Age of Wonders

I've always sat and watched the Age of Wonders games carefully, eyeing them on various Youtube playlists and channels. I never really felt the urge to jump into an AoW game until now. I got the chance to get a code from PR for Age of Wonders: Planetfall and I have to say, right now, this is one of the best strategy games I've played on my Xbox One since Stellaris.

I'm a bit of an armchair ruler to be honest, and whilst some of the systems often go over my head in many of these games - and they always did on PC. Often, these strategy games are presented as so-much obscure gameplay mechanics, with little or no help for a new player, and oft appear as opaque as smoky coloured glass.

Age of Wonders: Planetfall isn't like this, and it's hugely accessible for a first timer like me from the get go.

I really appreciate this in a game as deep as this one.

Starting out

A simple and clean interface introduces you to the main menu, where you can choose to embark on a campaign, a skirmish-style game or play multiplayer. I haven't had the chance to play this game multiplayer yet, since my connection has been a bit rough recently. However, I dived into the campaign because well, for a start: CAMPAIGN and empire building strategy games are two things I have not really encountered before - especially with a science fiction twist.

Several campaigns were on offer with more unlocked as you finish campaigns from the other factions, but you always start at the beginning with a new game like this so I played the tutorial first and not only does this serve as the lynch-pin to the overall story involving the Vanguard: the Terran playable faction in Planetfall, it is superbly done as well. It is just what a game tutorial for a deep strategy experience should be. Informative, not overbearing and most of all: fun.

Often tutorials are just a series of do-this to learn the mechanics tasks, but in Planetfall they serve to advance the story of your character and bring forth events that play out later on when you eventually select a campaign mission.

Having a cohesive series of tasks and a reason to do them is a great design choice.

You are introduced to core concepts, how to expand your empire, how to manage your empire and how to build and move your units. You learn how to annex territory and what you can do with it; you learn the basics that will serve you well down the line as the game opens up further and further. Trust me; you'll need to do this as AoW Planetfall has a lot of deep strategy systems and a huge stonking research tree with lots of tasty options to suit your kind of playstyle.

Also, when you complete a research you get a great little popup that has a narration full of character and style.

There are guides online for this kind of thing, so I'm not really going to deep-dive into it, or the story.

Once you've learned the basics of expanding and maintaining your empire, how to move around the hex-map and what a lot of the options mean, you'll get to experience a little bit of the combat which makes up a good portion of the game.

Your armies can join forces if they're close enough, usually next to the other squad, and form a bigger assault force.

Not quite-XCOM

I hate to bring up XCOM whenever I see turn-based combat with cover icons and options such as Overwatch, but Julian Gollop had a lot to do with my formative years with such games as Laser Squad and UFO: Enemy Unkown (XCOM) when I was growing up.

In many ways Planetfall's superb 3d combat is like XCOM. Turn based, ranged fire options, different abilities and tweaks to your units. There is cover, there is flanking, and it's a nice simple tactics spread that lets you pull off armchair-general command moves from the safety of your Xbox controller.

A big shout out, just like Stellaris and Surviving Mars to some superbly handled console controller mechanics - in and out of combat. The control scheme really makes this game a joy to play, and the GUI which supports your controller is just as good.

Combat feels solid, battles are fun and varied. Your unit strength is a good indicator of how you're going to fair in a real-time battle and at the end you can review the whole thing with a replay if you so desire. It's perfect to take a look at your tactics and potentially refine them.

Also if you don't feel like fighting a battle, you can simulate it and compare unit strengths in the pre-battle window. You can also watch a replay of any of the battles that pop up in your right hand GUI, as well as allied battles if you're part of a team.

Branching narrative design

I said I wouldn't talk about the story, and I'm not going to touch on the beats. However, I'm going to draw your attention to the use of branching narrative and choices which will impact other maps in your campaign and change the very outcome of situations. I have never seen this done in a big strategy game like this before personally, it stood out to me as a hugely cool feature and I am extremely pleased to see it.

Helping Hand

Along with the excellent tutorial there are numerous pop up explanations for new players, a guide on the various systems of the game which is available to read in-game and other helpful pointers to keep your experience from being a grindy chore and smooth you into the whole thing.

Big gameplay, lots of investment

Whilst the campaign maps won't last as long as a game of Stellaris, the time spent on each campaign is definitely significant with maps that can take hours, especially if you embark on faction quests, side exploration and a systematic take-over of map territory.

There is a lot here for you.

You can embark on various diplomatic options and carve out your empire how you want, so you will be on these maps for a while as the other factions will be working with, or against you, in various ways.

Words have Power

Even the AI feels like they're human at times, they all have various traits which ensure an interesting interaction. They also respond to diplomatic options and offer deals and trades of their own accord.

Your own interactions can have a lasting impact on how they feel about you, and how their allies feel about you as well. I'd say the diplomacy system is one of the best I've seen and it's robust with a lot of solid features when you're playing campaign or not.

Save Me

Good solid save support means you're not going to be forced to wait for an auto-save so you can shut the game off, but honestly, why would you want to turn this game off ... it's only a few hours per day right? I can stop at any time... right?

Your leader, your way

When you start the game, you can also choose to take any of the faction leaders and customise them to suit your own style. You can change what they look like through a very robust set of customisation features and pick their traits in a way similar to Stellaris.

I could spend ages on this feature alone.

The Voice of Wonder

I'm not used to hearing a strategy game voiced to this extent, especially with such character and varied styles. The back and forth dialogue for Planetfall adds so much, and it is a pure pleasure to listen to the interactions.

Even when it isn't voiced, the game's top-notch writing shines through and creates captivating dialogue which shines a light on the events of the game.

Empire of Hexes

AoW Planetfall looks good, and it's animated beautifully, and one of the stars of the game are the fantastic hex-style maps complete with features, biomes, and covered by a slowly-revealed fog of war as you explore. There is a lot of character here to the maps and they vary from campaign to campaign providing interesting environmental backdrops to the hex-based action.

Faction Fun

On offer to play are several factions, from the human Vanguard, to the short & space dwarf-like Dvar, or how about dino-riding Amazons? Dive in and explore yourself to see what other wonders are waiting for you in the factions of Planetfall.

An Imperial OST

I am a huge music fan, not a music fanatic though. I do not require my music to be piped into the room through the latest speakers and elegantly crafted onto vinyl. I love what I hear with the AoW Planetfall soundtrack, and this music is solid. It stands tall with the likes of Witcher 3 for me, and Stellaris, and the sublime Surviving Mars. The soundtrack hits all the right beats and kicks in at the right points.

I'm listening to it right now as I finish up this review. If you have the Starfinder RPG, this OST would be a perfect fit for that game setting for some tabletop RPG fun.

A true Age of 4X Wonder

I am thoroughly enamoured with this game, and perhaps it's because it's my first AoW title, but I really love it. The turn-based combat, packed with a large cast of factions, customisable units with destructible environments make for exciting action.

The story is compelling, which is amazing for an empire building 4X game.

With different paths to victory in the game I never felt locked into one specific playstyle, though I tend to favour diplomacy over shooty-bang-bang murderous dictatorship.

You can play the single player story; embark on some random map skirmishes, meaning this game's replay is through the roof. You can play multiplayer if that's your thing: choose a-synchronous, hotseat, or online action however you see fit.

It is a gorgeous looking game with wonderfully animated units and backdrops and on my Xbox One X it runs extremely smoothly.

In short, it's one of the best strategy games on the console right now and if you are looking to dive into a new game like this: this is your jump in point right here.

Hugely accessible and friendly, Age of Wonders: Planetfall has my vote.

Ad Astra!