Age of Wonders: Planetfall is the fifth game in the Age of Wonders series and, superficially, it is a departure from its predecessors. It trades in the swords and sorcery genre trappings from the earlier games for a far-future, sci-fi universe, creating a world with unique worldbuilding and memorable factions. It combines classic 4X strategy with battlefield tactics in a game that focuses on the tough decisions of war and diplomacy.
Rebuilding In A Time Of Chaos
For all the focus on the military aspects of the game, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is not a mindless conquering simulator. The story of Planetfall follows the last ship of the Vanguard of the Star Union, an ancient empire that spans the galaxy. When a cosmic event shuts down faster than light travel, the crew of the ship enters a 200-year cryosleep. When they wake, the Star Union has fallen apart, and they have to establish a society in the remains of the civilization they knew.
Players can achieve this through conquest, or they can take a subtler approach. For example, when faced with a criminal syndicate, the player has the option to attack them directly, give in to their extortion, or find a secret that you can exploit to make them leave the planet. Each of these choices has a different drawback: a full attack against an enemy nation can be costly, the syndicate’s extortion involves spending your resources making luxury goods for them, and finding their dark secrets is a lengthy process that involves protecting an agent from assassins.
A New Type Of Fight
This game is not your average 4X strategy game. For one thing, it has less strategy than most. You don’t have to worry about troop movements, whether artillery is better against cities, or having to manufacture pikemen to guard against enemy cavalry. It replaces much of the traditional 4X strategy with battlefield tactics. Whenever two armies clash, instead of watching the sprites damage each other in a scripted animation, the game takes the player into the battlefield itself, which changes based on the terrain that you fight in. You then control your troops directly, making them throw grenades, fire lasers, and take cover when the enemy fires back. As one might expect, this makes combat take much longer, but it is much more engaging than most other games. For those that want to skip getting down in the trenches, there is an auto-combat option, but it is not recommended. For anyone with a decent grasp of the battle system, auto-combat is significantly worse. Besides, the battles are easily the most fun parts of the game.
It’s a good thing that the battles are fun and engaging, because they take up a large part of the game. Despite the fact that half of the technology tree is social policies, most of the game is based around supporting your military. All of the hallmarks of the genre are there – diplomacy, city building, resource management – but they are limited. Having good relationships with NPC factions is most useful for getting them to give you units or resources. Buildings in your city unlock better units or provide more resources to build your army. Even resource management is simple; other than the standard food, production, knowledge, and energy units, there is only one resource, a material called cosmite, that is used for units and mods.
Each choice has future consequences, too. Depending on how you solve problems on each planet, the political climate on future climates will change. You have to make hard choices as a commander. Do you go against your morals and eradicate all life on a planet to protect dangerous secrets from falling into the wrong hands? Do you help the Kir’ko, former slaves that formed their own society when the Star Union collapsed? Each decision has both direct consequences and unintended fallout, incorporating choice-based gaming at a level that 4X games usually can’t. The player’s choices matter on a societal scale and affect the world at large.
Who Needs A Story, Anyways?
If you don’t care about stories or choices, the game also functions as a normal 4X strategy game outside of the story mode. It still is mainly military-focused, but also opens up a lot more military options with more playable factions. Unlike story mode, in which you can only play as the Vanguard, other modes let you play as all of the story mode antagonist factions, including space Amazons, cyborgs, space dwarves, crime syndicates, and space bugs. Unlike the Vanguard, which has a fairly straightforward set of units, with standard machine gunners, helicopters, and tanks, other factions have more unique abilities.
These new abilities keep combat from getting stale and adds a lot of replayability to the game. The Kir’ko, with their psionic powers and swarm tactics, play very differently from the Syndicate, with their underhanded fighting techniques and electricity attacks. For certain factions, such as the Amazon and the Dvar, the difference in playstyle extends outside the battlefield to the overworld as well. They can change the very terrain of the world around them to their advantage. There is enough variety to keep the game from being a simple number simulator, where the only strategy is to have more guns than your opponent.
Overall, if you are a fan of 4X strategy games, you will probably like Age of Wonders: Planetfall, but you shouldn’t expect it to be the same as what you’ve played in the past. While some of its features may not be as developed as some more well-rounded games, it makes up for it with an emphasis on battlefield tactics, as well as strategy, varied factions, and a story mode that offers a wide variety of gameplay options that affect the world and change the story as you go.
3.5 Out Of 5 Stars
A copy of Age of Wonders: Planetfall was purchased by TheGamer for this review. Age of Wonders: Planetfall is available now for the PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.