The Age of Wonders series has long been famous for its fantasy settings, but in Planetfall, Triumph Studios has decided to try and shoot for the stars by giving it a sci-fi makeover. We got our hands on the PS4 version and made our way through procedurally generated alien planets filled with communist dwarves, women on dinosaurs and cyborg zombies to deliver this review.
Before we get started on the premise, it has to be said that Planetfall is an intricate and complicated 4X strategy. Not that we're highlighting a negative - far from it, because we loved the level of detail and depth here. It's just not a pick-up-and-play title. To make the most of this experience, it requires a lot of reading. We recommend not just skipping the info panels that pop up and dedicate a fair few hours to learning the ropes. Even though there is a tutorial, it doesn't do enough to ease new players in. That said, once you get into it, it's really going to please many of the strategy lovers out there.
Now, onto the premise: After around 200 years in cryo-sleep, an exploring faction known as the Vanguard return home to discover the world as they knew it gone. The collapse of the Star Union (which is kind of like the Empire from Star Wars) took place a long time ago and several factions got cut off to survive on their own.
There are 6 playable factions: The Vanguard who are your loyal soldiers who would fight and die for the Star Union; The Dvar, who are gas mask-wearing dwarves who somehow looked a bit like Soviet soldiers and love explosives; Amazons, who are women who ride on the back of dinosaurs (what's not to love about that?). Then there are the Kir'ko who are giant bugs and the only non-humanoid group that were once the slaves of Empire, Assembly who are undead cyborgs and finally Syndicate who are gangsters.
There is so much going on in the lore here and it really feels like the developers tried hard to build an interesting and inviting world. The Kir'ko, for example, are the giant bug ex-slaves who are probably the least excited to see the Vanguard come back. All of the factions have intriguing backstories that justify their rivalry with other groups, and this makes the game much more compelling. It's not just the playable groups that are interesting either, as there are also a number of NPC factions populating the world.
The problem is that there is so much going on it feels a bit overwhelming at times. It's not necessarily a terrible thing, but it feels like you really are a bit lost at first, making you wonder what the hell is going on. It feels like the developers had quite a few influences in the sci-fi genre, and put most of them together into one experience. It's not a complaint, but maybe we could have been eased in a little gentler to the crazy future we discovered. For example, each unit is upgradable with mods, which is great as starting units are still useful later on, but the level of management can be a bit off-putting at times.
Much like in almost every strategy game there is a Scenario mode, where you can take control of a customizable hero and build your own game with up to 12 AI players in an enormous world. We know that a lot of players will head straight for this option, but something we adore is the fact that there are also Campaigns where much of the story is revealed.
A simplified way of describing the game itself is that it is a combination of turn-based, top-down tactical battles that reminded us a bit of X-Com, and a Civilization style map-based expansion experience. One thing we can say is that it feels a hell of a lot faster than Civ. This is because the primary focus is on combat and land-grabbing.
Rather than spending time building up one city, the emphasis is more on fast expansion. That's not to say you don't upgrade your cities, as there are plenty of structures to build, but the level of depth felt right and allowed you to focus on the combat. You start by founding a colony, in turn producing resources and then when your population reaches a certain level, you can expand into the next sector. It gives it a different feel to many other 4X strategies that we've tried, and it works really well. It also means you start making some aggressive choices that can end up being mistakes. The AI is quite competent and when we made a bad choice of moving a unit or expanded in not the best way, the AI was there to exploit it. We really enjoyed the challenge that each scenario threw at us.
We should at this point highlight that we had a hell of a lot of fun reviewing this, but our one complaint apart from the overwhelming nature is that it seems to take a long time to get into. There's so much to read in the encyclopaedia and the research trees are huge. Of course, the cliched more you put into it, the more you get out of it, applies here. You really do have to almost force yourself at the start to fall in love with it, but once you do, you will have a great time.
The diplomacy element to the game worked well and made the world seem much more varied and interesting. We would have liked to see more of a trading system that could have been used in this area of the game, but the experience didn't suffer for the lack of it. One thing we loved was the fact that there are NPCs that are important as they can trigger new side-missions. Rather than just a random addition to the world, it gave them a purpose.
The research tree is vast, and it takes a fair few playthroughs before you totally know what you're doing. There was no randomness to the tech tree though, which means that eventually, once you had learned what was coming next, there was no unpredictability. Some gamers may find this a little repetitive. A lot of the research options seem to benefit the combat element to the game, with new units and tech being opened up.
The best part of the game for us was the combat. A turn-based top-down strategy that includes commands like overwatch and a cover system, worked really well. You could skip the combat, but unlike in some other strategies, we found ourselves wanting to play through them. Seeing as so much of the game is focussed on the importance of combat, we were glad it worked so well. There were flying units and snipers and it all reminded us a lot of X-Com - which is not a bad thing at all.
The map and battles look great, with interesting varieties in the looks of units. It really feels like the designers went to great lengths to make everything look appealing and interesting. Even the Vanguard, who seem the most 'normal' of the group types looked great, and there wasn't a single unit we didn't like the looks of. The animation as the units move around the main map or battlefield was smooth.
All in all, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a great addition to the series. It offers a lot of depth, if not a little too much at times, and is a reasonably fast experience in terms of expansion. The battles are exciting and make you want to get stuck in. This may put off slower-paced strategy lovers, but if you're a fan of the genre, it's certainly a game to look further into.