I’ll have to admit that it’s been ages (pun intended) since I last played an Age of Wonders game. The last game, Age of Wonders III, was indeed a treat, although it couldn’t fully satisfy my interests in the strategy 4X genre. Fast forward to the present and we now have Age of Wonders: Planetfall, a completely new take on Triumph Studios’ long-running franchise. Backed by the publishing power of strategy masters Paradox Interactive, we’ll see just how well it stacks up in our review.
Note: Before we continue with this official review, have a look first at our technical review to see the game’s system requirements, options, graphical comparisons, and more.
The story so far
Age of Wonders: Planetfall eschews the olden days of high fantasy-based 4X strategy in favor of sci-fi. Although there are still some fantasy elements involved — certain psionic skills might remind you of magic spells, and some factions such as the Amazons draw from fantasy or mythology tropes — a vast facet of the game is coated in futuristic and techno-elements.
The Star Union, an empire that once spanned the galaxy, has fallen. Remnant spacefaring races gaze to the stars to forge a new path. Each of the six factions has its own unique themes, abilities, and even technologies. The aforementioned Amazons are an all-female race that relies on bio-engineered creations and even dinosaurs, and they can move through forests with ease. The insectoid Kir’ko is a humanoid swarm capable of rapidly expanding, a “Zerg Rush” of sorts. As for the Vanguard, well, they’re like your typical sci-fi explorers and armored soldiers.
Even better, Age of Wonders: Planetfall still has the old commander customization feature. There are already a number of generals from each faction, each with their own perks. However, you can still make your own, customizing their abilities, looks, and even portraits.
Your heroes are also customizable once you start a match. You can equip them with various weapons, grenades, modifications, and even vehicles, not to mention new skills each time they level up.
Planetfall: The first three X’s
Age of Wonders: Planetfall has a couple of game modes: scenarios and the campaign. Scenarios allow you to start a pick-up-and-play game, akin to any strategy game like Civilization.
You can choose the type of world you’ll expand on. There are numerous options awaiting you such as the victory conditions, the number of hostile invasions, starting resources/army size, landmarks, and the like. You can even make changes to the planet’s climate and terrain down to how much arid land there will be compared to fungal-infested zones, or the number of mountains compared to forests or rivers.
From your starting sector in every procedurally generated world in Age of Wonders: Planetfall, you’ll have to master the elements of the 4X genre: explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. Exploration and expansion are given as more of your surroundings are revealed and you start annexing adjacent areas. Each sector has specific biomes that’ll give you a type of resource (energy/cash, production, food, and research). Other resources include cosmite (used for mods) and influence (used for trading and diplomacy).
Exploitation is even more direct since each sector’s biome type can be exploited via buildings and upgrades that’ll boost their efficiency. Lastly, extermination, as we all know, is taking out your opponents piecemeal.
The last X: Exterminate
Going to war in Age of Wonders: Planetfall is fairly easy. You’re already at war with the various non-sentient alien species on the planet. There’s also a faction called the Marauders, with armies composed of a mish-mash of troops. And of course, there’s also neutral AI factions and the actual enemy races you’ve set yourself up against.
You can engage armies in tactical battles by moving your units towards them. You can auto-resolve it or fight manually. If you pick the latter, the strategic view of the general map will shift to the actual duel. Oh, and when you have larger armies clash, you can have more than 40 units duking it out!
Tactical turn-based battles take place using an overhead view of the area with units moving via hexes. Units can use the battlefield features for cover, and some even have an “overwatch” action much like in X-COM and similar games. The terrain and background during fights are decent, if unspectacular, but your main focus will still be on the tactical depth. Given that you have a slew of unit skills, passive actions, mods/items, and even operations (think of them as special attacks) to choose from, then you have an assortment of toys to play with.
Playing for peace
As mentioned, you’re at war automatically (or perpetually) against certain AI minors and random mobs. However, you can still choose the more diplomatic route in Age of Wonders: Planetfall. Each game will have a number of AI factions you’ll encounter, and they can ask you to do some quests. Oftentimes, these will involve giving some resources, amassing a certain amount of resources, or defeating an enemy on the world map.
Once at peace or befriended, you can spend some of your influence to make their armies leave a location so you can build there or buy some of their items. As your relationship with these minor factions grows, so too will the types of items or units you can obtain using influence.
Diplomacy in Age of Wonders: Planetfall can be fairly basic and rudimentary when you consider major factions. You have a few options such as denouncing, complimenting, or asking for building permission in their claimed sectors. Likewise, you can ask for energy/cash or exchanging sectors. If at war, you can ask for a truce and even the option to remove all negative relationship penalties.
I must admit that playing a peaceful game versus any faction is quite tough in Age of Wonders: Planetfall. It’s not due to the difficulty. It’s because of how factions are designed. More often than not, you’ll run into an AI that’s aggressively expanding. It’ll declare war and you’ll grind it down to dust eventually. None of the factions you choose have any particular focus on a peaceful or harmonious game since everyone’s tailor-fit for combat. I just found myself doing quests to build relationships with neutral factions, destroying the major races, and that’s about it.
One of the major changes in Age of Wonders: Planetfall is the addition of not one but two tech trees. One is for military research and the other is for society research. Think of it as something similar to Civilization VI‘s actual tech tree versus the civics tree. In Age of Wonders: Planetfall, however, the gist is that the military tech tree allows you to recruit or upgrade better units, while the society tree focuses on buildings and resource management.
This is actually one of the major pitfalls of the game that you’ll realize early on. Age of Wonders III players will remember that the game barely had a static tech tree of sorts. You just researched various spells as conditions were met. Age of Wonders: Planetfall went a different route in a very barebones way.
Both military and society techs have a very rigid path you’ll want to follow. Again, because of each faction’s design, they’ll have their own strength based on their attack types and favored habitats. It means you’ll have no reason to choose anything else that wouldn’t be as helpful. For instance, Amazons have bio-based attacks and they have improved movement in forests, so there’s no point to prioritizing other choices such as laser attacks or volcanic terrain exploitation. This change, due to how strict and forced it can be, feels shortsighted.
One more turn… where the button isn’t working
Most of Age of Wonders: Planetfall‘s shortcomings come from a technical standpoint. No, we’re not necessarily talking about graphical or performance flaws. We’re fine with the game as you can see from our technical review. We’re talking bugs — and not the Kir’Ko kind.
A minor quibble would be how suddenly jarring it might be when you end your turn and a surprising pop-up tells you that a unit has reached its destination. It’s completely different from how Civilization might handle this instance where you’re just told that a unit needs orders. Here, it’s a massive notification in the red as though you’re launching a weapon of mass destruction. At times, skipping animations on the world map can also cause an overlap of panels and pop-ups, such as in the case below when I’m trading with a minor faction and this just happened:
In some cases, it might lead to the “end turn” button to stop working. I would guess that it has to do with skipping movement animations on the world map (which everyone should do since you don’t really need to see your armies slowly marching to another hex), along with being suddenly notified of an army’s plight. Anyway, there are times when you won’t be able to end your turn, so you’ll have to load your save. It happens fairly frequently too!
Another issue to consider would be zooming in and out of the world map. Zooming out allows you to see each sector and its biome/resource types. However, if you have a colony or army selected, zooming out automatically deselects them once you zoom back in. Quite frankly, it’s become an annoyance. Oh, and do note that you can’t even pan the map when scrolling at the edges of your screen when using the mouse. You still need to use the WASD keys.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall – Campaign crusader
Finally, let’s talk about the campaign. This was the Age of Wonders: Planetfall content I’ve been looking forward to. Unfortunately, it’s not as engaging as I’d hoped it would be.
You’ll start out with the tutorial playing as a Vanguard commander. From there, you’re given a brief cinematic of the once-mighty Star Union. You’ll pick a world with a set commander/race and follow the objectives from there. You’ll unlock more worlds (or missions) as you go along, slowly unlocking the mysteries of the universe.
By the time I was on the fourth planet, I was already tired. I was playing as the Dvar (space dwarves) and it felt that each and every mission was similar. Although the commanders and races are different, you’re still starting off on the same level playing field, encountering the same AI minors, grabbing the same “kill this” quest, and so on. Everything felt disjointed and repetitive — like an interconnected web of separate scenarios.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall still manages to deliver a solid 4X strategy experience. Tactical battles, owing to unit customization and variances, can be a substantially enjoyable hook. After around 20 hours of playing each of the six factions, and creating my own custom heroes, I found myself slowly invested and captivated by the entire experience.
Unfortunately, Age of Wonders: Planetfall‘s campaign also faltered, and I found myself playing multiple scenarios in short bursts that were more engaging. Bugs such as not being able to end your turn unless you reload a save and a very rigid tech tree that almost felt tacked on were also disappointing, to say the least.
It’s like if Endless Legend and Endless Space had a baby, but they decided to let Civilization: Beyond Earth adopt and raise it. That’s Age of Wonders: Planetfall, inspired by numerous ideas that came before it, but still looking to find its identity. Still, it’s a refreshing take on Triumph Studios’ franchise, and one worth a try for the avid 4X strategy player.