Age of Wonders is back, this time with a sci-fi theme instead of the fantasy theme seen in each of its predecessors. As someone that hasn’t played an entry in the series since the release of Age of Wonders III, I was excited to jump back into it and see what was in store.
Note: This is a review of the singleplayer side to game only. I was unable to play the multiplayer before release.
Great learning curve. As with most 4X strategy games, one thing I dread is having to spend hours reading and going through tutorials just to grasp the basics and get rolling. With Planetfall though, I had no such difficulty getting into things. The game provided a tutorial that barely took an hour to complete, but managed to teach me just enough to get going on the campaign immediately afterwards. Within just a few hours, I was flying through combat, managing a bunch of colonies, and maintaining faction relations with ease. Of course, it did take longer to fully understand the combat (more on that later), but I feel like the devs did a good job easing the learning curve overall.
Cool province system. Part of the reason why the game has such a great learning curve is the general lack of micromanagement when it comes to colonies. This is done through the game’s use of a “province” system, where the entire map is divided up into a random amount of provinces dependent on map size. These provinces can serve as the foundation for a colony, an extension for a colony, or can be made into a smaller forward base.
The forward bases require no management outside of defending them and the colonies themselves are all managed on one space. There’s no need to place buildings on every space, no need to manage each province individually, and no need to shuffle around workers every turn. It’s all managed in each individual colony, severely cutting down on the amount of micromanagement. Now this may be a con for some, but given the combat-heavy focus of the game, not having to micromanage allowed me to spend more time having fun with the combat.
In-depth tactical combat. On the surface, Planetfall looks just like your everyday 4X strategy game. However, once you get into combat, you’ll find that it’s effectively two games in one. On one side is the 4X strategy, but on the other is the in-depth turn-based tactical combat. I like to describe it as a blend of Civilization and XCOM, with both sides being equally developed and both sides being important to winning the game.
However, these two sides are not distinct from each other, they overlap in several key areas. For example, the entire tactical side to the game relies heavily on the unit mods applied to units when outside of battle. A huge chunk of the tech tree is dedicated to these unit mods, which affect everything from damage output, to accuracy, and even add some special abilities like being able to teleport.
Another good example being the various tactical operations. These are basically additional special abilities that can be deployed while in-battle to various effects. There are also strategic operations that can be deployed from the map. These strategic operations have effects both in-battle and out, including directly damaging an army, buffing one of your own armies, or conducting a variety of intelligence operations. It was quite cool how both of these sides interacted with each other and the combat was made a lot more complex as a result. While I was able to grasp the 4X mechanics quickly, it definitely took more time to get the hang of the combat. It’s the classic “easy to learn, hard to master” situation.
Fun and dynamic quest system. Although Planetfall does have your standard victory conditions (domination, diplomacy, etc.), there are also a variety of quests to take advantage of along the way. If you’re playing a regular scenario outside of the campaign, these usually come from factions. The tasks range from taking down pirate hideouts, to killing a certain number of units from a designated race, to even helping with production and research projects.
Of course, you are rewarded with additional influence with that faction, but you’re also given some materials and even a unit or two at times. In fact, the quests are a large reason why my armies were so diverse, as I kept picking up units from different factions offering different unit types. These quests are offered for the entire length of the game and only have a minimal effect on your relation with other factions, so they are a great way to build up army experience and earn rewards along the way without actually declaring war. And if you play campaign, these quests become much more involved and actually offer a decent amount of variety. They’re definitely a nice change of pace if anything.
Lackluster AI. Planetfall has some rather odd AI. When you’re in the tactical battles, the AI is actually pretty good and absolutely crushed me on the lowest difficulty for the first several hours that I played the game. However, when playing the 4X side to the game, the AI is anything but good. I could not go a single game without running into an AI leaving their units standing still, walking around my own defenseless units, attacking my units in a way that doesn’t benefit them, and even outright ignoring victory conditions.
To give an example, I was going for the doomsday victory condition as the syndicate, which requires me to build three structures in three separate colonies to trigger a 10-turn doomsday countdown. If any of these structures were to be captured, the counter would stop. So upon triggering the countdown, a bunch of factions declared war on me, as they would lose the game otherwise. However, despite having a bunch of factions surrounding me at the time, only a couple of them tried to stop me, and only with a couple unit stacks each. I wasn’t that far ahead military-wise either, so it just came across as odd that all of these factions would just let me win.
Granted, this was on a lower difficulty, so I upped it to advanced and still noticed the same behavior. In fact, in the game I played immediately after, I noticed that the AI would just leave stacks of units standing still while I trampled through their territory. They even let me station a bunch of units right next to their capital and armies while I moved over more units from my base. And now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever saw an enemy use a navy, even though I’ve played on maps with plenty of water. It was like the AI had 90% of its brain allocated to the tactical side of the game and the remainder for the 4X side.
Disappointing diplomacy mechanics. As someone that generally likes to take the diplomatic approach in 4X strategy games, I was bit a disappointed with how useless it seemed to be in Planetfall. My main issue is with how allied factions act when called to war. When forming a defensive pact or alliance, one of the conditions is that both parties be available to go to war if either is attacked. That sounds great in theory, but in practice it practically never happens. That is because the game allows the option to pull out of an alliance or defensive pact whenever either party is called to war.
As a result, despite keeping good relations, signing numerous defensive pacts, and forming several alliances, the AI rarely helped me when I had war declared on me. In fact, in all of my time with the game, I only ever had two factions come to my aid. 95 percent of the time they would just shrug off my calls for help and break up the alliance or defensive pact. I don’t know if I’m just unlucky, but it really made my diplomatic efforts feel like a complete waste if the AI could just dissolve it like that.
Unplayable late game. Unfortunately, Age of Wonders: Planetfall suffers from the same problem plaguing many other 4X strategy games: that being the very slow load times during the late-game. As I play a lot of these games, I’m used to seeing load times around a minute per turn, but Age of Wonders: Planetfall easily takes the cake. Once you get up to turn 80 or so on a decently-sized map, the load times can take upwards of several minutes. In fact, on one of the game’s earlier campaign missions, I managed to get past turn 100, where the load times ended up taking around four to five minutes to complete every turn. And this is with the game installed on an NVME SSD and running a Ryzen 3700x, so I imagine the situation will be much worse for those with older CPUs and slower hard drives.
I tried everything to get these times down, including disabling animations, playing the game in fullscreen, killing every other application, but none of these helped. At that point, it honestly just became unplayable, as all I would do in my turn is click a few times, then have to wait several minutes to do something again. Most of the games I played finished well before this became a problem, but it was frustrating when I did run into it.
Numerous technical issues. On top of the load times during the late game, Planetfall also has a bunch of other technical issues plaguing the experience. Among these are some more minor ones, like flickering textures and the varying volume of voiced lines. However there are several major ones that I kept running into, including units getting stuck while in-movement when transitioning to new turns, units getting stuck spinning in circles while in-battle, and even some bugs preventing me from progressing in campaign missions.
For example, there was a bug in one of the campaign missions that did not allow me to buy an allied settlement even though I met all the requirements and was able to press the buy button. Pressing buy would just close the menu and recenter the camera onto the settlement, accomplishing nothing. Aside from those issues, I did run into a total of three crashes, although no progress was lost due to the game’s autosave. These are probably issues that are going to be patched with time, but as it stands, they are quite annoying.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a decent strategy game overall. The combat is fun, the province system is great, and the quest system is pretty cool. However, the game is brought down by its lackluster AI, disappointing diplomacy mechanics, and numerous technical issues. It may be worth waiting for a few patches to fix up those technical issues first, but in its current state, the game is at least still fun.
You can buy Age of Wonders: Planetfall on Steam here.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.