Here’s a video game truism for you: Given a long enough timeline, all games in the Civilization tradition will eventually find their way into a sci-fi setting. The Age of Wonders series is no exception, using its fourth full instalment to trade high fantasy for science fantasy. This is not to suggest that it strays from the core design that fans have come to expect — it retains the same blend of 4X civ management and turn-based combat that have made it a long-running competitor in the genre.
Age of Wonders: Starfall takes a different tack than other 4X games. The vast majority, Civ most notably, assume a perspective rooted in colonialist attitudes. That is, the player typically arrives in a new and untamed land and proceeds to settle it, driving out native barbarian hordes (who are often positioned as a faceless, culture-less nuisance to be wiped out in the name of comfort and civility), building cities and turning its resources into the materials and capital required for expansion and conquest. Planetfall‘s approach doesn’t escape that perspective entirely but it does try to flip the starting point on its head. Rather than claiming a new land, you’re beginning with a single embattled settlement and attempt to grow it, clawing back pockets of your ravaged homeworld as you go.
Planetfall provides two main modes of play, Campaign and Scenario. The campaign takes players through a 14-mission story involving all six available civs and factions. The story itself is surprisingly well-written and the game neatly unpacks its lore through various character interactions and scripted sequences. Should you push into a new part of the world and begin dealing with other factions, you may be asked to undertake specific missions to gain their trust and secure good standing with them. These alliances will be tested the more factions you deal with — some may ask you snoop on longtime friends or betray a new ally — and you’ll have to carefully consider each decision before you commit to it.
You see, betraying one friendly faction isn’t burning a single bridge. While you’ve been trying to curry favour with other factions, they’ve all been doing the same amongst themselves. A move against any one of them will get back to your other allies and potentially create a rift between you that damages your trade relations, creates financial headaches or even leads to outright war. Word of your conduct may also reach factions you haven’t engaged yet, making them wary of you from the off. There’s a ripple created by every decision you make and, by the time you detect it, it may be too late.
The Scenario mode, which randomly generates a level for you to play on and strategic quests to undertake does a good job of keeping the interfactional tension alive, albeit in a way that befits a truncated match. They’re key components in getting you, the player, to push forward. Some will have you taking new areas, others will have you researching tech to share with an ally. Not only do these quests provide a sense of direction, but they all also contribute to your civ’s growing knowledge pool and keep you moving.
As your initial settlement grows into a city and its influence expands, you’ll start fleshing out your infrastructure. Each new tract of land you secure is allocated a job to do, anything from generating power to assisting with production. There are a few areas, particularly in the tech tree, where the writers have been allowed to get creative with the sci-fi flavour text and as a result, certain basic resources like Weapon Upgrades have been filed under headings like Kinetic Force Manipulation. You’ll spend a bit of time hovering over things and willing the writers to take it down a notch, but you’ll eventually figure it all out.
Where Planetfall‘s civ-building side falters somewhat is in how few buildings there are to construct. In Civilization, players can construct special buildings called Wonders that grant certain stat modifiers and alter the playstyles available to you. There’s none of that here and by the time I was reaching the end of my review, I felt the game was really suffering for it. Wonders not only let you trim the fat and work to a specific playstyle. they also let you accelerate the pace of the game somewhat. Without a mechanic like that, individual games of Planetfall feel like they take quite a bit longer to complete than is strictly necessary. It makes that side of the game feel a little flatter than it might have otherwise.
However, the turn-based combat side does its best to make up the difference. Whenever you encounter enemy combatants on the 4X world map, the game enters a turn-based tactical strategy mode almost exactly like XCOM (developer Triumph Studios really out here cutting 2K’s grass from two different directions, you have to respect it). Your forces are split into smaller groups of up to six units called Armies, led by a commander/hero character. Each Army can be positioned around the battlefield individually to set up sightlines and ambushes. You can move them into cover for full and partial bonuses. They can carry primary and secondary weapons, and they can be equipped with as many as three ability mods unlocked in the tech tree. This means if you wanted to go to the extreme of having each Army specialise in a different kind of combat, you could. Additionally, the hero character conveys a set of stat buffs and skill boosts all their own.
In the early game, this degree of customisation may feel like its erring on the side of total overkill, but as you progress to the mid- and late-game, it will come to be invaluable. Your enemies grow ever wilier, their own Armies ever hardier, and by the end, you’ll scrambling for any potential edge you can get.
As a whole, Age of Wonders: Planetfall makes a remarkably strong argument for itself in the 4X space. While it can’t quite rise to Civilization‘s dizzying diplomatic heights, it offers a far more satisfying and robust combat system than most games of this kind ever get. It works to create a sci-fi story and supporting lore that is actually interesting and engaging. A game that fans of the genre will want to keep an eye on between Civ expansions.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Strong turn-based combat; Great lore; Cool sci-fi aesthetic
Lowlights: Some overly complex terminology; Overall pace could be brisker
Developer: Triumph Studios
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Review conducted on pre-release code provided by the publisher.