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Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords Review

By on May 18th, 2015 9:50 am

Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords | Frostling looks a bit like a jockey up there

After releasing Golden Realms, a very successful and well-received expansion for their Age of Wonders 3 franchise, it would have been easy for developer Triumph Studios to switch development to smaller, and perhaps more profitable, DLC packs. Expansions seem to be a bit of an antiquated idea in the minds of many developers and consumers. With the recent release of their second expansion pack, Eternal Lords, Triumph Studios has done the exact opposite of what other companies would have done. They’ve released one of the biggest and most jam-packed expansions I’ve ever seen for a strategy game.

Thriller Night

It’s hard to call any one aspect of such a large expansion the headliner, but the introduction of a new Necromancer class is certainly significant. It comes complete with a slew of new heroes, units, spells, special powers, and some exciting changes to existing gameplay systems. It’s a class that is exceptionally well executed and is one of the best Necromancer implementations I’ve seen in a game.

Rather than create a specific undead race, which already existed if you consider the Archon minor race, the Necromancer can instead turn any race into a pale ghoulish version of itself. Ghouls receive their race’s standard racial attributes, but also gain the benefits and detriments intrinsic to the undead. They don’t use farms to grow crops and are actually encouraged to turn those useless farms and springs into vile corrupt places that only they can benefit from. Instead of the standard morale and food production buildings, they build harvesters guilds, embalmers guilds, and a cathedral of bones. These provide population each turn in a similar manner to what the living races get from their buildings, but in addition these ghoul cities can also gain population whenever enemies are slain on the battlefield.

Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords | Love the ghoulish texturing

The Necromancer has access to a wide variety of units. Like any other class, they can build their race’s specific units, but unlike any other class, these units are also undead ghouls. They are vulnerable to spells that are effective against undead and lack the ability to heal naturally, but they also ignore most morale modifiers, become immune to blight damage, and can benefit from necromantic skills and spells that boost the Undead. The ghoul versions don’t feel overpowered, but instead uniquely different. This is apparent right away even from the artwork, as each unit has a ghoul textured model it uses in place of its normal one. In addition to these units, the Necromancer can also recruit Reanimators, which are the “healer” support of the undead, as well as massive Bone Collectors and powerful Death Bringer infantry.

The Necromancer isn’t just about creating cities full of ghouls. Each lord and hero comes complete with a large bag of tricks. As you’d expect, they have numerous ways to revive and heal the undead including life stealing capabilities. They can also create corpse explosions, shoot out death rays, and give their units powerful buffs against all units, but especially those that are devout. In addition, the lord can research some very powerful summons, with the ultimate summon being the Dread Reaper, a unit so powerful that its touch ability has a chance to instantly kill any unit on the battlefield. Necromancers can also turn their heroes into powerful Archliches. This provides a buff that benefits all units commanded by that hero. Even in death a Necromancer leader is no slouch, as if they possess a Phylactery at their throne, they can return from the void nearly instantly once defeated.

Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords | DO fear the reaper...

The Tigrans and Euph… Frostlings

Whereas Golden Realms offered one race and no new classes, Eternal Lords adds a class and two additional races. These new races are the Tigrans and the Frostlings, and each comes complete with their own set of unique units and special traits. Both races are very interesting additions to the game and well worth exploring.

The Tigrans are a feline Egyptian inspired race who are closely aligned with the element of fire. They suffer from a weakness to frost, but make up for this with unmatched speed and agility on and off the battlefield. One of the things Triumph Studios has been implementing with their races is a better feeling of synergy, and this becomes clear when you begin analyzing these units in depth. Several of their units are designed to start causing enemies to bleed, while others are bloodthirsty and do extra damage to units that are bleeding. They are also very quick on the battlefield and some can even pounce over enemies to get into good position. Most have extra damage capabilities when they execute attacks of opportunity. Perhaps one of their coolest units is the Mystic, a support caster who can shapeshift into a dire panther when enemies get too close for comfort.

Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords | Animals, both mythical and ferocious, have a role in the Tigran military

The Frostlings are a matriarchal society of ice loving, queen worshiping, barbarians. Polar opposites to the Tigrans, they suffer from a weakness to fire. They make up for this with several seafaring skills and frost weapons that enhance their elemental damage. They are exceptionally good at freezing opponents in place with their iceballs and ice novas, and can follow up on this with strikes designed to shatter their icy bodies into thousands of tiny pieces. If brute force is more your thing, they’ve got you covered there with their massive mammoths who have very high health and damage for tier II units. Their ultimate units are their white witches and ice queens. While they are somewhat frail, the Frostlings have a secret weapon called the Royal Guard who can link themselves to these units and absorb damage on their behalf.

Fate of the Cosmos

Cosmic Happenings, as the game calls them, are a new addition consisting essentially of random events that pop up and last for a defined number of turns. The more than 20 events present in the game run the gamut from simple to potentially game changing. On the simple end, you’ll find buffs like luck bonuses, production bonuses, melee buffs, and line of site restrictions due to the presence of a dark sun. Worth noting too is that these buffs often have an actually visually noticeable impact on the world as well. This is of course unnecessary from a game mechanics standpoint, but it truly increases your immersion and increases the production value of the game.

Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords | Seeing the world as it appears during a blood moon

Not all events are so simple. Some events can have much more dramatic effects. For instance, your plans to go to war can be thwarted if the Omen of the Dove happens to hit while you’re marching in. Your very time consuming research project can be finished instantly if Planetary Alignment occurs. There are also events that can spawn very powerful heroes and armies that create unique challenges for all empires to deal with.

For those who dislike randomness, these can be disabled, but I personally love the excitement these can bring. There are also ways to trigger these on purpose at times. For instance, if you find and use the Box of Cataclysms, a strings attached Pandora’s Box, you’ll get a nice reward. You’ll also be knowingly choosing a disaster that will impact everyone. Will you open the box if it means someone else, and possibly yourself, will get hurt? If movies and books are any indication, yes, yes you will.

Achieving world peace one race at a time

The introduction of a new seal victory system in the first expansion had a dramatic impact on my enjoyment of the game. I had some issues with the original game’s endgame, and this alternative option alleviated many of my concerns in that regard. Not everyone likes to be aggressive though, and the seals do force you in that direction, so the introduction of yet another victory condition in Eternal Lords may be the missing piece of the puzzle for some players.

This new victory condition involves taking part in a race to become the Great Unifier. To become the unifier, you must build and then light unity beacons dedicated to specific races. This signals your intention to unite them all under a single banner. These beacons can be constructed within the protected walls of your empire’s cities and far from the clutches of your rival empires. It all sounds rather simple until you realize there are a few substantial obstacles in your path.

Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords | Yet another thing to worry about!

A new system, race governance, has been put in place and forces you to establish good relations with them prior to construction a beacon. It’s no longer in your best interest to exploit and conquer everyone that crosses your path. To gain your rival’s favor, you should consider completing quests for them, spreading their race to new cities, and bringing in independents as vassals rather than as conquests. As you do, your race governance level will increase and each increase will allow you to unlock your choice of two unique bonuses specific to that race. Eventually, they’ll offer you the opportunity to construct a beacon in their name.

Building a beacon creates quite a ruckus and other empire leaders will be well informed of the fact that you are trying to unite the races. They won’t only be upset about your progress toward victory, but also because the presence of a beacon undermines the authority they have over their people. The races want to be part of the movement, not on the sidelines, and an empire’s population will suffer morale penalties when a rival has begun the unification. Meanwhile, your people will receive a morale boost as they watch their dream of a united world come to fruition.

The introduction of a new victory condition wasn’t a requirement this time around, but its introduction alongside the race governance system has a welcome impact on the game as a whole. Even if you don’t care about uniting the races, the benefits to your empire for pleasing them are very apparent. At higher levels, bonuses can become quite significant and offer large damage buffs and other enhancements to the race’s units.

Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords | Those elvish archers just got deadly

Good, Evil, and everything in between

Three new specializations have been added this time around to help further spice things up. Even if you have decided not to play as a Necromancer, not to choose Frostlings or Tigrans, and that you don’t like random events or righting racial wrongs, new specializations can still help you enjoy a new experience. These specializations are focused on those who devote themselves to good, those who devote themselves to evil, and those who believe a harmony needs to exist between the two.

Regardless which you choose, each has several spells and abilities to benefit your cause. Each also culminates with a powerful tier IV summon. The Keeper of the Peace and Shadowborn specialties focus on the battle of good vs. evil in particular, with each receiving abilities benefiting units who have dedicated themselves to a cause. They also have different approaches to dealing with independent cities in a uniquely positive or negative way. The Grey Guard specialty is more concerned with preventing either side from becoming too powerful. The Grey Guard has abilities to clean corpses off the battlefield, which can be an issue for Necromancers, and also very powerful anti-summon abilities.

More of what you love

I’ve spent many hours with the expansion already and I’ve not even touched the new Necromancer campaign or the 2 additional standalone scenarios that have been added. Nor have I come across the Reef Colony, a new dwelling that, much like the other independent races, can be conquered in order to unlock access to several sea creatures. These include a powerful tier IV unit that seems like an avatar of Poseidon, a thunderstorm bringing, trident wielding, Lord of the Deep.

What I have experienced is some of the new mythical locations you can conquer and unlock special bonuses from. There were a lot of these in the game already, but this expansion has added even more such as the Hall of the Forefathers that unlocks the ability to train Yetis, the Castle of the Lich King that grants certain units the Fear strike trait, and the Sphinx Temple which grants future Pikemen units a blinding aura. There are also new item rewards to be claimed when clearing out some of these obstacles.

Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords | Mythical locations are about as tough, and useful, as they come

Final Thoughts on the Expansion

When Golden Realms was released, I was extremely pleased with the work Triumph Studios had done. Their followup, Eternal Lords, is one of the best strategy game expansions I’ve ever played. If you like Age of Wonders 3’s style of gameplay at all, you owe it to yourself to buy this. It dumps a truly massive amount of content into the game, and yet it all fits in completely seamlessly.

When I think about why I enjoy it so much, I start thinking about how Triumph Studios seems to have zigged where others have zagged when it comes to their design decisions. They have experimented with new ways to implement things in a fresh and appealing way. None of the new units or spells I experienced felt rushed or lacking in creativity. Instead, I found myself surprised at the level of detail they put in to even the smallest facets of the expansion. I sincerely hope they continue to deliver content of this quality for the foreseeable future.

The entire Age of Wonders 3 experience as it stands today

Age of Wonders 3, with its 2 expansions, is now my most played strategy game in recent years. While just over a year ago I found it to be quite flawed, I now find myself hard pressed to find flaws. Nearly every complaint I had has been eradicated, and I can think of no other game series that better exemplifies how to use initial criticism to its own advantage. While the AI isn’t perfect, it is vastly improved. This is especially true in the tactical arena. I am no longer able to trample over the AI on Emperor difficulty, and even on King difficulty I had to reload saves several times to manage a victory. The only flaw still present from the initial game is diplomacy which feels a bit lackluster and difficult to deal with. The auto-balance negotiations button still doesn’t produce worthwhile results either.

At this point in its development, with 2 large expansions now available, there is enough content in the game that you’ll be discovering new things for a long, long, time. There are still many units that I’ve not had the pleasure, or displeasure, of meeting even after 100 hours of play. This in my mind helps offset some of the AI and diplomacy deficiencies. I greatly enjoy finding unique ways to try and break the game with incredible combos, and the more special buildings, spells, and units they make available, the more experimentation I can perform. For instance a pikemen unit may be lackluster in most cases, but if you have access to several special locations and spells that benefit them, even tier I or II units can become quite powerful. Recently, I won a game where I had buffed and leveled High Elf archers and unicorn riders capable of coming out on top vs. tier IV units. This is a far cry from the early days when tier IV units were the only end game option.

I don’t know what the future holds for this franchise, but if they continue to produce content of this caliber, I’ll be a very happy gamer. The things they were doing right from the beginning, like tactical combat and the in-game searchable encyclopedia, they’ve only continued to improve upon. The things they were doing wrong, like lack of victory conditions and poor tactical AI, have mostly been corrected. If you are a fan of tactical combat and don’t mind a strategy game with a weaker diplomacy system, I very highly recommend this one.

Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords expansion

Age of Wonders 3: Eternal Lords (PC, Mac, Linux)

Reviewed on PC

Available at GOG, and Steam.

Space Sector score:
9.0/10
excellent
The Good:
– The Necromancer class is a unique and well designed addition to the series
– Tigran and Frostling new races provide a lot of tactical synergy
– Cosmic Events add a new level of excitement
– New victory condition offers a slightly more peaceful option
– Race Governance offers unique benefits and encourages thoughtful interactions
– New specializations offer more reasons to care about your behavior and alignment
– Continues to add even more diversity to all aspects of the game
The Bad:
– No diplomatic improvements for empire relations

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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16 Comments


  1. Ashbery76 says:

    The last expansion made this game one the best strategy games I have played.Not many come close.

  2. NoldorElf says:

    It is not perfect. There are still some balancing issues that I think need to be addressed.

    Other issues that the review did not cover:
    1. I would argue that the races still need more to set them apart. The upgrade system was a great step forward.

    2. Greater T3 and T4 unit diversity I think is needed. Maybe each class should have a second T4. Some things like the summons and machines might do with greater variety (the idea of making racial-specific machines and summons is very controversial on the forums).

    3. I would like to see other unique things found in other 4X games, like maybe access to wonders – but this is a very combat-focused type game.

    4. The 32 bit limitation is a serious problem on large maps. Sometimes it’s possible to run out of RAM (greater than the 32 bit limit) and experience crashes. I wish this game was natively in x64.

    Otherwise it’s a pretty good game.

    Alongside perhaps Endless Legend, it seems to be the probably the best of the fantasy-4X games recently released.

    I wonder what the next expansion will bring. They do seem to be listening to the majority of their players – perhaps only Distant Worlds has had a comparable recovery as of late.

    • RedArgo says:

      Haven’t played it yet, but I read, at least early on, there wasn’t any reason to build low end units, but run straight to high end ones. Has this been addressed in patches or expansions?

      • Keith Turner says:

        Yes, the lower level units are much more useful now, assuming you can keep them alive. All, or nearly all, of the units in the game have been adjusted since release. A lot of effort was put into making the units of the different races more unique and interesting across the tiers.

        Lower tier units often have synergy with higher tier units. They may be able to bleed opponents, trap them, stun them, freeze them, lower their resistances or defenses, and so on. This can setup a bit of a 1, 2 punch in many situations.

        The other key factor is the experience system. It allows these units to level up continuously and remain useful. The first few levels will unlock unique abilities and stat increases. These tend to place them on par with higher tier units, though leveled higher tier units are still going to be superior.

        I have seen tier 1 and 2 units more than double their starting health. They also remain cheap to upkeep throughout, which is significant as money is frequently tight. This makes it possible to have a lot more of these powerhouses around than tier 3 and 4 units that cost 4x to 8x more per turn. Of course, I can also confirm that a Champion 3 Archon Titan with 180 health is quite strong too.

        • RedArgo says:

          Thanks guys, playing Endless Legend now, but I’ll probably pick this up on sale sometime. Sounds like it has been improved a lot.

    • NoldorElf says:

      @RedArgo

      It’s a controversial topic.

      Personally I think that some of the T3s and T4s have been at times, excessively nerfed.

      But I think that there is a role for all tiers right now.

      It’s much harder to run straight to the top end units these days.

  3. NoldorElf says:

    I suppose another thing in very high demand right now would be better modding tools – this is one major flaw of the game right now; there isn’t support for modding which would make this game much more interesting.

  4. t1it says:

    I knew they could achieve this with two expansions. The base game was very solid as all fundamentals was in place. Just needed more fluff and we got all that plus more. Brilliant.
    Now Triumph can go back to consoles for a while, I’m happy ;)

    • Keith Turner says:

      No way! I need even more classes and races. Okay, maybe need is a strong word. I really, really, want more quality content though. They’ve got me hooked at this point, so I hope this is a game that lives on with expansions for a few more years.

  5. SamDog says:

    I got all the expansions. Great game.

    yours
    SamDog

  6. SQW says:

    So the full package will set me back $60. Gonna wait for a 50% sale on this since I made the mistake of picking Endless Legend over AoW 3.

    It used to be that if the base game is good enough people start asking for an expansion with new stuff. Nowadays, it’s usually a mediocre base game that gives you just a sneak peak of its full potential before asking for more money.

    Just how hard was it to have these new additions included in the base game anyway? It’s not like 4X is rapidly evolving or anything. Most of the tried and true stables haven’t shifted in years.

    • zigzag says:

      Hard. The expansions have about 50% again as much content as the base game (in terms of races, classes, units, etc.). And creating the engine imposes a significant overhead – much more so than games of 10-20 years ago.

    • SQW says:

      The tools available to game dev nowadays are also significantly more power – let’s just say everything balances out and it’s never gonna be just ‘easy’ making games.

      No, I didn’t mean the content (number of factions etc) when I criticised the base game; I meant the mechanics of gameplay. If you look at the review’s praise, the new factions are just nice fillers while what really fleshed out the game are the new Events, Victory Conditions, Specializations etc. Those mechanics could have and should have been included in the first place as the base game’s game design basically had nothing new.

      It just feels like the devs spent an afternoon throwing together the existing 4X gameplay tropes from the last 2 decades and went straight into coding.

    • NoldorElf says:

      To be honest, the game in some ways still doesn’t feel complete, especially late game.

      I think that there has become though as you say a push to release.

      I suppose the takeaway may be to not buy games until they are at the end of their development cycle in many cases.

    • SQW says:

      I love how, much like the movie industry, game devs nowadays design the base product with the expectation that the consumers WILL clamor for a sequel. Sounds like AoW 3 devs had more heart(or common sense) than the CIV:BE people.

      Like NoldorElf said, end games in 4X has always been weak for the genre. I rarely finish a medium map because there’s always a tipping point 2/3 way through the game where you KNOW the last 1/3 is just long, tedious mop up work.

      If 4X can escape the cage that is the research tree, then the genre can move beyond single end-game goals and have something like a persistent game world where you just set your own goals and just happy ‘being’.

    • NoldorElf says:

      I’ve always been fond of the “deathmatch” type of game, where you focus more on combat than on research, but there are times research does add to the game.

      Some games have races that are balanced around being strong early game, while others need the tech to reach their potential.

      I would recommend waiting for the Steam (or whatever you use) sales.

      The big issue I think this game needs (apart from modding tools) is a better endgame. The flaws that were not addressed in this review become really big in large maps late game. Perhaps it is because the game has a rather small, multiplayer focus that it is not as good strategically.


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