Age of Wonders is a long-running PC strategy series that has been around since 1999. This latest entry takes the 4X genre—think Civilization—and transports it into a fantasy world where battles are resolved in tactical showdowns, there’s magic everywhere and your leaders are also RPG characters.
That sounds like a game made specifically for me, so imagine my own surprise when, looking over its Steam listing the other day and installing it, I realised I had never played one before. Not the original, not its 2002 sequel, not even the third game, released in the relatively modern era of 2014 (though I’ve now been told they’re quite different games, so that might explain some of this!).
I had played the series’ 2019 spin-off, though, so I had some familiarity with the series, if not in its purest form. And what I found with Planetfall I found to be pretty much the case with Age of Wonders 4 as well: this is a slick 4X game that hums along nicely, looks great and, for those willing, has a surprising amount of depth you can burrow down into and mess around with if fantasy and RPG stuff is what you’re into.
Because I’m new to this series, I actually—and I recognise the chronological backwards-ass nature of this, but it is what it is—found it incredibly similar to Amplitude’s Endless Legend. Where that game goes hard on providing you wildly varying factions to choose from, though, and have your game impacted accordingly, AoW4 goes in the opposite direction, and lets you create a faction down to the most minute detail, from its race to its perks to its appearance (you can choose from some pre-baked races if you like, but that’s boring!).
Much of AoW4's overarching structure will be familiar to anyone who has ever played a 4X game before. From building cities to researching technology to exploring the map to meeting friends and rivals, the overall shape of the game is, perhaps unsurprisingly given the series’ age, staunchly traditional.
Where AoW4 gets freaky, though, is the way it implements its fantasy setting. You get hero characters who can be levelled up and equipped with loot. There are spells you can cast at a strategic level that grant perks and even units. The tactical battles have swords and arrows, but also elemental magic, animals and dead dudes. There are even story missions you can work through. It’s great!
Another thing I really like about the game is that, while there’s a lot to dig into—city management, battles, exploration, diplomacy, RPG stuff—the game, like Planetfall, moves fast. I don’t know if that’s because of its scale or maybe just that I’m already so familiar with 4X stuff that I’m blowing through parts of it, but the game’s pacing just felt really solid; I always had something cool to do, and never felt like I was bored, or stuck waiting for a particular piece of research or construction. The game’s interface, at once instantly-familiar for 4X veterans and always prodding me when a decision needed to be made, helps here.
So yeah, I really like AoW4! It’s maybe not the finest example of the sub-genre—I still think, nearly a decade on, that Endless Legend remains a masterpiece—but it’s certainly good enough at everything it’s trying to do that I regret never having dabbled with the series sooner.