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Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic Review

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

MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS
PII 450, 96MB RAM, 16MB Video Card, 800MB HD
ESRB rating: T
homepage:
www.godgames.com

release date: Jul 25, 03
» All About Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic on ActionTrip


Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is a title that expands upon the delightful Age of Wonders franchise. At first glance, the Age of Wonders series, created by Dutch development team Triumph Studios, bears a strong resemblance of 3DO's Heroes of Might and Magic. The basic principal of the game is to explore various magical realms, making sure that your hero characters get as much experience as possible - naturally, you get the experience by using wizardry, miscellaneous battle skills, diplomacy, and so on. The previous game, AoW2: The Wizard's Throne, brought many improvements over the original. As expected, with this title players can look forward to many new features, such as new spells, characters, races, scenarios, and so on. To put it simply, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic can be classified as something between an extensive expansion pack and a sequel to the previous game.

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic takes place sometime after the events of the previous game. You'll be heading to a realm that's been decimated by the aftermath of the great war between Merlin and the Circle of Traitorous Wizards - which, fortunately, ended in favor of Merlin, who ascended to the Wizard's Throne in Evermore. Events have taken an unexpected turn after the great battles of the wizards. Once Merlin defeated the Circle of Traitorous Wizards, cosmic rifts began to appear at the sources of magical power, which in turn divided all the realms. At the same time, dark and unearthly demons began to invade the lands. The calamity grew to even greater proportions, as the Wizard's Throne was destroyed and Merlin has been exiled into the Shadow World. All of the remaining Wizards have lost their magical power, so they fled in terror of the shadows and the rising Phobian Empire. Using his remaining strengths, Merlin manages to contact a group of exiled wizards, imploring them to enter the shadow world, rise against the powers of the Phobian Empire, and finally put an end to the Dark Age.

Players who know their way around a turn-based strategy will feel right at home. On the other hand, if this is your very first step into the intricate magical realms of Age of Wonders, you might need to invest a bit of extra time to go through the principals of gameplay step by step. If this is the case, you should be happy to know that the developers have included a comprehensive three-stage tutorial to help you get acquainted with things like spell casting, unit production, city upgrades, various special skills of your hero characters, etc. - this tutorial is indeed a welcomed improvement over the rather sloppy instructions present in the original. There's a lot to learn, and it takes time to get the hang of things. In time, however, you'll become an expert and you'll find that the whole gameplay is actually very fluid. This is largely due to the well-designed GUI and easily accessible spells and character combat abilities. To streamline things even further, the developers have included the option to surrender battles before they take place. This makes the gameplay significantly faster.

Once I got through the first couple of quests in the new campaign, I instantly recalled all the good things that made the previous game sparkle. Like before, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic successfully manages to entangle players into a riveting plotline, excellently balanced scenarios, and beautifully designed maps. Thankfully, Triumph Studios created a story that's a lot more involving this time around. The plot thickens as you go along and you'll get to complete a series of various quests, most of which come when you least expect them. The scenarios within the campaign are extensive and well-structured; so basically, it may take you a whole day of intense playing to complete two of them (just so you know, the entire game includes 5 long episodes and 16 scenarios).

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is a brand new stand-alone game that features three completely new races; The Nomads, Syrons, and Shadow Demons, all of which have a wide range of magical powers and unique abilities that can be used before or during combat. What's more, instead of giving the game a quick makeover, the developers have incorporated a number of extremely useful innovations to the old races. The Elves, for instance, are now strengthened with mighty fortresses that can be built deep within the woods and concealed from enemy eyes with a simple upgrade. This upgrade also allows players to recruit Treemen - a supportive and very strong unit, which can endure even through the toughest foes (these Treemen, by the way, look a lot like Ents; the tree-herders from J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings). This is, naturally, just a sample of the new content. The boys and girls at Triumph weren't slacking off when they put in over 50 new units. The Shadow Demons, the sinister new alien-like race, possesses a great number of powers and units that are very tricky to defeat. One of their most dangerous units is the harvester, which can devour enemy units and then spawn them in the next turn as aliens that can join their army -similar to the glutton orc unit.

There are a few things players should know before they enter the unexplored and dangerous corners of the shadow realm. Wizardry works a bit differently (i.e. some spells cannot be cast at all) and units can suffer from shadow sickness (which reduces their movement and efficiency in battle). This is the way it's gonna be, unless, of course, you manage to locate magic items and so-called shadow weed plants that are scattered throughout the map. All of this may sound a bit too difficult, but, thankfully, each race has its own advantages that can help you overcome the obstacles you come across. One of the most pleasing innovations for me was the dwarven workshop, which allows you to equip various useful siege weapons to help you in your invasion against enemy castles and fortresses. This turned out to be quite a helpful option during gameplay.

As before, the game treats players to colorful graphics, well-designed maps, a huge variety of brand new units, and impressive-looking character art. For this type of game, the visuals are quite satisfactory. If players so desire, they can push the resolution to 1280*1024... although the game looks just fine in lower resolutions. Another good thing about Shadow Magic is that it doesn't have any apparent technical weaknesses. Okay, I must say that a few weird issues occurred at the very beginning of the new single-player campaign. After moving several of my units across the map, I ended my turn, only to observe the disappearance of an entire army right off the screen (!?!). This only happened once or twice, but it really came as an annoying moment, causing me to lose a very important battle and a vital army. Other than that unusual glitch, the game seems to work smoothly and without any hitches that might hinder the gameplay.

Unquestionably, the music, once again, adds a special touch to the atmosphere and makes the game more enjoyable. The quality of the tunes is praiseworthy and all of them blend in very well with everything that's happening on screen. This was, I believe, a distinguishing element of all AoW games. Although, I cannot say anything for sure, I think that the game has a few new tracks; but most of them are familiar tunes from the original. This came as a personal disappointment, since I really enjoyed the music in the previous game and was hoping to hear more new stuff. In any case, the entire soundtrack is catchy and a pleasure to listen to, hence most of you shouldn't be disheartened.

The multiplayer doesn't feature any radical changes. Although, Triumph revealed that they worked hard to tweak all the technical issues that have occurred with the multiplayer in the past. Also, mapmakers and campaign designers should be happy to know that almost everything in the game can be modded, from spell effects, to unit abilities and artifacts. Plus, if you have the spare time on your hands, you can import custom portraits... Nice!

The amount of additional features, characters, and units, is so impressive we don't have the space to get into the details. Suffice it to say, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic displays a commendable variety of content that brought the franchise to new heights and effectively improved upon the excellent gameplay of the previous title.

In a nutshell, the game is considerably lengthy, it has a decent replay value, and, on an overall note, all gamers should find enough content to justify the $39.99 price tag. Aside from a few, practically insignificant, bugs we feel this is a product turn-based strategy players should definitely get their mitts on.

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USER SCORE
9.0
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ACTIONTRIP SCORE
9.0   Excellent


HIGHS
Extremely addictive once you get the hang of it. There's a whole bunch of improvements over the original - new units, characters, races, maps, etc. A great pleaser for fans and an excellent challenge to newbies. Solid replayability.

LOWS
Some weird technical issues (that occurred only a couple of times)... but nothing that would significantly reduce the current score. Personally, I expected to hear more new tunes.

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