Tech reviews

Age of Wonders 4 (PS5) Review – A Flexible Fantasy

The Age of Wonders franchise has never quite achieved the same level of success and notoriety as turn-based strategy contemporaries like Civilization or Stellaris, but Paradox Interactive and developer Triumph Studios seem intent on changing that. The sci-fi spinoff Age of Wonders: Planetfall left a solid impression back in 2019, racking up respectable reviews and the best sales the franchise has seen to date, and now, the series has returned to its roots with Age of Wonders 4.

Does Age of Wonders 4 deliver a fresh dose of fantasy 4x fun? Or has the franchise lost some of that old magic in the near decade since its last core numbered entry? Read on and wonder no more…

Like its predecessor, Age of Wonders 4 takes place in the high fantasy realm of Athla, which has been invaded by Wizard Kings who were trapped in the Shadow Realm for eons and are, frankly, kind of pissed off about it. It’s up to you, a humble champion, to build up your realm and armies, take out the Wizard Kings, and ascend to godhood yourself. Age of Wonders 4 isn’t the type of game you play for its complex character-driven plot, but there are enough bits of lore and little story missions scattered around to make Athla feel like a fully-formed, lived-in place.

The first thing you’ll notice when starting up your first Age of Wonders 4 game, is that you don’t simply choose from a list of pre-made factions and jump into the action as you would in the past. You do have several fantasy races to pick from, ranging from the old standbys (humans, elves, dwarves) to quirkier options (mole men, giant rats), but that’s just the beginning. Once you’ve chosen a race you can then determine your faction’s inherent mental and physical traits, as well as aspects of your culture and society. You also have full control over the appearance and abilities of your leader. So, for instance, I played my first game as a faction of imperialist, cannibalistic toad people led by the glorious (and beautiful) Empress Toadette Toadstool. I can assure you, all my subsequent factions and leaders were equally as silly.

As with all games in the series, Age of Wonders 4 is split between typical 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) empire management and tactical turn-based combat. So, you found cities, produce and harvest resources (Gold, Food, Production, Mana for casting spells, Knowledge for unlocking spells, Imperium for advancing your realm in other ways, and so on) which you then use to fund research and construct buildings that boost your resource production further. Unlike something like Civilization, Age of Wonders 4 doesn’t feature any worker units and you don’t focus on improving individual hexes. Instead, maps are divided up into sectors and once you have enough citizens in your city, you can strike out and claim them as Provinces. Each of these provinces can have a single improvement built on it (a farm, quarry, research post, and other more advanced upgrades) which provides income for the city its attached to.

Diplomacy is generally well-handed, with CPU opponents feeling less fickle and random than in some other 4X games (I can’t promise the same if you play against friends). A new “grievance” system, that allows you make up for times you’ve slighted other factions with cash payments (or collect money from those who have offended you) provides a straightforward way to mend fences. Various Free Cities also appear on most maps and can be wooed into becoming vassals or even a fully integrated part of your empire. That said, while diplomacy is generally well done, you won’t spend that much time on it. The potential is there, it’s just underutilized. Looking beyond diplomacy, AoW4’s AI is maybe a bit passive overall. Prone to building up large defensive armies, but not attacking often. That’s okay by me, as I tend to take a laid-back approach to 4X games, but some may find themselves hungry for a more in-your-face challenge.

Initially, Age of Wonders 4’s 4X management may seem a bit on the simple side, particularly since the game discourages rapid expansion (you’ll win most games with only 3 or 4 cities in your empire). Thankfully, any feeling the game lacks depth will evaporate once you really delve into the game’s progression and magic systems. Instead of the traditional tech tree found in most 4X games, the Knowledge you accumulate ia used to unlock a long list of magical Tomes (there are over 50 in total). Each of these Tomes has an affinity and contains five or six unlockable spells or other improvements for your realm. These spells are added to a pool, and once you fully research one, you can choose from a random selection of three more.

The Tome system offers players a lot of freedom to build up their faction as they see fit, with a lot of potential for unique builds. That said, the game doesn’t provide much, if any, guidance for navigating the dizzying array of Tomes and spells. Does your build make sense? What are the long-term consequences of choosing one Tome or the other? The simple elegance of a Civ-style tech tree where you can see exactly where you’ve been and where you’re going is sometimes missed here.

And the whole Tome system is just one part of a larger progression system. There’s an Empire Development skill tree that lets you unlock passive buffs and other bonuses based on affinity points you earn from unlocking certain Tomes. Spells can also be used to apply various permanent effects to your realm, cities, and fantasy race, and you can individually equip and level up your leader and each hero unit. Oh, and did I mention there’s a good-evil morality system? Of course, this is on top of all the usual 4X city and provincial upgrades you’re constantly building.

So yeah, there’s a lot to keep track of, to the point it can be a bit mind-boggling at first. Again, you’re given a lot of freedom, but the freedom to what exactly? Age of Wonders 4 doesn’t really tell you and there’s a good chance you’ll make a real hash of things your first couple of games, collecting a bunch of skills and upgrades that don’t really complement each other. Thankfully, the more you play, the more the synergies between the game’s various upgrades and systems become apparent. AoW4 has a fairly long learning curve, but it’s satisfying once you start getting the hang of things. At a certain point, the temptation to fall into patterns, to simply use the same winning strategy you’ve discovered repeatedly, becomes the bigger problem. But really, it’s your fault if you take that route.

Ultimately, Age of Wonders 4’s issues really come to the forefront in what’s traditionally been this series’ weakest area – combat. Having full tactical control of combat sounds good on paper, and certainly offers more depth than the “stack up units and bump them into each other” approach of other 4X games, but these battles wear thin rather quickly. Battlegrounds are relatively small and only provide limited tactical opportunities. Most of the strategic depth comes from the interplay between the game’s many unit types and spells, and on this front, battles are almost too complex. There are nearly 50 different unit types in the game, each of which can be modified with an even longer list of spells, and it can be hard to keep it all straight in your mind. It doesn’t help that the battlefield is rather hard to read this time around, with the specific abilities of each unit not always clearly communicated.

I wouldn’t say combat in Age of Wonders 4 is bad, it just isn’t good enough to remain compelling as every game you play forces you into dozens of battles. It’s a shame combat doesn’t hold up, because while it isn’t as fun as it could be, AoW4 uses it in interesting ways. For instance, instead of simply building Wonders like any other city improvement as in most 4X games, you’ll instead encounter them on the world map and have to be victorious in a particularly tough battle in order to claim them. That’s a cool idea, even if the battles themselves often frustrate. Of course, you have to option to fully automate battles if you’d like, and gradually, I began doing that for most of them, even more competitive fights. Age of Wonders 4’s 4X mechanics are rich enough that the game is still compelling even if you don’t focus heavily on battles, it’s just disappointing they don’t elevate the overall experience more.

I should mention, I played Age of Wonders 4 on PS5, and overall, I don’t have many complaints. Mouse-and-keyboard will always be the ideal way to play strategy games, but many of the tools that have been successfully used in other Paradox console ports, like radial command wheels, are implemented well here. Visually, the game looks up to PC standards, which is to say, the maps look quite lush, but animations lack a certain flair. I did notice a few odd performance stutters, which were slightly irritating, but ultimately don’t matter much in a turn-based strategy game. PC is probably still your best bet for playing AoW4, but if you don’t have a rig capable of playing it, PS5 is a more than acceptable option.

Regardless of which platform you play the game on, Age of Wonders 4 has the potential to keep you busy for a good amount of time. While its story (such as it is) can be completed in around 20 hours, 4X games are all about replayability and AoW4 gives you plenty of freedom to customize your games. There are a lot of options for multiplayer too, although I did encounter occasional connection issues on the PS5. Age of Wonders 4 is a generous package – whether it becomes your next “one more turn” obsession will largely come down to personal taste.

This review was based on a PS5 copy of Age of Wonders 4 provided by publisher Paradox Interactive.


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