(Space) Cadillacs and Dinosaurs

HIGH Spectacular combo of grand strategy and tactical combat.

LOW Rough tutorial, inconsistent AI, unstable multi, minor UI bugs.

WTF The “succubots” slapping their own butts as idle animation.

Let’s just say it up front — there may not be a genre in gaming that glorifies the imperialist violence of colonialism more than 4X strategy. 4X players explore, expand, exploit and exterminate their enemies (get it?) in pursuit of one form of global conquest or another, and they do so under the guise of capital-P Progress. Even in more cerebral takes on the formula like Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, the player is signing up to enjoy all the indulgences of power through empire.

Of course, the speculative settings of high fantasy or science fiction can offer a reprieve from the more immediate sociopolitical ramifications of this dirty work. This is where the Age of Wonders series has made its mark for twenty years and, with the recent release of Planetfall, the series transitions from the Tolkien-esque territory of its first four installments into the cold unknown of outer space. As far as I’m concerned, this is a significant trade up for the franchise, as I will happily exchange elves and dwarves for, well, just about anything.

There’s a common belief that complex strategy titles don’t have a home on console, but Triumph Studios has done a remarkable job in adapting their Creator Engine from Age of Wonders 3 into a console setting. Many of the controller buttons function similarly to hotkey-style shortcuts for PC players, allowing for rapid navigation of the various menus for city management and army control. The event queue on the right side of the screen stands out as an elegant way to ferry players through significant moments that require their attention, from research results to diplomatic missives.

With such an effective control scheme, players can readily explore the various systems at play in Planetfall and there’s a lot to take in as it offers both a turn-based strategic layer where players build a network of colonies and a turn-based tactical layer. There’s also a diplomacy system, including a riff on Paradox’s signature Casus Belli system of measuring a faction’s support for war.

It may sound like there’s too much to handle here, but progression in Planetfall is startlingly quick, with important developments ticking down turn by turn. This brisk pace is a byproduct of a narrow focus in Planetfall’s strategic scope, as most roads lead to military solutions. While there is a “unifier” victory available as a non-combat victory, I found that it typically came through sword-point diplomacy, with military dominance being used to ease factions into alliances or to quickly snuff out opponents that weren’t willing to play ball. Players hoping to win over the deliciously bizarre collection of factions through cultural persuasion or economic dominance won’t find much to work with here.

The campaign is a bit of a slow burn, opening with Jack Gelder, perpetually upright space marine and commander of the Vanguard faction. As a vehicle to introduce more alien concepts of Planetfall’s world, the recognizably human Vanguard are perhaps bland by design. Their missions tend to drag on a bit, but occasionally rubbing elbows with Russian space dwarves and psychic jellyfish does help save the arc from descending into banality. Once the campaign moves to the more existential struggles of the dinosaur-riding Amazons and the bug-like Kir’ko who question their past oppressors in a refreshing change of pace for the genre, business quickly picks up.

Thankfully, the differences in Planetfall’s factions aren’t limited to the narrative – each faction devotes a unique branch of their research trees to mechanical demonstrations of their character, as well as a “secret technology” branch for a set of military-focused improvements. These enhancements cover every phase of play and are effective in distinguishing each faction’s playstyle.

Many of these strategic decisions also have meaningful impacts on Planetfall’s tactical battles, which lean heavily on cover-based fireteam tactics that are reminiscent of the recent XCOM games.

Usually, when grand strategy games shift into a tactical mode, the results are middling at best. However, Planetfall subverts that trend by offering a fantastic variety of unit types that consistently provide interesting tactical dilemmas within procedurally-generated battlegrounds.

There are deeper mechanics here as well, such as flanking bonuses, morale modifiers and different weapon damage types, all of which lend a rich, wargame-like texture to the tactics. Players can auto-resolve tactical battles if they’re in a hurry or if the outcome feels like a foregone conclusion, but Planetfall is one of the only strategy titles that truly rewards digging into tactical play when the situation requires it.

Despite a collection of minor technical issues, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is one of the best strategy games on any platform this year, console or otherwise, and weaves a compelling tapestry of play within every layer of its design, including tactical battles that are so good, they almost seem out of place in 4X. It may not entirely escape the colonialist trappings of its genre, but it manages to sneak in a thoughtful twist or two as it indulges in a delightfully weird sci-fi reverie.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Triumph Studios and published by Paradox Interactive. It is currently available on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Playstation 4. Approximately 75 hours of play across 900 turns were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed multiple times (Vanguard, Kir’Ko and Amazon campaigns, as well as an Amazon scenario victory). Three hours of play were spent in online multiplayer modes, which support alternating or simultaneous (“we-go”) turns, but the reviewer was unable to successfully complete a multiplayer session.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T due to Blood, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language and Suggestive Themes. The official ESRB description is as follows: This is a strategy game in which players try to take over an empire by completing missions on a series of planets. Players build an empire by gathering resources, constructing buildings, managing the economy, and engaging in combat against opponents. Battles consist of turn-based combat, with skirmishes depicting military units moving along a grid-like battlefield and attacking each other. Characters use machine guns, blasters, grenades, and vehicles to kill enemies; combat is highlighted by gunfire and splashes of blood. Some female robots (Succubots) wear revealing outfits (e.g., thongs, low-cut tops). Accompanying text contains suggestive material (e.g., “Programmed in all the arts of seduction…this model is sure to never tell you you’ve been naughty…unless you want her to”; “All fantasies can be fulfilled…for the right price.”). The word “bastard” appears in the dialogue.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no required sound cues for gameplay and all voice acting is accompanied by subtitles. There are no options to recolor text, but there is an option to resize the UI elements although the game doesn’t recommend going below the “Large” setting and, even on the maximum (“Largest”) setting, the primary UI text can still be hard to read if the player is playing some distance from their TV.

Remappable Controls: Controls are not remappable and there are no options for additional control setups.

Steve Gillham
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