Confession time: I played but never loved Age of Wonders 3 (AoW3). I liked aspects of the game, but something about it never clicked with me. Even through the admittedly fantastic expansions, Age of Wonders 3 felt too combat-centric and a bit light on lore, world building and empire management. Unfortunately, those are also the gameplay aspects that I personally consider important to my enjoyment of games like this.
When Triumph Studios announced Age of Wonders: Planetfall, I was curious to know whether or not the aspects of the game that I felt were “lite” would be revisited. The developers had asked a number of questions on our forums about what we meant by “4X-lite,” so I was hopeful that these concerns were being examined.
Well, I’ll just cut to the chase: Planetfall is a damn-fine game that easily surpasses every previous Age of Wonders game from my perspective. Marrying AoW3’s combat system with fantastic world building, on par with Amplitude Studios’ Endless series or even the beloved Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Planetfall feels like the 4X game that I’ve always wanted. The developers have done an exceptional job of giving the player more agency by incorporating deeper city management, an interesting sector expansion mechanic, and more detailed diplomacy. All of those elements combine to create one of the most engaging and entertaining 4X experiences I’ve ever had.
A Whole New Universe
Planetfall features a game universe both beautiful and dangerous. Planetfall is set in a time period after the fall of the Star Union, a coalition of varied factions of allied humans that had enslaved the bug-like Kir’Ko. Now marooned on separate planets, the remnants of the Star Union have splintered into their own distinct factions: the Dvar, the Amazons, the Vanguard, the Assembly, the Kir’Ko and the Syndicate.
Incredibly, each faction was given detailed backgrounds, which play an important part in the grand drama playing out across the universe. The amount of lore building on display is only rivaled by the likes of Endless Legend and the Endless Space games.
In gameplay terms, each faction provides a distinct experience due to the unique combination of units, technologies, unit modifications, and abilities. Furthermore, faction units each have a distinct aesthetic that allows for immediate identification and, more importantly, a plethora of hero design choices. It’s fantastic, in short. Even after over 100 hours with Planetfall, I still haven’t figured out which faction I like the most (though I’m leaning towards the Kir’Ko).
That being said, I’d really like to see more alien factions in the future. They’ve managed to make the five different humanoid factions quite distinct and varied (which is a true wonder), but the non-humanoid Kir’Ko remain the most interesting to me because of their alien ways and traditions. It’s part of what made Endless games so fantastic, so I’d love to see more creativity in the faction design going forward. This is just a bit nitpicky, though. Overall, the factions are interesting and well-made.
Planetfall also features a number of minor NPC factions, like the Growth (a plant-like race), the Spacers (think Mad Max), and others that add a lot to the general presentation and character of this living universe. It’s all a great package of lore that propels the new science fiction direction for the series into top-tier territory.
Varied Worlds of Wonder
Planetfall takes place on terrestrial maps that represent the variety of worlds making up the Star Union. Each of the world types, chosen during game setup, are distinct and provide their own set of challenges. What’s more is that they are each randomly generated, providing a great deal of replayability.
Exploration is an engaging hook for 4X games and the hook is especially strong with this one. Maps are littered with abandoned mines, abandoned cities, entertainment parks, defended and undefended loot sites, NPC cities and much more. Every map feels very different because of this and it makes exploring the planets so much fun.
Rounding out the lore building, is an incredibly in-depth encyclopedia that has all of the game universe’s knowledge in one place. This allows for a much greater understanding of the game world and features more than enough reading material for even the most diehard fans.
Colony Management I Can Get Behind
As I mentioned in the introduction, Planetfall takes the barebones city management of AoW3 and turns it up a notch. Not only are there more buildings and city improvements to consider, you can now assign population to different tasks within the city. Then there is the new sector system, which allows for a wide variety of approaches to growing your cities’ territory in strategic ways..
The sector system divides the game map into a mosaic of distinct, named sectors, much like in Endless Legend. Every four population in a city allows the city to annex an additional sector (up to a max of five). The system provides a welcomed extra level of strategic planning and empire expansion forethought. What’s more is that the race to secure good sectors frequently creates tension and forces players to make some aggressive moves.
It’s an elegant system in concept, but also a little bit unwieldy with regards to the UI. Developing sectors can occur in multiple ways, such as leveling them up directly, unlocking technologies that let you exploit terrain features, or constructing sector-specific buildings. It’s also not always obvious, especially when first playing the game, how one goes about upgrading the sectors, or which technologies will unlock certain upgrades. I also want to be able to upgrade sectors by directly clicking on them, however I’m returned to the city when I click the sectors to upgrade them. Seems a bit unnecessary. Overall, the city management has been made deeper, more interesting, and all together better in every regard.
Diplomacy Beyond Just Words
Another aspect of games, like Planetfall, that I often find myself at odds with is the diplomacy system. Usually, little thought is given to diplomacy and the systems are frequently devoid of personality. However, neither is true in Planetfall’s case.
Planetfall thoughtfully includes an influence system that is required to do pretty much everything diplomatic. Moreover, it’s not always a black and white affair as to where you spend your influence. Not only is it required to interact with other major factions, but it’s also necessary to purchase units from the NPC (i.e. minor) factions that you’ll encounter, request NPC factions to move their forces off of particular spots (once you’ve reached a certain level of friendship), and conduct espionage operations (more on operations later).
So, influence matters. A lot.
Beyond the diplomacy mechanics, each faction has a decent amount of “flavor text” that fits their personalities. While it would be nice to see more variety, the flavor text that is present matches the factions well.
AoW3 is often lauded as having the best 4X combat system, and Planetfall actually managed to improve it further. Planetfall does an excellent job of allowing me to automate most easily-won battles without fear of losing units haphazardly. However, when survival is on the line, you always have the opportunity to fight your battles manually in the turn-based system.
The combat and obscure variable-damage mechanics of AoW3 are gone, in favor of hit chances that make sense. Is your enemy behind cover? That will reduce your hit chances, for sure. Even if your unit manages to strike your foe, it may only be a grazing hit, causing less damage. Furthermore, you’ll always know what those chances are so you can make an informed choice.
The depth here rivals that of the incredibly popular XCOM games and is a huge highlight of Planetfall. Battles can be nerve wracking in the best of ways, with some battles hinging on nail-biting luck, but most of them being determined by smart movement, cunning placement of your units and careful utilization of their unique skills to the fullest extent.
Moreover, combat is affected just as significantly by how you’ve outfitted your armies prior to deployment. Through an intricate and satisfyingly deep unit modification system, you can equip your units with mods that you’ll unlock as you work through the research tree. Those mods come at a price though, with an always-limiting resource called Cosmite. Cosmite itself does a great job of creating a lot of tension, as your faction will likely always be in need of it and when your rivals have a healthy supply of it, they start to look a lot more…tasty.
Varied and Interesting Tech Choices
Planetfall succeeds in making the research tree almost always important and exciting to navigate. Many research items unlock an immediate benefit upon completion, most of which are a blend of unit modifications, new units, new operations (we’ll talk about those in a bit), and infrastructure-oriented benefits to your empire.
Research trees are also laid out well and in an understandable format. It’s a bit like a future version of Civilization, which will make it rather accessible to most players. Being able to mouse-over each icon presented in the tree is fantastic for quickly gaining the necessary information you’ll need to make the appropriate choices, too.
My only gripe is that the tech trees have lost the randomness that they had in AoW3, and thus start to feel a bit repetitive and perhaps even worse, they can feel a bit stale. Even with the secret technology variations (similar to the class technologies from AoW3), I wish there was a smart way to randomize the tech tree to make it feel more mysterious. Perhaps we’ll see something like that in the future if enough people feel the same way.
Technology so Advanced, it’s Basically Magic
Obviously gone are AoW3’s magical spells, but in their place are tactical and strategic operations that function very similarly. Many of these operations depend on the secret technology (a surrogate for AoW3’s hero class system) and faction you’ve chosen, many basic operations are always the same.
Operations add a layer of strategic and tactical consideration that can not only turn the tides of combat, but also the tides of the geopolitical and strategic landscape. With operations that range from damaging or neutralizing enemy units, to espionage-focused operations that steal other faction’s energy credits, the effects are far reaching and wide in their scope.
AI That Challenges, Mostly
I’ve been very impressed with the AI in Planetfall. It plays the strategic game reasonably well and handles the tactical battles very well. But there are occasional missteps, like when the AI insists on sending out armies of one or two units alongside armies of 4 or 5 units (hell, even I know that they should combine them!). And sometimes they’ll move their units in tactical battles in ways that don’t really seem to consider cover and return fire. However, for the most part, the AI is satisfactorily competent.
It may not be the best example, but in my Let’s eXplore video series (found below), the AI was extremely quick to take advantage of my poor choices. It was an uphill battle from turn 25 and I never quite caught up. Granted (and in my defense), playing any game while narrating is a bit more difficult than normal, but even in my non-narrated games, the AI is no pushover.
Snowballing is, unfortunately, a common occurrence with most 4X games and it’s not really mitigated in Planetfall. Sure, there are maluses for choosing to continue lengthy wars, but once you win a few decisive battles, it’s hard for the AI (or players) to come back against overwhelming numbers. It doesn’t feel particularly bad in Planetfall, but it’s not necessarily properly addressed, either.
A Stellar Campaign
Let’s be frank: the campaign in AoW3s wasn’t the most exciting or well written and a quick glance at the AoW3 subreddit would who that I’m not alone in thinking that. It was a more common criticism than I previously realized because Triumph Studios seems to have put a lot of effort into the campaign in Planetfall to wonderful effect. I’ll try to temper your expectations, but I had an absolute BLAST with the story campaign here and am eagerly awaiting further entries.
The writing is a bit cringey sometimes, but the overarching story is engaging and instills a strong desire to keep playing through the missions. I won’t say more, as I’d hate to spoil anything, but I’m excited to see where the story goes from here.
Victory By Any Means
Planetfall’s victory conditions are varied and interesting, further adding to the replayability that is very much a core tenant in 4X. There are a few victory conditions, from the Doomsday Weapon victory to the Unifier victory. Even better is the Victory Condition menu that shows your progress in each of the victory conditions and makes it clear how the player can advance towards the next step.
The result is an easy-to-read journal that helps you on your quest to victory. No weird obfuscations and no guessing as to what you’ll need to do to win a game. As they say, “replayability is the spice of life” and these victory conditions are another game mechanic that provides even more of that spice.
Make no mistake, Triumph Studios has gone from a solid independent studio to a powerhouse in one fell swoop. Age of Wonders: Planetfall feels exactly like what you’d expect when a great, lesser-known studio gets the funding from a major publisher like Paradox. The voice overs, the soundtrack, the graphics and the general production values feel like a serious step above Planetfall’s predecessors.
I’m in love with this game and can see myself putting in two or three times the amount of hours I’ve already put in before the first expansion hits later this Fall. It’s just that good. Hell, I had a hard time finding constructive criticism to provide and still feel like I’ve had to nitpick.
If we were still awarding eXemplary ratings (outside of reeXaminations and game of the year), this would absolutely be a contender for that rating. But as it is, this game earns a resounding “Recommended.”
TL;DR: Age of Wonders: Planetfall is Triumph Studios’ best outing yet and one of the best 4X games I’ve played in years. Personally, it will sit firmly atop my “4X Game Leaderboard”, ousting other great games. Its combination of great empire management coupled with first-in-class tactical combat make it the new 4X game to beat. It will absolutely be the front runner leading up to the GoTY conversation and rightfully so. In a word, Planetfall is a triumph.
You might like this game if:
- You loved Age of Wonders 3’s tactical battles, but wished it had a bit more depth to the rest of the game.
- You wished Endless Legend had a better battle system.
- You enjoy a 4X game that gets both the strategic and tactical layer incredibly right.
- You’re even a passing 4X strategy game fan.
You might NOT like this game if:
- You don’t like the Age of Wonders formula. Planetfall is better in every way, but it still feels like an Age of Wonders game.
- You don’t like Dutch Developers.
- …I’ve got nothing.
Rob was provided a key by Paradox/Triumph Studios for the purpose of this review. Rob played for 108 hours on his MSI Trident X, with an i7-9770, 16GB of DDR4 RAM, GTX 2070 6GB and 512GB M2 SSD on the Windows 10 platform.
Age of Wonders 3 (AoW3) has been my favorite 4X game since it’s release back in 2014. So it comes as no surprise that Planetfall is in position to eclipse it. The setting in Planetfall, coupled with a lacing of Triumphs tongue-in-cheek humor (dinosaurs with lasers, finally!) makes this title standout in a big way. All things being equal, I love a good sci-fi setting (more than fantasy), and so Planetfall is destined to appeal.
Thankfully, Triumph Studios has crafted Planetfall’s mechanics and gameplay systems with the same thoroughness, attention to detail, and eye towards challenging gameplay that has been a hallmark of the entire Age of Wonders series. The factions are varied in lore and aesthetics, and when coupled with secret technologies provides scores of different unit, mod, and ability combinations to experiment with. All of the strategic dimensions of the game funnel into a best-in-class tactical combat system that feels even richer than AoW3’s already exceptional system.
The empire management side of the game has been greatly expanded in complexity with the sector system, which deepens the gameplay and puts players into direct competition for the choicest expansion sites. When coupled with an aggressive AI and lots of opposing factions on dense and intricate gamemaps, it is an intoxicating mix.
Of course, it isn’t all perfect. Lost in the translation from AoW3, is the seals victory system, which was among the more brilliant design moves of the series. Hopefully we see a version of this return to Planetfall in the future. I also miss AoW3’s blind and randomized tech tree (cough… spell book) since it prevented players from settling into predictable build paths. But these are minor gripes.
All in all, Triumph Studios have outdone themselves yet again and stitched together one of the finest 4X games I’ve ever played.