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Age of Wonders 2: The Wizard's Throne Review

GAME INFO
publisher: Gathering
developer: Triumph Studios
genre: Strategy

MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS
PII-300, 64MB RAM, 250MB HDD
ESRB rating: T
homepage:
aow2.godgames.com/

release date: Jun 15, 02
» All About Age of Wonders 2: The Wizard's Throne on ActionTrip


After striking a reasonably successful mark in the gaming world, Age of Wonders had captivated many turn-based strategy fans. In spite of its success, the gameplay was somewhat restricted and there were a few minor setbacks. Triumph Studios was determined to make things better in Age of Wonders 2: The Wizard's Throne. First, a quick warning to all players who are unacquainted with games a la Age of Winders and Heroes of Might and Magic. Age of Wonders may seem a tad tedious at first, but once your units and heroes gain enough experience you are in for a treat.

The fantasy-driven plot is original, considering how much this particular theme has been exploited (you know, open war between different fantasy races, the inclusion of wizards, elves, half-elves, halflings, etc.). In my opinion the writers working on the AoW2 plot have done a pretty decent job this time. To be brief, you control a promising young human Wizard (appropriately named Merlin), who washes up on the shores of the mysterious land called Evermore. He is allowed to enter the Circle of Wizards and is left with the instructions to restore the blemished reputation of the human race. Guided by the fellow Wizard Gabriel, Merlin will have to complete his task and face the disputed members of the Circle of Wizards. Now then, instead of revealing the whole plot, I advise you all to check out our extensive interviews done with the development team recently, where you'll find an elaborate presentation of the game's story.

Many improvements were made over the original game in terms of gameplay. Skill growth and spell advancement were presented very well. Each combat skill or magic ability denotes a specific number of turns in order to be fully researched. After the required turns expire, a spell will be available for Merlin to cast, as well as a nice choice of new ones to research. So before you know it, Merlin will expand his magic domain (a bordered zone in which his magic has effect) and he'll posses the aptitude to face some of the powerful members of the Circle of Wizards.

Next to focusing on magic duels and small skirmishes on the map, players have to look after their income. That means providing resources, increasing the production rate of your towns, etc. Luckily, there are tons of clear-cut solutions that will relieve you of any unnecessary micro-managing; i.e. the interface is easy-to-use and all options are available at any time. One of the best options is that you can develop a village by yourself (provided that you have a pioneer unit) and then grow it to a huge city with a vast population, libraries, war halls, monasteries, wizard towers, and so on. As your town gets bigger, you'll be able to create more units, and increase the city's fortification.

The turn-based movement of your units and heroes has its pros and cons. The bad thing is that you cannot disrupt the movement of a unit that's already been given out; that sucks because something might change on the map and players would want to reconsider their approach to the desired location. Then again, this is why this is a TURN-BASED strategy. The good thing is that some of the enemies can sometimes be caught before they get a chance to end their move. But, keep in mind that this also goes the other way around.

In Age of Wonders 2 the player will not come across unrealistically tough opponents - if any of you recall the first Age of Wonders, in order to protect a town all you needed was a few units with shooting capabilities placed within the walls. This made CPU-controlled opponents fend off entire armies with three archers or a few magic units. Not only were such occurrences removed, but the whole AI routine was established to make the game more enjoyable.

I have played games like Heroes of Might and Magic, and I've never seen such a well-balanced AI system. Any time you confront a weak band of enemies, you'll witness them trying to avoid you at all costs. What's even more impressive is that they'll usually attempt to lure you into the magic domain of a rival-wizard, which makes you more open to attack. The AI in battle sequences has also been perfected. Archer units will really make an effort to get the most appropriate angle for damaging your company. Also, using advanced tactics is something you'll find enemies doing very efficiently. They will position themselves behind rocks and trees, so as to avoid being hit by your archers.

With such an intricate AI system, players are usually required to use a strategy of their own. Since many things were enhanced in AoW2, the variety of tactics has greatly increased. There's a whole bunch of cool new global spells that can help you achieve victory in a campaign or certain scenario. Now players can alter the terrain, change the course of the weather, darken the opponents' field of vision, and a lot of other stuff. As expected, there's also a large selection of counter spells and defensive enchantments to aid you in your struggle against enemy wizards.

Besides the things I've already mentioned, there is one more improvement over the previous game: its enhanced graphics. Though to be honest, even though the progress is apparent, the game still looks rather dated. When we compare the original with AoW, character animations are better, the environment is much more detailed, and the whole game is now using a 32-bit color palette. Mind you, in terms of visuals, you shouldn't draw parallels with games like Etherlords and Warcraft 3. Oh alright, I can see you picking at me already. The graphics are old-fashioned I must admit, but it still doesn't present too much of a problem if you get into the crux of gameplay. It is obvious Triumph Studios meant to enhance the gameplay of fantasy turn-based strategies, not to revolutionize game graphics.

The in-game sound effects were presented with reasonable quality, but without much variety. Some of the creatures definitely lack more exclamations. The music, on the other hand is very pleasant (well, maybe a few low-fi tracks here and there, but otherwise it was OK). Also, the voiceovers were acted out professionally and they sound quite good.

As for the multiplayer, it can be a barrel of fun if played with a bunch of friends. Sorry to say, I haven't tried playing the Internet or play-by-email modes but LAN was as enjoyable enough.

Generally, when playing Age of Wonders 2, you're faced with two alternatives: one, if you've played the first AoW game you can just sit back and enjoy a greatly improved sequel; and two, if you're new to the whole genre, then be prepared for one helluva extensive tutorial. Although it's quite obvious how much the game can be fun when you're used to the rules, it can also be a pickle for inexperienced players. Even with the tutorial, a most comprehensive manual that comes with the game, and the straightforward UI, Age of Wonders 2 requires a long time to get used to. Juggling with the rules, learning the right tactics, building up your city, getting used to the potential of global spells, making the most out of single turn, are all crucial things a newbie must discover before he can properly enjoy the game.

Fans of AoW games will be happy to hear that Lennart Sas from Triumph Studios spoke of a new sequel in his last chat with us: "AoW2 is unlikely to be the last installment in the series," he said. So, until they sit down and make Age of Wonders 3, you can be sure that this game will be enough to hold your attention for some time - over 20 maps in the campaign mode, several single scenarios, many spheres of magic you can choose from, and a variety of races and units.

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HIGHS
Great and clean turn-based strategy fun with an exciting plot, loads of realms to explore, spells to use, and enemies to ice. Impressive AI. Clear-cut UI;

LOWS
Perhaps a lower learning curve would be in order. Some units need more sounds. The graphics appear a bit dated, though that's not much of a con in a turn-based strategy.

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