April 18, 2024
A new 4X which is a sequel to a classic, how does Age of Wonders 4 stack up compared to its predecessors? The Finger Guns review:

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved the Age of Wonders series, particularly the first and the third one. I have had a great deal of fun from the series and lost a fair few days of my life to it, so I was hugely excited when Age of Wonders 4 was announced. It has big shoes to fill as the quality of its predecessors is so high, but for the most part it does that very well.

Age of Wonders 4, by Triumph Studios, is set in a 4X high fantasy medieval universe with many of the hallmarks of the 4X genre present such as building up your cities and exploring the surrounding areas for loot and resources. There are two types of champions you play as and are part of the overarching narrative of the game: Wizard Kings and Champions, both of which are classed as Godir. The former are invaders of the realm, hugely powerful wizards from a long-passed time now free to bend the world to their will. The latter are the native people, heroes who have risen to the top to defend their realm as best they can, or profit from the chaos caused. Both are fun and have unique traits which improve magic use in the case of the Wizard Kings or improve diplomacy via whispering stones for the Champion.

A Multiverse Of Choices

There is an overarching story in Age of Wonders 4, following the struggles between two parties (good aligned Covenant and evil aligned Shad’Rai) that explores many different realms over the course of your journey. The various missions were quite fun, with various unique races and factions you’ll encounter during an interesting story lending themselves to quite a fun campaign.

Completing this story is useful to start levelling up your Pantheon as well, unlocking new attire for your characters as well as new traits and weaponry for your start. You don’t just have to commit to story missions however, as there are plenty of premade scenarios that you’ll unlock over time which aren’t related to the story, and also custom realms available. These custom realms can be tailored to your liking, such as making a snow map full of mega sized creatures or a desert map with large amounts of ancient wonders present, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in designing your own scenarios; these can then be saved for future use and tweaking if you like as well.

Another aspect you can customise in Age of Wonders 4 is your faction, and you have a lot of flexibility on offer here. First, you need to choose your physical form (Human, elf, dwarf, molekin etc) and then what traits your form has, such as strong for additional damage or adaptive for more experience for your troops. After this, you need to choose your origin culture (Barbarian, Feudal, Industrious etc) which a major effect on your playthrough, such as different improved buildings and additional traits that improve facets of your faction, such as a hugely damaging initial attack for Barbarians. Next up are your society traits which you can use to tailor your faction a certain way, such as going for an aggressive start with prolific swarmer’s or focusing on exploring wonders with wonder architects. Further steps will then make you choose what your initial magic tome is, of which there are two for each type of magic in the game available. Finally, you’ll need to decide to be a champion or a wizard king and then the appearance of your hero. Once this is done, the faction is saved for future use and you start the game There are some truly unique factions you can make using this setup phase, and it’s a strong component of the game that many will enjoy.  

All’s Fair In Magical Warfare

Magic Tomes are a key part of your game, and a core component of every run through you’ll make. There are a vast multitude of spells on offer across 6 types of magic: Order, Chaos, Nature, Shadow, Astral and Materium. Each has five tiers of spellbook, with tiers 1-4 having two spell books for each as you level up and tier 5 having one. Each spellbook has a certain theme, such as the tier 2 Nature Tome of Fertility specialising in summons and terraforming the land. Any spellbook is available for choice, and you can choose any you may wish for the first tiers, but later tiers require you to have specialised in that affinity (such as Order) to be able to unlock them. Spells in general are fun, with some further specialising your faction with additional defence in combat or improving their damage. They apply a cosmetic change to any units of that race too which is impressive looking. Other spells improve your cities capabilities or are tactical spells that can be used in combat to various effects; there is a really nice mix and it’s a fun component of the game.

In Age of Wonders 4, once you’ve got into a map the first thing to do will be starting your initial exploration and to make the most of your cities; generally, focusing on early food for population growth or production to get additional buildings down quickly is very useful. All terrain in maps is divided into zones, and these zones can be incorporated into a nearby city over time once they’ve grown their population enough. Zones can contain resource areas such as quarries, or ancient wonders and magic materials; all are useful but prioritising what is best for your playstyle is important, and you can only have a certain amount of zones attached to each city although it will take a fair bit of time until you reach this cap. A cap you’ll reach often though is your city cap, as you can only have a certain number of cities (although this can be increased via an empire development) and if you exceed this limit, you’ll take various penalties.

There are various resources in the game you’ll need to keep track of; some are overarching whereas others are a bit more specific. The main two are gold and mana, with gold used for upkeep by your non-mythic or magical units whereas mana is used for magical units such as those summoned from spells. Both can have their production increased via cities and their zones, or by small outposts you can found if you don’t want to make a full city in the area. Your cities require different resources, namely food, draft and industry, to be able to both grow and produce buildings/units. All of these are improved from various buildings in that city, although some events and explored sites can give you them too. Finally, research is important as it allows you to unlock spell tomes quickly and Imperium is used for a myriad of things, such as turbo boosting your city growth or unlocks in the Empire Development tree.

Grow, Cities, Grow!

So we arrive at the Empire Development Tree in Age of Wonders 4 – this is one of the big important things every game you’ll play, and has quite a few ways to exert your dominance over the map you’re fighting over. There are seven branches to the tree, one for each of the magic types and one for a general capability tree which unlocking seafaring, additional cities and so on. Each magic type generally has a theme – order for example is all about vassals from free cities (NPC minor rulers that exist on the map and can be recruited from in a mechanic called Rally of the Lieges) and recruiting units from them, as well as buffing your troops. The themes are quite fun – Chaos was a favourite of mine as it has some fun buffs and unlocks that can really help to accelerate an aggressive players playstyle.

It would be a good time here to start talking about heroes and their mechanics. To begin with, you’ll always start with one hero which you’ll need to improve over time by gaining experience in combat and levelling them up. Heroes have skills they can unlock once you level them, with one skill point at each level and at levels 5, 10, 15 & 20 you get a capstone skill which are powerful ways to augment your hero in combat, such as summoning additional units or teleporting and causing damage around themselves. There are three trees to specialise your hero in: Battle Magic, Warfare and Support. Each allows you to focus your hero down a specific route, such as melee damage or improving the general strength of any units that they command. Additional heroes can be recruited when you control more than one city, and they can be used to govern a city to provide more resources or improve the fortifications to make it harder to take. Gradually equipping your heroes over time has always been one of the most fun parts of these sorts of games for me, and Age of Wonders 4 doesn’t disappoint. Items are arrayed from tier 1-4, with 4 being the strongest, and range from big 2 handed Warhammers to magic orbs to a spider’s leg you can use to summon spiders in battle. The only thing I wish was that there were a few more items in the game to choose from, as it feels like I see a lot of the same items each game.

To be able to find these items in Age of Wonders 4, you’ll need to explore the map; there are encampments, ruins, and tombs as well as ancient wonders that pot mark the map and can be destroyed or explored accordingly. There are also infestations on the map that are a reliable source of items. Most locations are guarded and will need to be dealt with by your army, giving a good source of experience for your troops so that they level up and gain additional skills and survivability. Wonders and Infestations range from Bronze, which are the weakest, to Gold and generally give better loot the higher they are. Wonders can them be incorporated into one of your cities if they’re close enough and add some powerful bonuses to your settlement such as new units to recruit and improvements to your economy. There are also magic materials that dot the map that give some very strong buffs to your empire overall that are subdivided into sets, and completing these sets will get a further really strong buff to your empire.

A Continuation Of War By Other Means

An alternative way to get items is via diplomacy, but this isn’t the only thing that you can do here. Diplomacy will be important in any game, whether you use it or not. There is the standard fare of open borders, defensive pacts and alliances just like other games in this genre, but its not realistically possible to go around and declare war on everyone without having enough grievances as the penalties are extremely harsh (a reduction in your Imperium income whilst the war lasts, and the penalties stack quickly). Grievances can be gained by another empire settling your stolen land or by fabricating a grievance which takes time, and once you have enough of them you can declare war with no maluses. The final way you can get items is via quests and events. Both occur randomly for the most part, with events generally having an instant resolution whereas quests require you to conquer/control a resource or clear out a stack of enemy units. Both types are fun and generally the writing is great but the balance for the rewards does feel a little off. A lot of the time there is generally one reward that is just outright better compared to the rest on offer, so except in very specific situations you’ll just choose that.

Moving on the backbone of your runs, other than any heroes you have, are your general units that makeup the bulk of your armies. You army will generally start with 4-6 units on top of your hero, made up of your initial start race. Units range from tier 1-5, but to begin with you’ll mostly have tier 1-2 troops as well as one tier 3. More troops can be unlocked and recruited as you level up your cities, via some heroes traits, unlocking them via the spellbook, or via the Rally of the Lieges. The latter takes into account any wonders that you’ve annexed or any independent cities you’ve vassalized and give access to more esoteric units such as Fey or Giants. Some of the units on offer are extremely fun; I really enjoyed using berserkers (unlocked via the Barbarian origin culture) and the balor (unlocked by a chaos development tree perk, or by getting to tier 5 chaos spellbooks).

Victory in Age of Wonders 4 can be gained in a few ways. First up is a magic victory, which requires you to build a few province improvements you unlock as you progress through the tiers of spellbooks. It also requires you to research a tier 5 spellbook, cast a certain spell, then defend against others that will attack you to try and stop you being victorious. Expansion victory is a bit similar, as you’ll need to occupy a majority of the map then build a few more improvements and then once again defend you lands for a set number of turns. Military is easier than both of these, and simply requires you to destroy any other main factions on the map. Finally, the easiest is a score victory which simply requires you to top the scoreboard in the game you’re in after a set number of turns. If you can win a scenario you’ll unlock more points for your progression, but this isn’t a hard requirement, and you still get a good chunk of points depending on how far you’ve got into a game. Those which do win can get added to the Pantheon, allowing them to be recruited in future games if you wish.

My Toadkin Rule Above All

Progression is persistent, as each success you have will provide you with points that you can spend on new cosmetics for your Heroes as well as additional traits, starting equipment and realms to visit. One of my favourite unlocks is Perfectionist Artists, which gives you a free tier 3 unit at the start of the game and improves buildings with more gold but increases their production cost and reduces your city cap; its not a standout choice every time but makes for some fun options in your games.

The graphics in Age of Wonders 4 are pretty damn good, and there are a few choices the developers have made that I’m really impressed by. The sheer variety of cosmetic changes for your races are great to see; my particular favourite was toadkin following the mystic line, all hooded and wise and mysterious. Over time as you unlock spells that buff your race, they’ll take on cosmetic changes such as steel skin or super growth that increases the model size – your choices have a cosmetic impact, and I really like that. Sound is good too, with a suitable fantasy sounding soundtrack with a hint of menace at times. The AI was genuinely quite challenging at times and for most people would put up a good fight but not be too overwhelming to have to deal with. Balance in the game is all over the place, but this just means that players can find some really overpowered combinations to exploit.

The main problems I encountered with the game though were on the stability front. I constantly had crashes as well as AI that wouldn’t take their turns and soft locked the game. Unfortunately, I had these problems in at least 50% of the games I played so it did become a bit frustrating to deal with, and I hope the release version of the game has fixed these to a degree. Balance being all over the place cuts both ways, and there were a lot of things that just aren’t worth taking or doing as they’re just outright worse than their alternatives. That being said the rest of the game more than makes up for these problems.  

Age of Wonders 4 is a triumph of a game, and an easy recommend for any players looking for a fun 4X game. There is a lot to celebrate here, and the number of options the player has makes for many hours of content to look forward to. A couple of problems here and there do raise their heads, but overall there is an extremely strong and well crafted game to look forward to for any who are tempted to give it a try.

Age of Wonders 4 is available now on PC via Steam.

Developer: Triumph Studios
Publisher: Paradox Interactive

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.

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