Age of Wonders 4 - A review
I have played Age of Wonders 4 for 66 hours now, which I would say is enough to write a review. Of course I can't claim to have seen *everything* yet, as there are so many possible different combinations of options. But I have seen both custom and scripted worlds, played at different difficulty levels, and have a good idea of all game mechanics.
Overall, Age of Wonders 4 is very good. It combines the strategic 4X play with tactical battles in a way where both sides are about equal in complexity and fun. If you want tactical battles to be at least equal in weight to strategy, this is probably the best Paradox game you can get.
The "unique selling proposition" of Age of Wonders 4 is the absolutely crazy amount of options you have to set up a game. You can create a large number of different worlds, and combine that with an even larger number of different factions. There are a lot of cosmetic options in there, but also a lot of options that impact gameplay. There is always magic, but you can choose between going for more conventionally strong troops supported with magic, up to building a faction where most of your troops are summoned magical beings. You start out with one of 12 different tier 1 tomes of spells, but get access to 42 more tomes during the game. If you always wanted to play a faction of spider-mounted toadmen paladins wielding fire magic, Age of Wonders 4 makes it possible. The only downside is that this makes all factions a "collection of traits" with a cosmetic skin on top, the races aren't memorable anymore.
Once you get started, you will quickly fall into the typical 4X "one more turn" mindset, keeping you playing for hours. Age of Wonders 4 is a truly fascinating game. It is better than most other 4X games in keeping the late game as interesting as the early game. Even the neutral armies, the "barbarians" of Civilization, get considerably stronger over time and bite you in the ass if you failed to deal with them earlier. Combat is handled with an excellent system, where you can first run the combat quickly on automatic, and then based on the outcome of that decide whether the fight is interesting enough for you to do manually. As you can always retry manually, you don't have to be afraid to get screwed by auto-combat. And auto-combat is actually quite good, so you can really speed up the game by running all those one-sided battles automatically, and just play the interesting ones.
The one weak point of Age of Wonders 4 is that the AI isn't quite as good on the strategic level. That becomes very visible if you are allied with an AI player, share vision with him, and have observe mode on: You can watch the AI moving troops from left to right one turn, and from right to left the next turn. The AI is constantly splitting up stacks and running in different directions, with no visible goal or purpose. AI enemies are reasonably good at lumping all their troops together for defense, which makes playing at high difficulty settings, where the AI gets a lot of additional troops, rather tedious. But the AI, allied or enemy, is horrible at attacking or following some sort of cohesive strategy. While different AI factions have different sets of likes and dislikes in diplomacy, they seem to lack the other part of the agendas in Civilization 6, where different leaders would actively pursue different strategies.
Fortunately the AI factions aren't the only challenge in the game, or the only content. There are lots of neutrals to fight, ancient wonders to explore, and events and quests to deal with. Depending on the chosen distance between factions, you might not actually have a lot of interaction with other factions for large parts of the game. That also makes Age of Wonders 4 somewhat pointless to play as multi-player. The option exists, but if you and your friend just play independently of each other for hours, why bother? Also, Age of Wonders 4 is by no means well-balanced, some combinations of traits are simply far more powerful than others.
I am already well past the "1 hour played per dollar spent" mark, in spite of buying the game at full price. On Steam, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is currently on place 8 on the list of my most played games, and it is likely that Age of Wonders 4 will surpass that. The large number of options when setting up a world and faction makes the game very replayable. And that is before the 4 DLCs already announced add even more options. I'm not sure that they, or any patch, will address the issues with the strategic AI, which keeps me from considering the game perfect. But Age of Wonders 4 is certainly a very good strategy and tactics game, and good value for money. Recommended!