38: Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic

When I was thirteen, it was a very good year
It was a very good year for strategy games and tactical fights
I’d stay up all night
Eyes glued to the screen
When I was thirteen

Back in the day (okay, twelve years ago), the word demo meant something rather than just being a byword for “ten minute trial”. The original Age of Wonders was a fine example, giving you just too much of the game, so that you could have a lot of fun playing it and not have to go through the tedious business of actually buying the thing. Years passed, a couple of sequels came out and the game I’m looking at today is the third and final iteration of the franchise, released in 2004.

Shadow Magic thrusts you into the pointy shoes of a wizard, and not one of those rubbish wizards who mumble about the fabric of time and worry. No, you’re an awesome wizard who’s determined to build up his phallic tower and destroy all opposition. Now, you could wander around doing this yourself but you’re much more powerful (and safe) ensconced within your tower, projecting your influence far and wide. To conquer the world, you enlist heroes to lead your armies and subjugate the populace.

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Now the world in this case is a big turn-based strategy map full of towns, hideouts, farms and so forth, sources of men and gold and magic and items. It’s turn 1, you’ve just picked up your first hero (a catman riding a tiger, which always struck me as a bit weird) and you’ve spotted your first targets, a group of wandering dark elves. Crying the ancient Jim battle cry (“It’s alright lads, I’ve got this”), you heroically click on them and get transported to a big turn-based battle map. This is Shadow Magic’s first big selling point, the battles are really well-crafted, thanks to the sheer quantity of different powers, abilities and attacks that are out there. There isn’t a strict rock-paper-scissors mechanic in play, it’s not the case that one unit is a counter to another, but some do better under certain circumstances. Your task, commanding the battle, is to try and use them most effectively and generally, given a bit of a think, you can do just that.

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Casting your eyes over that screenshot, you’ll note Shadow Magic doesn’t just stick to the tried and tested Tolkien tropes, there’s a cornucopia of recruitable races and heroes available. At times it does feel like you’ve just stuck your hand in a fantasy lucky dip bag and seen what came out, but on the whole the sheer diversity does keep things fresh and interesting for longer. It’s great that after a couple dozen hours, you’re still running into monsters you’ve never seen before and getting killed by them in new and unique ways.

This variety extends beyond the inhabitants as there’s a lot of customisation possible. Each unit, as it tramples over goblins, is slowly levelling up, gaining experience and becoming a more effective fighter. You can apply long-term magical buffs to units through your spellcasters, or inspire them passively with particularly heroic generals. This is good, you get attached to particularly reliable units and it’s a wrench when that troll is killed cheaply by a lucky crossbow, especially as you could have saved him.

As you fight more battles, more subtle tactics begin to crop up – a unit can only counter-attack so many times before their movement points are exhausted so you want to use your filler units to keep the enemy’s big bad bone dragon tied down. Ranged units need line of sight, so chuck important people behind buildings or put yet more filler units in front of them. Fliers can be grounded with vines, units can be trapped in webs or petrified. A huge variety of spells, from direct damage to movement enhancements, can be cast. It’s not just the case that you should fill an army with massive troll bastards as this will be expensive and they won’t move fast. What you want is a varied, interesting bunch of troops with some unorthodox tactics.

What makes this all work is that these are not separate elements hastily stapled together, these are different facets of the gameworld that all interlink and overlap. Your battles feedback into future battles via the experience you gain and who lives or dies. Your strategy decisions feed into battles in the battlegrounds you fight on, the summoned units available, the pre-battle damage and so forth. Given time, you can even morph terrain, as well as build roads and forts. As I hinted at the beginning, your wizard sits in their tower projecting influence around the place and an important part of the strategy game side is increasing that by building magic relays or enhancing the tower. Battles that take place within the wizard’s domain can be more personally affected. It all just fits together so well.

From time to time, everything comes together in some titanic battle that uses every aspect simultaneously. For me the first and probably best example was my frostlings storming the final orc stronghold. It’d been a long time coming, I’d had the upper hand for many turns, but it was still a daunting prospect with the numbers they had and the fortifications, so I planned ahead. A path of frost extended from my fortress to theirs, laid down by frost witches, enabling my units to safely cross the lava streams around the base. The previous turn, my wizard had exploded the blacksmiths, causing some damage to their garrison. My golden dragon, a reward from a quest for the spirit of war, swept over the walls, spewing fire, while yetis smash up the gates.

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A Halfling rogue I’d hired from a tavern crept over the walls and felled an orc archer, and my heroes finally made their move. A dragon shaman named Thufir and the pirate entourage he had rescued from a dungeon headed for one gate, while Belendir the paladin activated the fancy teleportation ring he’d found in some cave, materialising just behind the enemy’s missiles. The orc counterattack was heavy, arrows filling the dragon’s hide and Belendir gets swarmed with polearm-wielding goblins. As mammoths smash through the front, my pirates dive through the gates to try and save him with a volley of gunsmoke. A yeti freezes the enemy’s hero in place, allowing me to surround and kill him. The rogue reaches Belendir with support but it’s just too late, he’s brought down by a goblin spear just before that goblin can be offed. Thufir, the last remaining hero in my employ, picked up the fancy ring with a note to only ever use it to teleport out of danger.

What impressed me was the sheer variety of ways I could get through those defences, and the way that everything I’d done up to that point had affected my later chances. This is the massive potential of Age of Wonders, the potential to have these earth-shaking battles that you’ve put so much towards. The problem is, so often, it just stays as potential. For every epic battle you’ve got ten incredibly easy ones that are necessary stepping stones to build up your forces. If you go straight into the exciting route of fighting everything, well, you’ll haemorrhage troops and lose battles. Slow and steady wins the race, and it’s just a little bit too slow and too steady for my tastes.

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What makes it worse is that the AI acts a bit too randomly to be a fun opponent. It’ll forge outwards at the start of the game, declaring war on everybody constantly just because there’s an undefended mine to be had. This means it’s never really worth making alliances with other wizards as they will inevitably kill you. There’s a period which is just whack a mole as they send a ton of single units to capture all your resource-generating buildings, but once you gain the upper hand, it’ll retreat to its massive fortresses and never move. Fair enough, this prolongs its survival but it means that you’ve not got that much of a challenge, just stand outside the base, build up your forces and crush ‘em when you have enough. Lastly, it’s difficult to get a map that is particularly fun to play. The campaigns are too contrived and inorganic to be enjoyable for me, the pre-made scenarios are too narrow. You can randomly generate maps and these give the best experience, but you’re going to make a fair few crap maps before you stumble upon a great one.

The challenge, such as it is, is you against the environment and your own haste, rather than the other wizards, and that just feels the wrong way around. I have no doubt this is much better in multiplayer but despite the variety, despite the massive potential, I can’t give this game top billing because it’s just too finickety and clunky to access that. It is good, it is worth a go, but you need more patience than I to get the most out of it.

4 stars, 25 hours played.

When I was twenty five, it was a pretty good year
It was a pretty good year for strategy games of great potential
But it wasn’t essential
Not quite enough drive
When I was twenty five

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