Planetfall: How Age of Wonders’ newest addition is bringing the 4X to life20 Feb 2019 1
The narrative potential in a 4X game is perhaps one of the least explored areas in the genre. It’s not often I’ve paid much attention to the ‘context’ of my time within these games. After all, Civilization is abstraction personified, while other games have made their own attempts of laying down a plausible ‘why’. The main problem, of course, with many of these attempts has been the need to explain away why everyone starts off the same. Most don’t even bother.
But never before has such a perfect reason for being existed than when it comes to Age of Wonders: Planetfall. As one of a handful of successor races to emerge after the collapse of a fallen empire, each game is essentially your faction landing on a new planet and trying to build anew. As well as the usual 4X trappings, you also need to find out what happened, as well as uncover the secrets of the local game space. Each game is a separate ‘planet’, with it’s own story to tell within the context of the fallen Star Union. Maybe you’re playing a session on the former ‘tourism world’, or maybe it’s an old penal-colony.
This environmental storytelling is achieved in a few ways. Visually, the worlds of Planetfall are stunning: Vibrant, diverse, full of life… each area of the game is filled with something – whether it be an NPC faction outpost, an alien hive, or other. While hexes are still used for movement and placement, the main administrative aspect of the game is divided by ‘regions’. There is always one main settlement in a region that can be colonised or made into an outpost. Some areas, such as mountains, can’t be claimed at all, so if you’re not a fan of border gore then you’d better be careful. Regions will have varying resource outputs which can be expanded upon and may even feature other places of interest that can be claimed and utilised for your faction. For example, an aerial defense array that will damage any flying units in tactical combat in that region. It’s likely you’ll need to clear out any NPC dwellers first, though.
It was remarkable how much everything made sense and felt authentic – the game world is the main character, and not whichever rag-tag band of post-apocalyptic survivalists you decided to try out this time around. It’s not that Planetfall is the first to try such a design, but it’s the first in recent memory to pull It off with a large degree of success.
My time playing an early version of Planetfall was exclusively with the Vanguard faction. The game’s races follow very obvious sci-fi tropes (for better and for worse), with the Vanguard being the vanilla ‘human’ faction with an added gung-ho All-American flair. They’re not the most imaginative, but then as a closet wargamer I actually had a lot of fun with them. Using this faction is like playing a game of XCOM within a 4X game – the units are very militaristic, the tactics are easy to understand… plus, you get to summon a mech unit via Drop pod. I mean… yes.
Much like Age of Wonders III, Planetfall affords you a lot of customisation as to the character of your faction. You get to customise your starting hero and faction leader, determining their race, and then whatever ‘Secret Tech’ they get to work towards. This can be thought of us a pseudo-class – AoW 3 had more obvious fantasy tropes such as Warrior, Wizard etc… where-as through the lens of Secret Technologies like ‘Promethean’ or ‘Xenoplague’, the class system in Planetfall is less obvious.
Along with race (and class) specific units, there is also the technology tree, and the ‘Operations’. Operations are the old ‘Spells’ of past games and are special actions you can research to use in either the tactical or the strategic layer. They are also divided into several categories, such as ‘Doctrines’ and ‘Special Operations’. Doctrines tend to give more passive buffs where-as the core Operations can allow for anything from getting a free scout unit, to bombing an enemy settlement. The Drop pod ability mentioned above is a tactical operation you can research.
There’s also a lot to be said for a smooth transition between states: as much as I enjoyed Age of Wonders 3, I always found the tactical battles to be a bit clunky. They were a touch too slow to load, and a touch too slow to actually play, to the point where you’d often want to auto-resolve… except, the auto-resolve AI was a bit naff. Thankfully, the devs have put a lot of work into these areas of Planetfall. Launching into a tactical battle is a breeze, and the switch of focus from melee dominant to ranged dominant gameplay means that battles start and resolve quicker. I only fought a handful of battles, but they were some of the finest micro-tactical experiences I’d encountered in a while, with the environment matching the strategic locality quite nicely. Lots of terrain to contend with.
It’s an interesting final point to make, actually – Age of Wonders III, by the devs' own admission, was by design a fantasy wargame with 4X trappings. For Planetfall, Triumph have tried to strike a more balanced approach, with a heavy focus on environmental story-telling. The end-result is profound – Planetfall often feels overwhelming – there’s always so much to explore, to interact with, even within your starting locality. Progress and expansion will be slow, and there were times where I felt like I was just running around putting out fires. On the other hand, I didn’t feel restricted – rebuilding a fallen empire isn’t really supposed to be quick, and so far, Planetfall has managed to throw up interesting decisions (nearly) every step of the way.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is due out via PC and Consoles on August 6th, 2019.