Age of Wonders 4 (PS5) review – A flexible fantasy

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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. Sci-fi spinoff Age of Wonders: Planetfall left a solid impression back in 2019, garnering 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 provide a fresh dose of fantasy 4x fun? Or has the franchise lost some of its old magic in the near decade since the last core issue? 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 ages and are frankly a little pissed off about it. It's up to you, a humble master, to build up your kingdom and armies, take out the Wizard Kings, and ascend to godhood yourself. Age of Wonders 4 isn't the kind of game you play because of the complex character-driven plot, but there are enough bits of lore and small story quests scattered around to make Athla feel like a fully-formed, lived-in place.

The first thing you'll notice when you start up your first Age of Wonders 4 game is that you don't just pick from a list of pre-made factions and jump into the action like you would before. You have several fantasy races to choose from, ranging from the old standbys (humans, elves, dwarves) to quirky options (moles, giant rats), but that's just the beginning. Once you've chosen a race, you can determine the faction's inherent mental and physical attributes, as well as aspects of your culture and society. You also have full control over the appearance and abilities of your leader. So, for example, I played my first game as a faction of imperialistic, cannibalistic toad people led by the brilliant (and beautiful) Empress Toadette Toadstool. I can assure you that all my subsequent factions and leaders were equally stupid.

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 to cast spells, knowledge to unlock spells, empire to advance your kingdom in other ways, and so on) which you then use to finance research and build buildings that further increase resource production. Unlike something like Civilization, Age of Wonders 4 doesn't have any worker units, and you don't focus on improving individual hexes. Instead, maps are divided into sectors, and when you have enough residents 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) that provides revenue to the city it is attached to.

Diplomacy is generally well cast, with CPU opponents feeling less fickle and random than in some other 4X games (I can't promise the same if you're playing against friends). A new "grievance system" that lets you make up for times you've slighted other factions with cash payments (or collect money from those who offended you) provides an easy way to mend fences. Various Free Cities also appear on most maps and can be granted to become 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 perhaps a bit passive overall. Tends to build up large defensive armies, but does not attack often. That's fine for 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 can seem a little on the easy side, especially since the game discourages rapid expansion (you'll win most games with only 3 or 4 cities in your empire). Fortunately, any sense that the game lacks depth will disappear once you really immerse yourself in the game's progression and magic systems. Instead of the traditional tech tree found in most 4X games, the knowledge you gather was 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 enhancements for your realm. These spells are added to a pool, and once you've researched one, you can choose from a random selection of three more.

The tome system gives players a lot of freedom to build 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 building 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 entire Tome system is just part of a larger progression system. There is an Empire Development skill tree that allows you to unlock passive buffs and other bonuses based on affinity points you earn by unlocking certain Tomes. Spells can also be used to apply various permanent effects to your realm, cities and fantasy races, and you can individually equip and upgrade 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 regular 4X city and provincial upgrades you keep building.

So yes, it's a lot to keep track of, to the point where it can be a bit shocking at first. Again, you get a lot of freedom, but the freedom of what ? Age of Wonders 4 doesn't really tell you anything, 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. Fortunately, the more you play, the more the synergies between the game's various upgrades and systems become apparent. AoW4 has quite a 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 biggest problem. But really, it's your fault if you take that route.

Ultimately, Age of Wonders 4's problems really come to the fore in what has traditionally been this series' weakest area – combat. Having full tactical control over battles sounds great on paper, and certainly adds more depth than the "stack units and ram them into each other" approach of other 4X games, but these battles wear out pretty quickly. Battlegrounds are relatively small and offer only limited tactical options. Most of the strategic depth comes from the interplay between the game's many unit types and spells, and on this front the 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 difficult to keep everything straight in your mind. It doesn't help that the battlefield is quite difficult to read this time around, with the specific characteristics of each unit not always clearly communicated.

I wouldn't say that combat in Age of Wonders 4 is bad , it's just not good enough to remain compelling, as each game you play forces you into dozens of battles. It's a shame that combat doesn't hold up, because while it's not as fun as it could be, AoW4 uses it in interesting ways. For example, instead of just building Wonders like any other city improvement like in most 4X games, you'll instead encounter them on the world map and have to win a particularly tough battle in order to claim them. It's a cool idea, although the battles themselves are often frustrating. Of course you have to choose to fully automate matches if you want, and gradually I started doing that for most of them, even more competitive matches. Age of Wonders 4's 4X mechanics are rich enough that the game is still compelling even if you don't focus much on battles, it's just disappointing that they don't elevate the overall experience more.

I should mention that 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, such as radial command wheels, are well implemented here. Visually, the game looks up to PC standards, that is, the maps look quite lush, but animations lack some flair. I noticed some odd performance stuttering, which was a bit annoying, but ultimately doesn't matter much in a turn-based strategy game. PC is probably still the best option to play AoW4, but if you don't have a rig that can play 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 quite some time. While the story (such as it is) can be completed in around 20 hours, 4X games are all about replayability and AoW4 gives you tons of freedom to customize your games. There are plenty of options for multiplayer too, although I ran into 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 depend on personal taste.

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

Age of Wonders 4 offers a rare and refreshing level of flexibility for a 4X game, allowing you to customize your leader, people and realm to an impressive degree. This can be a little confusing at first, and the level of complexity threatens to overwhelm the game's limited tactical combat, but it all comes together as a satisfying package after some trial and error. Age of Wonders 4 may not be the perfect potion for all turn-based strategy fans, but it should enchant a good number of them.

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