Think back to the last time you looked at a game and thought to yourself, "This isn't complex enough." Can't recall such an event? Neither can I. But that's effectively what the 4X genre has done: It took a long, hard look at turn-based strategy games, then said to itself, "Let's do that, but turn everything up to 11 first."
This is what Age of Wonders: Planetfall feels like: A strategy game where no stone was left unturned, where players are dropped onto an island in a sea of possibilities, given only the few basic tools and instructions they need to build an empire from scratch. It's a hell of a gameplay hook, and unsurprisingly, it's not for the faint of heart.
The core of 4X gameplay pushes players to create their own empire. Age of Wonders: Planetfall pits this style of play into a science fiction setting, where members of six different races or factions come into conflict simply trying to understand or otherwise survive the world they've come to inhabit.
Right from the start, the task seems daunting. Each Faction has come on hard times in some form or fashion, and will find both allies and enemies on the planet's surface. Victory is earned in the usual sense: The battle is over when there are no more enemies left to fight, be it accomplished through violence or through diplomacy.
Regardless of the approach chosen, players will need to sort out a few essentials. A colony will be established at the start of each match, and from there they'll have to expand to new territories, build or assimilate a military force, and secure the safety of their people on a planet where other military forces are also being grown.
All of this action plays out in turn-based fashion, meaning progress is measured in discrete turns. Building, producing units, completing research, capturing outposts, fighting battles, and moving around the overworld all take turns, and all of those actions will eventually need take place multiple times each turn, giving a sense of gravity and urgency to every single move.
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The general sci-fi theme of Planetfall feels rather uninspired; the UI and the environments don't really have any standout features. Then again, it's hard to be charmed by an overworld that essentially functions as a game board. Thankfully, the game's graphics are otherwise crisp, clear, and vibrant, with loads of detail to be found for those who look closely enough.
More important than visuals are the factions themselves, which help keep things fun with a wide variety of units and fairly interesting background stories. Of the six available, the Kir'Ko faction stood out to me: They're intelligent space bugs, basically, and they share visions of the past and hopes for the future through some kind of telepathy. Their primary drive is to feed, and they get buffed when they're among members of the swarm.
The other five factions, which are all more or less humanoid, each have their own gameplay hooks: The Amazon can tame beasts, the Dvar can live and produce in mountainous areas, the sneaky Syndicate ignore morale penalties, the Assembly can rebuild armies from the dead, and the human Vanguard serve with more traditional sci-fi weapons and technology. Each faction has its own look, its own generals, customization options, weapons, mods, vehicles, the list goes on.
Three campaign missions are unlocked at the start of the game, focused on the Vanguard, the Kir'Ko, and the Dvar, respectively. Once those have been conquered, other missions will unlock to tell the stories of the remaining factions. But through it all, things largely play out the same for each faction: Secure your colony, feed your people, and prepare for war.
The main issue I have with Age of Wonders: Planetfall concerns how much time it takes to accomplish anything in-game. Every single turn must count toward some purpose, and more often than not, players will find their bigger plans require a dozen or more turns to implement. In the real world, it might take half an hour just to produce an army, let alone get it assembled, marched across the map, and put into combat.
It doesn't help that there's very little to keep players on-track with their plans between gameplay sessions. The most useful function in this regard would be the event log, which means reading through a bunch of text to figure out what you were doing the last time you played. Of course, the assumption is that you already know where you're going or what you're meant to do next — that's the 4X way, after all — but that's difficult for anyone who can't play games for hours at a time, let alone someone who tends to play more slowly.
As a result, there are no quick thrills in Planetfall. This isn't a game you can sit down and play for 30 or 60 minutes with any realistic expectation of getting something done. An hour should be enough for a bout of tactical combat, assuming proper due diligence was done beforehand, but that's only one small piece of a much larger experience — a stepping stone in a single campaign mission that could take 12 or more hours to complete, with several other missions as well as open-ended scenarios and online multiplayer waiting beyond.
Granted, all this is not to say that Planetfall is slow. Matches themselves actually play out at a dizzying pace: Every turn is an opportunity to produce and to set a new course, but if any time is wasted surveying the wilds or completing research that doesn't satisfy an imminent need, you can rest assured that your enemies used those same turns to plot their rise or your demise. To make matters worse, the genuinely enjoyable tactical combat drags this rapid progress to a grinding halt, encouraging players to opt for auto combat and skip battles entirely.
There's always something you have to be doing, and yet members of various factions will continue to lay additional quests on you, ignorant to or otherwise denying your current plight. If you accept the quest, there may be some meager reward, but if you miss the deadline or outright refuse, the factions will eventually grow to hate you. There's no satisfying everyone; the only way to survive is to pick and choose your battles, hoping or dreaming that the path you started down is the one that keeps your people alive.
I can imagine that some gamers will find this kind of thing to be fascinating. Combined with the constant progression of time, there are so many different variables, avenues of exploration, potential alliances, exploitations, and branching paths that it's unlikely that any two matches would ever play out the same. The problem I find is that it's chaotic; without strong direction, steady growth is more likely to result in disaster than success. Keeping that growth in check is a matter of time and patience, and while I've got plenty of patience, time is a lot more difficult to come by.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a polished, gigantic, and complex sci-fi strategy game. It has loads of different features, factions, and quests, and there's enough content to keep players active for weeks, months, probably years. But while the possibility of such a deep well may be alluring to 4X fans, it's a bad fit for the rest of us working-class citizens. If you've got time to spare, Planetfall has more than enough intricacy to keep you occupied, but if you're someone without a lot of free time, the game's demanding pace, meandering tasks, and compulsory conflicts will prove to be more frustrating than entertaining.
This review is based on a PC download code provided by the publisher. Age of Wonders: Planetfall is available now in retail and digital stores. The game has been rated T for Teen by the ESRB.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall
- Complex and varied gameplay
- Interesting factions and power dynamics
- Staggering replay value with hundreds of hours of gameplay or more
- Bland sci-fi aesthetic
- Steep learning curve
Kevin Tucker posted a new article, Age of Wonders: Planetfall review: Wait your turn