Archives by Day

May 2024

Age Of Wonders: Planetfall

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Triumph Studios
Release Date: Aug. 6, 2019

About Jared Hall

Jared started playing computer games in the '80s on a Commodore 64, moving over to PC gaming in the era of Wolf3D and Doom. Favorites include Dark Souls, Mass Effect and Civilization.


As an Amazon Associate, we earn commission from qualifying purchases.

PC Review - 'Age of Wonders: Planetfall'

by Jared Hall on Jan. 7, 2020 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Age Of Wonders: Planetfall will bring all the exciting turn-based empire building and immersive tactical combat of its predecessors to an all-new sci-fi setting.

Buy Age of Wonders: Planetfall

It seems inevitable that a successful medieval franchise eventually forays into the realm of science fiction. The earliest instance I know of is Warhammer, released in 1983, then again as Warhammer 40k in 1987. Blizzard's Starcraft followed Warcraft 2. Sid Meier's: Alpha Centauri followed the second entry in the Civilization series, which made a second journey into sci-fi with Beyond Earth shortly after Civilization 5.

Now we have Age of Wonders: Planetfall, developed by Triumph Studios and published by Paradox Interactive. Daring to not be constrained by a consistent number scheme, this is the fifth entry in the popular and long-running series after Age of Wonders 3, which was the fourth entry. As far as I can tell, the lore has no obvious connection to prior titles, and the game begins with a clean slate many, many years in the future.

Like its predecessor, Planetfall is a turn-based strategy and tactics game that is split into two distinct modes of operation. On the strategy side, the world map layer handles your overarching plan, which generally follows the rules established by the 4X genre (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate). Extermination optional. Beginning the game with a single settlement and a small ragtag army, you are tasked with growing into a thriving economic and military (and diplomatic?) powerhouse to achieve one of the various victory conditions.

In the standard scenario, there are four conditions that identify a victor, but if none are achieved by turn 150, the game is resolved based on score. The victory conditions include: Last Man Standing, which emphasizes the fourth "X"; Extermination; Domination, where you expand to control a certain number of the world's sectors; Unifier, a hybrid diplomatic/science victory; and finally Doomsday, which would be a production/economic-focused victory that requires you to construct one of several doomsday weapons, depending on your selected leader setup.

Customizing your leader and race at the start of the game is where the strategy begins. Choose one of six races that define your starting hero, units, many aspects of the tech tree and settlement production trees. Combine that with one of six secret technologies to further alter your technology tree, and you have 36 vastly different opening strategies. There are also a handful of perks and options that adjust your starting conditions, but the race and secret tech define your core opening conditions. There's also the cosmetic (but fun!) hero creator toolkit that allows you to adjust everything from your hero's clothes and posture right down to their eyebrows.

Planetfall has a campaign that provides a story and direction of progression. You begin as the Vanguard, a faction of humans that are a typical beginning to games of this variety. This race will most closely adhere to the standard rule set, making it a good starting choice.

The campaign begins with a short tutorial map that is a bit heavy-handed on the tutorial pop-ups and dialogues. For some reason, games of this genre frequently throw way too much information at the player before they can use or absorb the knowledge, rather than begin with a core foundation of mechanics and slowly add features as you progress. Most of this information won't be new to anyone who's familiar with the genre. The tooltips are informative, and the UI is fine, but Planetfall may be a very daunting introduction for someone who's not versed in 4X games.

As the campaign progresses, it branches off to allow you to try out other races before completing all of the available Vanguard maps. I thought this was an excellent design, as I quickly wanted to try the Kir'Ko, a race of swarming bug men, rather then slog through the entire Vanguard story line. This allows the player to play what they want, and it's also a great teaching mechanism. After playing the Kir'Ko, when you return to Vanguard missions and have to fight against the Kir'Ko, you now have a much better idea of what you're up against and how to deal with them.

One way to exploit this knowledge and counter your opponent is through your technology and unit mods. The tech tree in Planetfall is a very different beast than it was in Age of Wonders III. Rather than give you a semi-random list of spells to choose from, it's broken down into a variety of sub-trees based on your starting choices that are bolted together to form two major tech trees. The society tree mainly consists of economical techs that relate to your settlements. The military tree has all your units, unit mods, and operations.

Operations replace the spells from AoW3. They range from summoning units, permanent effects, buffs, debuffs, and some that are usable directly in the tactical combat. Unit mods are a new mechanic that allows you to customize each of your units and fills out the tech tree. While many of the mods are passive, some give your units some very useful active abilities, such as nanite injectors that allowed for a quick and free heal, or jetpacks offering a burst of mobility. These mods are one of the best new features in Planetfall.

Changing your force's mod setup is not cheap. The hard cap is the amount of cosmite that you can get. Unlike basic resources like food and energy, colonies can't just generate more cosmite. There's a limited amount you get from your capital, based on where you are in the tech tree, a few cosmite nodes on the map, and that's it. This perpetual shortage makes equipping your army a meaningful decision and allows one player to counter another player's setup.

Your allies also want cosmite. On more than one occasion, my ally offered to trade energy in return for my cosmite. I felt that this was a horrible deal despite the game claiming it was fair. That wouldn't have bothered me so much, but for some reason, declining a trade deal lowered your ally's opinion of you, but accepting it had a neutral effect, so I ended up swallowing several bad trades in the name of diplomacy.

The next major economic limiter was energy, which has replaced gold. Energy was consumed by unit upkeep, rushing builds, and changing unit loadouts. Maintaining large armies was extremely expensive, and on several occasions, I had insufficient energy to maintain additional units. Increasing energy production is much easier than cosmite, but it's still limited by neighboring sectors on the map.

Yes, the map design has taken a page out of the Endless Legend playbook and has been divided into a number of pre-defined sectors. It's a very different setup for determining a city's economic output than the expanding borders and favored/disfavored terrain types used in AoW3. Each sector has two primary attributes — such as arid, forest, mountains — and may have additional features, like rivers or structures that give bonus resources. The two primary attributes define what that sector excels at producing, and cities can annex additional sectors.

I found this method of expansion to be more enjoyable than the perfectly shaped growing hexagons of AoW3. I don't miss having to calculate the number of desirable tiles that my city would control after x number of border expansions. Each annexed province has a central structure that served as a strategic point of attack and defense, but it didn't require you to manage the production queue. The sectors also automatically produced roads to join your structures, which removed more busywork.

Planetfall has some of the best-looking maps I've seen in a 4X, wonderfully combining aesthetics and visual clarity. The gigantic mountains make you wonder how this is randomly generated. Even nicer than the overworld maps are the new tactical maps. Where AoW3 would have a feature or a defensive wall, these maps are littered with cover, choke points, walls, and detail. I kept expecting to see obvious repeats of the maps, but after many battles, I'm not sure I saw the same one twice.

The tactical combat allows each player to take a turn moving each of their units into opportune locations to attack and use abilities. Between all of the different abilities, terrain and units, the amount of detail in this mode could be a game of its own. A single battle can involve up to 48 units, creating a dizzying array of information to untangle for every move. One large battle could take 20 minutes, which makes me wonder why there isn't a skirmish mode. Hats off to Triumph for seamlessly integrating the two game modes.

They have tweaked the system a bit. Cover, which sort of existed as line-of-sight penalties in AoW3, is very explicit in Planetfall. There are clear and obvious "shields" when hovering your mouse over a tile that show exactly which direction the cover applies and how that impacts your chance of being hit. I had flashbacks of playing X-COM, especially upon discovering you can put your units into Overwatch mode. Another noticeable difference is allowing units to dash, or sprint, so by the end of their movement, they don't have enough action points to attack or defend. This can allow you to close distances quickly but can leave your units vulnerable.

One gripe I have about the implementation of cover is the change from reduced damage to a chance to miss. In AoW3, a bad shot would still reliably hit, but its damage would be reduced by a percentage based on circumstance. In Planetfall, this is replaced with a chance to miss or graze your target. This can be frustrating when you miss a series of 60% attacks that result in the loss of a unit in a trivial battle. I don't believe the increase in variance adds value to the tactical system.

If you feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the game or are tired of rolling over minor camps with your army, you can hit the "auto-resolve" button and have the AI immediately calculate the results of the conflict. The auto-resolve is essential to avoid bogging down a multiplayer game, since tactical combat prevents all players from performing actions. The multiplayer portion features asynchronous play to alleviate some of the waiting issues. You can pop in and out, and you'll receive notifications from Steam when it's your turn.

The science fiction nature of Planetfall has allowed the developers a great deal of leeway in designing the units and factions. This liberation is a bit of a double-edged sword, though. The same design freedom also makes things less intuitive for a player. In the medieval world, we can all identify the difference between a guy with a big sword and a guy with a sword and shield. We know the guy in robes is a wizard who probably has elemental-like damage. In a sci-fi game, that knowledge is not available to the player. You have to spend more time identifying everything and looking at details to figure out what you're dealing with. The content and mechanics can feel fresher and less restrictive, but the learning curve is steeper.

There are a couple points where the game falls short of the expectations laid by AoW3, the most egregious of which is the music. Most of the sound effects and interface audio is above average, and the voice acting is mediocre at best, but that's hardly a show-stopper for a game of this nature. The music is a true letdown, though. AoW3 had an absolutely brilliant soundtrack that filled the game with magic and excitement. Planetfall is so different that I assumed (incorrectly) that it was an entirely different composer. The music feels more like background ambience; it's borderline sleepy.

Overall, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a solid sequel that differentiates itself sufficiently and improves upon the franchise's formula. It has a diverse mix of units and races, wonderful artwork, and what appears to be a massive range of strategies. Customizing your forces with an array of passive effects and active abilities is handled effortlessly by the UI, and it's very rewarding to use it in the tactical combat. The campaign should take anywhere from 30 to 60 hours to complete, depending on how quickly you play, and that's before stepping into the random scenarios and multiplayer, where a wide range of options and customizations can cater to your play style.

Score: 8.0/10

More articles about Age Of Wonders: Planetfall
blog comments powered by Disqus