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Age of Wonders III Review: A Triumphant Return
While many of us claim to be gamers, there are such a wide variety of genres and tastes that it often comes down to just what kind of games and mechanics you enjoy: 2D platformers, first person shooters, sports simulations. I’ve found I enjoy a myriad of genres and types, but something about the turn-based, 4X strategy game gets me excited in all the right places. Strategically planning each tactical move in a world that makes Chess look like Checkers, perfectly managing my resources and empire, and carefully skirting the subtle art of diplomacy to tip in my favor are all staples of the genre that Age of Wonders III excels at. The long-awaited sequel to the fantasy turn-based franchise has been resurrected and proves that, with a little Notch magic, dreams do come true.
Age of Wonders III plays out similarity to its previous iterations, back in a time when PC strategy games (both real time and turn-based) were a dime a dozen. The turn-based genre has gone through its ups and downs in the last few years (mostly downs, though recent higher-profile games suggest a sharp and exciting increase) but thanks to some major successes from the likes of Civilization V and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the genre is regaining its viability and successfully finding its audience. Age of Wonders III knows its audience very well, combining all the best parts of Heroes of Might and Magic and Civilization to create a tactical experience that’s as fun to oversee on the macro level as it is to wage board game miniatures-like war on the micro battlefield.
There are three main ways to play Age of Wonders III: a long, dual-sided campaign tells the story of the technology-focused and militaristic Commonwealth (those pesky humans) versus the nature-loving Elves and friends. Additionally, over half a dozen Scenarios exist as pre-made maps with special built-in conditions such as 3v1, or 5 player free-for-all on a large island map. The long-term replayability and real meat of the gameplay stems from the Random Map Generator. Like Civ it allows advanced customization and tweaking options with geography and gameplay to create new and interesting maps to conquer.
The inclusion of a main campaign is expected with lots of neat little story touches like voice over before each map, multiple quests to complete and heroes to gain and advance. It’s also incredibly long – each campaign contains several maps and each gigantic map easily takes several hours. The story-line is pretty rote for fantasy – the Commonwealth is your typical Evil Empire and what not, and each campaign includes an important choice in the fourth map that allows you to essentially switch sides, determining your final two maps and ending.
The campaign maps are impressive feats of a more linear approach to exploration and advancement, and I appreciated that it frequently switched between various hero classes for each map, allowing you to sample each type of leader class from an empire management standpoint. Still, the harsh fail condition of losing any of your special hero characters in battle frequently got frustrating, and often I relied on the old standby tactic of simply building up my forces for several turns before creating an unstoppable army to sweep through the rest of the map.
When staring a random game your leader is compromised of one of six races and six classes. The races should be familiar to fans of the series (minus the odd lack of halflings) and typical for High Fantasy – Humans, Dwarves, Elves, Orcs, Draconians and Goblins. Classes are also fairly typical though the actual gameplay mechanics are far-reaching and interesting. Rogues gain powerful backstab and assassin’s strike bonuses while dealing crippling poison damage, while the Dreadnoughts wield powerful rifles and harness the power of mana-fueled technology to squeeze more resources out of their gold mines . Six total classes can be freely mixed with the six races to create a unique combination, and it’s fun to find one that perfectly suits your playstyle. I was partial to Theocrats for their defensive spells and awesome ability to convert enemy units, and the Draconian cavalry ride dinosaurs, ’nuff said.
Heroes are the backbone of your armies, and each army can hold up to six units on one hexagonal tile on the map, giving a nice compromise between Civilization V’s one unit per hex rule and earlier games’ dreaded Stacks of Doom. Though units aren’t beholden to traveling with a hero and can roam freely in any combination you like, heroes gain experience, new skills, and can use powerful magical items, weapons and armor that you discover. Skills range from new abilities like phasing to different parts of a battlefield to converting enemy units or providing passive resistances and buffs to the units under their command. Your leader acts as a particularly powerful hero, and losing him or her in battle throws your entire empire into chaos for several turns (preventing new research) while they regenerate. If you lose your Throne City your leader has nowhere to respawn, and you lose the game.
The choice of your leader’s class is more than just abilities and spells; each class is also given a researchable tech tree of specific units that play nicely to their playstyle. Rogues gain Bards, Scoundrels and Succubus, specializing in flanking and converting enemy units; Theocrats get undead-stomping Crusaders and Evangelists while Warlords specialize in having a ton of special super powerful units at their disposal. Finding a fun race and class combo adds a ton of customization and replayability on top of an already limitless map generator.
Pre-made leaders exist a la Civ (with a lovely 3D display screen), but you can customize your own specific set of skills on top of your favorite race-class combo – mostly ranging from elemental spell types to add to your spellbook. Earth affinity gives you access to Stone Skin and Earth Elementals while Destruction can instantly plunder cities and Blight the land.
Spells make up an important part of the game as they can be cast while in tactical combat mode by one of your heroes, or on the strategic overland map. Combat spells include blinding your opponents or healing your troops, while global spells terraform the land to alter the racial bonuses in your favor, summoning creatures, or providing bonuses to your cities. Mana, like gold, must be carefully managed as every action has a per turn upkeep cost in addition to an upfront requirement. On the normal difficulty (of which there are five, with the second being the default Normal) I never had any problems going negative on either resource, and found that I could build a satisfying amount of units and buildings and cast spells frequently every turn, provided I was running around exploring tombs, gathering treasure, and capturing cities.
DRM and Online Multiplayer
While GoG does technically sell a DRM-free version of the game, it should be noted that playing online requires a registration account with Triumph Studios. Furthermore playing online, even in the Steam version, relies on P2P networking, which means you’ll probably need to engage in some port forwarding to even search for open games (this guide I wrote for setting up a Starbound server applies here, just use Port 14800). It’s not an uncommon occurrence for indie PC games, but still a pain. Age of Wonders III supports LAN and Hotseat multiplayer as well.
The overland map should be instantly familiar to any veteran of Age of Wonders or Heroes of Might and Magic: armies have movement points they expend as they explore the map, and the world is littered with things to do. Neutral stacks of armies guard resource nodes that can give one-time rewards as well as acting as per turn resource generators if located within your domain. Your domain is increased through cities that you build where ever you like as well as domain-expanding strongholds you can construct around the map. Choosing locations with bountiful resource nodes and strategic areas are vital to successful empire management. On random maps, neutral cities dot the landscape (depending on the custom parameters you set for the map) and can be obliterated, absorbed, or perform quests for to peacefully add them to your growing empire.
In addition to gold, mana and knowledge generating sites, neutral dwellings can be found where you can recruit more fantastical creatures to your army, such as wyverns, faeries and giants. It’s a lot of fun as I found the actual playable races a tad boring and symmetrical. It makes for an easier and more recognizable game flow when each race has their cavalry unit, their infantry, their pikemen, etc, but I was hoping for a bit more racial diversity. Draconians typically deal fire damage while goblins deal in poisons and orcs specialize in pure physical prowess. While units vary in their resistances and stats somewhat, I found them all to be a bit too homogenous. Each race gets access to a different top tier unit – goblins get the ultra cool Big Beetle riders that can tunnel through caves while Humans get the somewhat boring mounted Knights.
When engaging foes on the overland map, the gameplay shifts to a large hexagonal battlefield. Armies face off Braveheart style and like a board game, turns are taken for all units at the same time – there is no turn order or individual unit initiatives to worry about. Units are tiered 1-4, giving you a quick gauge to determine how powerful an unknown foe is relative to your own units, and creating a nice balance where Tier 1 archers and infantry remain useful throughout the entire game (especially as they gain ranks and stat increases). Units have an intuitive colored radius they can move around in depending on their amount of movement points, and attacking uses some of their movement. This usually translates to the more you move the less you can attack in one turn.
Large battlefields usually favor ranged units but Triumph smartly includes a lot of systems to help even the playing field, such as range and line of sight penalties for ranged units, as well as flanking bonuses and attacks of opportunity for melee. A unit can cover the three hexes in front of them, and once engaging a foe (adjacent to) that unit gets a free attack if the opponent attempts to move away. Units can retaliate against attacking foes, but it expends one of their movement points, so they won’t be able to move as far or attack as much on their own turn. Flanking occurs if you attack a unit from one of their rear three hexes, gaining bonus damage and causing the unit to turn to face their attacker. The clever leader can quickly use this to his or her advantage as positioning one’s units becomes just as important as attacking.
Numerous abilities and spells for each unit and hero allow for a ton of options each turn, not to mention the awesome inclusion that any friendly units that are also adjacent to your foe on the overland map join in the fight on the tactical screen, creating giant awesome battlefields of dozens of units. Fighting while embarked on water or exploring a tomb or besieging a city changes the field of battle as well, forcing you to adapt to hostile terrain or interesting limitations.
While I’ve mostly been singing its praises, there were some aspects or missing features that disappointed me. The lack of a separate town screen is a bummer as all the town’s management is done simply through menus on the overland map, Civ-style. Buildings are very limited as well, with only a minimum tech tree involved – you’ll find yourself pumping out units far more often. There’s also no easy way to garrison troops in a town other than putting them on sleep mode (and towns require manual defenders, no automated defenses), and many useful buttons like city rally points and dismissing a unit are small and tricky to locate. The AI has a few strange quirks, such as pouring out of its fortified walls too eagerly, but Triumph is already addressing them. These are pretty nitpicky concerns and none of them detracted from my overall experience with the game.
A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.