular units get more varied kinds of upgrades in the research options, which allows players to field guerilla forces with unique abilities. A lot of these elements are actually part of the latest patch that preceded the DLC, so they’re not technically part of what makes Golden Realms good. But they are part of what makes Triumph’s post-release support so good.

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So then what’s the deal with the silly halflings? This is where Triumph has most surprised me. They managed to use some really cool gameplay systems to express halflings as frail, lucky, and pastoral, with their chickens, fireworks, beer, and rabbit warren defenses. With the basic races included in the game, you sometimes had to peer closely to suss out the differences. Why would I play, say, the draconians instead of the orcs? But there is no such confusion with the halflings, who turn out to be Age of Wonders III’s most distinct race. They can’t stand up to much damage, but they can instead duck under it. What a shrewd way to imagine a traditionally dull fantasy race!

Golden Realms is a best-case scenario for how to do DLC. It’s got the kind of stuff that you wouldn’t want to do without if you’re playing Age of Wonders III. Even if you’re not playing a halfling race, they’re worth having in the rogue’s gallery of your AI opponents and allies. Wild magic is more than just new colors of fireball spells. If you’re not into empire quests — who doesn’t like more quests and rewards? — you can switch them off, but they offer milestones as the game progresses. These are all nice additions. But as far as I’m concerned, playing Age of Wonders III without Seals of Power is like watching a movie without the ending. Golden Realms, which provides Age of Wonders III with its ending, fulfills admirably the promise of a promising game.

  • Age of Wonders III: Golden Realms

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • A new King of the Hill style victory condition where players must capture and hold the dangerous Seals of Power structures in order to achieve victory. Don't sit and hold back as broken seals attract extra-dimensional beings wanting to take the Seal back.
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