Buy 'AGE OF WONDERS: Shadow Magic': PC
I remember the original Age of Wonders. Seemingly coming from out of nowhere, the game quickly captivated a legion of strategy game addicts who, after years of playing Heroes of Might and Magic, were looking for something different. Much like HoMM, Age of Wonders was turn-based, featured a well developed fantasy world, and challenged players to raise an empire from humble beginnings. But Age of Wonders was much more than just a fresh take on an ancient genre. The game simply offered more. More races, units, buildings, and actions to perform. The game did have its flaws, and was not well received by the majority of the media, but this didn't deny the game an audience. Hardcore players were often quick to point out that with a few minor tweaks, Age of Wonders could be something special. Several of the gameplay issues players had were fixed in a series of patches, and almost overnight, Age of Wonders became a cult hit.
Released a little over two years ago, Age of Wonders II featured the same infamous gameplay, but brought several new enhancements to the table, the most notable of which was a beautifully implemented 3D graphics engine, capable of inspiring visual effects. While some of the rule changes didn't go over too good with the hardcore crowd, AoW II was generally well received, and considered a worthwhile upgrade to the original game. Although not exactly a downer, the sequel is noted for being extremely challenging, even for seasoned veterans. Again, I wouldn't consider it a knock on the game, but it is believed by some that the second games difficulty turned off those new to the game.
And now we reach the third installment in the series, and the basis for this review. Released a week or so ago, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic has once again raised the bar, perhaps a little more significantly than the last time out. The game features a host of new additions, including new races, units, buildings, and items. There is also a brand new campaign, a random map generator, a full featured campaign editor, a totally new level in addition to the surface and underground areas, new spells, and a mass of tweaks designed to balance out gameplay. Truly, the new game offers a lot. I will get a little ahead of myself for the moment and tell you all now that every one of these new features is implemented exceptionally well into the game, and make an immediate impact. The games overall presentation is dead on. Everything has that slick, well done feel to it that makes you want to play it.
Another positive issue that is readily noticeable about this game is the obvious emphasis placed on bringing new players into the fold. Where AoW II was quite difficult and targeted at those that played the original, this new version is designed almost from the ground up to be as user friendly and accessible as possible. The game features a well done tutorial, as well as the best manual I have seen in a long, long time. The American version comes with a seventy two page manual that, although written in a small font, mentions everything new and advanced players could want to know about the game, including the number crunching and formulas the game uses to decide the outcome of battles and events. That is something I for one thought was gone from manuals forever, but here it is right here, in all its mathematical glory. Additionally, the American version also contains a PDF document outlining every unit, structure, and ensemble in the game. Apparently these various figures weren't available when the manual went to print. Nevertheless, the developers went the extra mile here and included the information. They could have easily left it out. So hats off to Gathering for the thoughtful and informative manual. It's going to go a long way towards helping new players get into the game.
And getting into the game is the real fun. Like its predecessors, Shadow Magic is played in an isometric, top down perspective. There are several levels of zoom that allow you to focus in closely on the action. Essentially, the map you play on features various buildings, nodes, caverns, dungeons, and cities. You start off a game with a powerful wizard, which is either assigned to you, or can be customized to your liking. Wizards practice magic available in one of six spheres, which are air, earth, fire, water, life, death, and cosmos. Cosmos really doesn't count, because it actually encompasses all of the spells available in all of the spheres combined. Again, the sphere your wizard specializes in is either assigned to you at the beginning, or can be customized. Once in the game, you and your wizard have several options. The usual bet is for the wizard to find a hero to do its bidding for it. Heroes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Their main purpose is to lead the wizard's armies into battle. As heroes do this, they gain experience, and eventually level up, much like an RPG. Leveling up a hero allows you to pick from a short list of new abilities that will either make them better at combat or exploration. Heroes start out fairly meek, but can become truly powerful over time, provided they're managed properly. As the hero cruises around the map, buildings get flagged that bring in various resources, such as gold, mana, or some other benefit. Some of these buildings contain enemies that will have to be defeated first or even independent units offering to assist you, usually for a price. There are ancient ruins to explore, caves to exploit, dungeons to scale, and shipwrecks to plunder. There is also the occasion side quest, offering great rewards in return for services of varying difficulty. As you move around the map however, your hero discovers that not all of the various enemies on the map are pushovers. In fact, many of them are downright nasty, and defeating them will require some equally powerful units.
Which brings us to cities. Initially, cities come about much like any other building on the map. They usually feature a friendly or otherwise independent race of inhabitants who offer you control in exchange for gold, protection, or fair leadership. Cities however, bring yet another layer of strategy to this already bustling game. Cities allow you to build structures, such as walls and barracks, and to create units of varying types and abilities. One of the many kickers is that the types of structures and units a city can build are largely dependent on the type of race that inhabits your city. Each race has several unique buildings and units, including champion and elite units. As I mentioned, there are also a slew of structures a city can build that will assist the player in completing the mission at hand. Possibly the most important of these structures a city features is the wizard's tower. It is here that your wizard usually resides. The wizard tower affords your wizard what is called domain, or territory. A wizard can cast spells anywhere within this territory without leaving the tower. The tower can be upgraded to offer the wizard additional abilities, including greater range. Of course, it is also possible to have multiple towers, which provide even greater domain and flexibility. There is so much more to cities than what I can get into here, but suffice it to say, they up the games reward potential many times over. Cities require a certain level of patience and nurturing to develop into something useful, and that gives the player an attachment to it. Once your city is able to consistently produce top notch units, a sense of power unfolds before your very eyes.
Combat is also well done. Once again, several layers of strategy come together, and the battles can get quite involved. When an instance of combat arises, the game zooms in on the area in question, and each unit involved is displayed on the screen. While it is possible to play the game in a simultaneous turn mode, combat in the single player game is always turn-based. One player moves, and then the other. Each unit can have several different abilities, some of which are always active, while others can be chosen from a list along one side of the interface. The abilities are varied enough to give the player a host of considerations and options. Unit's attack, cast spells, and engage their enemies with suitable ferocity and disdain. Your wizard may also cast spells upon any of the units in battle, provided the battle is taking place within their domain. Like the two previous titles, the combat in Shadow Magic is an intense, tension filled event that really draws the player in. The game manages to capture the gritty, fight to the death attitude one would liken to fantasy battles. In one memorable encounter, I was attacking my nemesis outpost. I was fairly outnumbered, but I generally had the better units. The enemy had themselves fortified inside a well developed castle, and I lost three units just trying to breach the walls. In this one battle, I dealt with units trapped, surrounded, and dealing with adverse spell effects. That's three major considerations in one battle. As I slowly brought my forces together, and began to whittle the enemy down, I found myself locked into this game like a magnet. It has been a long, long time since a game so completely captivated me like Shadow Magic has. Battles can also be turned over to the computer to be resolved immediately. It's not something I would do myself, but others might like the option.
As I mentioned before, the graphics are well done, and really capture the feel of the game world. The maps are quite colorful, and filled with every manner of terrain and environment you could think of. Neat, simple little effects, like fog clouds and steam, litter the various areas. Dungeons and underground caverns have the foreboding atmosphere they should have, and everything just looks really good. The units all have distinction and purpose, and are modeled very well. Horses gallop along, your heroes cloak flying in the breeze. Things still get a little pixelicious when you zoom in, but sometimes it's worth it just to get a better view of the carnage. The sound in Shadow Magic is just as good. Although some of the music is rehashed from the last version, it's all appropriate and sets the mood nicely. The environmental effects, such as the wind blowing over snowy tundra, are all very well done. Of particular note is the way sounds echo when you're in an underground cavern. It sounds so trivial, yet it really adds to the feel.
As complex as this game is, one might worry that the interface could be quite daunting. But rest assured, like every other aspect of the game, the interface in Shadow Magic is well polished. Everything is clean, clear, and easily navigated. Granted it's a little overwhelming at first, but between the well done manual, tutorial, and the obvious thought put into every aspect of the game, it wont take the average player long to get a grasp on things and start cruising.
The game also boasts a random map generator, but I'm going to call it a random scenario generator instead, because that's what it's actually capable of doing. There are a host of options the player can pick from when using this feature. Everything from map tweaks, combat style, and what type of turn system to use. Additionally, the player can pick from four basic scenario types, which are battle, epic, archmage, and empire building. The generator will then create a scenario based on these variables. While other games have made similar attempts at such a feature, Shadow Magic's random scenario generator actually works, and works quite well. As if that's not enough, once the random scenario is generated, a list of numbers is displayed. These numbers are the random seeds the game used to generate that scenario. So if you like a particular scenario the game generated, you can use these same numbers to generate the same scenario again in the future, provided you use the same settings. You could also pass them on to friends as well. No doubt the internet will be full of different number sequences you can use to generate cool scenarios. Not only does this give the game an almost infinite amount of replay ability, it will also attract more casual gamers who aren't interested in playing through an epic campaign.
Also included is a robust and deep campaign editor that will allow for a multitude of user created campaigns, giving the game even more value. There is nothing better than free campaigns. No question about it. The manual for the editor is on the same PDF as the units and structures, and is every bit as helpful and informative as the games written manual. While the editor is powerful, you're going to want to follow the instructions advice and really learn the games rules and mechanics before getting too involved with it. Using the editor is easy. But creating maps that are fair and paced well isn't. All the tools are here however, just waiting for a friendly veteran player to come along and whip us all up a doozy.
Shadow Magic uses Gamespy to allow for multiplayer battles, and everything is set up quite nicely with this option. A small but quite irritating bug has popped up that doesn't allow players to select tactical combat in multiplayer mode, and it hasn't gone over too well with some of the players, but that's to be expected. The issue will no doubt get worked out in due time. Otherwise, multiplayer is quite fun, although you should expect a few rough outings, as the veterans of this game know it like the back of their hands, and can have a massive army raised and at your doorstep in the blink of an eye. At the same time, you can get a lot of tips and strategies regarding this game from veteran players online. I have always personally recognized the Age of Wonders fan base as one of the more friendly and accessible communities around. They love this game, and enjoy introducing it to new players.
Now here comes the hard part. Despite the accolades I am garnishing here, they do not come without some fair warning. While it is indeed obvious that every effort has been made to make Shadow Magic accessible to new players, it is by no mean easy. The game is deceptively complex, and has a way of sneaking up on you. This is particularly true at the start of a scenario, when you're planning your strategy. Maps in this game are fought over constantly. You'll fight over mines and mana with an army made up of little more than fodder. Then, when you leave one area, the AI will come in and undo everything you just did, taking over all of your flags. Obviously, this can get monotonous. I have even heard advanced players commenting over this, so I don't think it's a lack of experience issue. Battles can involve a lot of units, and therefore take time to complete. One gripe I have with combat is the way defensive moves are used. When one of your units is attacked, they will often times retaliate, striking back at the aggressor. Unfortunately, these actions count towards that unit's movement points, so when your turn comes around, you might not be able to do as much with that unit, or anything at all for that matter. This is particularly a problem when fighting your way into an enemy castle during a siege, where your initial unit through the gate blocks traffic because they have no movement points available to get out of the way. Yet another problem with combat, and the whole game to a lesser degree, is that units sometimes become hidden behind terrain features and the like. I have had instances where I failed to account for an enemy unit because I couldn't see them. There is an economy with this game, but it's very subtle, and takes some time to learn. As a result the pace of the game sometimes suffers. With my tendency towards defensive play, I often found myself first waiting for my economy to even out and grow, and then waiting further for units to be created. There are some strategies that can be adopted that will minimize this, but rest assured, being defensive isn't one of them. I have currently been working on a more expansion based strategy, attempting to raise a lager income more quickly, but the jury is still out on some of my concepts.
Other minor issues would include the rather muddled storyline associated with the campaign. The graphics on some of the battle maps can be choppy at times. And finally, despite the obvious dedication to replay value this package contains, I have some questions as to the appeal Shadow Magic may have with veteran players. The previously mentioned scenario generator and campaign editor might help with this, but it's still Age of Wonders. There are some new twists to gameplay, but whether or not it's enough to warrant players of the first two games purchasing a third installment is of some doubt to me. With many of them, it's going to come down to the generator and the editor.
But all gripes aside, there are still many more positive aspects to Shadow Magic. There is the new item forge, which can be built inside your city, and allows you to create various items of substantial power and ability. I mentioned that wizard towers help establish your wizards domain, but your heroes also have a small area of domain around them which your wizard can tap into and cast spells through. I could sit here and go on and on. And I could have played on and on as well. This game had its hooks in me within the first ten minutes of play. I got so enthralled with it that I kept telling myself that once I finished the first scenario of the campaign I had better put the game down and start typing this review, otherwise I wouldn't stop playing, and this would have never gotten done. The game has a drool factor that is beyond description. I drooled while reading the game box in the store. I drooled while reading through the manual at work. I drooled while the game was installing. I have done nothing but drool over this game. I'm even drooling now, just writing about it. The game should come with a free bottle of water to help prevent dehydration in older gamers, or those gamers who have drool related problems, like me. That's how bad the drool factor is with this game.
While writing this review it dawned on me that this was indeed the third installment in the Age of Wonders series. It strikes me as ironic that the game Age of Wonders more or less dethroned, Heroes of Might and Magic, hit its stride with its third installment. Personally, I have always felt that Heroes of Might and Magic III was the best game in that series. Oddly, that version of the game also seemed to be focused on appealing to first time players, much like Shadow Magic, and had the same refined approach as well. It really bares no significance, but it's kind of interesting at the same time. Similar games, following similar paths.
All in all, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic kicks major ass. I would call it the first true challenge to Rise of Nations for the strategy game of the year award, but I can't really do that because Shadow Magic is, after all, the third game in a series, with readily established gameplay. But the game is certainly no less fun. It is a joy to play, and it does what all great games do, which is to literally accelerate time. Games like Shadow Magic are what gaming is all about. Fun. Obsessive, get no work done, fun. Go out and grab a copy of this game. It's one of the best out there.
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