Age of Wonders fans may cringe when they see this, but its very name makes me think fondly of Heroes of Might and Magic. We may be twenty years removed from its release, but I remember AoW as very good HoMM clone. On the other hand, those who started with AoW would be right to accuse HoMM of concept-theft, particularly with how Heroes of Might and Magic 4 implemented “open” isometric battlefield. Then again, AoW2’s dungeons draw comparisons to Might & Magic, and so on.
Admittedly, I skipped Age of Wonders 3, even when it was free. Between The Elder Scrolls, Pillars of Eternity (2), Divinity: Original Sin (2), Baldur’s Gate (2), Dragon Age (3?), Kingdom Come: Deliverance, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Dragon’s Dogma, and yes, even The Witcher (3), I fatigue of high fantasy and its Occidental approach to all things fiction (okay, I am ABSOLUTELY playing BG3). However, I was totally sold when I discovered that AoW would take to outer-space. One problem remained: though I am well-versed in strategy and tactics games, my experience with 4x games is minimal.
The T for Teen rating for Age of Wonders: Planetfall is analogous to the “online interactions not rated by the ESRB” message that appears when firing up a game. I think Planetfall could pass for an E for Everyone if it were not for the fact that it is a war game, and in war people die. I do not recall eruptions of blood and gore, but units do fall over dead after receiving lethal damage. Equally grotesque and awesome are the Assembly, a faction whose bodies bear the toll of their obsession with scientific ascension.
Soldiers who have spent 200 years in cryosleep discuss the possibility of enjoying the vices of a pleasure bot establishment. Patronizing this location spirals into an entire side-quest concerning an investigation of misused Succubots.
Though we received our review copy of Age of Wonders: Planetfall courtesy of TriplePoint PR around the same time as most other outlets—long enough to be under embargo—I delayed this review for an extra week beyond the big launch date. My first impression of Planetfall was not positive. Despite playing the tutorial, reading as much non-spoilery information in the fabulous dev diary as possible, and spending ten hours in the first mission, I did not like the game. Perhaps it was my mistake for going in expecting HoMM/AoW at best, and Total War at worst. Instead, Planetfall presented to me a game that moves at a snail’s pace and perplexes me with its economy system; I never knew if from if I had banked enough production points to initiate a construction spree, nor could I discern how to trigger a zero-turn build time for an offensive unit.
I am glad that I spent an extra week with Planetfall, for this investment in the game has yielded no little pleasure. Though I still think the game’s economy is obtuse, its AI soft, and its pacing sluggish, I believe there is enough here to warrant the hype. Beginning a campaign prompts a tutorial that simulates an AI interface explaining concepts in block paragraphs when a game of this scope could have utilized step-by-step instructions. For example, if I wanted to build a doomsday army, then Planetfall should show me the fastest rout to accumulate energy, the game’s primary source for all things martial. Energy is also used to execute Operations protocols, ranging from tactical (“spells” during battles) to (counter) espionage against other factions, such as spying or siphoning energy. Oh, and do not forget diplomacy! Make war, or better, allies, and so on.
I am not going to list the economic possibilities here, because numbering them all would require scientific notation. What I did understand is that after establishing a base, its population grows by 1 per x-many turns. Typically, the more food grown, the faster the colony grows, and the unhappier it becomes due to population. One can mollify happiness by building specific structures and allocating people there who cannot be also assigned to food or energy or production or research. Annexing additional sectors (think provinces or commanderies in Total War: Three Kingdoms) will increase resources based upon landmarks within that sector as well as the terrain on which it sits. My strategy, then, is thus: prioritize sectors with landmarks and go heavy on food in early-game so that the population will be there to distribute elsewhere when necessary. I am still trying to figure out what sectors with multiple icons for the four main resources mean. And do not forget the rarest resource, cosmite, the resource that exists to the detriment of rush strategies!
The primary contributor to Planetfall’s tempo is the agonizing rate of accumulating resources to do…well…anything. The other culprits are the double research branches of military and society (econ). Let me put it this way: on average, a campaign map takes me ten hours to achieve victory, and by then, I might have only barely unlocked tier IV units when tier VII exist. Whew!
Bewildering economies aside—and I do consider research an extension of economy—there is much to look forward to in Planetfall. First of all, when I express exasperation in regards to high fantasy, it is as if Triumph Studios had heard my lament in the Great Beyond. The art direction here is delectable; though I probably should expect this from a strategy game with its history, I am nevertheless relieved that it delivers in the sci-fi department. I made fun of the Assembly faction in the Content Guide, but that faction has some sick units, and I mean that in both senses of the word. Mass Effect fans will struggle stifling a chuckle when they see the
Hanar Psi-Fish and Volus and Dvar, yet be amazed at seeing the concept of of space jellyfish and dwarves as fully-imagined concepts. I have seen dino-riders before, but here, the Amazons shoot laser guns instead of bows and arrows.
While the basis of all six of the playable races are anthropomorphic, where even the basic ranged tier I unit may appear identical to that of any other race, there are too many subtle differences to name, such as a teleport function, or AOE damage grenade, or the ability to entrench anywhere on the map. These variations exist for every faction at every tier, and after accounting for every unit in the game being eligible for modification, the permutations for army possibilities are mind-boggling yet meaningful, right down to the implementation of heroes, and giving them vehicles (some games would call these mounts) that effectively doubles their battlefield impact. Combat taking place on a grid full of hexagonal paths will be familiar to most with even minimal experience in strategy games. The combat phase is by far the most fun part of the game, since there is much to learn about combat effectiveness.
Again, the art direction is on point, no question. There are inconsistencies, though, with graphical fidelity and animation quality. All of the scenery is fantastic, and fights are rife with destructible and obstacles that can be exploited for tactical advantages. Likewise, the units themselves reflect the kind of quality that I have been blessing thus far. However, the rigid animations on display while while units move, attack, or take damage betray the game’s otherwise high-quality rendering. While these animations are tolerable, they protrude distractingly among the awesome everything else.
Admittedly, I have not finished the entire campaign (check the pulse of anyone who claims that they have; they are probably a bot), but what I have played thus far is promising. The standard human race, the Vanguard, are part of a federation that oversees its own intergalactic dominance. Yet the player’s division goes into cryosleep for 200 years, and awakens to its empire in ruins. The mission is to find out what happened. Meanwhile, the
Zerg and Protoss hybrid Kir’ko were once subjugated to human dominance and seek the telepathic call of their ancestors. Of the races I have played, the Dvar are the least-exciting on the outside, seemingly a race of Russians trying to make good with a clan conclave. How these three along with the Assembly, Amazons, and Syndicate interlock, I look forward to discovering.
Though I plan to play Planetfall all the way through, it has also reminded me why I shy away from 4x games. I can handle “grand strategy,” but coming fresh from a Three Kingdoms campaign to this, I prefer a better “action-to-wait ratio. Setting aside my personal preferences, the merits of Planetfall are evident. I look forward to unveiling how the collection of factions learn to play nice…or not. Overall, I am pleased.