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Age of Wonders 3 Review

By on April 21st, 2014 9:16 am

Age of Wonders 3 Review

Age of Wonders 3 from Triumph Studios is the fourth game in the Age of Wonders line and the first release in over ten years for the series. Many years have passed since the last Age of Wonders game released, and a lot has certainly changed in the gaming industry. Many fantasy strategy games have been released during those years, and many more are now in the mid and final stages as they approach a release of their own. Age of Wonders as a series faces tougher competition than it ever has before. How well does Age of Wonders 3 fare in an era of fierce competition?

A Note About the Preview

Last month, I wrote a lengthy preview article and provided an overview of the game mechanics and basic gameplay elements present in Age of Wonders 3. As these are still valid in the final product, I won’t be providing any in-depth coverage of them in this review. Instead, I’ll be providing my thoughts and opinions based on my experiences with the game since release. This includes the release version as well as the version 1.09 patch, which is also known as build 11080.

A Tactical Game

Age of Wonders is turn-based fantasy game, but I would hesitate to call it a 4X. It is a lighter game than most games I would classify as 4X. It has a heavy emphasis on in-depth tactical combat mechanics, but a reduced strategic feature set. The vast majority of your playtime is spent controlling tactical battles rather than planning and building your empire at the strategic level.

Production Values

Age of Wonders 3 certainly does not appear to have cut any corners when it comes to its production values. I have found it to be a very aesthetically pleasing game to play. Outside of some noticeable frame rate drops in very large combat engagements, an issue that seems to have been fixed for me in the first patch, the game ran very well on my aging system.

Every race has some fantastic looking units and a unique cityscape that is visible in both the strategic and tactical layers. Every spell has a different visual effect, from the mundane for a simple spell right up to the extravagant for a top tier spell unleashed upon the world, or even just upon the battlefield. When a powerful spell or ability has been used, there is no mistaking it for anything else once you’ve watched the carnage unfold, both visually and mechanically speaking. When you approach an enemy city, you can tell at a glance how large it is, based on the actual size of it and the dwellings around it. Enchanted cities and units are easy to see, as each enchantment has a unique look and visual effect paired with it. When you enter a city battle, the camera flyby reveals the immensity and architecture of it all, and in those brief moments you become immersed in what is at stake. Every detail seems to be accounted for, and even the trees are snow covered within the cities that sit in the snow.

Age of Wonders 3 is set in a world that never sleeps, for even as you sit still, arms off the mouse and keyboard, you can see the level of detail that has been put in as numerous things move and sway before you.

Age of Wonders 3 Review - an Eldritch Horror summon unleashes his fury

Age of Wonders 3 Review - Witness the destructive power of the Hellfire spell

The UI itself is very clean and intuitive. All of the icons are easy to read and understand, and they appear in the places you’d expect to see them if you’ve played a strategy game in recent years. There is a great in-game encyclopedia that is broken down into multiple categories, as well as a search box, so finding the information you need is a quick and efficient process. If you’d like to see every spell or unit a particular class or race potentially has access to, it’s as easy as clicking a few dropdown boxes. You can even sort by power level if you’re mostly interested in seeing the most powerful features a particular class has to offer. Age of Wonders 3 hasn’t done anything too revolutionary in this area, but the UI designs of today are slick enough that I feel they did well not to try and reinvent the wheel here.

The Strategic Outer Layer

While Age of Wonders 3 is a strategically lighter game, I don’t feel this in and of itself is necessarily a negative. A lighter strategic game can offer a very entertaining experience, especially if it contains a robust tactical engine. One only need to look at the popularity and success of prior titles in the Age of Wonders series, as well as other combat-centric games like Heroes of Might and Magic, to see that many people clearly enjoy this type of experience. I myself have lost many hours in these types of games, ever since I discovered my first one of this type, Heroes of Might and Magic II. I also enjoyed the original Age of Wonders many years ago when it released.

These days, I generally enjoy heavier 4X strategy games. For example, in preparation for this review, I purchased and played a bit of Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, and to my surprise I found it a bit lacking. I feel this is worth mentioning as if you really enjoyed that game, my thoughts may not completely align with yours. I’m discussing the strategy aspects of Age of Wonders 3 first because I feel it has some significant weaknesses in its strategy layer that make it feel rather shallow for me when compared to a true 4X experience. Before I move on to the much more in-depth tactical layer, I first want to detail what some of the strategic strengths and weaknesses are.

Starting with one of Age of Wonders 3’s strengths in this area, I want to comment on the neutral city quests they have included in the game. While it would have been easy to simply include neutral cities for you to conquer and let that be the end of it, a strength of Age of Wonders 3 is that it has taken its city-states a step further than that by providing quests. These quests aren’t epic or lengthy by any means, but the fact that you can help a city out and get it to join your empire, rather than simply conquering it, is a nice feature.

Age of Wonders 3 Review - Strike down the undead and gain the city's gratitude

Moving on to one of the weaknesses of Age of Wonders 3, and this is one of the biggest, I must mention the distinct lack of varied victory conditions. There is one victory condition in this game, and that is to destroy, either on your own or as part of an alliance, all of the enemy leaders as well as capture all of their throne cities. There are no other paths to victory such as economic, technological, spell of victory, quest of victory, or diplomatic victory. This decision is felt throughout the design of the entire game, and it really narrows the focus of available options throughout. If you’ve read my prior reviews, you may recall I rarely go for a conquest type of victory as I find it drags games on too long and that the game tends to become uninteresting and repetitive at that point. In Age of Wonders 3, this can become particularly problematic, as locating the enemy throne city and leader at the same time can be quite difficult, especially if the underground map is enabled.

Another strategic weakness is that city building and cities themselves have an almost complete lack of flavor and variety. Each race has access to the same buildings except for one unique building which allows you to recruit their top tier racial unit. Every other building, regardless of race, is the same, and they all serve one of a few basic functions. While there are a fair amount of buildings, it is generally unnecessary to build more than a select few of them. The buildings have a narrow focus, primarily based around increasing mana, research, or producing units. Other buildings, to grow the city faster or increase happiness in the city also exist, but I’ve found these to be completely unnecessary. City construction in general feels like a missed opportunity, with no tough decisions to be made and a set construction plan that becomes obvious regardless of city type, location, or situation. I would have liked to see special racial buildings, or perhaps a choice between several racial buildings with the choice of one eliminating another, or something along these lines that would bring the races to life.

Given the limited construction options, you’ll be racing to increase production and start building the top tier unit producing buildings in each city as soon as you acquire them. Construction times are short, often allowing buildings to be constructed in 1 to 5 turns, and construction costs are often cheap enough that they aren’t an issue if you’ve been spending any time at all clearing off resource nodes and entering dungeons. By early-mid game, you’ll have unlocked your top tier class and racial units for each city’s race and your class. With no interesting options left or required to build, you’ll have each city basically turn on auto-income generation to support your war effort, or auto-unit generation to enlarge your war effort. At this point the game basically becomes about pumping out your highest tier units, ignoring the lower ones you may not have even unlocked, and then shuffling them around to fight in lots and lots of battles.

Resource nodes are typically defended by several neutral units, and most nodes provide a unique battlefield enchantment to the defender. This is an interesting addition to the game, but sadly falls short due to their minimal impact in the outcome. The guardians tend to be easy enough that I never stop to consider an attack out of fear of this bonus. Some locations on the map, such as a dungeon, offer an explorable location that you can choose to enter. These are essentially just tactical battles in an indoor arena, but they do contain more difficult challenges and reward some items like mounts, armor, and weapons, some of which are Epic, Legendary, or Mythical quality and do offer multiple traits and bonuses.

Age of Wonders 3 Review - Floating is a useful trait to have

I’ve criticized the racial diversity quite a bit, but I don’t want to discount the fact that Age of Wonders 3 does offer some glimpses at diversity when it comes to neutral cities. These actually do have a bit of flavor, and for example may allow you to recruit undead units or giants that are unavailable through other means. These cities typically have a few different buildings and units, some with unique effects not found elsewhere. The highest tier units in these cities are interesting forces worthy of your army, but they aren’t powerful enough to be game breaking compared to other top tier units or summons. All this to say that while interesting, these can be ignored without detriment to your strategy. Still, I wish they had taken some of this into consideration and used these ideas to design primary races that were a bit more asymmetric in nature.

Age of Wonders 3’s campaign and scenario modes do avoid some of the weaknesses found in the random maps. I started out my experience playing random maps, but after finishing a few of those, I decided to try the Dreadnought campaign. I actually found myself enjoying the Dreadnought campaign more than the random maps. I felt like I was accomplishing something beyond simply conquering my opponent because I can. The story elements present between each scenario, and at certain points during the campaign, made me feel I was playing a more RPG oriented game, and I feel like Age of Wonders 3’s tactical combat worked well in this more story driven setting. The strategic issues I’ve mentioned were less noticeable during this time, possibly due to shorter scenario lengths as well. Eventually as the campaign wore on these too became longer and the issues mentioned appeared once more. One campaign scenario in particular, through a somewhat predictable twist several hours in (though I won’t spoil it), led me to the conclusion that my time to complete it was going to end up doubled versus what I expected. At this point I simply threw my hands up. I’d already unlocked the highest tier units quite awhile before this point, and the idea of using these same units for many more hours on the same map was the last straw for me.

In a game all about combat, diplomacy is not likely to be its greatest strength. Diplomatic options are pretty sparse, consisting mostly of peace, open borders, declare war, or form alliance. There is a auto-balance button that is supposed to balance offers, for instance if I ask them for a peace treaty, what will they expect in return. This option never worked for me, and I was left guessing as to why an offer was refused or accepted. There is an info pane that shows a number of turns and a positive or negative value, but this information is vague and cryptic. Using the information provided, I was unable to wrap my head around why the AI made the decisions it did. For instance, I was able to establish a peace with an AI player who had a hateful relationship with me. After many turns of non-aggression, the modifier for peace never increased above its starting value to offset the prior negatives, and his stance towards me never changed from being Hateful. He greeted me with kind words like “You shall die by my hand, weakling!” as we met for a peaceful chat. Eventually he simply declared war against me without provocation.

Age of Wonders 3 Review - He Hates Me

Tactical Combat – The Heart of Age of Wonders 3

I’ve put a fair bit of negative criticism out there so far, but since Age of Wonders 3 is more of a tactical game, a lot of this criticism can certainly be dismissed as being due simply to those elements not being the game’s true focus. The game’s heart is truly its tactical combat system, and tactical combat is a huge want among many strategy gamers. While there are many options available for designers to use when it comes to resolving combat, tactical combat tends to create the greatest sense of immersion. It allows me to not only see how effective my unit selections have been in combat, but also to feel like I am really playing a part in determining the outcome.

Age of Wonders 3 succeeds in creating a combat experience that truly rewards a player’s tactical prowess. The large assortment of options and considerations that go into every combat decision make it obvious that the developers spent a large amount of their time and effort crafting and balancing the combat system. These decisions are so important that using the auto-calculate combat option for any combat aside from the most trivial is truly doing yourself a disservice. The specific mechanisms used in Age of Wonders 3 combat are covered in some detail in my preview article, but the bottom line is that a battle can easily be swung one way or the other based on the decisions made within it. Triumph Studios has also done an excellent job of providing the player with exactly the information he needs to make these choices, as each action you consider provides a very nice pop-up containing the chance of success, the potential result/damage, and the potential counterattack damage (when applicable). At the same time, combat still retains a random damage range and small sense of randomness, so you can still feel the joy or frustration of a unit surviving with a single hit point, and yet the options available to you still feel open and within your control.

Age of Wonders 3 Review - Do I attack in melee, range, or cast a spell?

The essential choices you must make with each unit in combat consist of a few things. The first decision you’ll have to make is whether to move a unit or not, and if so where to move it to. This is because once you take any other action, movement becomes out of the question. This can lead to some significant blunders, like for example casting a spell with your vulnerable hero before moving him behind friendly units who can protect him. Had you moved the hero first, and then cast the spell, you’d have potentially saved his life in the rounds to come. Another movement choice might be which direction to take towards an enemy. Sometimes a longer path will result in only one attack, rather than two, but it may lead to a flanking attack for extra damage. If this becomes a single attack rather than a double or triple, it might also eliminate the chance for the opposing unit to counterattack. Now that you’ve turned the unit around, your second unit can charge from the other side (or even use a ranged weapon) and get a flanking attack of its own, potentially killing the unit while providing no chance for retaliation and leaving your units untouched.

Utilizing your unit special abilities is a critical aspect to combat. Support units are perhaps the most complex outside of the heroes themselves, as each support unit tends to have several abilities such as healing, buffing, de-buffing, and ranged attack. Decisions such as whether you should run over to heal your nearby infantry, buff him with extra defensive capabilities, or simply try to kill the unit who is causing him harm with your ranged fire damage, are quite common. Depending on the enemy you are facing and what you’ve brought to the fight, how you approach these risks and how cautious you should play varies widely. There are some times where it just makes sense to move your weak unit right next to an enemy to reduce his ability to use his powerful ranged attack at full force. There are other times where a full retreat, regroup, and healing while the enemy advances is the best approach. An even riskier move, like trying to convert the powerful enemy unit to your cause, even though you have a slim chance to do so, can be the difference between victory and defeat. Finally, you may decide that losing some units isn’t risky at all, as your hero is a theocrat and as he leveled you’ve given him a trait that causes all of his units to be revived at the end of combat as long as you are victorious.

Every unit in combat is significant, but the true combat game changers are the hero abilities and spells. There are some abilities and spells that are powerful enough to change the tide of battle in ways never thought possible. I mentioned the trait that revives all of your units, but that is just one of many always active traits you can choose from while leveling up your heroes, depending on their class. You can only cast one spell per round, and you can choose from the spell book of your primary hero as well as any other heroes participating in the combat. Though if your leader isn’t present in the combat, his spell costs are doubled, effectively halving the amount of spells he can contribute to the battle. There are many choices, and choosing which to use involves a fair amount of thought as well as an estimation of how you expect your opponent to react. Imagine casting Bloodbath, a combat enchantment that gives all of your units an additional physical damage enchant. Now imagine the horrible feeling you’ll have when you’ve spent all of your mana on this or some other ultimate buff for your hero or army, only to see the enemy dispel it the next turn leaving you unenchanted and without options. Sometimes it is actually best to cast cheap enchants and try to feel out your opponent’s mana reserve and capabilities. If you can first drain him of available mana in the battle prior to unleashing your ultimate spell, he may be left as helpless as you would have been had you cast it earlier. Spell casting is a bit of a mind game in this regard, and it works brilliantly.

Age of Wonders 3 Review - Blood drips across the screen

The AI

My preview was the subject of some controversy based on some remarks I made about the AI as it was at that time. I took this into consideration as I certainly do not ever want to present information to anyone that is inaccurate if I can help it. I made a conscious decision on that day not to play the game again until it was released in order to guarantee I would not be judging an out of date AI. Now with that said, how is the AI after release?

The AI seems to perform pretty well at the strategic level, at least on its Emperor AI setting, which is the highest difficulty available. The AI does capture some resource nodes, but curiously leaves some other nodes within range of its cities untouched. I suspect it has an abundance of resources and simply doesn’t need these locations, as I sometimes do the same as the game progresses.

The AI is able to effectively build large armies that are quite intimidating. These armies are often comprised of only a couple of high tier unit types, but based on how the game is structured, this isn’t all that different from the way you’ll build your armies. Not only does it build large armies, but one thing the AI performs amazingly well is a combined assault against your cities. It is not uncommon to see the AI move 4 armies individually and have them all land within attack range of your city within a single turn. This is something that a human player, who likely can’t quickly calculate movement points across multiple armies, would be hard pressed to do. While this is an advantage for the AI, one disadvantage the AI has is that it is susceptible during movement to second guessing itself, and I have found that I can make the AI sometimes run in and then retreat repeatedly by moving a nearby army away and then moving it back. This can buy you some time to build additional units when you’d otherwise have no chance. In the event that you can’t dissuade their attack, their combined assault often leaves you in a position of “Very Likely Defeat”… but that description is only really accurate if you allow the battle to be auto-resolved.

Age of Wonders 3 Review - Looks like I have a slim chance to win here...

The reason you can turn a “Very Likely Defeat” into a victory is that the AI is quite bad when it comes to tactical play. This hasn’t really changed since my preview and I don’t know how else to say it. Even on its hardest difficulty level, with troops that should easily massacre my army, I can defeat the AI quite regularly with smart spell selection and some tricky maneuvering. I don’t consider myself a masterful player, so I believe that if I can do it, just about anyone with some experience under their belt will be able to do so as well.

By far the worst tactical AI is the siege AI, and since taking and defending cities is a huge part of the game, this is a big problem for it. The AI, as a defender, is far too reluctant to sally forth, while at the same time it is also reluctant to retreat further inside away from the walls. On numerous occasions during a random map, I was able to have my theocrat hero, who was immune to holy and fire damage (in part due to a spell), approach the enemy castle and wipe out the majority of the enemy’s top tier units all by himself. These units, the enemy theocrat’s top tier class unit siege engines, have a physical melee attack and a ranged fire/holy damage attack. Rather than exit the walls to smash my hero with these units, or bring out their other melee units who were also behind the walls, the AI simply defended with each unit, staying just behind its wall yet within range of my hero’s wand. When I finally killed their last ranged unit, the AI rushed out from behind the walls, but by that point my modest army was able to roll up and destroy the little they had remaining.

I could provide numerous examples of poor AI play in sieges, but the general rule of thumb is that they don’t know how to handle the creativity of a human. When an invulnerable unit approaches and begins attacking them from outside their walls with free area of effect fire bombs, they aren’t able to make the decision necessary to sally out and kill the hero that is casting the invulnerability spell. When my siege engine slammed rocks into its defensive siege engines, and later into its walls, the AI failed to realize it’s small amount of ranged damage in return was never going to destroy my siege engine when I had a hero right behind it repairing it to full health every turn. Another time, I had a stone giant repeatedly tossing rocks at them from beyond their range, and they simply moved a new unit up to fill the gap of the one I killed before it rather than charge out to face me. This behavior is not unlike my preview experience with the Arch Druid Horned God unleashing lighting storms upon units in the city turn after turn, with no response from the defenders, so not much has changed here.

While the AI is beatable in siege defense or assault in all but the most extreme cases, outside of siege combat, the AI performs better. It is still prone to the use of player decoy units and poor target selection that reduces its damage output. There are some other tactics I used, such as fire immune units combined with a hellfire battle spell that emits massive fire damage to all units, that I can’t really fault the AI for having trouble with. It was a potent combo involving a spell that is meant to be a game changer. Now, I did manage to take out 30 units with only 12 using this tactic in a battle that brought an end to my 120 turn Emperor level random map victory over 3 AI opponents. I didn’t feel too bad about this though as each of the 3 AI opponents seemed to focus almost exclusively on me from the start, even though they were not allied with one another.

Age of Wonders 3 Review - Auto-Resolve can't do this

DRM and Multiplayer

If you want to participate in online multiplayer, Age of Wonders 3 does require you to create a Triumph Studios account and register your game. Even if you don’t want to participate in multiplayer, you are still greeted by a request to login whenever you launch the game. If you want to login without a Triumph account, you’ll need to click the “Guest” checkbox to do so. Logging in allows you to use their matchmaking system to find and play with opponents online. Currently, LAN support is not available, but patch notes indicate that “VPN/Hamachi” support is coming up next, presumably this means in the next patch.

I can’t speak to how well the online multiplayer works, but I know a lot of people aren’t happy with the fact that a separate logon is required. What I can say is that even single player saves made while offline, in “guest” mode, are stored separately from saves made when you are signed in. This means that if you switch between the two modes for whatever reason, all of your saves won’t be immediately available to you. The only workaround I’m aware of is a manual process involving copying these saves from folder to folder on your system if you feel so inclined.

Hotseat mode is available and you can use it even if you are using “Guest” mode when you log in.

Final Thoughts

Age of Wonders 3 was one of the most hotly anticipated games this year. Unfortunately, it is not a flawless game and in some ways its greatest strengths are also its greatest weaknesses. Despite its excellent tactical combat engine, it just feels far too repetitive with game lengths that far outstay their welcome for my tastes. There is little incentive for me to return to the game at this point. I did enjoy exploring the game’s classes and spells, and truth be told this was able to provide me with quite a few hours of entertainment. In the long run though, once the thrill of discovering something new was gone, so too was my incentive to continue on.

Perhaps I simply prefer heavier strategy games these days. One could certainly counter that this game is meant to be light on strategy due to its tactical nature. The big difference with Age of Wonders 3, compared to similar titles I’ve played, is the sheer number of potential combats you will participate in, combined with the length each combat takes to play out. I feel like having no limit to the number of armies led to turn times that were too long, even when combat animations are at max speed and strategic movement animations are completely disabled. Auto resolving is the natural solution, but I found this often led to losses in battles I could have otherwise won flawlessly had I controlled it myself. Perhaps I would prefer that each army must be led by a hero, with a hard limit on the number of heroes, as has been established in other similar titles. I’d also prefer more tough decisions to make regarding army composition, as I generally only used two or three of my top tier units in each of my armies, further increasing the stale feeling that developed as each game wore on.

Age of Wonders 3’s tactical engine is wasted on an AI that doesn’t understand its beauty. As a single player experience, it leaves me feeling cheap to exploit its weaknesses, yet I don’t feel that I should have to hold back my creativity for the AI to stand a chance. I don’t often talk about multiplayer, as I don’t personally pursue this aspect, but I have a strong hunch that this same engine is able to reach its pinnacle when each side is controlled by a complex human brain. I noticed the option to force auto-combat on all multiplayer battles, and I feel like doing this would be robbing yourself of the game’s best attribute.

If you’re a fan of this type of tactical game, and don’t mind fighting many similar battles over many hours of play, you’re likely to enjoy this game more than I have. If you are planning to play it in multiplayer mode, and you plan to fight the tactical battles and not auto-resolve them, I believe you will have the opportunity to enjoy some very interesting tactical combat decisions. If instead you’re a fan of deeper 4X games, I’d suggest you think long and hard about whether this title is for you.

Age of Wonders 3

Age of Wonders 3 (PC)

Buy at GOG, or on Steam.

Space Sector score:
The Good:
– Tactical combat system that is varied, complex, and rewards skilled play
– Impressive and varied visual effects for spells and units
– Includes two lengthy campaigns and multiple scenarios
– Well timed and coordinated AI strikes on the strategic layer will keep you on your toes
The Bad:
– Minimal meaningful strategic choices
– Racial diversity is basically only skin deep
– Inclusion of only one victory condition inhibits creative or varied playstyles
– Tactical AI is poor even at the highest difficulty levels, especially in sieges
– Army composition becomes too homogeneous by mid-game

Keith Turner, also known as aReclusiveMind here on SpaceSector, has been an avid gamer ever since he first laid his hands on a Commodore 128 in the mid 1980s. He enjoys multiple computer game genres, but his primary interests are in deep strategy games, 4x games, rpgs, and action rpgs. He enjoys writing and hopes to contribute with additional reviews, previews, and informative AARs to the community. See all Keith’s posts here.

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  1. towerbooks3192 says:

    I think the devs already addressed the issue of racial diversity in the forum. They were saying that they want to try and make things as balanced as possible for MP purposes.

    I like AoW but It kind of feels empty. The game seems fairly balance and good on release and after the first patch and I am excited after some more patches and expansions. I know the game should be viewed as more of an HoMM3 over something like most 4x games but I feel that exploration was more worthwhile in HoMM3 over this.

    • Noldor says:

      I agree that the game does feel empty. It gets progressively less engaging the more you go on.

      The issues I see are:
      – T4 units have no diversity and T3 have too little diversity
      – Starting race makes no difference
      – The army composition issues need to be worked on

      But yeah at times the game does feel quite empty. There needs to be more in terms of quests (other than the “just kill this unit”) and late game seems to suffer badly.

      I’m not sure how to describe it but there is something missing in terms of “depth”. It needs at least a few expansions before I think it will be considered “good”.

  2. AstralWanderer says:

    Hmm…interesting review. Overall it seems like the big improvement over AoW2 is graphical, with smaller enhancements at strategic level (neutral city quests).

    AI has always been a problem for the series – in the initial release of the first AoW, allying with an AI position would result in them moving single units to occupy your cities (and taking them without a fight – making an AI ally more dangerous than an AI enemy!) but subsequent patches did improve matters. Hopefully they’ll offer DRM-free multiplayer rather than imposing a buggy “guest” account.

    Looks again like pre-orders got the raw end – waiting for this to go on sale (when most issues should be patched out) seems the safest bet.

  3. SQW says:

    Way too long.

    While the review is very detailed to say the least, some of the in-game scenarios the writer described to prove his point contained a lot game mechanics. If I had not played the game, the detailed description of tactical battles for example would serve more to confuse rather than inform.

    In the end, too much of the review tried to explain/justify the reviewer’s opinion rather than to educate me of what the game is like so I can make an informed decision whether to purchase the game or not.

    I know Adam writes long reviews sometimes but I just couldn’t finish this one in one sitting. =P

    • Gary says:

      The review was written by Keith, not Adam :)

    • Njordin says:

      then you should read the preview.

    • Bill says:

      I find your review of this review to short and vapid of any real issue or concern.

    • Ermdog says:

      If you’re a regular follower of this site, you notice that most all the reviews go into great detail and length. For being a site dedicated to these kind of games, you would hope they would go into great detail. One of the main reasons I love this site.

  4. Boris says:

    AoW3 is ok, having logged about 30 hours into it I find it looks pretty, but there is something not quite right about it and I’ve lost interest fairly early into the campiagn.

    The units are pretty generic and nothing really stands out.

    Flying units don’t fly, they sit on the ground in combat so all can attack them. All units can also move over mountains which limits strategy now.

    Overall I feel dissapointed, and wish I’d waited for the obligatory steam sale and saved myself some cash.

  5. Jorus says:

    First of all, I’d like to say that I had no problem with the review’s length. This is one reason I subscribe to Space Sector – for the in depth comments on a game.
    Secondly, at the risk of appearing to be a suck-up, I agree 99% with the reviewers comments. It is too easy to get to the too few top tier units and the exploring is a bit boring. I’ve only played two games but am already having a hard time finding the wonders in AoW3.
    The graphics are superlative, but almost too busy. There is too much! I find it difficult sometimes to pick out the important items on a map at 1680×1050.
    My other major nit-pik is the auto combat. There should be some sort of learning function there – as the game sees how well you do against the AI in battles, it should give you credit for extra combat prowess. It is really tedious that one must manually battle through these easy resource battles repeatedly.

  6. Mark says:

    Thanks for the detailed and comprehensive review Keith, it really gave me the information I needed to decide whether this game was right for me. I thought the length of the article was fine.

    As someone who really loves tactical battles, I think this game will be a good fit for my tastes. Normally the only reason I press the next turn button is so I can get to the next tactical battle and the strategic layer is just a means to that end.

    Pity about the AI but there are not many games that have a decent AI so this one certainly wouldn’t be in the minority.

    Would you say that – game play wise – AOW 3 is an improvement over AOW 2 Shadow Magic? For me that would be the major deciding factor in whether I buy it, whether its actually an improvement or not. I don’t care about graphics, just the game play.

    • Boris says:

      In my opinion no, it is not an improvement on Shadow Magic.

      The basic, easy formula for winning is like this:

      1. Build a stack of tier 1 units, each unit takes one turn so with a few cities you can make stacks quickly.

      2. Build one max tier stack for each hero.

      3. Simply swamp the AI with tier 1 stacks on auto-resolve combat to weaken them.

      4. Mop-up with your Hero-stack.

      Guess that’s why I’ve lost interest, it’s not as strategic as AoW1/2+SM.

      Anyway, just my thoughts.

    • Njordin says:

      i´d say it´s not an improvement to shadow magic.
      if you don´t have both titles, i´d recommend buying the newer one…
      but if you allready have AoW2-SM, then there is > at the moment < no reason to buy it. i´d wait for patches / addons and a fair sale discount ; )

      • Mark says:

        Thanks for the info guys, I already have Shadow Magic and its one of my favorite games.

        I think I’ll wait and see if patches eventually enhance AOW3 to the point where its actually an improvement on SM, otherwise there doesn’t seem to be any point in buying it.

  7. hakkarin says:

    I regret having bought this game for 40 bucks. I gave in to the stupid hype from the steam reviews where lots of people were saying “JUST LIKE LEGENDERY HEROES BUT 10000X BETTER OMG!!!!!”.

    I guess user reviews aren’t more trustworthy then pro-reviews. Never again will I buy a game at launch unless it’s something like Half-life 3.

  8. ashbery76 says:

    I played it for 50+ hours and had fun but I think they completely messed up sandbox balance with overabundance of mana,gold growth rates making the strategic game weak.What is the points of forts? ICS is only real strategy.

    They also somehow made the theme as bland as a stardock game.The whole alignment system is pointless and all the races are like some UN with no personality.The heroes and leaders have no bios or traits giving them personality.These things can be improved in expansions and patches.I think its a good game overall but not great..

    EndlessLegends even in alpha is far more interesting.

  9. Lens Flares Suck says:

    This review totally blew past the whole ‘Login to your Triumph account’ issue.

    This game is a non-starter for me, I won’t even consider that Blizzard style crap.

    • Boris says:


      The triumph account thing totally caught me unawaares, and if I’d have known beforehand would not have bought the game.

      I have steam, which is bad enough, but why add another layer to it?

    • Keith Turner says:

      Hmm, I did include a section about the DRM/login. I’m curious to know, what else should I have mentioned about it?

    • dearLeader says:

      The only reason they had to do it was because they could not use Steam only to act as an MP platform since the game is sold on GOG. They had to get their own servers and that’s why you have to get an account. It’s really not Uplay-style BS.

      • Keith Turner says:

        GOG and Steam interoperability is also my understanding as to why multiplayer was designed this way. This decision really rubbed some people the wrong way though, and could have been mostly avoided with a few changes.

        My thoughts are:
        The login screen should only be presented if you choose Online Multiplayer in the main menu. Otherwise, you should be able to just launch the game and play single player, hotseat, or LAN (which isn’t present currently) without logging in or being forced to select “Use guest (offline) account”, which isn’t exactly a flattering term for this mode either. I’ve seen other games work this way.

        Also, the fact that saves are kept separate also seems like an odd choice. I’ve seen this with multiple profiles on the same system, so multiple people can play their own game on the PC, but it is odd how it is tied to the initial login that is otherwise related only to multiplayer.

  10. Expanding Man says:

    Playing AOW3 has had the peculiar side-effect of making me much more optimistic about GalCiv3.

    When I first read the initial announcements for GalCiv3, I was hugely discouraged by the developers refusal to consider turn-based tactical battles. I tend to prefer the sci-fi 4X, not only because they are sci-fi and not fantasy, but also because they tend to have much greater strategic depth. AOW3 has fantastic tactical battles (with the possible exception of the AI), so playing it I am able to see how much less important that seems than the more strategic aspects of 4X games. 30 hours into AOW3 and I start to see why some of my favorite games don’t have tactical combats at all.

    Of course, we also have Endless Legend to look forward to, which is looking very nice, and by default removes the single largest flaw behind Endless Space: the ridiculous space lanes. I’m still irate that it is fantasy and not sci-fi (i.e. Endless Space 2)… god am I sick to death of fantasy.

    • t1it says:

      Wow I didn’t know that (about starlanes)! Now EndlessLegends suddenly become interesting!

    • t1it says:

      Needs at least one large expansion before it becomes enjoyable. The bland races/alignments/units and terrible economy/mana balance among many other issues put me off the game, permanently. Best thing this game brought me was to fire up AoW2 again. With mods like MP evolution, I don’t find a single thing AoW 3 do better.

      But for a release game, it’s still decent. That’s not something to scoff at in these days where classic titles either have their game play dumbed down to oblivion or don’t even have all features of the previous game or why not release a pre-alpha-esque bug swarm of a product. AoW 3 is none of that and already it has all the ingredients for greatness.

      Btw please continue with these exhaustive and detailed reviews. They’re almost non-existent elsewhere. Some people actually *do* like them. They’re a pleasure to read even if one owns a copy of the game.

  11. Mezmorki says:

    A fair review.

    I’ve been having a good time with the game thus far playing various random maps.

    The biggest issue, overall, that the game has is one of PACING. If the AI at the strategic level put more pressure on the player early on, there would be considerably more import to the decisions you make regarding city building, as the choice between city developments vs. more units to keep yourself alive would be much more pressing. At the moment, it is far too easy to sit back for turn after turn after turn, taking all the time in the world to build up and solidify your position before pressing the AI (who no doubt has doomstacks of Tier 4 units in their city waiting for you to cleverly subdue with your human enabled faculties).

    The “POTENTIAL” at the strategic level for the game to very deep is HUGE, but I think it can only be realized in a multiplayer game where the nuances of positioning your forces aggressively across the landscape or otherwise “doing the unexpected” is possible and opens up the depth. Right now, the AI just isn’t really clever or challenging enough to elevate the gameplay depth to that level.

    Some of this can probably be improved through a combination of adjusting the pacing and flow of the game (getting the economy better balanced) and, in general, creating strong pressures to play aggressively earlier, both for the player(s) and in particular for the AI. The game always feels at it’s best around the mid-point mark, where armies are interesting mixes of Tier 1,2,3 units. By the time late game rolls around – as with so many conquest focused games, it starts to wear out its welcome (vs. the AI anyay).

    Other than the Pacing/AI, there are a few game mechanics that really have little bearing on the strategy that need to be played up, namely morale and alignment – neither of which have much relevance. But I think some number tweaking behind the scenes can resolve some of that.

    The above was a bit negative sounding – but I do really enjoy this game nonetheless. The AI can occasionally do some clever/surprising things, and I find that if “I” play more aggressively early in the game the AI plays back harder too, which makes it far more interesting.

  12. Sam says:

    Warlords II just shipped, they sound like pretty similar games. Is there any plan to review Warlords II?


  13. David Walsh says:

    I think the review is excellent. Definitely not too long or detailed.
    I learned a lot from it…enought to reach a decision as to whether or not to buy at this time.


  14. Jeff P says:

    Good, exhaustive review, however I didn’t see any references to game stability, bugs, artifacts, etc. How was it on that score?

    • Keith Turner says:

      Good question. It is solid on that front in my experience. Since the review was/is already quite long, I didn’t note this specifically. Had there been significant issues, I would have called them out. No crashes or significant bugs were encountered.

      The only issue I did have was with long battles suffering from frame rate drops towards the end, but this was fixed in the first patch.

      • Jeff P says:

        Thanks for the response. One of my bugaboos are games that are released with stability issues or irritating bugs (which is why I’ve never purchased Star Drive). It doesn’t look like AoW3 has that problem. However, I’m cheap, so while I loved AoW and others in the series, I will wait until there is a significant sale before I purchase it. An additional benefit will be that patches may cure many of the significant weaknesses by that time.

  15. Bill says:

    Here’s the good news’s.

    While Keith covered just about everything I also have issue with, the good news is that all of these things could be corrected without any major overhaul of the game.

    It will come down to if they want to do it or not. I’m not convinced however they will.

    I’ve gotten and will get more than my purchase price out of the game. It’s just a shame there is so much more, just out of reach.

  16. stormcloud says:

    I spent about a week on AoW3, finishing the main Elven Court campaign. The game looks pretty, but after the first several hours foray into it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong or missing from the game. You couldn’t put a finger to it. Gameplay isn’t bad, but it isn’t good either … it’s mediocre.

    Keith’s article did a good job at covering most of the flaws at hand, bland units, poor AI, odd balancing, over-streamlined mechanics. There’s virtually nothing that appeals to make you want to replay this game once you’re done with the main campaign.

    Let’s see if the upcoming WoM will be any better. I have my doubts, but you’ll never know if they somehow managed to capture the lost essence.

  17. Klaus says:

    well the review reflected the preference of the reviewer for more complicated games. Thats not my preference at all. I like it simple. BUT (and this is big but) strategically challenging. In a good game this is very well possible. Eg in MAN2 you can have simple rules but extremely deep gameplay. In contrary often complex games have a bland gameplay because most of its rules and mechanics are unnecessary for strategic planning.

    Unfortunately in AoW3 strategic gameplay is simple and unchallenging. Tactical play is more involved and epic but not really perfect. Nonetheless this tactical play is better than 90% of other so called “4x games” out there.

    Another critic from myself is that the city names cannot be displayed (at least I didnt find any method which let them appear directly on the map) and that several abilities/spells have only a shallow rule description. Also its not clear how much money cities get if its inhabitants are happy, not happy or unsatisfied. I find this lack of information disturbing, to say it mildly.

  18. Harry says:

    what a pity.. the first reviews are so positiv.
    But I trust SS more, especially in Mid Game you test it more intensively..

    I was on the edge to buy this game, but my gaming time is limited.. I wait for worlds of magic.. Thanks for the review..

  19. ACEofHeart says:

    I was a big fan of AOW/SW. While it was never a true 4x strategy game, it was a quick fun fantasy game, akin to the early Heroes of Might n Magic series. AOW3 is no doubt a better graphically game than it’s predecessors and offers fun to be had. With that said it does seem to follow the same setback as what happened after HOMM4, the game plays out much slower. Combat is still fun though, whether on auto or not. Sometimes its just fun to sit back and watch. I’t’s still disappointing that City options and Diplomacy are still very lacking.
    Now for my biggest complaint..,,why do we as gamers continually have to sign in to the web to play a single player game ? From Twitter,Facebook and now PC games, I call this generation the ” I give up my right to privacy generation”. It’s unbelievable how the computer industry today does not even recognize the term “Right to Privacy” I played strategy PC games for 20 years then suddenly one day I can no longer play without checking with Big Brother first ?? It’s both very sad and anger inducing..

    • AstralWanderer says:

      “Now for my biggest complaint..,,why do we as gamers continually have to sign in to the web to play a single player game ?”

      For AoW3 it is apparently possible to skip this by not using the launcher but running the AoW3 .exe file directly (though I can’t find the post giving the details).

      As for the privacy issues, I agree 100% – singleplayer should be just that. Leave “social” gaming to the likes of Facebook/Zynga/NSA.

  20. Ermdog says:

    Great review Keith, as always. I’d still like to pick this up in the future, but after reading it I think I can wait for it to go on sale. I picked up AoW: SM instead and so far its just great! I also decided to pick up Warlock 2 instead of AoW3. It’s still a great game, but I feel not much was added to justify a whole new game. There are some nice additions, but few and far between.

  21. Master Payne says:

    Steam reviews kind of mirror this review – the game lacks depth. I’m the type that checks the negative reviews before the positive. The Steam reviews and this one lead me to purchase Endless Legends, even though it is in alpha. So far so good, and aside from the expected bugs and missing features, which are ironically and nicely labeled, the game runs great.

    Thanks for another review confirming I should stay away from AOW3.

  22. dearLeader says:

    I disagree that the game lacks depth and variety. Let me explain.

    A common criticism for this game is that the races lack differentiation. In other words, they all feel the same. This is true if you look at them from a broadness perspective : all races have an archer, a pikeman, an irregular, and so on. The truth of the matter is that they all function very differently, if you skin beyond the outer layer.

    A good example are archers. Flamers are AoE single-shot units dealing fire damage, Crossbowmen have a single shot, Longbowmen ignore range penalties, Razorbows have a DoT and low range, Swarm Darters deal Blight damage and ignore range and LoS penalties, the Archer is the basic, vanilla unit, although it has high defense.

    These differences do not amount to much on paper, but realistically, they drastically affect how you are going to use them. Armored Archers, with their decent defense, allow you to make riskier plays. Crossbowmen can exhaust all their AP before shooting, making them one of the most maneuverable archers. Darters do Blight and Physical damage, which, combined with their lack of penalties, make them excellent flankers, but are very frail so need lots of unit support. Razorbows deal the most damage by targeting a different unit every turn to stack their DoT on as many units as possible and are more competent in melee. Longbowmen are excellent defenders in sieges since they can shoot from any range, and are perfect for kiting tactics. Flamers do not do good damage unless they target multiple units, but shine on units weak to fire. They have radically different uses. This is an amazing amount of variety considering it is quite possible to have a city of multiple other races, allowing you to choose which unit you’d rather use in a given situation. The fact that they are similar on paper allows for balance, but their subtle variance allows them enough different tactical plays so that all are useful in their own way. It is not only skin deep, if you play the game at a decent level. This is one of those “easy to pick up, hard to master” games. A competent opponent will choose the unit that fits his current situation, because it is possible to be able to build units of multiple races. I personally staff my towns with Longbowmen or Darters and my armies with Darters or Crossbowmen, or Razorbows if I think a battle of attrition is going to be underway as counting their DoT they deal insane amounts of damage, or if the enemy is predominantly fast-closing melee as they actually deal higher melee damage than they do ranged. To find depth in the game, you have to exactly go more than skin deep with the game. Variety is found in high level planning. If the races lacked variety, I would be content with only building my main race’s archers, but there are different uses for the different units of all the different races. Again, I believe the depth is found in min/maxing which is what makes it such a stellar MP game.

    In addition, the classes add an amazing amount of variety and I feel each class does play very differently.

    I disagree, especially as of the last beta patch, that the game quickly degenerates into a T4 fest. Particularly in MP, a competent player will be hounding you from turn 1. There are actually not many MP games where you have enough production to pump out armies of nothing but T4s. This is a problem in SP because the AI plays the game like it would play Civilization. This is a fast and furious 4X. You are not expected to sit there, tech up then come barreling with your army of T4s. Try that in MP and you will lose, especially to a rush race like Goblins. This is also why empire management is so streamlined, but that’s in comparison to other 4Xes. I don’t think you could even build buildings in the first AoW.

    I can understand the criticism about the strategic depth but again I feel it is somewhat misplaced. Balancing your troop needs versus tech buildings versus production/efficiency buildings is a core part of the game. This is a game where one should be constantly at war, almost constantly on the offensive. While it is not nearly as deep as other 4Xes, I think it serves its purpose well for what the game aspires to be.

    If you are still critical, check out the latest beta patch. Triumph is treating this game rightfully like their little baby and have been amazing with their patching work. The patch adds a few more steps to build T3 and T4 units, and drastically slows down growth and expansion rates so that the players are a lot more constrained with their production, allowing the simple strategic layer to command a lot more depth, in addition to drastically lengthening the usefulness window of T1 and T2. The biggest offending T4 units have also been nerfed like the Juggernaut. Building Settlers now very quickly depopulate the city you build them in, for example.

    I’m very surprised that there was nothing about the random map generator. It’s very well built and comprehensive and tinkering with the settings allows one to have a very different game. Try out Empire Building, starting with Settler or Outpost, small army, few independant cities and the rest on normal (or even plentiful treasure sites for a more RPG experience). I also heard turning off city founding and keeping dwellings and independant cities to few makes for a very tense game.

    Out of the box, it is a great game, and a 7 is a little too low of a score IMO. With some work, it might be the 4X of the decade.

    • AstralWanderer says:

      dearLeader: “A common criticism for this game is that the races lack differentiation…The truth of the matter is that they all function very differently, if you skin beyond the outer layer.”

      In fairness, this applies to AoW and AoW2 also, racial units have skill and attribute differences that can be exploited using the right tactics. But that applies to tactical combat only (where the AI performs poorly) and the review’s main criticism on diversity was at the strategic level – i.e. towns having virtually the same addons, whatever the race.

      dearLeader: “Triumph is treating this game rightfully like their little baby and have been amazing with their patching work.”

      Good news but doesn’t address the main criticism of a poor AI and supports the general consensus here of “wait till this game is patched and on sale”.

      Especially since GOG has the original AoW and AoW2 games on sale for $2.99 and $4.99 respectively for this weekend (until Tuesday April 29). Anyone new to the series should check one of those games out first.

    • Keith Turner says:

      Many of the intracies you mention about the combat and racial units will only come into play in multiplayer. I don’t evaluate multiplayer, but I did mention that this is where I felt combat decisions would be much more important and interesting.

      I would hesitate to ever call AoW 3 the best 4x, even with improvements, because I don’t feel it is really a 4x game. It is a turn based tactical combat game with some very light strategic decisions.

    • Keith Turner says:

      Just saw the note about the random map generator. I don’t feel it really does anything special or works all that well to be quite honest. I once had a completely flat map with huge expanses of empty space with default settings. It made for quite a boring game. I also had caves to the underground appear on a single tile in the middle of the ocean. There were other odd occurrences, but I don’t recall them right now.

  23. Serge says:

    Very good review. Game is good but not great.

  24. Electrolux says:

    Excellent review. AoW 3 is the best multiplayer Tactical TBS there is but it won’t hold you for long if you’re after anything else.

    Random Map Generator is pretty serviceable once you’ve got the hang of all the settings.

  25. meprun says:

    I think this game is overrated in many reviews. Not worth a 7, more a 5. Not a worty replacement of master of magic. Spells are very meaningsless, cities are maxed to fast(less that 150 turns) althougth it looks interesting. Combat has almost no strategic value. For a rating of 6 tactical combat must a have an strategic importance and damaging enemies. Het spells also have minimal strategic importance. It not the ai that is bad its the relation between tactics and strategy in the whole game.

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