I’ve always been a strategy gaming armchair general. I’ve loved to watch how the 4X genre has evolved over the years to branch out in different ways beyond the old explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate trope. The last couple of years have seen some great new additions to the genre, with games like Total War leaning more heavily into military simulation and battles.
Titles like Europa Universalis tend towards diplomacy and political intrigue, and now Age of Wonders is throwing off its medieval armour and stepping firmly into space marine territory.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is like the Alpha Centauri to the Civilization series, it keeps the broad gameplay loop and mechanics of the wider series, but swaps the humans, elves and undead for space dwarves, survivalist humans and Necron-like robo-people.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall makes a compelling case for the idea that gameplay and mechanics are universal, that you could retell a story in a new time and a new place and find it compelling for all the same reasons.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall Review
Like most 4X games, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is made for multiplayer, long games and late nights, and gives you the tools to take down your enemies by the point of a laser pistol or the launch of a rocket.
The campaign does a great job of introducing you to each of the game’s six factions, which each have their own quirks and benefits to get used to. It runs the gamut of everything from space dwarves who grunt and trundle under massive armour and gas masks, to strange chittering insect who were once slaves of the human races, but have since broken free.
The early turns on any one map will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played Age of Wonders or Civilization in the past. You found your first city, begin researching some technology from a massive tech tree (actually two tech trees, one civic and one military) and you start expanding outwards.
At first, you’ll mostly bump into smaller AI-controlled single cities from one of the many minor factions and marauders scattered around the map. There are even AI races of sentient psionic jellyfish who float around the map and talk about their home in the void.
There’s one colony of communicative plants that couldn’t stand the thought of living near vegetarians, so asked me to murder for them – very Little Shop of Horrors.
These one-off enemies can be battered down in battle or befriended for one-off missions that have you going across the map to take out flatten this encampment or squash that army.
Going out with a bang
Battles in Planetfall draw much more closely from tactical strategy games like XCOM than it does from traditional 4X titles. When your armies do meet with another force, you’re drawn down into a hex-based map with individual squads of units and all the tactical abilities and overwatch moves you could hope for.
Each squad of units has its own set of abilities that range from psionic blasts to explosives, burrowing tunnels and spitting acid. And in the overworld, you can customise and equip squads with new weapons, as well as level your heroes with loot and skills in a more traditional RPG sense.
Armies can be up to 6 units each, but when you go into battle all the armies on adjacent hexes are included meaning up to 42 units can be involved in any one battle.
The map designs for these battles are absolutely great, ranging from swampy marshland filled with bulbous trees that wouldn’t look out of place in No Man’s Sky, to multi-tiered stone temples and my personal favourite – a bombed-out highway littered with cars that could all be hidden behind and blown up to damage any enemies around them.
In these battles, there are always plenty of objects like this to hide behind, and that also means plenty of opportunities to flank your opponents and come at them from multiple angles. Attacking from both sides of an enemy army even have your forces spawn on either side as you’d expect to catch them in between, which I thought was a very nice touch.
That being said, battles often felt like they were lacking weight, the attacks all seemed flashy but ineffective. I could throw a grenade and blow up a parked car, but only do a quarter of the damage to the squad crouched behind it. And the sound design in battles could really use a boost, as even big explosions and psionic attacks felt more like fireworks than life-threatening attacks.
Even though the battle system pulls from XCOM, with its overwatch moves and emphasis on flanking and destructible cover, there were definitely times when I wished it had taken more from Firaxis’ alien-pounding sci-fi cold-war simulator.
I really wanted a more dramatic camera, to zoom into the action and worry whether a stray bullet would knock out my squad of snipers. But the pulled-back camera and lasers that feel more akin to nerf-guns than bolters had me wishing for more.
Playing diplomacy – with lasers
As you spread out you’ll eventually bump into other major factions drawn from the same selection pool that you have access to, and running a custom map with all random opponents can put you up against some great combinations.
As well as selecting a race, you have access to “secret technologies” an option that gives your race a different edge and peppers your research tree with a bunch of new developments that can really change your approach to combat and conquest.
Promethean technology, for instance, gives you far greater explosive military power as well as the ability to harness the heat from the planet’s crust to protect yourself in otherwise inhospitable areas.
Synthesis is for the technopaths, it allows you to summon drones to fight for you, as well as hack into enemies and the eventual aim to turn all living creatures into hive drones under one enormous mind.
Other options include void-tech which lets you teleport units around, or create clones of units. And the Xenoplague, which has a number of uses all built around spreading a virulent infection into as many hosts as possible.
These secret technologies aren’t tied to any one race, so you can definitely be a group of psionic robots, teleporting dwarves or Amazons bent on turning the world to technology.
The last point I want to touch on is map control. In most 4X games you can place cities pretty much where you want, and spread out your borders by growing influence. However, a map in Planetfall is broken into sectors, each of which can house one city, and can have other particular resources there for harvesting.
However, you’re only able to place a city two sectors away from your last one, forcing you to spread out. But each city is able to take control of surrounding areas by annexing them. This means you move your military force in, plant your proverbial flag and decide what resources you want to suck out of the ground.
When you annex an area it automatically builds roads to your home base, and to any other connected sites. Meaning your armies move much faster within your own area, and when you come across an enemy outlying region, you have a convenient network of roads to follow to reach their capital.
This means that by the late game one city can control a huge swathe of outlying territories, meaning you can coordinate your attacks to cut their energy or food production, essentially crippling your enemy’s economy before going in for the kill.
Prepare for Planetfall
Age of Wonders: Planetfall takes a tried and tested formula, and flips it on its head. I can appreciate the guts it takes to strike out and try something different to what you’ve done before, even if others have already trodden that way before.
It goes to show that not all games are made the same, and different teams walking the same path can leave behind different prints.
Alright, it doesn’t matter if your dwarves are holding hammers or power drills, so long as they aren’t vegetarians – that would anger my space-plant friends.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall was reviewed on PC using a digital code provided by the publisher.
Game Title: Age of Wonders: Planetfall