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Review by: John Thompson
Published: January 1, 2000
Being the new kid on the block is never easy. The neighborhood heavyweights will test you immediately to see what you’ve got; the rest of the locals will be watching to see how you react and what you bring to the table. A new turn-based strategy title from Triumph Studios, Epic Games and Gathering of Developers called Age of Wonders is now playing that underdog role, and the established local toughs, in this case, Heroes of Might & Magic III and Warlords III, are waiting to see what kind of a fight they’ve got on their hands.
AOW is based in the standard Tolkein-esque fantasy universe, replete with elves, orcs, halflings, humans and a score of other races. Played in the tried-and-true top-down 2D perspective HOMM and Warlords veterans will recognize instantly, the game puts you in charge of races, armies, and cities as the forces of good and evil clash to determine the fate of the world. As the adventure opens, you are presented with a nicely animated, hand painted cinematic that sets the stage. The leader of the Elven Court, the wizard-king Inioch, has been assassinated; his court in the Valley of Wonders lies in ruins. Two factions have risen to rebuild the Elven kingdom. The first is led by Inioch’s son, Meandor, who was left for dead amongst the ruins of the court; the second faction by his youngest daughter, Julia. Julia’s faction, The Keepers, seeks to rebuild the Elven court and preserve peace. Meandor, on the other hand, has founded a violent group called the Cult of Storms and leads the Dark Elves, a race based not on the preservation of life but on its destruction. Meandor’s goal is also to rebuild the court, but in his own warlike image, with a solitary goal of the destruction of humankind. Thus, you take on the role of either Julia or Meandor as each seeks to return elvenkind to its former glory and stature, but by two radically different means.
Both groups start on the extreme western shores of the continent and must fight their way to the Valley of Wonders, located far to the east. To get from point A to point B, you must win a set of linked scenarios; success in any given scenario may leave you with a number of different paths that may then be taken, forcing you to alter the outcome of what is happening strategically across the continent. For example, at one branching-scenario decision, you must choose to help either the Dwarves or the Lizardmen, but not both. Whoever you choose to aid will be your ally; whatever group is neglected may face annihilation at the hands of opposing forces. The choices you make during the branching storyline will greatly affect who is on your side for the final battle.
As each scenario opens, you are presented with a view of the surrounding land that can be seen by your lone stack of units. The rest of the map is dark and will only be revealed by exploration or the use of spells. Chief among your first priorities in any mission is to find cities sympathetic to your cause; many will either join you outright or do so for a fee. You’ll need to scramble early on to reveal as much of the map as possible while at the same time building up your base of cities, mines and farms, all of which put gold in your coffers. Having positive cash flow is important, as constructing units costs money, as does keeping them in the field; if you run out of cash, units will begin to desert and your lines will be stretched thin. The goal of each scenario is basically the same–kill the leaders of the other factions before they do the same to you. To accomplish this, you’ll need to develop serious infrastructure capable of supporting an extended war effort. While you may have interim periods of peace during each scenario, they won’t last long; if a race is on a map, they are there to be conquered, whether they are hideous undead hordes or cute and fuzzy Halflings. The twelve races each have their own unique cadre of units. Some, such as the Frostlings’ Dire Penguin, are decidedly tongue-in-cheek. Others, like the Lizardmen’s Salamander, are all business, and each has their strengths and weaknesses. Some can use ranged-fire weapons such as bows and arrows, while others can fly, charm their enemy, break down walls, or cast spells.
At the heart of AOW is its use of heroes. These units differ from their average counterparts by being more powerful and capable of extraordinary talents and growth. Certain talents are inherent to the hero because of its race, such as the ability of Lizardmen to swim. To gain other powers when a hero levels up, you purchase new abilities from a list. Watching your hero go from a bumbling buffoon that can barely draw his sword to a serious battlefield contender capable of eliminating whole stacks of units in one fell swoop is a joy, one that lends a definite RPG feel to AOW. The system of hero development is intuitive and allows you to make a myriad of choices at each successive level up; these choices determine the well-roundedness of the character. You can choose to make your hero a jack of all trades or, conversely, develop them into a real killer or a mage without peer. Having these choices to make keeps you in close touch with your hero, more so than in most other releases in this genre.
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