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Age of Wonders II: The Wizard’s Throne

/ Sep 24th, 2002 No Comments

Age of Wonders 2

Age of Wonders 2

Age of Wonders 2

Although relaxing through an easy-going strategy game is a nice way to wile away some hours, the best games in the strategy genre are those that provide a serious and – at the highest levels – unforgiving challenge to one’s thinking and planning abilities. Should a player actually succeed against such odds, there’s a tangible sense of victory and teeth-grit accomplishment that comes from passing a satisfying test. I remember reading some posts from happy players who, after many attempts and a careful meticulous attack, finally overcame the ruthless AI in Civilization III. That’s one of the marks of great strategy gaming; yup, nothing like a blood-soaked game of chess.

Age of Wonders II: The Wizard’s Throne (AOW2) – Triumph Studios’ great looking sequel to their overlooked classic of fantasy strategy – reaches the gates of strategy gaming, but can’t quite burst through to completely conquer the genre and stick Mao’s, Gandhi’s and Lincoln’s severed heads on poles. AOW2’s near-miss is mostly due to some lapses in an otherwise challenging AI, and a diplomacy model that lacks much game play impact. If not for those flaws, AOW2’s gorgeous graphics, engaging city management options, endless unit and magic variations, and satisfyingly brutal tactical combat system would have raised its banner highest on the entire turn-based strategy genre battlefield, not just the fantasy subset of the genre.

Those who played the original Age of Wonders will find everything that made it a gem present and much improved. AOW2 features the best graphics I’ve seen thus far in the turn-based strategy genre. Like its competitor in the fantasy strategy genre – Heroes of Might and Magic IV – the map abounds with color and detail; unlike Heroes IV, AOW2’s graphics are larger, more deftly animated, and more vibrant. Though the modern fantasy music theme in the background gets old quickly, the sound effects played for each of the units contributes as much to the atmosphere as the great graphics.

AOW2 follows the semi-turn-based strategy game play path tread by the original AOW. Players attempt to control the resources and cities on the map using their army of units from among the 12 fantasy races. The game can be played in either one of 24 pre-made single-serving scenarios or a campaign mode consisting of 20 interrelated scenarios that tell the story of a human wizard named Merlin (no apparent relation to the original) as he attempts to master the six spheres of magic and discover what’s set his rival wizards all loco. For the scenarios, players can customize their own wizard by selecting their primary magic sphere of the six, their skills, and their picture from a gorgeous assortment of portraits.

AOW2’s emphasis on the wizards is not just a fancy framework for imagining the all-seeing, all-controlling mouse pointer; wizards represent a big game play twist to the usual resource-tagging, army-marching tasks that define the genre. The wizards are units on the map, and the usual object of a scenario is to defeat rival wizards by taking over their cities. Unlike the other units in the game – and in other similar games for that matter – the wizard’s power does not come from causing a game over if lost. Provided they are in a city with a wizard’s tower, the wizard can cast spells anywhere on the map within their domain as defined by dotted line borders on the map. Otherwise, they function like a regular unit, albeit one best left out of combat – the old magic user in combat stereotype applies. The wizards and their domains give AOW2 a ‘protect-the-king’ quality of game play, except for a change the king can actually do something more than look posh and die.

AOW2’s magic system functions similarly to a tech tree in other strategy games. Each turn, a certain allotment of magical energy – er, mana – is distributed between use for spells or researching new spells. The system of magic acquisition also includes a new set of wizard skills that have a powerful overall effect on the game. Researching spells and skills doesn’t require as much strategic forethought as other tech tree games, since mana is easy to come by, particularly later in a scenario. Still, judicious mana juggling can make a difference later on. When cast, the spells show off some fantastic visual effects – even for a game with graphics as good as AOW2, the spell effects are the showcase.

The units for the 12 different races plus the additional magically summoned ones all balance out pretty well. Each race has eight progressively more powerful units for cities to construct. The uniqueness of the different units makes playing each race a different experience. All are relatively well-balanced against each other, with weaknesses to match their strengths. One seeming imbalance, however, is how some racial archery units get up to three ranged shots per turn while others get only one. If the single shooters had more punch behind their crossbow or fire bolts, this could be overlooked, but on the contrary arrows and halfling sling stones seem to do more damage in a single shot than the crossbowmen.

Tactical combat was the highlight of the original AOW, and it’s back beautifully in AOW2. Once units of opposing armies collide, the game shifts to a tactical map where each individual unit charges, shoots, hurls, spits (yessir), or supports against the enemy. The satisfying thwack plus blood geyser when cutting through a halfling unit (among others) is back and better than ever – take that, Frodo! Much of the challenge in tactical combat comes from trying to deal with enemy ranged units, such that careful maneuvering instead of a go-for-broke charge can make a big difference in the outcome.

City sieges have been overhauled in AOW2; battering rams are a thing of the past. Instead, any melee unit can attack a city gate. The ranged units manning the city don’t take kindly to such intrusion though, and a siege often turns into a serious and tension-filled bloodbath as melee units attempt to break through under fire. Catapults and cannons, plus some of the bigger units can also smash through the walls, but there’s often little incentive to do so. AOW2 has achieved a great balance between the army conducting the siege and the army under siege, making them the best battles of many.

It’s in the sieges though that the computer AI suffers a serious lapse that makes sieges by the computer easy, provided you stocked the walls with ranged units. When the computer could have bashed down multiple gates and rushed many units in to feast on my archers, ensuring a deserved victory, the computer instead attempted to send all its units through the first gate that gets breached. What this amounts to is the player sending a single melee unit to clog this single gate while the ranged units twang away at the computer units standing in line. This led to siege victories when outnumbered by superior units four-to-one, which is kind of nice for a relaxing strategy game, but not for the strategic test I expect on the highest level of difficulty. Except for that siege failing, the computer AI is quite clever, capable of filching resources away with divergent units and piling up opposing force that is brutal on an open battlefield.

AOW2 also includes a simple but easily ignored diplomacy and race relation system. A number of different unit and city computations are processed for morale, making it possible for units to desert when teamed with opposing factions. AOW2 also includes a diplomacy system and trade window similar to Civilization III. Both of these features could have added a whole new dimension to game play, but in practice, they’re just as easy to ignore as they were in the first AOW. As long as the player doesn’t try to play matchmaker with elves and undead, unit morale is fine, and although races won’t take kindly to having their cities razed, they don’t seem to mind forced relocation from their cities (General Custer probably would have appreciated that).

The best solution for any AI failing is to face-off online against another player. AOW2 supports three types of multi-player games. I didn’t find a very extensive AOW2 community for multi-player, but the game has a loyal following with a fine community web site at http://aow.heavengames.com/. The game also includes an intuitive map editor; War in Middle Earth is a conceivable idea for this game.

AOW2’s shortcomings don’t detract too much from its overall absorbing game design and marvelous graphics. Except for its lack of emphasis on diplomacy and its AI flaw during sieges, the game has all the appeal, tension, joy, and [most of the] challenge of the strategy game greats.

Roy Rossi

Roy Rossi

Roy Rossi was a long time major contributor to Gaming Illustrated before disappearing of the face of the Earth. His service to GI will never be forgotten.
Roy Rossi

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