I’ll be sincere, I got here dangerously near not recognising Age Of Wonders: Planetfall for what it’s: a stable, well-designed technique game. Like a jaded ogre analyzing bones for shreds of meat, I practically tossed it apart with a grunt, letting it plonk down the bone-hill into the Steam refunds ossuary. But then, I’d have missed out on the wealthy, dense marrow inside.
Planetfall is a tactical fight game resembling a hex-based XCOM on a big scale, wrapped in a civ-like strategic layer (I’d name it a 4X, however given the time period got here from a 1993 preview of Master of Orion, I’m starting to really feel like both the time period, or the style, ought to transfer on). You unfold your cities throughout the strategic map, doing all the standard stuff like transferring up a tech tree, wiping out rogue NPC settlements, and gunishing or diploming your rivals. When mentioned gunishment begins, it’s time to zoom into the contested hex, which turns into its personal hex-based map (pleasingly devoted to what was there on the strategic scale) with the troops laid out prepared for turn-based enjoyable.
The connecting pin between each modes is your faction chief, an RPG-style-customisable determine who acts as each a hero unit within the tactical game, and a figurehead on the strategic stage, altering your society bonuses and analysis choices primarily based on the perks you’ve picked for them.
This “tactics and strategy with a side of RPG” play has lengthy been the staple of the well-regarded Age Of Wonders sequence, and I’m joyful to say it’s flourished since builders Triumph Studios had been picked up by Paradox in 2017 (you may inform it’s a Paradox title now as a result of the diplomacy system options liberal use of the time period ‘Cassus Bellis’. It’s like a calling card).
And all of it works bloody properly. The tactical mode is super enjoyable, the strategic mode is serviceable-running-to-good, and so they’re tied collectively elegantly. There’s fairly a studying curve, however not within the irritating method – there’s only a lot to play with. From unit mods, to battlefield-altering hero skills, to basic elemental injury and vulnerabilities, there’s an excellent depth of techniques to grasp if you wish to carry out properly on the battlefield.
You’ll have to grasp them, too, because the AI is impressively competent, and can use all its tips towards you. While I discovered the strategic mode rather less thrilling than the tactical, it quickly picked up for me once I started considering of it as a medium for creating higher choices on the tactical scale.
So why on earth, given all this high quality, does Planetfall carry such potent Mediocre Game Energy?
The downside isn’t with the setting, which is definitely fairly well-conceived. In Planetfall’s post-cataclysm area opera, the galaxy’s worlds have been remoted for 2 centuries, after the interstellar empire governing them did a hubris and blew up hyperspace. Now, all the pieces is immediately related once more, and the varied hyperadapted survivors of the catastrophe are racing to say what they see as their birthright.
None of it’s completely freed from cliché, however there’s an attention-grabbing tackle all of the classics. The Kir’ko, for instance, are the one faction within the game not advanced from humanity, and are your basic insectile hiveminders with names that sound like a cement mixer stuffed with nails put by a speech-to-text programme. They develop their buildings organically, develop items of all types from larvae, and… oh, they’re the Zerg, aren’t they?
Well, not fairly. As you learn extra of the lore scattered across the game, it seems they had been found by humanity as a preindustrial tradition, and had their hive minds lobotomised in order that they could possibly be used as slave labour, ending up just like the Prawns from District 9. With human civilisation collapsed, they’ve been on an extended journey to attempt to uncover a brand new identification for themselves within the vacuum left by the destruction of their tradition. And now, with the galaxy reunited, they must work out how (or whether or not) to reassemble their ancestral hivemind, and whether or not to reconcile with their former oppressors or destroy them.
There’s a great deal of stuff within the game like that. Mad max barbarians nonetheless reeling from the trauma of their descendants being unplugged from a utopian simulation. Horrific cyborgs who scavenge human organs and machine elements to make themselves dwelling examples of the ship of Theseus. Space dwarves with a type of dieselpunk Soviet fetish membership aesthetic. Buff girls using laser dinosaurs. Good, nutritious nonsense, that often seems like Borderlands, or extra oldschool tales like Dune or Hyperion.
The downside is, there’s a lot of it, and it’s not likely offered in any coherent order. The potted historical past of the bug squad again there was what I managed to piece collectively from unit descriptions, fragments of dialogue, and studying developer diaries throughout my lunch hour – as a result of as soon as I did work out what was occurring, I used to be really fairly compelled by it.
If I wasn’t tasked with reviewing the game, nevertheless, I most likely wouldn’t have bothered to get that deep. The game’s setting is simply type of… blurted on the participant in an amorphous torrent of generic SF set dressing. At first look, it feels very a lot from the Avatar faculty of skin-deep bollocks, and issues get even worse when the tutorial begins.
First there’s an intro cinematic of the kind the place nothing actually occurs, and a wafty voice speaks cryptically about an amazing cataclysm, future among the many stars, and issues like that. Then, you’re ushered swiftly previous all of the bug lords and the tech-liches and plonked in entrance of Jack Gelder, an enormous square-jawed no one with armoured knees and a Firefly duster. It’s like arriving solo to a houseparty stuffed with strangers and being shoved right into a dialog with the one different loner there, who seems to be a canine strangler. A boring canine strangler.
Jack’s acquired all of the dullest signifiers of being a “hero” (he’s white, he’s male, he’s a soldier, he’s known as Jack, and his surname is an agentive nominalisation), with out having any character to talk of – or any animations by any means whereas he’s speaking. His 3D mannequin simply sways there, staring into the center distance like a divorced dad watching his caravan burn down, whereas his dialogue performs out. The voice performing too, with Jack and throughout the board, is… not the perfect.
I can’t even bear in mind what Jack’s as much as within the tutorial. He’s going to a planet to examine on… a factor. And it seems… no, it’s gone. I can’t bear in mind. Not simply because the tutorial story was ropey, however as a result of simply once I was beginning to have the ability to give attention to it, the tutorial pop-ups pounced on me like a second velociraptor from the undergrowth.
In this occasion, the intelligent woman was AIVA (I believe it was AIVA), the basic normal difficulty AI-assistant-with-an-acronym-for-a-name, who started by introducing herself and what her acronym stood for. Why is it at all times this? Why can’t the tutorial narrator be a sneering woodlouse, or an anxious hen with a knife, or a dying god? Anyway, AIVA instantly started bombarding me with info on the game techniques. Or extra precisely, soliloquies. Because my goodness, they went on. It acquired to that time of prepared self-destruction the place you’re simply mashing the escape key to get previous all of it.
Unfortunately, the visible components (of the strategic map a minimum of) weren’t doing loads to suggest the game to me at this level both. While the game’s constructions and items have had some wonderful creative design poured into them (the faux-sovet aesthetic of the Dvar particularly is meticulously well-observed), the panorama they dwell on feels cluttered and discordant at instances, with the frequent sin of decoding “science fiction” to imply “bobbing, glowing lights in loads of different colours, hovering over wrong-coloured grass, with crystals.”
I soldiered on by the primary mission, after which stop out of the game for a bit, gathering my resolve to leap again in. In time, and within the pursuits of equity, I did return to the marketing campaign, and I discovered it acquired extra attention-grabbing as extra factions and aspects of the world had been launched. After this evaluate is filed, I’ll be eager to get again in and end it off.
Even with out that second take a look at the marketing campaign, nevertheless, I’d most likely have come spherical to Planetfall. Deciding to surrender on the story, I jumped right into a multiplayer session with RPS video individual Astrid, figuring that the easiest way to select up the game can be a combination of civ-honed intuition, and good, old school trial and error whereas enjoying on a crew with a mate.
Given time constraints, we solely acquired to play for a number of hours, nevertheless it was a blast. The wildly differing strengths and unit compositions of the varied factions, and the crafty system whereby allied armies on adjoining hexes could be drawn right into a tactical fight, made for a rewarding co-op session.
My Kir’ko, having declared conflict on an NPC faction of VR-addled berserkers, had been getting whomped in tactical fight – and so we pulled again whereas Astrid introduced in a division of Dvar drill-tank issues. We managed to come back on the enemy stronghold from two sides, permitting for a very satisfying dust-up the place the hammer of my fookin’ prawns smashed the barbarians towards an anvil of space-dwarven metal.
It was throughout this battle, whereas Astrid was taking their turns, that I began studying by the unit descriptions – and that I began feeling immersed within the game ultimately. I’m glad I did. Civ 6 will most likely stay my hex-em-up of selection for the foreseeable future, as I’m extra into the strategic game, and War of the Chosen will nonetheless be my go-to for turn-based ways. But on the times the place I’m undecided which Firaxis golden goose to caress for eggs, Planetfall will probably be a superb in-betweener.
I assume the large factor I took away from Planetfall was the significance of first impressions. If I used to be to distinction it with something, it could be Gladius, the Warhammer 40ok 4X that got here out final 12 months. If there’s a setting I’m acquainted with, it’s 40ok (I write books for Games Workshop, so that you’d bloody hope I’d be acquainted), so I jumped into that game like a canine into a snug basket. What I discovered, nevertheless, was an totally underwhelming, atmosphere-free desert of hexagons that even my beloved Necrons couldn’t make me really feel engaged with. And but I persevered for hours attributable to my affection for Warhammering.
With Age Of Wonders: Planetfall (and I’m utilizing its full identify to underline the truth that its title doesn’t do any favours in dispelling the ‘generic SF’ vibe), I discovered the other – a glimmering area crystal, together with some nice story components, buried beneath a patina of lowest-common-denominator grime. A beautiful bone, stuffed with marrow, specifically formulated for rising ogres. Don’t make the error I practically made and disrespect it: when you benefit from the tactical and strategic game types it attracts from, you’ll discover a game that doesn’t exit of its solution to innovate on both entrance, however one which performs a bloody beautiful duet.
And there’s big girls on laser dinosaurs. Go on: take a look.