The development of wargames over the past few years has followed two distinct tracks. The far more popular one has been in the direction of real-time strategy games, with a role-playing modification being the feature of note lately. The road less traveled is turn-based.
Despite wonderful real-time games, I have remained a steadfast fan of turn-based games. The genre almost died out a few years ago, but was saved mostly by the Might and Magic, and perhaps the Warlords series. (Does anyone still remember when Might and Magic was an RPG?) Today, turn-based strategy remains popular, though I doubt it will ever be more popular than its real-time brother.
Age of Wonders II is about the best turn-based strategy game I have ever played. It gets all the important elements correct, starting with the opening intro. Mostly, turn-based games have had pretty poor intros. But that is not the case here. In the intro we learn the plight of the wizard Merlin (they could have come up with a more original name) as he tries to reunite the lost tribes of humans in a hostile world. This is the basis for the storyline, which ends up being quite strong. And of course there is the obligatory action sequence to get your blood boiling.
In the Age of Wonders II world, wizards are invulnerable. If they are killed in battle, they simply are reborn inside one of their wizard towers. Of course if they have no wizard towers, well, its curtains. You play a wizard, but one that does not know anything at the start of the game.
You are recruited by a deity who watches over the different spheres of magic. The deity wants you to master them all, which is done by defeating other wizards and researching new spells.
The gameplay itself is a race to capture the two main resources in the game: gold and mana. Mana flows from the earth from different mana fountains while gold comes from mines and is also produced by friendly cities. As a twist to the standard gameplay I have seen, you can also produce settler units that can re-build fallen cities and even build entire new ones. In this way you can use cities as defensive structures at key points along the map.
Mana is used to cast spells. You wizard can cast global spells anywhere within his sphere of influence, which extends for some distance out from the wizard himself, and greatly expands if the wizard is sitting inside one of his mage towers. The global spells include things like summoning creatures to help your field armies and causing rival cities to suffer plagues and the like.
Combat spells occur when armies meet and the game moves into the battle interface. They include things like fireballs and curses that can be placed on individual units or groups standing together. To help your wizard provide backup in combat, his influence extends a small distance around the hero units that work for you.
The defender in a battle always attacks first. This is good, and can make attacking cities very difficult. Your army has to be able to withstand volleys of archers from the walls, any magical fury or other long range artillery before you even get to attack. Of course if the city you are attacking has been neglected and has no wall or missile troops, you can still fairly easily walk in and plant your flag. And when you are defending, the advantages are yours.
Because the game uses a "defender moves, attacker moves" interface, you can really take time to plan out your strategy. I have beaten overwhelming odds in the past by deploying my limited strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses. Each unit is rendered beautifully and you can tell what they are at a glance.
Your ultimate goal is to capture all of your opponents’ wizard towers and then slay them in combat. Your best weapon will be your wizard. Having a well-timed fireball fall onto your opponent’s fire-vulnerable siege engines or cannon can really turn the tide. As you research new spells, which costs mana, you will gain a powerful arsenal of magical knowledge.
But here comes the most annoying point of the game, and the reason it scores low in the gameplay statistic. When you move on to a new sphere, you forget all your previous knowledge. When you start to learn the water sphere in a new series of missions, it is as if you have forgotten all your fire-based spells for example. You have to re-learn the aforementioned fireball spell, even if it was a staple of your strategy in the previous game. You are supposed to be the same wizard according to the storyline, yet you forget your knowledge from before? Come on. That’s just stupid. To add insult to injury, your heroes don’t join you either from one campaign to the next. You have to recruit new weak heroes, find new cool items for them to carry and build them up from scratch.
You see, I have a huge problem with this. It takes upwards of three or four hours to complete some missions, and you are researching like mad the entire time tying to maintain your toehold on the map. Then you are finally able to breakout and even conquer your foes, but when you start the next time, you have discarded all that information? It’s just frustrating.
I am sure the developers will claim that the reason for this is game balancing, but just because I spent time researching spells at great risk to myself because I could have been casting spells which come from the same mana resource pool, I should not suffer a penalty. If there was a different wizard for each campaign I might understand, but we are talking about the same guy here. It’s like the developers made each campaign individually, and then just strung them together at the end without thinking that you would be more powerful in campaign two than in campaign one based on your experience.
Anyway, within a campaign, which just a few missions, the game is amazing. The graphics have to be seen to be believed. Everything from spell effects to death animations is well-done. The audio track is also very good, setting the mood perfectly and not repeating enough to be annoying, even with three and four hours spent fighting on some maps.
Multiplayer is great fun, but if a lot of people are playing, it can get to be a bit boring. You can limit the time each player spends on a move, and also play where each person moves at the same time. You can choose to let players fight tactical battles or not. Doing so takes a long time, but is a lot more fun. In practice, I have found that beyond about three people, the game takes too long to play in multiplayer, but your patience and the skill of your opponents can be your guide in this area. No matter what, the game runs smoothly and I’ve never had a problem connecting and playing games.
Taken as a whole, Age of Wonders II is truly an amazing game. Despite what I consider to be one minor flaw, the game stands out in the field. Once you start playing, you won’t want to stop. And that is the true test of any strategy title.