Review – Age of Wonders: Planetfall

My original reaction to Triumph Studio’s announcement that their next project was a multi-platform sci-fi 4X, was mostly apprehension. Age of Wonders III remains one of the few quality fantasy 4X games, whereas you can’t go two feet without tripping over a brand-new sci-fi 4X trying and failing to take Alpha Centauri’s crown. It seemed a waste for them to chase the latest craze instead of sticking to their roots, not to mention the questions that always come up when a strategy game comes to console. After spending some time with Age of Wonders: Planetfall however, playing with both a controller and KB+M, I find that my trepidation was completely unfounded.

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No matter the game, there’s always a quest to find someone’s lost dog.

Basic gameplay is very familiar and stays close to both the standard 4X formula and Age of Wonders‘ own unique mechanics. There’s the main map from which you’ll expand and perform your usual 4X duties. When you engage another unit stack in combat, you are moved to an appropriately themed battle map, where things become more XCOM than Civilization. While your mileage varies depending on faction, such as the Vanguard feeling exactly like an XCOM game while the melee focused Kir’ko play as anything but, the general themes of cover, movement, and even the UI will feel familiar. I’ve seen the Age of Wonders franchise refereed to as “turn-based Total War” and it’s an apt description that remains true here. Some things have been refined and expanded based on feedback from Age of Wonders III and gameplay-wise this is the best iteration of the system. However, that’s not where Planetfall truly shines, though it would have been enough to be worth playing.

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Doom stacks are even more doom for your enemies here.

The most striking thing about Planetfall is it’s theme. Alpha Centauri set the template for space 4X and for the most part games follow in it’s realistic and grounded version of space exploration and colonization. Sometimes there’s some more mystical elements tossed in and it feels a little more Star Wars then Trek, but at the core it’s always the same thing. Planetfall throws that all away. It’s not Clarke or Asimov, or even Heinlein, it’s purely unapologetically Burroughs. One of the factions, the Amazons, are an entirely female group of dinosaur human hybrids that ride other dinosaurs. Then there’s the Assembly, a faction of cyborgs who look like they listen to nothing by thrash metal and have a unit that’s just a human head hooked up to a motorcycle. Everything is gloriously pulpy, something most games avoid at all costs. Planetfall embracing this instead, was just the change-up this genre needed.

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It’s basically a Little Daddy.

This level of variety carries over into gameplay too. While plenty of games do manage to make multiple interesting gameplay styles across multiple factions, none of them have anything on Planetfall. Everyone has access to unique tech and weaponry that quickly goes beyond the standard fare. In addition to the aforementioned dinosaur genetic experimentation and cyborg motorcycles, there’s the Tesla-like weaponry of the Syndicate, the phasing abilities of the Vanguard, and the Dvar which can actually alter the terrain of the world map. That’s just scratching the surface too, the tech trees for each faction are both long and wide, allowing for multiple development paths. You don’t have to build your Syndicate out with lightning weaponry, you could instead choose to go down the more insidious path of psionics and mind magic. Half the fun of each faction isn’t just playing a different way, it’s figuring out just what that faction is even capable of.

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The art is pretty great. Some of the loading screens and menu backgrounds are near wallpaper worthy.

There’s a decent variety of modes available too. Headlining is the campaign, which contains missions and a story path for every faction. This is a change-up from a lot of other games in the genre, including other Age of Wonders’ games which usually contain a story for the main faction and that’s it. What’s even more surprising is how interesting it is, even if it’s not the most well written. It’s fun and weird in all the best ways and does a great job fleshing out everyone’s culture and history in addition to their playstyle. Then there’s the highly customizable scenario mode with a decent variety of maps as well as the random map generator. There’s sure to be more to come through the game’s mod tools as well.

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It’s a very well fleshed out map generator, capable of fine tuning every biome and climate to your liking. If you ever wanted to build planets, here you are.

It’s the multiplayer modes that will carry the game after you’ve finished the campaign though, and Planetfall is no slouch in that area. There’s the usual full scenarios mode, but in multiplayer. A new one is Hotseat, which I imagine was added because of the new console audience and everyone should thank them for it. Playing a turn-based 4X game in same screen multiplayer may not sound like a lot of fun, but can definitely be worth it. Rounding it out is asynchronous multiplayer, which if you don’t know what that is, is basically playing chess by e-mail. You take your turn, log out, wait for him to take his, then come back, etc. It’s a pretty great long term gaming experience and really favors those incredibly long and ambitious game types on large maps that you wouldn’t normally play in regular multiplayer. Something for everyone.

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Imagine actually burning the alien egg instead of rubbing your face on it.

Age of Wonders: Planetfall was one huge surprise for me. Despite my love for their previous games (or perhaps because of it) I had many doubts about how Planetfall would develop both as another sci-fi 4X and a console one at that. Yet the end project is undeniably brilliant with a fantastic tone and theme that sets it apart from competitors, a full range of modes in both SP and MP to engage anyone it needs too, and gameplay that’s been refined and near perfected. This year has been pretty incredible for strategy fans, and this is yet another one of those can’t miss titles.

 

Graphics: 7.0

The graphics do little more than get the job done, but the unit and faction design is very cool, and the UI is sleek.

Gameplay: 8.5

While exploration isn’t the most interesting, the rate and depth of expansion makes up for it. The XCOM styled combat steals the show however.

Sound: 7.5

While what little voice-acting present is questionable and sound effects underwhelming, the soundtrack is great especially during combat.

Fun Factor: 9.5

Faction variety is deep, there’s multiplayer modes for every style, and the 4X gameplay is at the same level as the combat system.

Final Verdict: 8.5

Age of Wonders: Planetfall is available August 6th on Steam, Xbox One, and PS4.

Reviewed on PC.

A copy of Age of Wonders: Planetfall was provided by the publisher.

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