Review: Age of Wonders III – Walls of Text Mask a Great Game

Age of Wonders III is almost the perfect empire game. It’s Civilization in a fantasy world with a choice-driven plot, plus tactical combat (if you’re into that kind of thing) and automatic combat (if you’re not). You create an empire, taking down enemies or appeasing them, building cities and armies and forming alliances or committing wanton murder as you pillage.

It’s a great concept for a game — so great it makes you wonder how this franchise all but disappeared for the past 11 years, virtually unknown– and Age of Wonders III executes it well, especially given the constraints of being a non-AAA title. The limitations suit it, really, because a game like this doesn’t need performance capture cutscenes or an army of voice actors — it is what it is, and what it is, is simple in appearance and complex under the surface. And it’s tremendously entertaining.

It’s amusing to me that I’m extolling the virtues of Age of Wonders today given the immense struggle that was playing it over the last couple weeks. Somehow I found the experience to be inscrutable. The experience was always a pain and it was difficult to pinpoint why. I was getting pretty frustrated until this past weekend when finally it clicked: it’s a multi-tiered failure of presentation.

Its first problem is its use of overplayed fantasy tropes. While set within the context of an original story, Age of Wonders III is a fantasy game with typical fantasy lore and races. That alone will always be a bit difficult to digest at first because an elf already has so many different contexts that trying to remember a completely new one now is hard. Nevermind that I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls Online and revisiting the Dragon Age games lately, which amplified my difficulty in taking interest.

Second is its presentation. When starting the Elven Court campaign in Age of Wonders III — which the game recommends for new players — the player is presented with enormous amounts of back story in text form, narrated by the main character. She really does talk for a long time, and I was of course compelled to sit through it– can’t very well be a guy who claims to take story seriously if I’m going to spacebar through exposition. But that said, good freakin’ lord. A solid ten minutes of text before the game even starts? It’s disorienting. It reminded me of when I first started playing World of Warcraft and tried to read the quests: in one ear and out the other. Personally, I can’t stay focused through that, especially as I’m trying to internalize the new “THESE elves are like THIS” world-building. Storytellers in other media learned long ago you can’t start out a movie or book like that — you have to stick it in the active plot somewhere, because most people just tune out an infodump.

Once you get past the infodump and start playing, other barriers arise, particularly the text tutorials/explanations for game mechanics. Just as I’m not allowed to skip exposition, I’m not allowed to skip tutorials (these are my own personal rules, not ones handed down to me). After all, I don’t want to miss out on something important. But these prompts are more of the “this is how the game works” variety; they do not walk you through the mechanics of playing. For the first few turns of the game they pop up constantly and like a good JRPG tutorial tend to be more confusing than helpful. And they just keep coming.

And in the end, that was my primary struggle: attempting to internalize all that text as I also tried to actually play. When that didn’t work, I took a few days to forget the game completely and then started my campaign over, skipping the backstory and tutorial prompts. Surprisingly, that actually worked. Age of Wonders III is not actually that complicated, built on pretty regular game logic — some people will need the tutorials but the target audience probably won’t. I didn’t, as it turned out looking through the various menus told me all I needed to know.

Keeping up with the story, on the other hand, was more problematic. I think the best way to go about getting that infodump is to hit it up AFTER starting a campaign. Or at least take it in pieces. One wall of text with narration at a time isn’t really so bad. Four of them in a row is something else.

Age of Wonders III’s presentation woes are really sad because the game is completely engrossing. But had I not been playing it for work. I’d have given up on it after my initial frustration. I am a transient gamer after all, and I have lots of stuff to play, a significant backlog I’ll never get through, games I already enjoy and would like to revisit. It takes a lot to hold and keep my attention. I am not unique in that respect in the Steam ecosystem.

Age of Wonders III is a game that excels at almost everything it set out to do. It has well executed turn-based strategy, beautiful freedom of choice and some really interesting, but definitely tried and familiar, tactical combat. It’s major flaw is the clumsiness in easing you into the experience. The game almost seems set on alienating the player from the start, but if you if you stick with it, you might find a quite rewarding gem beyond.

Final Verdict

8 out of 10

A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review. Age of Wonders III is available at an MSRP of $39.99 via digital stores like Good Old Games and Steam