Age of Wonders: Planetfall successfully pits six different alien factions against one another in a strategy game meant for tactically-minded players.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a 4X turn-based strategy game that follows six different interstellar factions as they seek to take control of the remnants of a fallen empire. Age of Wonders: Planetfall offers an abundance of content for strategy fans, but its sheer scope requires a lot of investment and patience on the part of the player.
The story of Age of Wonders: Planetfall takes place centuries after the decline of an intergalactic empire known as the Star Union, which united numerous worlds and races under a single banner. An event known as the Cataclysm prevented interstellar travel, which separated many of the groups within the Star Union and caused them to adapt to their surroundings. The campaign mode of the game picks up the story from the point when interstellar travel becomes possible once more and the new factions encounter each other for the first time, as they attempt to pick through the remnants of Star Union. The campaign mode consists of 14 missions (including the tutorial) which give the player a framework through which they can learn the history of the setting and experience the different gameplay and perspective of each faction.
The Star Union might be gone, but six factions have been left in its wake that are trying to claim the worlds of the fallen empire for themselves. The six playable factions in the game are the Amazons (an all-female faction that can control wildlife and the wilderness), the Assembly (a Borg-like species with a knack for technology and who can use the corpses of their enemies to their advantage), the Dvar (space dwarves who unleash powerful vehicles at the enemy and can reshape the land itself), the Kir'Ko (a swarm of intelligent insects that overwhelm the enemy in melee combat with superior numbers), the Syndicate (a faction of noble slavers who are skilled in diplomacy and subterfuge), and the Vanguard (the remnants of the Star Union who have awoken from cryosleep and are the all-around faction that can perform well in different areas). The six factions aren't the only power in the galaxy, as there are NPC races that can act as quest-givers for the player, while many worlds also contain hostile wildlife that needs to be avoided or overcome in battle in order to control the map.
The gameplay of Age of Wonders: Planetfall takes place on abandoned worlds that were once part of the Star Union and that the current factions are trying to claim as their own. The map is broken up into different sectors and it's up to the player to claim as many as possible in order to build cities and colonies of their own. There are different world map types that the player can choose, altering the number of hostile lifeforms, empty colonies, harsh environments, and abandoned technology, which can drastically alter the rate a faction can grow.
The prospect of waging a science fiction war between armies of different alien lifeforms, robots, and space marines might seem like an appealing idea, but there are more options on the table for the budding commander, as diplomacy and trade are equally as important when dealing with enemies. The pursuit of research is also important, as it's possible to win using powerful Secret Technologies that are selected at the start of a game and gives access to different research options and units over the course of the match and can potentially be the key to victory, as they all end with powerful "doomsday technologies" that can outright win the game. The player also needs to keep track of the resources of their budding star empire, as well as the happiness of their residents in order to prevent a coup, which means that there is a lot of information that needs to be tracked.
It's possible to engage enemies in smaller-scale conflicts, as the player can control individual battles in a style similar to the X-COM games. Once two armies engage in battle, the player can control each unit in a turn-based conflict on a small map which features different terrain that can be used to the advantage (or detriment) of different units. The players who aren't interested in dealing with lots of small battles can let the computer play them out automatically, with both armies being given a rough approximation of their strength before the fight takes place so that the player can gauge their chances before committing their units to a potentially disastrous outcome. A superior power level is not a guarantee of victory, as a weaker enemy unit can still sometimes defy the odds and take the win.
The six factions in Age of Wonders: Planetfall can feel similar if the player just uses the auto-battle command to skip through the small-scale conflicts in the game. The players who are expecting factions as distinct as the ones in games like StarCraft or Warcraft might be disappointed by the shared elements of many of the factions, but the uniqueness of each unit truly comes out during the battles themselves. It might be an appealing prospect to skip the smaller battles in Age of Wonders: Planetfall, but the real meat of the game is seeing how these distinct units work when pitted against each other, rather than relying on RNG to resolve each battle.
One important aspect of the battle system involves the use of hero units, who can level up by achieving victory on the field of battle. The hero units can gain new abilities over the course of a game, including passive buffs, special attacks, and powers that are unique to each faction. It's also possible to upgrade heroes and regular units using mods which can be found or researched, in order to give them even more benefits in battle. There are special units known as commanders who are chosen at the start of a game and represent the leader of each faction. The commanders can be customized in order to determine their strengths, weaknesses, and even their appearance, though there are also plenty of pre-made commanders that the player can choose from. It's possible to set the game rules to allow commanders to be revived at the capital site if they fall in battle, which means that there is more incentive to regularly use them in battle, rather than saving their unique capabilities for important conflicts.
The conflicts in Age of Wonders: Planetfall become epic affairs as each faction developers over the course of a game, but this means that it suffers from the same issue as games like Civilization VI, where the pace grinds to a halt as each faction puts more cities and units on the board. Playing on a standard scenario map using all six factions will eventually cause the wait at the end of each turn to drag to several minutes. There will feasibly be turns where you spend more time waiting than inputting commands. This issue can be alleviated somewhat by playing with fewer opponents and is worsened by facing more, which also alters the scope of the conflict in each game.
The turn-based nature of Age of Wonders: Planetfall might seem like an unappealing prospect for a multiplayer game against other players, but there are plenty of options in order to keep things moving quickly. It's possible to set rules that apply a timer to players in order to prevent any stalling, while Combat Cards can be issued that need to be spent in order to manually engage in battles. The Combat Cards force players to decide if a battle is important enough to require their undivided attention, in order to prevent games being slowed down by every minor encounter being played out.
Strategy games are always a tricky prospect for console ports but Age of Wonders: Planetfall does a great job of making it work. The grid-based nature of the game means it works well with a joypad and the player won't be slowed down too much once they master the shortcuts. One way in which the console version of the game could be improved is with an option to make the interface/text even larger, as it can be difficult to read the small writing that comes up on the screen. This wouldn't be a problem when playing the game on a PC that is close to the player, but it becomes an issue when playing the game on a television set across the room.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall offers a lot of content for fans of strategy gamers, as the amount of customization, options for growth, and routes to victory are staggering when all put together. The game is a slow burn and it requires a lot from the player if they want to achieve victory and this pace might not be to everyone's taste, but those who want to wage epic intergalactic conflicts will find a lot to love in Age of Wonders: Planetfall, so long as they have the patience to devote themselves to mastering its many systems.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is available now for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Screen Rant was provided with a digital code for the PlayStation 4 version of the game for the purposes of this review.