Age of Wonders is a lot of fun, for a TBS. All the mechanics are solid, the gameplay, though a little complicated at first, is great, and the unit/building upgrade system is fantastic.
I'll start out going over the basic mechanics. Age of Wonders has two map modes: the World Map, and the Battle Map. The World Map is the one you explore on; the Battle Map is the one you fight on. Simple enough. Both maps control basically the same way. You move your parties (groups) of units (or singular units, if in battle) around the map, which is hexagonal tile based (as opposed to, say, square tile based).
Units have move points, which are modified by terrain (e.g. some units move slower across forests costing more move points), and some units can move places other units can't. As you move around the map and explore the world, you'll find other towns, races, and factions, and depending on your relations with them, will either convince them to join you, or conquer them. Or get killed by them. Pretty standard fare all around. I'm not going to spend too much time on the mechanics of the game, I just wanted to give you a basic understanding of it first.
So, let's talk about the good stuff. First, the little things. There are 12 unique races in the game, with 13 units for each. Surprisingly, despite a number of similarities between the types of units (every faction has a basic ranged unit, a basic melee unit, and a battering ram, a catapult, and a ballista), there is a lot of variety among the units themselves. This where race plays the greatest part. Two of the exact same types of units, let's say an elven archer and an undead archer, are extremely different just by their race. The elf can hit easier; the skeleton is immune to several effects. This variety is furthered by the fact that every unit for each race has its own flavor description, which helps differentiate them even more. Every unit and hero has abilities unique to their unit type and level. This may sound pretty standard too, but it's what makes the game shine. Unit individuality is a good thing in games like this; it stops your units from just being a number. The combat is limited to an absolute maximum of 56 units in one battle, which, compared to some other 4X TBS games, is really quite modest. Furthermore, most battles take place between 2, maybe 3 parties, which have a maximum size of 8. This means most battles are going to have between 16 and 24 units. When you consider that each player controls about half the forces, that means 8 to 12 units per side. What am I getting at here? Well, these relatively small numbers of units mean two things. First, it means that battles won't get too long. This is good; massive battles where you can't save are almost never a recipe for success. Battles in this usually won't take more than a few minutes to play out (though they certainly can be longer). The second advantage of this is that it makes all your units important. When you have only 8 units, losing even 1 can be a big deal. The game encourages you to use the units abilities to their greatest, and to retreat or rescue units if they're in a sticky situation. This is further encouraged by the fact that most units take more than one turn to build. If you lose a unit in battle, it's going to take a few turns to replace them. All this works towards the end goal of unit individuality. When a unit is nearing death, you actually kind of worry about them and try to pull them back. It matters when they die, because you may not be able to replace them fast enough, or you may need their special abilities for something.
Another great thing about the game is the heroes. Like normal units, hero units all have their own abilities. What sets them apart is that when heroes level up, you get to choose how their stats increase. Whether or not your hero becomes some kind of monster fighter, with tons of move and health, or whether they become a more varied unit, with lots of abilities, is totally up to you. The other big difference is that heroes can cast spells. The spells you can cast depend on your hero's "spheres" (death, fire, earth, etc.), and they vary quite a bit. There are spells to summon creatures, modify unit abilities, increase gold output, or just shoot a good old fireball. Overall, there is a wonderful amount of customization that can be done with heroes, and, should you decide to make it so, they will never be the same twice.
The next thing I want to talk about is the sound design. The sound in AoW is two things: classic, and awesome. There are a lot of sound effects in the game; while a few spells, attack, and units share the same ones, there are still enough that you may not even notice. What's best about the sound, though, is the music, and more than that, the options presented. There are something like 20 tracks in the game, and every level starts with 4 selected. This is what I love best about the music; you can choose which tracks to play, making your own "playlist" of sorts.
You can change what plays whenever you want, depending on your mood. This is one of the most genius moves I have ever seen in a game. Even when a game has good music, you can still get tired of hearing the same track over and over. Being able to change what plays is one of my favorite things about this game, and I wish every game had this option. With availability aside, the music is also pretty good. While I really like the "16-bit" feel the music has to it, this isn't so prevalent that I get tired of hearing it. I'll let you decide whether or not it's good for yourself.
One of the other cool things about AoW is that it allows you to blur the lines of "turn-based" a little by selecting the "simultaneous" turn mode. While this has no direct effect on combat, in the World Map, everybody moves at the same time, and turns end when everybody has selected the "end turn" option. This may sound like the prelude to a disaster, but in fact it works pretty well. This mode is especially nice for multiplayer. One of the biggest problems with TBS multiplayers, especially 4X ones where city building is involved, is that it can get really, really boring waiting for someone else to finish their stupid turn. With this mode, which works surprisingly well, this problem vanishes. There may still be some minor waits when people's turns go on a little long, but overall there is still less of a wait then with classic turn-based modes.
I suppose I should talk about the bad parts of the game, starting with the interface. Let me start by saying there are a lot of cool features to the interface, and once you get used to it, it's really quite useful. Every window, be it the map screen, the mini-map, or the events window, is adjustable in size and can be closed or move around at will. The above screenshots feature the standard layout, but it can be changed to put the view screen in the top right, the mini-map in the lower left, the unit window in the center, or any other combination you can think of. While not necessary, it is pretty nice. With that said, there are certainly a number of gripes about the interface of the game. The biggest and only truly difficult to fully solve problem is with the selecting, and especially the deselecting of units. The whole "right click to deselect" thing is really pretty annoying, and until you figure it out, you can expect to make a lot of movement mistakes, sending the wrong units to the wrong place. Even worse than that is splitting up parties. Parties automatically combine when they enter the same hex. This wouldn't be such a big problem, but parties move as fast as their slowest unit. If you accidentally move your battering rams into your horsemen party, your quick hit-and-run strategy is ruined, if you don't know how to separate them. Furthermore, there is little to help you in-game for figuring out the interface. This problem was exacerbated for me because the version I bought (quite legally bought, I assure you) was a digital copy, and it didn't come with the manual. I eventually found it online and got the whole interface thing sorted out, but it is still not quite intuitive and could have been a lot simpler.
The other major problem with the game is its scenarios. While the game comes with two campaigns (for good and evil) and a number of scenarios, you'll honestly get kind of bored of them after a while. Which is not to say there's not any content; like I said, two large campaigns and a number of scenarios. However, you can't pick what races get to play in any of these (you can still customize you hero, just not his race), and there's only one map that features all 12. The problem isn't insurmountable, for the motivated. The game comes with a scenario editor (I haven't personally used it, so I have no idea how good it is), but I personally would have preferred a random map generator.
The only other "bad part" is really quite minor, concerning the visuals. I get the feeling that a lot of people who've only played 4X games like Galactic Civilizations and Heroes III will be taken aback by how "poor" this game looks, for a game made in '99 (the same year Heroes III was released). Now, this game doesn't look bad (which is why the "poor" is in quotes), per se, especially not for a game has a size of around 150 MB (for the sake of comparison, Heroes III was over 4 times that, and the new Call of Duty game is about 160 times as large). But the visuals are little underwhelming. Perfectly functional, so I don't hold this against it, but less than impressive.
Overall: AoW is a solid game. It has got great unit structure, classic 4X gameplay, and a fair amount of depth to it. The combat accommodates a number of play styles, ranging from slow tactical advances to straight up charges, and because of the limited scale, each unit becomes important, which I really like.
Gameplay: 8/10 Classic 4X. Everything, from the exploring to the conquering to the town construction, is well done and fun the control. The interface takes some getting used to, but once mastered isn't too bad. A nice variety of player options and the addition for simultaneous turn mode for multiplayer or impatient players are a great addition.
Visuals: 6/10 Nothing spectacular. Nothing really interferes with the ability to play the game, and the isometric view is nice, but nothing stands out or makes it impressive. A nice side effect of this is a tiny game size.
Sound: 7.5/10 Solid sound design. Although a few sound effects were reused here and there, nearly every creature, event, and effect has its own sound effect, and the effects themselves were pretty nicely done (my favorite is definitely the "seduce" sound effect. Classic 90's). The music covers a broad range, yet manages to always fit the mood of the game. The genius addition of a track picker let's you appreciate the music all the more.
Game Modes: 6.5/10 There's only so much you can expect from TBS games, so I had to rate this on the availability and ease of play for multiplayer. Honestly, it's nothing spectacular. This is one of the only games I've played where you can play multiplayer by email (yes, that is an actual thing), and it does have hotseat (which is always a nice addition). The biggest problem is that rather than a LAN mode, we have TCP/IP, which you need to know the hosts IP address for. It's not that hard to figure out, and once you start you won't have any problems. It's just a little more of a hassle than I'd want. The save system for multiplayer also works quite well. Lastly, the Simultaneous mode works quite well, so once you've started multiplayer, you won't want to gouge your eyes out from boredom as much as you might from playing another 4X game.
Replayability: 5.5/10 This may be the games greatest failing. There's a fair amount of content, and you can make your own. Chances are, however, that you'll only have a moderate urge to play this again after you've beaten a campaign or a few scenarios. Granted, it'll take you a long, long time to finish both campaigns and all the scenarios, but you probably won't feel drawn especially hard to play this game often.
Game Rating: 6.5/10 Overall a solid piece of work. There's enough good about this game that it rises above average, and the admirable catering to most play styles is appreciated. A few minor annoyances are made up for otherwise good execution. I'd definitely recommend this for any fans of the Heroes of Might and Magic series or the Civilizations series as a more individual unit-centric game, and people you aren't fans of the genre will still probably enjoy themselves. With these games, there's only so spectacular or horrible you can get without taking vast departures from genre norms. This game did not take those departures, and ended up as a good game rather than a bad one. All I'm really trying to say is that the word I've been using to describe this game, "solid," really can't be said enough. It's a better than average, overall fun game; that is to say, solid.
Any suggestions/requests for my next reviews? Leave a comment!
A lot of point 5 ratings this time...