Age of Wonders II: Shadow Magic Review (PC)

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic (hereafter known as AOWSM), published by Triumph Studios, is the latest release in the ongoing saga of the Age of Wonders games. It is a game of fantasy and empire building – you play an aspiring Wizard who commands and encounters races from the twisted dark elves to the mountain dwelling dwarves. As an immortal wizard, your tasks include the development of cities, management of resources, spell research, exploration, alliance making/breaking, and, of course, destroying all foes in battle and sending the opposing Wizards to an early grave. AOWSM incorporates a strategic aspect for exploration, resource management, etc, and also a tactical aspect where battles are fought.

Mythical creatures are abound in this game.

Magic obviously plays a big role in combat and otherwise.

The storyline of the campaign game is simple: a corrupt nation led by Emperor Phobius has a somewhat phobic reaction to all things magical, and so he sets out to destroy the Wizards of old as well as the Ancient Races (i.e. elves). Underlying this, however, is an even greater and insidious evil that is breeding and grows stronger through fear and chaos. They live in the darkness of the Shadow World…but they are coming. Your job is to save the day of course – no small undertaking for a fledgling Wizard.

If I had to describe AOWSM in one sentence I would say that this is a fantasy empire-building game with a simple interface, is fast-paced, and is extremely fun to play (bordering on addiction level). It builds on the success of its predecessor (Age of Wonders II) yet it adds new features, races, buildings, spells and campaigns to make it a game that stands on its own merit.

To begin in earnest, I experienced two technical problems with this game. The first problem was installation. I kept experiencing installation errors (start again and again) until I realized that I had to adjust the power settings for my monitor so that the monitor did not shut down during installation. This was the first time I had experienced such a thing with a computer game, so be forewarned if you experience installation errors of this kind. Secondly, whenever I exit the game, the music score keeps playing non-stop. I still have to press Ctl-Alt-Del and then end the task program for AOWSM in order for the music to stop. This game was played on a PIII 550 and ran very well. The opening video scene was creepy, bloody and set the mood for the game.

Enemy bases often have intricate layouts and architecture.

The menu system is intuitive and becomes easy to use with time.

The strength of AOWSM, especially for the beginner, is the tutorial. It is excellent and seldom have I experienced one that is as good as this one. There are three tutorial scenarios that progressively allow the player more freedom of action. During the first scenario, for instance, you are walked through the menus and interface, the second scenario discusses such things as heroes and magic, while the final tutorial scenario is a small campaign that “guides” the player through its completion. I highly recommend completing the tutorial before reading the manual; once you have completed the three tutorial scenarios, you only need to consult the manual for minor things. The AOWSM manual is only 64 pages in length, but don’t let that fool you! The print is microscopic, although the manual layout is well organized and not wordy.

In starting a campaign, you begin by customizing your wizard. You first select one of seven Spheres of Magic (i.e. fire, water, death, etc) in which the Wizard specializes. Next a predominant skill is selected, such as peacemaker or war mage for example, which bestows a special ability to your Wizard for the remainder of the campaign. At this time you select a scenario or campaign and commence play. The interface in AOWSM is simple, yet effective – something that every game developer should try to achieve. Information for cities and units is easily accessible, structure building and unit creation is simple to execute, and getting around the map is easy with the min-map and the “center” button for your Wizard. Aside from the normal world of rivers and forests, there are the underground levels of the map as well as the Shadow World levels. These other levels are revealed at the click of a button. Diplomacy is done with the right amount of detail; for instance the player may offer gold, items, spells, etc in order to sway the minds of potential allies. Exploration is similar to that of Civilization, where moving units “push back the darkness” to reveal terrain, cities and other interesting features such as haunted ruins and wandering heroes.

Battle is joined whenever opposing units occupy the same “hex”. A tactical screen based on the terrain of the hex is blown up and all units, heroes, war machines and monsters are placed on the screen. Tactical grognards will be disappointed with the battle engine but at least the fights are quick and simple. Instead of fighting out the battles, the player may opt for the “quick battle” button in which the computer resolves the struggle and quickly computes the results. However, after testing this out I found that I could almost always achieve a better result by fighting the battle out myself; however, the quick option is convenient for the lopsided battles. All units and heroes have values for the attack, damage inflicted, defense, magic resistance, hit points and movement. Additionally, units have special abilities based on their race and unit type (i.e. cavalry units may charge, elf units have forestry, etc). Units and heroes can gain experience in battle and heroes may equip themselves with magic items found on the map.

The graphics seem to be bland and dull at times...

...but the environments are often magical and intriguing.

In AOWSM, your Wizard has an area of influence (known as domain) where he/she can cast spells to influence the strategic picture, enhance friendly units with abilities, summon creatures, or aid the tactical battles. This domain can increase by capturing wizard towers, upgrading your own tower, or capturing magic relay points. Spell casting is controlled by mana points and casting points. Mana points are used to cast spells, research new spells and abilities, and maintain spells in play. Casting points limit the amount of spells a Wizard may cast in a single turn (or day). Combat spells range from fear producing ones to the regular destructive spells. There are many varieties of spells and these are fun to use on the battlefield.

The replay value of this game is outstanding. Firstly, the player may select any of the 16 stand-alone scenarios to play. Next comes the Shadow Magic Campaign game (two games in fact) where the player takes on the computer AI according to the general storyline above. You may also download campaigns and scenarios designed by other people from the Internet, or you may choose to play human players over the Internet, via LAN, or by e-mail. Finally, the immense value of AOWSM is the editor and the Random Map Generator in which you can design your own campaigns, from smaller “battle” campaigns to huge empire-building ones. You may choose to play the Undead, for instance, or any of the races included. All races have their own distinct units, spells, and items. This last addition was not included in AOW II, and so AOWSM has tremendously improved by this feature alone.

The graphics in AOWSM are nothing extraordinary, but they get the job done. The AI is quite good, and you will soon see your recently conquered territory being re-taken by a sneaky opponent. In battle, the AI will challenge most players. Tactical competence (or not) on your part is decisive. Sound, on the other hand, is very disappointing. The music score is unimpressive and the sounds within the game are juvenile and somewhat silly. For instance, I remember when my huge, muscular hero yapped like a scared poodle whenever he was damaged in battle – one of many examples where the sound detracts from the game and creates a child-like atmosphere. Ouch.

Battling against dragons can be firey business...

Assualting a well-defended position will require crisp tactics and good execution.

Top game moment: Laying siege to an enemy's home base with deadly precision with a band of mythical creatures under your command.

In summary, this is a fast paced game that is fun to play. The tutorial, interface, and general flow of the game, both on the strategic and tactical level, are excellent. Information is readily found, and resource management is straightforward. Spell and ability research is interesting; the battles are simple yet very entertaining. The sound is sub-standard and annoying, but if you are male you can learn to use selective listening early on and filter it out, just like in a relationship! (hehe, sorry ladies) To quote an often-used saying: time flies when you are having fun. Much time will fly when you play AOWSM and you will have to remind yourself that it is time to go and eat…but only after ONE more turn…or the next turn…or…just one more after that!