It’s a kind of magic
I don’t think I’ve minced my words when I’ve talked about my distaste for fantasy settings. Whether it is a lingering effect of growing up in a religious household where magic was the creation of the devil, or just not finding it interesting, I’ve never been able to find an interest in fantasy worlds. So when I was approached with a preview build of Age of Wonders 4 I was apprehensive. Thankfully though I accepted, and for the first time I was enthralled by the fantasy world that stood before me.
So what was so great about the world that Triumph Studios built? Even though the world had some form of procedural generation built into it, each world was brought to life by not only the landscape but also the kingdoms and cities that inhabited your world. Like most 4X games, you start out in your own little corner of the world with no knowledge of what lies beyond your realm. As you venture further from your home and discover the world that you have been plopped into, you meet all kinds of races and characters.
Depending on how your actions, factions will react differently to you. Long-time veterans of the 4X genre will probably balk at my thoughts and try to say that it’s all built upon some reactive code. Which it is. Knowing this though, it still feels like a vibrant and real world when the second I meet a new civilization they judge me on my previous actions and react as such.
The best part is that every interaction in the world is built on the base of your society’s traits, and they are all customizable. Sure there are the basic things like race, royal colors, and emblems, but the customization also goes much deeper, allowing you to craft the perfect roleplay base. There are cultures on which your lineage is based such as feudality or war-mongering barbarians. This culture is then refined even further into traits and schools of magic where you can either double down on the benefits of your culture or branch out and create a mix of different schools of thought. Whatever choices you make, they will come back around in both strategy and role-playing mechanics creating a sort of feedback loop.
Being the elf lover that I am (don’t @ me) I found it particularly fun to make a race of nomadic feudal wood elves that were masters of wind and lightning magic. Nothing overly original but hey, I like my wood elves. One thing I did find odd though that with so much customization available, only binary pronouns were present in the game. It is nice that they are completely disconnected from character models but in a rich fantasy setting it feels weird to limit the choice to strictly male or female.
The gameplay feedback loop was only deepened by the fact that you gained the ability to access new tech, based only on the affinities of your culture. The way it works is that there are six different affinities that your society can have such as nature or material. You gain experience in an affinity through different means while playing. Some are as simple as choosing a certain outcome during a role-playing event, but it’s also wrapped up in what schools of magic you decide to pursue in your research. The more you learn in a certain affinity the faster you will unlock empire-wide abilities that correspond to the affinity.
It is a bit of a letdown that the topics you are able to research are randomized but I kind of get what they were trying to do. One of my biggest gripes with the 4X genre is that it’s ripe for railroading and making the research tree have a bit of randomness in it isn’t the worst way to go about mitigating it but I don’t know if it’s the best either. It all feels a bit gamey to have to pay a resource to shuffle potential topics because you don’t like anything that is presented to you.
While the actual research tasks are randomized, the schools of magic that are presented to you are left entirely up to you. As your society progresses you gain access to new schools of magic which in turn allow you to research new abilities and units and increase your affinity. So being that I liked wind and lightning, I was able to quickly build units that specialized in that, which came back to bite me in the ass when I went underground and had to fight rock people. I didn’t feel like I was being punished for my actions but I did question what I thought would happen when taking a group of lightning elves underground. In a way I was glad the game kind of slapped me upside the head, because I know I’ll never make that mistake again — which lead to tense relations with underground societies that hate forest walkers.
While I was only able to play for a short while compared to the amount I’ve played other 4X games, I can tell that this mix of role-playing and strategic decision-making would add tons of mileage to a genre that can easily burn people out with samey worlds and experiences.
One of the things I dislike the most about the 4X genre is when the minutia of battles are left up to a computer simulation. I’ve had the argument with my friends about randomness in all types of battle simulations countless times but when it comes down to it, I don’t want to lose a battle because the computer decided I had a bad roll of some ethereal dice. I want to lose battles based on my own tactical incompetence dammit! Thankfully Age of Wonders 4 retains the option to either play out battles through simulation or by commanding your troops yourself. Even in tactical battles you can let the computer take control for a turn or two if you are nearing the end and know victory is inevitable. On the flip side, if you choose to simulate and don’t like the outcome you can run the battle yourself.
Now, it wouldn’t be a Marzano preview if I didn’t talk about the UI/UX. Just as you can min/max your society, so too has the UI/UX been min/maxed as there are some areas it shines and others where it frankly doesn’t. Anything relating to the strategy elements of the game is impeccably designed and gives you all the information you need in a prudent fashion. Nested tooltips from other Paradox-published games have made their return. While it’s a bit unwieldy, it’s super nice to see the ability to learn about a mechanic by simply hovering over it. Of particular merit is the diplomacy screen.
It’s super nerdy to geek out about a single screen containing everything you would need to negotiate politics with a rival faction but Age of Wonders 4 diplomacy screen is one of the best I’ve seen in my time playing strategy games. Meanwhile, any screen that has to do with role-playing feels clunky. It took me longer than I’d care to admit to locate the level-up button for my ruler, because it looked like just another equipment slot. It’s far from a game-breaker but it does show where Triumph’s strengths and weaknesses lie.
Against all odds, Age of Wonders 4 has won over this ardent disliker of fantasy games and worlds. The world and empire customization makes for an engaging experience that loops back on itself by utilizing all aspects of the gameplay. The base that is being laid for the May 2 launch is fantastic and I can feel my love of the 4X genre returning to me in full.
Age of Wonders 4 is available for pre-order now on PC, Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5.
This hands-on coverage is based on a preview build of the game provided by the publisher.