Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne
by Take 2 Interactive
Age of Wonders II The Wizards Throne is the sequel to the turn based classic Age of Wonders. Age of Wonders (AoW), a turn based fantasy game, took on the Heroes of Might & Magic (HOMM)series and in many ways it was a superior game. The battles were more strategic and the general gameplay was more serious and challenging than HOMM. A lot of people point to AoW's battle screen and remarked that the isometric view that allowed you to use terrain, trees and buildings etc. to hide behind made the HOMM III side on view look incredibly out dated. In fact in HOMM IV the battle screen is now isometric although still not as good as in AoW.
The heart of the game is the campaign mode. Here you play Merlin. In the introductory cutscene (which is not subtitled) we see Merlin on an airship. Merlin is convinced mankind is doomed when out of the sky a hoard of flying creatures comes down and attacks his airship. In the assault Merlin is knocked out of his ship and into the sea below. Merlin is saved in the depths of the ocean by Gabriel, who tells Merlin that the world is out of balance. Merlin is told that he has to become a wizard and learn all the spheres of magic for he is the one who has to restore the balance and has to restore the Age of Wonders
So what does this sequel bring to the genre then? Well it boasts a 20 scenario campaign, 12 races, well over a hundred unique units, improved diplomacy with other races, over a hundred spells, a scenario designer and unlike HOMM IV, it actually has multiplayer options right out of the box. Visually it looks very similar to the original AoW, not that this is a bad thing because it looked fine. The biggest difference that fans of AoW will find though is the challenge that this sequel offers. Never have I played a turn based strategy game that offers such an intelligent challenge. Unlike the slack AI that you usually see in games of this nature, AoW 2 gives you a real challenge, the kind you would expect from a proficient human opponent. This may sound off putting to non-veterans of the turn based genre but believe me when I say that you'll be glad of this as you have to learn the game, appreciate it's nuances and learn it's intricacies to succeed. The is no AI sloppiness about any of the three difficulty settings and even when you've had the game 12 months you'll still be given a thoroughly challenging game. How many pieces of software can you say that about?
Here at Deaf Gamers we have, for over a year ignored audible content within a game and rightly so too but Eponine's review of Morrowind and her use of a subwoofer to give tactile feedback has opened our eyes. Thanks to our good friends at Videologic we now have the superb Videologic ZXR-500 5.1 speaker system (a review on the quality of the subwoofer to follow shortly). The beauty of the ZXR-500 set is that you can turn off the satellite speakers and just leave the bass on. With the subwoofer placed under the desk and with your foot or feet place on it (personally I find placing a foot either side of gives the best effect), it provides incredible tactile feedback if the game uses bass to good effect. AoW 2 uses bass to incredible effect. The soundtrack of the game feels absolutely superb through the subwoofer. The battles again feel incredible with the explosions shaking you out of your seat.
On the whole Age of Wonders 2 is brilliant for deaf gamers. The only downside is the lack of subtitles in the cutscenes, which is a shame. Elsewhere though every piece of information is given in text. Like it's prequel it has a wonderfully easy to navigate interface that allows you to access previous messages and objectives and quests with the minimum of fuss. Triumph Studios have to be commended for the quality of the manual that comes with the game. In the modern climate it has been the fashion to publish the product in a DVD case, which I'm all for, but the encyclopaedic manuals of yesteryear have been replaced with pamphlets or even worse, Acrobat files. I ask you, how can you read one of these things in the small room? Even if you did decide to print the whole thing out it's going to cost you an ink cartridge and a ream of paper, which in most cases will amount to the price of the original game. Thankfully though there is no such problem with AoW 2 as the game comes with a fantastic 168 page manual that is beautifully set out and very easy to follow.
AoW 2 doesn't come with a random scenario generator but there is an exceptional editor included with the game. This is very easy to use and you will be familiar with it in no time at all. If you don't feel very creative though you can rest assured that the Internet will soon have plenty of these custom scenarios for you to download. Some may point to the lack of a scenario generator as a flaw but what is included with the game will last you for many months to come especially when you consider that each of the twenty-four scenarios can be played as a single player game or a multiplayer game (e-mail, LAN or Internet)
One of the strengths of AoW 2 is that each of the twelve races included with the game all have unique units and all play very differently from each other. Bearing in mind the diversity of units within the races this is a superb achievement and one that often goes overlooked by the more casual gamer. The races seem well balanced too. The need to develop different strategies to suit each of the races is what gives the game an incredible amount of longevity.
Visually speaking the game is similar to the original Age of Wonders. The isometric view that has been adopted by the turn based genre still exists in AoW 2 and to be perfectly honest it's not spinney 3D, but what the heck it looks good and definitely works. One area where the visuals have been dramatically improved is the spell effects. In AoW 2 your heroes are wizards and spell casting is the order of the day for them. Each of the 100+ spells are truly stunning to witness and are easily the focal point of the battles. The terrain maps still looks fantastic and unlike the HOMM series that always uses bright, over the top colours, AoW 2 goes for a more authentic palette and the scenery looks all the more beautiful for it.
Turn based strategy fans certainly have had a good time of it recently with Civ 3, HOMM IV and now with Age of Wonders 2 on the shop shelves fans of the genre are set to have no social time at all. Age of Wonders 2 refines the gameplay from the original game. Triumph Studios have produced a game that is both inviting to the newcomer and satisfying to the veteran, a feat that is rarely achieved in the games industry.
Overall Game Rating: 9.0/10 Age of Wonders 2 has been made to appeal to veterans of the original game. There has been no dumbing down of the product to suit the masses that is so often the case nowadays. Instead what we have here is an immensely challenging AI that will keep gamers interested for many months to come.
Deaf Gamers comment: The omission of subtitles in the cutscenes is unfortunate but as they are rare and the rest of the game is excellent for deaf gamers this oversight is far less damaging than it sounds.