Age of Wonders: Planetfall really is a game about wonderment and deep thought. While exploring what this game had to offer I could not stop thinking that as a strategy, tactics, and science-fiction fan that I was the kid that got stuck in the candy store. Or at least at the local board game or comic book store poring over the brand new releases of graphic novels and game rule books. Putting the game down to write this, I find myself thinking about all the game has to offer in strategic and tactical options and how best to optimize my next strategy, or which faction to try next and how that faction will inform my playstyle. That is a mark of a great strategy game.
My initial thoughts on Age of Wonders: Planetfall were mixed as I worked through the short tutorial and my first game as there was so much data to take in. The new aesthetic and science-fiction setting definitely put me off as the last time I looked at Age of Wonders in 2014 it was a strong outing as a 4X strategy game in the same vein as the Heroes of Might and Magic series of games. Giving my mind enough time to marinate on all that the game had to offer, all the while reading the handy in-game encyclopedia, the Imperial Archives, helped me understand that what Triumph Studios included in the game was thematically and mechanically genius.
The best way to conceptualize Age of Wonders: Planetfall is to think of it as a mix of Endless Legend, Civilization, Heroes of Might and Magic, and XCOM. At its core, it is a 4X strategy game in the same vein as Proxy Studios’ Warhammer 40000 Gladius: Relics of War; however, it is much more than just another game focused on resource exploitation and endless combat. It takes the 4X strategy genre forward with the implementation of several unique and thematic mechanics.
Planetfall’s story is set in the aftermath of a space cataclysm that destroyed the space faring empire, the Star Union, and making FTL travel all but impossible. In the wake of the Star Union’s fall, 6 factions pursue survival, conquest, and the establishment of a new space order upon the ashes of the Star Union. The player can experience the story through a series of 13 narrative campaigns with unique objectives (excluding the short tutorial campaign), where every faction will make itself known and demonstrate its strengths, weaknesses, and unique features.
The six factions are: the colonial forces of the former Star Union, the Vanguard, the insectoid swarm like Kir’ko, the feudal merchant families and clans of The Syndicate, the bioengineering expert Amazons, the industrial-minded and resourceful Dvar, and the robot-zombie faction called The Assembly, reminiscent of the Warhammer 40000 Adeptus Mechanicus. Each of these factions have unique military technologies, units, and paths to victory. Mainly, each faction plays tactically completely differently from one another and will usually follow very different strategic paths based on player choice and faction characteristics.
The unique features of Age of Wonders: Planetfall that make it stand out from the rest are the inclusion of a character customization mode, six victory-defining technologies, operations and doctrines, unit mods, and faction in-game strategic flexibility. There is a dedicated character customization mode where players can craft characters from each of the six factions with their own skills, abilities, equipment, and secret technology tree that fits the player playstyle. This gives the player unparalleled choice in how to approach the game.
The technological victory condition for each faction is defined by the choice of a secret technology tree, which has its own set of technologies that will change how the campaign will be played. Moreover, these secret research trees are not faction-specific. Therefore, there can be a situation where two different factions end up using the same secret tech tree, or the player chooses to play the same faction multiple times with different secret techs, inspiring different strategic approaches to victory.
An evolution from Age of Wonders’ fantasy-focused past, spells have evolved into operations and doctrines. There are three types of operations: tactical, strategic, and intelligence. Tactical operations affect only tactical battles and usually cost energy to activate as well as tactical operations points. Strategic operations are active effects requiring a priming time to prepare and operations points to activate. Strategic ops effects can range from orbital bombardments to cracking and shifting mountains. Intelligence ops are similar to strategic ops in resources and priming, but these operations are concerned with stealing resources, technology from opponents or preventing them from retaliating. In essence: espionage. Doctrines are strategic passive effects that can affect the economy, the military or any other strategic facet of a player’s faction.
Another unique AoW feature is unit modification. Each faction has eight stock units reflecting the tactics of each faction. As rewards for completing NPC faction quests and research, players can get access to mods, which can be ammunition types, armor, or even extra weapons and equipment that a player can attach to their stock units. Each unit has three slots and an infinite number of templates that a player can create with different unit builds. The strength of this feature is that it puts even more control in the hands of the player and gives them the opportunity to answer different tactical threats with modifications.
Finally, a more subtle but no less important feature in AoW is the augmentation of a faction within campaigns. For example, in Gladius – Relics of War, when a player chooses a faction they get access only to that faction’s unit pool and abilities. There is no way to expand or incorporate other factions. In Age of Wonders: Planetfall, with good diplomacy, strategic choices, and rising opportunities, players can incorporate units, mods, and equipment from both minor NPC faction and even occasionally get access to neutral non-player controlled settlements of one of the major factions. A player playing as the Vanguard, for example, can find a rogue Dvar settlement and request them that they join the player’s faction, giving access to the Dvar unit pool.
Aside from AoW’s unique features, players will find the standard mechanics of any 4X grand strategy game, where the main mechanics center around resource exploitation, colony management, research, combat, diplomacy, exploration, and unit production. The tactical system also sets AoW apart from its brethren as Triumph Studios have included a cover system, making terrain features in tactical battles affect the decision-making process. Units have a number of action points to spend per round with a variety of skills and abilities for the player to optimize and achieve victory.
There is also multiplayer with up to 12 players playing on different biomes with randomly generated maps. However, I used a press copy of the game for this review and was not able to test multiplayer in any meaningful way. I will say that given the excellent mechanics, the interesting lore, and great replayability options with ample opportunity for role-playing, I can see multiplayer thriving with community created maps and future DLC.
Triumph Studios have infused the game with a bright and fantastical visual style, highlighting terrain, faction differences, biomes, and establishing a feeling of visual freshness to the science-fiction genre. The music includes suitable pathos, theme, and flow to elicit the feeling of an epic space opera with electro synth and rock taking center stage. The UI is functional and provides all necessary information. There are a few instances of redundant menus and buttons, but nothing too clunky that would hamper gameplay. The inclusion of an in-game encyclopedia for such a detail-oriented game is a massive boon.
In terms of performance, the game ran smooth with occasional frame drops during menus and loading screens. Some visual glitches from unit movement range indicators, but overall nothing game-breaking. I had no crashes during gameplay, but I had some initial crashes on launch before updating my graphics drivers and would highly recommend updating drivers to avoid any game instability. The options menu is functional, but could have included a more sliders and customization options for different models of GPUs and CPUs.
I have had incredible fun playing Age of Wonders: Planetfall. My original introduction to the series was back in 2014 with Age of Wonders 3, though I did not play it much as I felt that by the end of a match, the depth faded away and it became a slog. In addition, despite the incredible focus on flexibility and customization, I feel that AoW 3’s setting was overdone or generic fantasy. With Age of Wonders: Planetfall, my two main issues with AoW 3 have been tackled and reworked.
Speaking of meaningful tactical and strategic decision-making, AoW: Planetfall does an amazing job of giving the player a lot of options to consider at any one time. For any veterans of 4X strategy games, getting into the game will be easy, but learning the ins-and-outs of the factions and the different secret tech combinations, as well as mastering tactical combat, will require a lot of time, thinking, planning, and analysis to master the game. I did not find a single element of the game to be out of place or inconsequential to the decision-making process. As a fan of strategy games, I can recommend this game as a must-buy for strategy fans, sci-fi genre fans, and players in general. The depth of decision-making, presentation, unique features and overall high quality of polish alone warrant a look.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a successful venture into the realm of sci-fi for this veteran 4X strategy series. Its greatest strengths are player choice, customization, variance and replayability, which all leads to meaningful tactical and strategic decision-making.