Age of Wonders: Planetfall Review08 Aug 2019 0
Age of Wonders: Planetfall Review
Released 06 Aug 2019
Out of all the games that tried to challenge Civilization’s dominance of land-based 4X Strategy, the Age of Wonders franchise was my favourite. The previous entry in the series (Age of Wonders 3) released a year after Civilization 5 received its second (and as we would find out, last) expansion and at the time felt like a genuine breath of fresh air.
High Fantasy-based and not concerned with era-spanning stories, Age of Wonders 3 never-the-less had that Civ 5 look and feel to it, but with some more hardcore, wargame-orientated sensibilities. Battles were conducted on a separate turn-based tactical map (a la Total War), and the strategic map very much concerned itself with the spreading and development of cities. What blew my mind at the time was that you could also just plonk down forts if you wanted to extend your zone-of-control a little bit over tactically relevant geography. It was a small thing, but Civ 5 didn’t really have anything like it.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is the new entry in the series, taking the action from the tried-and-true depths of mainstream fantasy up into the wild, imagination-fuelled frontier of space… and then back down onto terra firma again. The galaxy spanning empire known as the Star Union is gone, obliterated due to some kind of calamity. Those races that survived are now only just emerging from the chaos, going from planet to planet to set up new colonies amidst the ruins and figure out what happened. This isn’t the post-apocalypse; this is the post-post-apocalypse.
Each session of Planetfall takes place on a former Star Union world, from old pleasure planets to desolate outer frontier zones. These game worlds have a distinct character to them and possess their own piece of the apocalyptic puzzle. Triumph have put a lot of work into their world generation tech and it really shows- each planet is visually vibrant and varied enough so that it doesn’t feel like a typically ‘mono-biome’ space. A key departure from typical 4X games is Planetfall’s regions – there are no hexes or grids. Instead, each planet is divided up into named regions of varying shapes and sizes. Regions tend to be of a singular composition – i.e., this region is a forest, this one if a mountain etc… although there is some variety in there as well to stop everything looking artificial.
Your initial ‘planetfall’ will see your lead colony touch down at the random place on the plant. Expansion from there can happen in a couple of ways – you can annex neighbouring regions to make them part of the colony, or you can found new colonies (which can in turn annex their own neighbouring regions). You can also conquer an enemy’s colony, of course, that’s a given. Empires typically then involve less population centres than a game of civ might, as it’s possible to focus on only a few key settlements and then just dominate the regions around them. Colonies can only annex a region when they hit certain population milestones, but you can always ‘claim’ a region anyway by putting a Forward Base on it – this allows you to extend your dominion over the area and get the line-of-sight benefits, but you don’t get any of the resources within a region.
Planetfall, like Age of Wonders 3 before it, is not just about expanding and developing your civilization, however. There is a distinct ‘RPG/Adventure’ element to it as you send your heroes and armies out to plunder ruins or go on quests for NPC factions. Heroes form the back-bone of your military - leading army groups of up to five units. You start with one, but more can turn up your main colony to be recruited, and of course units can group into armies on their own if needed. Resources can be found scattered across the map, and each world is populated by NPC factions that can be courted (or exterminate) for benefits. Most often they’ll just issue you with kill-quests, but sometimes these can be far beyond the boundaries of your empire and will require a good old-fashioned adventure. Some regions also have powerful relics or artifacts located within them that will be a boon to any colony that can claim them - but they’re often guarded by hostile mobs. You’ll have to send an army to clear them out. NPC factions will also have their armies sitting on key sites, so one benefit of making nice is that you can ask them to leave without having to resort to violence.
The tactical battles are also a thing of beauty. Each tactical map is again visually vibrant, and littered with obstacles, overgrowth and terrain that can either be a help or a hindrance. I actually prefer tactical battles in this game over past games, as the melee-centric nature of the fantasy titles turned every fight into a bit of a slog. Tactical fights in Planetfall are no less bloody (alarmingly so, at times), but the switch to a ranged-dominant ‘meta’, if you will, has definitely done the game some good. Each faction has their own interesting style in the tactical layer, so fighting against different doctrines can certainly be challenging.
While we’re here, the faction design is as colourful and vibrant as the planets themselves. Every game has its tropes, and most of Planetfall’s are grouped around the faction design. Space-dwarves, sentient bugs, gung-ho soldier types… they’re all there, and while some of it can be a bit on-the-nose there is definitely something for everyone, and plenty of differing play styles to experiment with. Factions are customised further by marrying racial techs and strategies with a ‘secret technology’. These paths, named ‘Promethean’, ‘Void Tech’ etc… essentially relate to the end game doomsday weapon a faction will get access to, but comes with its own tech tree that can further augment one’s play-through. I’m personally not as impressed by these as I was with AoW3’s equivalent mechanic - something about them seems a bit bland in Planetfall by comparison.
This is just one of a handful of minor flaws that are by no means game-breaking, and only really point to a new strategy game at the start of its journey. It was never going to be sunny ruins and rainbows right from the off. Like other games that involve a separate tactical interface, a turn can easily take half an hour or more to complete depending on how many battles you choose to fight, and the current balance of the game means that fighting a half-decent opponent will lead to a blood-bath if you’re not smart. It can be a bit of a grind. We also feel there’s less interesting turn-to-turn decision making than there could be. “One more turn” can be just as much about clicking through waiting for something to happen as it is because you’re deeply engaged in what you’re doing.
There is a lot more to unpack with Planetfall that we haven’t mentioned, but we’d rather not spoil the fun you’ll have finding out for yourself. All you really need to know is that this is easily the best game of the series, and the best sci-fi 4X game you’ll play this year (and probably for a few years to come). A few minor niggles and issues don’t stop us praising Triumph’s excellent design choices, and our highest praise is reserved for how the game looks - it can bring a surprising amount of joy. This is an excellent start to a new 4X journey, and we can’t wait to see where it leads.