Available On: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
In 2014 Triumph Studios revitalized the niche 4X strategy series Age of Wonders with the excellent Age of Wonders 3. After two solid expansion packs the studio quietly began working on their next project, and was acquired by Swedish publisher Paradox Interactive, known for big, densely packed strategy games.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is the long-awaited next step in the franchise. It’s less of an evolutionary leap forward, but builds upon the successes of Age of Wonders 3 along with several smart and fun gameplay improvements and dozens hours of replayability.
Prepare for Planetfall
In layman’s terms, Planetfall is an intricate mashup of a 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) strategy game like Civilization and Endless Space, and a tactical wargame like XCOM and Fire Emblem. I can select one of six factions, from the standard space human Vanguard to the more exotic bug alien Kir’ko or undead cyborgs known as the Assembly, and customize my commander’s starting skill set, visual style, and secret technology.
From there I can choose between playing a random scenario map or start digging into the lengthy campaign. The campaign consists of a series of scenarios that do a decent job digging into the major story lines of each faction, from the Vanguard’s return home after 200 years away, to the formerly enslaved Kir’ko balancing vengeance with trying to find their place in the universe, all while under the shadow of a former fallen empire called the Star Union.
I was impressed by the huge number of scenarios and maps in the campaign, each featuring multiple quest objectives and choices. A single map can easily last between five and ten hours and there are well over a dozen storylines, each with at least two maps. If I want to break free from the narrative drama, the random scenarios provide plenty of options to create my preferred planet style to wage war (or diplomacy).
I was less enthused by Planetfall’s bare bones tutorial. I’m a veteran of the series (and other 4X strategy games) and still found myself scratching my head at how to properly exploit sectors. Completely new players will easily be overwhelmed trying to navigate the dual research trees, the differences between tactical and strategic operations, and how to stake a claim on sectors without angering your neighbors. Planetfall desperately needs a Civ-like adviser and tool-tip recommendations to help new players and returning veterans.
Not Just Another Bug Hunt
The basic gameplay is structured similarly to Age of Wonders 3, with several important changes. I still make colonizers to found new colonies on the map, but the world is now divided into regions called sectors, and each colony can eventually include up to four additional adjacent sectors, expanding my borders onto important resources and unique landmarks without the need to build and manage a dozen colonies. Since colony management remains one of the more tedious and least enjoyment elements of the series, it’s a solid improvement.
Unit mods are another excellent new feature for Planetfall. In addition to each unit gaining experience through combat, I can also attach up to three individual mods, which can be gained from research or as quest rewards. These mods include a wide range of effects, from the mundane (adding health, accuracy, or damage) to the exotic, like changing my units’ acid spit into an electric chain attack. It allows for lots of interesting unit customizations (which are saved as templates) and makes lower tier units perfectly viable through the mid and late game.
Planetfall’s biggest improvement is with tactical combat. Every unit now has three action points they can use to move and execute attacks every turn on the hex-grid battlefield. Since guns, lasers, and acid-spitting giant bugs are par for the course in a sci-fi universe, the tactical maps now feature plenty of cover to hide behind, and ranged units can be set to provide overwatch attacks.
Things can get really exciting when multiple armies full of amazon-riding-dinosaurs, translucent psychic jellyfish, swarms of rifle-wielding bug-men, and giant gun-covered mech walkers are thrown into a giant battle together. The AI, while decent on the map layer, really comes into its own on the battlefield, properly using its support units, flanking my entrenched infantry, and devastating my clustered forces with tactical operations.
While the unit models are a fun mix of classic sci-fi creatures, the visuals, interface, and unit animations don’t look much better than the five year-old Age of Wonders 3. I was profoundly disappointed when I saw my newly acquired wild harrier, a giant pterodactyl creature that looks it flew right off the set of Avatar, attack an enemy unit for the first time. It awkwardly landed and poked the other unit, then flew back up.
Likewise, the battle UI actually feels like a small slide backwards, with large ugly gray buttons for many unit actions, which I suspect is a consequence of Planetfall simultaneously launching on consoles, versus the PC-exclusive Age of Wonders 3.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is rated T for Teen with Blood, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, and Suggestive Themes. The storylines and writing put in comfortably around a PG-13 rating, though with gene-splicing, political blackmail, and species slavery, things are a bit heavier than your average Star Wars film. Combat and warfare are a major part of the game but the violence and blood are minimal.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is more than just Age of Wonders 3 in space, though thankfully much of what made Age of Wonders 3 such a fantastic game has been preserved, along with several excellent new improvements. Like many heavy strategy games, Planetfall can be a difficult game to jump into, but it’s a rewarding experience of strategic planning with tactical combat that few games come close to achieving, and one I’ll be enjoying for dozens of hours more.