Thank you Triumph Studios for sending us this game to review!
While I'm no stranger to strategy games, this is my first time playing the Age of Wonder series. Age of Wonders III is a 3D 4X (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate) turn based strategy game. The original game comes with six races (humans, draconians, high elves, dwarves, orcs, and goblins) and the Eternal Lords DLC adds two more: frostlings and tigrans. The frostlings are ice dwelling humans, but the tigrans are cat people that look pretty darn cool.
The single-player campaign revolves around a high elf princess that would rather fix her crumbling empire by taking action and not by a political marriage. Corruption runs deeper than she anticipated and in order to stop the pending war, she must go against her father's will and forge alliances with various races including draconians, goblins, orcs, and dwarves. Some of the alliances may end depending on the decisions the player chooses to make. For example, the Orc hero left my party when I decided against killing off the human race.
Each scenario starts off with at least one hero unit and a small army. Sometimes a hero is allowed to die and will respawn at their throne city after a couple of turns. More often than not, the death of a hero unit results in a "Game Over, Would you like to load your last save?" screen. In order to have a throne city you'll have to take over or form alliances with other towns.
After a town is captured you can absorb it into your empire peacefully (and with full control) at the cost of five turns, protect it as a vassal and receive tributes, change its race (which upsets those not of that race), plunder it for resources, or burn it to the ground. Cities have many upgrade paths which can unlock new army units. If a city is idle, it can generate gold, knowledge, or mana for you.
I seldom had an idle town as they were usually churning out warriors for me. In order to build a decent army, barracks have to be built and gold has to be collected to cover their expenses. Other collectible resources are mana and knowledge. Mana allows you to cast spells both in and outside of battles. Knowledge enables you research new abilities faster.
Throughout the game you're constantly researching and learning new abilities like traveling on water, undoing enemy spells , summoning unique units and much more. As the hero units fight, they will earn experience and level up. You can spend their character points on increasing health, defense, magic and elemental resistances as well as healing and other unique abilities. While their equipment will carry over to future campaign levels, their stats will get reset in every new mission. Because of that, you can re-spec them as the missions deem necessary.
Exploration is crucial in this game. Besides locating and exterminating your enemies, you can often find stashes of gold, mana, and knowledge waiting to be picked up. Other loot takes a bit more effort to acquire. Many maps have guarded tombs and shrines that reward handsomely if conquered. When an AI character is defeated, they'll often drop some decent equipment. Most campaign scenarios are won by defeating all of your opponents. One of the campaigns was timed which is quite tricky since many of the levels take me over one hundred turns and more than an hour or two to complete.
Besides the single-player campaign, you can custom create your own scenarios and hero characters to go with it. There are various difficulty levels you can set the AI to. I typically played on easy and found it humorous when the enemy army was standing next to one of my under protected towns and decided not to conquer it. I'm sure harder difficulties wouldn't have hesitated.
No matter how good or dumb the AI is, nothing compares to being able to play against a fellow human. Age of Wonders III offers several ways to make that possible. The standard local and internet options for up to eight players exist and there were plenty of games to choose from and join. Because of the time commitment needed to complete a game it's hard to find a good time to do so. There's an e-mail mode where you can take your turn and it will e-mail your opponents when it's time to take theirs. While that mode is in beta, I'm happy that it exists.
For the most part, Age of Wonder III ran fine for me. I did have one instance where I didn't have any audio. Restarting the game resolved that issue though.
Fans of 4X turn based strategy games will find a lot to like in this game. With that said, there are many moral issues to take into consideration. While the ESRB Rating mentions partial nudity, I did see some revealing outfits and more skin than necessary. It was pretty tame compared to what The Witcher 3 showed me though.
War is a given, but the violence is pretty minimal, especially if you have the computer fight your battles for you. If you manually fight you'll see units fall in battle, but little blood is seen if any at all. Magic is prevalent in this game and there is holy magic and dark magic. While playing as a necromancer I was able to summon undead units and the maps had pentagrams on them. Last but not least, there is some language including d*mn and b*stard.
If those issues don't bother you, Age of Wonders III has a lot to offer. The main game has a ton of replay value and the DLC content adds more races and game modes on top of that. The gameplay is solid and very well polished with the beautiful graphics and great voice acting. Turn based strategy lovers should look into it, especially when it goes on sale for half price on Steam.