Whenever I pick up a 4X style game a serious feeling of dread flows over me. A feeling of dread brought on by the simple knowledge that I’m about to sink a lot of time into a game. Playing games like Civilization tend to result in one thing: Just one more turn.
Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.
Originally, I thought I’d pass on Age of Wonders: Planetfall. Not because I didn’t like the series, but the fact that I wasn’t sure I had the time to sink the time required to play it. Unfortunately for me, I enjoyed Age of Wonders III, so here I am playing Planetfall.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is the next game in the series, but not a direct sequel. It’s a bit of a spinoff on the game that takes us into deep space, along with a new take on the 4X genre. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it works rather well.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall starts you off in a tutorial playing as the Vanguard. Disclaimer, I hate the Vanguard. This is the human faction of the game, a group of misfits sent into deep space to build some hyperportal. Emerging from their cryosleep only to find The Star Union destroyed, with the remaining members spreading out to fend for themselves.
The campaign story isn’t exactly a story per se. It serves two functions: introducing you to the faction and its leaders, and somewhat explain what’s actually going on.
You’re introduced to the Vanguard, Dvar, Kir’ko, Syndicate, Amazon, and the Assembly, yet you must progress through some rather long campaign missions before you can unlock the Amazon and Syndicate, which is disappointing. That said, you can always just play custom scenarios and play any faction you wish.
Each faction has unique abilities and research trees. They all bring something to the table the others don’t but are mostly all equal in terms of strength. I didn’t like the Vanguard very much, but I really enjoyed playing as the Kir’ko, the vomit spewing battle-bugs!
Steep Learning Curve
While the tutorial does a decent job at explaining things, the game has a rather steep learning curve. Even for veterans of the series, there’s a lot to learn. I found jumping straight into the game to be a big pain, it truly wasn’t enjoyable for a while. I sloughed through the tutorial and started to slowly grasp all the small changes to the game. One key thing to keep in mind is the game has a much faster pace than normal. Unlike games like Civilization, even in the late game, it doesn’t slow down and you’re quickly back to your turn. The battles between the AI take place behind the scenes in a rapid manner, so you’re never left too long without your turn.
The changes to the combat system are akin to XCOM. Each combat map is full of different terrain and obstacles to hide behind. Each of these obstacles acts as a barrier for cover, and yes, they can be destroyed. Once you placed a unit behind cover, the enemy has a huge penalty to accuracy against that unit head-on. Also, if you’re Vanguard of Syndicate, you have units that can use the Overwatch ability, gaining a bit of an ambush mechanic. Anyone that enters the purple cone gets fired upon by that unit. So, I guess Vanguard does have that going for it at least.
Each unit also has a range of movement that is displayed in varying color ranges on the grid. Movement also shares points with your attacks, so if you move too far, you cannot attack. It’s all a game of cat and mouse in a tactic’s arena, thinking two turns, or more, ahead to try to predict your enemies next move.
Some abilities have splash damage, such as Rockets and Grenades. This splash damage can and will kill your own units. This was something I wasn’t expecting, and let’s just say I murdered two of my own men before I realized what I was doing.
Quests and Trading
The game features some RPG elements, borrowed directly from Age of Wonders III. You’ve got your typical quests, levels, and perks to modify your units.
Your quests are simple and easy ways to gain reputation with a faction. This is important as these random factions on the map, the non-playable races, offer goods for sale, some of which are their special units. I mean, you can get a big flying Jellyfish as a unit just for becoming friends with one of them, also giant Penguins…
Your heroes level up from experience gained from combat. Each level grants you some ability points to spend in a skill tree. While you’re welcome to choose what you want, you’re likely going to find it extremely hard to get them all, as the increase in cost severely outweighs the amount you earn.
Not only can you upgrade your hero units with equipment such as different weapons and modifications, but you can also upgrade your regular units. Doing so makes a template that you use to build them. Each upgrade costs a specific cost, so the production costs do go up in both resources and energy. It’s a vital aspect of the game, however, and failing to upgrade your units early on will result in you falling behind very fast in combat.
The world design is one of wonder. The generated worlds are gorgeous and look hand-painted but are randomly generated. You can tell the team took great care when designing the graphics, they did a great job with them.
While one can argue that the races aren’t unique at all, I think they did a good job at making something different design-wise. The Cyborg Assembly may seem to be generic Cyborgs, but I don’t know many Cyborgs that take organs from their slain enemies and implant them into themselves to extend their lifespan. These races are both unique and familiar at the same time, though I’d have loved to see them be completely unique.
Sound direction is nice, in general, but lacks in one department: Ambience. If it’s one thing I can bash the game on, other than the story, or lack of, is the ambient noises in the game. Random tiles have some very loud ambient noise radiating from them, such as crickets, and man is it annoying. It’s not annoying because it’s a bunch of crickets, it’s annoying because of how loud it is. It literally drowns out anything else I hear. Thankfully there is a slider for Ambience, but I still think it’s too loud, you can’t really enjoy the ambiance, and lowering it too much simply mutes it.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Something new to the game is Weapons of Mass Destruction or WMD. These are super-weapons in the form of Operations. Operations, by the way, are extra abilities you can by unlocking them in the Military research tree. Some can be used on the world map, others are used during combat.
These super-weapons, and operations in general, are designed to give you an edge in combat. Though they aren’t all pure bonus, WMD’s also come with a hefty cost attached to them. Not only resources but also negative effects to your faction. One such WMD for the Kir’ko is called Oblivio Mundi. Not only does it cause massive damage, but it also provides you with a Happiness reduction of 40, so user beware.
While Age of Wonders: Planetfall has a steep learning curve and a subpar story campaign, the core gameplay is very fun and addictive. The fast-paced nature of the new system makes games go smoothly and much quicker than a normal 4X game. I’m unsure how this will affect multiplayer, but I don’t really play multiplayer with these kinds of games. If you’re a fan of Age of Wonders, you’re going to thoroughly enjoy Planetfall, especially if you like XCOM combat.