Friday, August 16, 2013

Age of Wonders

After HoMM 5 showed such a flat refusal to improve on the gameplay of the series, I started to keep an eye out for suitable replacements, copycats, fantasy TBS fixes, what-have-you. One result was Elemental (now known as Fallen Enchantress) with which I'm fairly content despite some disappointments. But I have also gotten burned.

I picked up two of the Age of Wonders games from GoG during a sale, the very first iteration plus Shadow Magic. Really, it doesn't matter which one you discuss. Shadow Magic does offer some apparent improvements but the series as a whole seems... amateurish. I am by no means an AoW expert, having played only a few games (and usually not even to the end) but that in itself is partly because the game makes it very difficult to get into. I don't mean that the complexity or sheer amount of information it contains is in any way more daunting than that of better games, but that it is badly presented and disorganized. It comes across as half-baked.

As far as good points go, it's nice to see a fantasy game designed around fantasy races. Goblin-dwarf relations and keeping your hobbits happy are nominally core challenges, but there is so little nuance in every game feature that it turns into an all-or-nothing proposition: one or two moves seem to make you a race's hero or villain. There is also a nice system of cover and blocking for ranged attacks, but it is, again, rudimentary, stuck at "great potential" since it does not combine well with the tactical combat movement system which ends a unit's turn after it attacks - meaning that ranged units cannot actually use cover, being either protected and useless or effective and exposed. This pattern follows for pretty much every feature of the game. There are a lot of elements, but they are shallow and poorly integrated with each other. The game lacks coherence.

The biggest put-off, though (and I don't say this often) is the graphic design. Interactable game elements tend to get lost in scenery clutter, which is needlessly overdone. For being able to afford so little in the way of graphics, the AoW games consistently overbuild their visual elements until they are indistinguishable. Even trying to click on a unit that's on top of a city is a pain. And speaking of clicking, there are some fairly universal game conventions which there is simply no reason to change. Left-click to select, right-click to move. Tooltip descriptions popping up at the pointer tool's tip. Selecting a unit and moving it out of a group to separate it from the group. An "options" menu available from the opening screen. Yet even in terms of such basics, AoW is completely counterintuitive and pointlessly "creative" while achieving nothing by its creativity.

I won't even go into my usual complaints about the lack of a freeform game mode. Suffice it to say that AoW is entirely a scenario-based adventure in interface frustration. There is some value in the series, but it's buried under mounds of amateurish, haphazard, tacked-on misfunctionality. Supposedly the next one is coming out next year. Will the developers have gained enough experience to address such problems?

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