Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic - game review

Author: Stranger
Date: 2004-02-09 10:41:00
The review was based on the PC version.

I've never been a die-hard fan of "heroes-like" games, and probably will never become one. Well, unless some groundbreaking title is actually released, which will knock me on my knees. But personally, I doubt it. The fact that I do not count down the days to the premiere of the next titles from the "Heroes of Might & Magic" or "Disciples" series does not mean that I try to stay away from such games. If there is an opportunity for it, I sit on such a position and I often manage to hit the night. There is no question of delight, however. I treat similar titles more as solid craft work. I much prefer "Civilization" when it comes to turowish. I mentioned this title not by accident. Some aspects of "AoW: Shadow Magic", which I have to review, are vividly reminiscent of what I dealt with in the already cult series by Sid Meier. These are usually trifles, which, however, made me decide to take a closer look at this series. Die-hard fans of "Age Of Wonders" may not be satisfied with the fact that a ... neutral person took up their beloved saga. However, you can rest assured that the game will be judged fairly. Of course, I will not deny myself the pleasure of pointing out a few obvious errors, but I will also appreciate many aspects of the game, which will certainly distinguish the reviewed item from the maze of similar titles.

Even before installing "Shadow Magic", I was surprised that there is no three in the title of the game, which means that we are dealing with another sequel. However, I quickly came to the conclusion that this was the right thing to do. We could argue for a long time about the next installments of "Heroes Of Might & Magic", and more specifically whether we are actually dealing with four installments of the saga, or maybe two or even one. It just so happened that recently I had the opportunity to play them again. I would distinguish the first two episodes, while the following titles would be treated more as extended add-ons, not full-fledged sequels. Fortunately, the authors of Age Of Wonders realized this. We are dealing here with the development of ideas from the "two". Of course, there are changes, but the most important elements of the game (engine, world mechanics, races) have remained practically unchanged. So you can say that the characteristics of an add-on and a full-fledged sequel are mixed, with the scales slightly tilting towards the sequel.

As there will certainly be people who have not had the opportunity to meet "Age Of Wonders" so far, it would be worth saying something about it. Those who want to know what exactly changed in "Shadow Magic" should immediately skip to the next paragraphs. The action of the game is set, and of course, in a world filled with magic. She plays the most important role in this particular title. Magicians are powerful. Often (especially in singleplayer campaigns) they are in the center of attention. But let's get back to the presentation of the game itself. The action is shown in isometric view. We have a preview of the main map for most of the game. The player's task is to discover new lands, collect artifacts found, seize mines, seize scattered resources, visit various buildings (e.g. taverns where you can recruit heroes or secret ruins), as well as fight stronger and stronger opponents. As in "Heroes" we are dealing with neutral creatures and forces subject to other races. Unlike the 3DO saga (now UbiSoft owns the rights to it), the former are less likely to stand in one place. Neutral creatures tend to move across the board.

It is a pity that only at higher difficulty levels do they become really aggressive. Playing on Beginner or Easy, they interfere more with exploring the map than they actually threaten your castles or mines. Of course, no one assumes in advance that each unit encountered must be hostile. It may happen that a given unit wants to join the player. Depending on his charisma and strength, a given unit will be recruited for free or for a specific fee. It is the same in the case of opponents, but here we initially establish who we are at war with and who is proposing a truce or an alliance. By the way, it is worth noting that we are dealing here with advanced diplomacy. A skilled player may try to bribe the hostile or undecided, and strengthen the gained alliances with small gifts or even conduct broadly understood trade. Cities are extremely important, as in any similar game. Their role is not limited to producing units and acting as "departure centers". The authors of the game have prepared a quite passable, but of course very simplified economic model. Some aspects of it resemble the famous "Civilization" series. The city's statistics, i.e. the degree of its development and the influence of its surroundings on what is happening there, are presented in an almost identical way (well-located villages will develop faster, which will also speed up technological discoveries and the production of troops). The player can recruit units, place certain buildings or try to increase the population of the metropolis. All this can be easily queued, just like in the previously mentioned Sida series. Similarities to "Civilization" are also shown on the bars representing the amount of gold or mana you have. The game shows on an ongoing basis how much their "condition" will decrease or increase in the next round. The number of units that can be recruited or trained (there are several hundred of them to choose from) is similar to the "Heroes" series. Of course, initially they are only the simplest units, but as the appropriate structures begin to emerge, better-trained warriors, mages and archers will appear. Contrary to similar games, "Age Of Wonders" more often creates groups without heroes. This is especially true of the mages playing an important role. They rarely join battles, much more often they barricade themselves in fortresses without engaging in direct combat. By the way, it is worth noting that the game shows the area of effect of their spells. This also applies to cities, but only to those with a special construction. Global spells, i.e. spells cast directly on the world map, are used much more often than in "Heroes". Very often you can summon magic monsters this way (interestingly, they stay on the map until death), heal selected characters or give them a blessing. In addition to the main character around whom the entire campaign revolves, you can recruit new ones. They often stay in different buildings, just waiting to be recruited, some join in seeing our actions (e.g. capture an important object). Inventory window was resolved identically. Each hero can be hung with magic necklaces, put on a special shield, take a mythical sword in your hand, and put interesting artifacts in your backpack. Some of them have really interesting properties. There are, for example, those that freeze the areas studied by the team or allow (of course to a very limited extent) walking on the water. Heroes are constantly developing. When jumping to a higher level, you must choose which skill you want to upgrade. This can be for example attack power, magic resistance or the effectiveness of small arms.

As mages are the driving force of the reviewed game, the authors put a lot of effort into the available spells. Not only are there plenty of them, but practically everyone should be used. There are no typical "clogs" here. You can see that each of them has been thoroughly thought out. An interesting fact is the need to find new spells. Before starting the "research", you must allocate the appropriate amount of mana for this purpose. Only then can you choose a spell. Depending on the degree of its complexity and the transferred magical energy, its development may take from several to several dozen turns. In addition to spells, you can also invent skills, although you have to wait for them very long. So I'm afraid that the average player who is just starting in the world of "Age Of Wonders" will not even bother to look at them. The last important element of the game is combat. They are played on special maps. Depending on where the clash took place, it can be fortresses, forests, deserts or dungeons. Interestingly, the maps here are much larger than in such "Heroes". This may surprise you at first, but you quickly come to the conclusion that it just has to be this way. While in "Heroes" only two teams could fight (one on each side), there can be many more here. This is particularly evident in the captured cities. They can be easily surrounded on all sides. This makes the battles even more interesting. However, the course of the battles has not changed much. Before they start, you can choose whether you want to take part in them or that they will take place automatically (only the final result is shown). It is similar during the battle itself - we can give up control over our artificial intelligence units.

The authors of "Shadow Magic" have prepared completely new campaigns. They are quite short, as they usually consist of several missions. This does not mean, of course, that it will be finished very quickly. The maps are usually large, and due to the fact that the main characters move on to subsequent missions, collecting all kinds of artifacts and general development of these characters also pay off. An important novelty, which will certainly please less experienced fans of such games, is the presence of the tutorial. Now it consists of three missions, of which only the first one takes the player by the hand, and in the other two he has to deal with himself. At most, the game tells you what to do after reaching a given place. Beginners will also enjoy the presence of the Beginner level. The opponents then play very preventively, rarely making trips to territories owned by the player. The same applies to independent units. The plot of the latest installment of "Age Of Wonders" may not be overly complicated, but for a product in which the greatest pleasure is derived from discovering the world and fighting more fights, it is pretty good. The mighty wars of mages led to a disaster. Mysterious beasts began to enter the world. There was no way to stop it. The monsters most likely used the power of mages and the structures they built. One of such portals appeared in Evermore. The throne of mages had been destroyed - and that was only the beginning. Merlin, the most famous mage, has been sucked into an alternate version of a reality already overrun by the forces of darkness (it is called the Shadow World). People hated magic for taking their world to the brink of destruction. Their fury was used by Phobius, who, under the pretext of blocking the use of magic, managed to rise to power very quickly.

The mages were banished from the newly formed Empire. They hid in different parts of the world. Merlin had somehow managed to contact some of them. He ordered them to unite so that they could find out how it all happened. The introduction of the world of darkness has resulted in the fact that now on some boards it will be possible to jump into it. If they even get to this underground, sometimes you can get really lost. Apart from the campaign, the authors of course prepared a dozen or so (sixteen to be exact) individual scenarios. In comparison with the last two editions of "Heroes of Might & Magic", this is relatively little. Luckily, as with campaigns, they're mostly long. With a higher difficulty level set, you will have to spend at least a few hours working on each map. And if that's not enough, you can always use the built-in map editor. Compared to the second part of "Age Of Wonders", it has been enriched with many interesting innovations. First of all, the created scenarios can be put together. The resulting campaign should be additionally provided with a commentary. If someone wants, they can even attach their photos (events, heroes)! Options have also been added to set up many minor details. Those who like to have everything buttoned up should be especially pleased.

Three new races joined the twelve known from the latter part of the race. Interestingly, they do not feel as if they were added by force. Each one brings something interesting to the game. Shadow Demons are primarily related to the events of the singleplayer campaign. In skirmish skirmishes, however, you can direct them. Associations with the worm-like creatures known from "Stacraft" or "Atrox" appear almost instantly. The role of queen was taken over by the All-Devourer. It is like the central brain of the entire race, giving orders to all subordinate entities. And these reproduce quite unusual. To do this, they need to find a host. Mostly it is a helpless little man. Taking over his body results in the hatching of the larva, which evolves into ever stronger forms as experience points are gained. It was with genuine pleasure that I greeted the mermaids, the second of the new breeds. They are in a constant relationship with magic, without it, they could hardly function properly. One of the most interesting units of this race is Changeling, which can assume the body forms of defeated opponents. The last of the races added are nomads. There is one interesting thing about them. They are the only ones who can transfer cities. This is! If we see that a metropolis is under threat, we can "collapse" and move to some safer areas. The only limitation is the permissible (quite large) distance between the cities. Besides, the maps themselves are constructed in such a way that in fact, settlements can only be placed in a few designated places. The most interesting unit of nomads, Slaver, has the ability to take over enemy units (and slave them) during battles. In the opinion of many players, one of the major drawbacks of the second "Age Of Wonders" was the poor balance of the fighting forces. I am pleased to say that the authors put in a lot of effort and it looks much better now. This also applies to the new sides of the conflict, which theoretically should be stronger than the others. Each of the old races has been given a new unit and structure.

What intrigued me the most was the possibility of masking one's cities. Elves can use this option. The presence of new spells, artifacts or independent units should not surprise anyone. Fortunately, there are many more of them than there are in all of the Heroes 4 add-ons combined. Lovers of magical artifacts should be pleased with the special construction - Wizard's Tower Forge, which allows you to create your own items. Of course, the creation process is quite limited. Little has come out of the promised improved AI of hostile individuals. They still act quite irrational. Fortunately, they are not as stupid as their colleagues from "Heroes Of Might & Magic 4" (no patch).

The graphics of the newest edition of "Age Of Wonders" remained practically unchanged. Only a few spell effects have been added that further obscure the events on the battlefields. The problem of covering some units has not been removed, and it would be enough to make a few elements transparent. The maps are a bit more polished. This applies in particular to those that appear in the campaign. However, the sound layer has been thoroughly rebuilt. This mainly applies to the shouts of units. I would just stick to nymphs (nymphomaniacs?) Who moan when picked, as if they were in some porn movie. Many people will surely enjoy the game's low hardware requirements. "Shadow Magic" will easily start on ancient configurations. Even those in line with those specified by the manufacturer (CPU 450MHz, 128MB RAM, graphics card with 16MB RAM) should be enough for comfortable gameplay (you may need to turn off some effects). It's good that the authors took care of everyone, because I already thought that nobody pays attention to the game engine optimization.

Shadow Magic is a good title. The game should satisfy both beginners and total enthusiasts who are slowly getting bored with "Age Of Wonders 2". The former will be delighted with the numerous simplifications at lower difficulty levels, while the latter will be drowned in the new editor options. It is a solid product that you can spend at least a dozen winter evenings on.

Jacek "Stranger" Noise