Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords

Have you had enough turn-based strategy yet?  A few years ago, nobody could have ever imagined asking this question.  In that time, PC gamers have been treated to a huge variety of turn-based strategy and role playing games, and this train shows no signs of stopping.  One of the best products of this revival was the reboot of the Age of Wonders series with Age of Wonders III.  After two big, solid entries last year, the second expansion pack, Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords, has been released. Where last year’s expansion featured the happy-go-lucky Halflings, it seemed inevitable that the next would take a darker path.  It does just that by introducing the unique and powerful Necromancer class among the game's new races and undead faction. Numerous  improvements that typically make an appearance in an expansion pack have found their way in Eternal Lords, turning the product into a good value deal.  If you enjoyed previous Age of Wonders III experiences and left hungry for more, Eternal Lords may hit the spot.

The game's new races, the Frostlings and the Tigrans, are well implemented and offer units analogous to those by other races such as standard infantry units, pikemen, support, and cavalry. Each offer a few special units that have elemental weaknesses and resistances (the Frostlings and Tigrans are resistant to cold and heat, respectively).  For the most part though, these units play the same way as the other races. They have little differences here and there on a tactical level, but for the most part, your high level strategy is no different with Frostlings than it is with Dwarves or Elves.  Improvements like new races are expected for an expansion pack, but they alone do not make the product worth buying.

It is the new Necromancer class that makes the expansion so memorable.  Rather than specialize in manipulating nature, bombarding foes with magic, or building awesome machines, the Necromancer can raise the dead. This class feels like an outlier from the rest, which is what makes it so special.  You can build units like everyone else, but the best part of the Necromancer is turning enemy corpses into members of your army.  When you become powerful enough, your hero can poach away enemy undead units right on the battlefield, and you eventually gain the ability to build a support unit that can raise the dead.

The undead are not a separate race, but rather a variation on units already in the game.  Any flesh and blood unit in the game can be turned into an undead minion that retains most of the strengths and weaknesses. You can create ghouls from the bodies that litter the battlefield and a “ghoul curse” ability that can turn dead enemies into minions after a battle is over.  With the Necromancer, more than any other class, you will experience the evil delight of finishing a battle with a bigger army than you had from the beginning. Your nearest undead city gains population, as if corpses from the battlefield are finding refuge there.  And, since your units are immune to mind control, you don’t have to worry about getting them charmed or seduced by some of the more annoying enemies in the game.

If you think that the Necromancer will fundamentally alter Age of Wonders, you needn’t worry.  It is still fully intact, just with more details to remember and more decisions to make.  The basic strategy of building city improvements and military units to wipe out your foes hasn’t changed.  Advertised as a challenging expansion pack designed for experienced gamers, the game delivers on its promise, making you the underdog and force you to overcome large obstacles to defeat your foes. Enemies will flog you with armies so powerful that it seems downright unfair at times.  To survive, you will have to resort to all of the little tricks picked up from previous expansion and learn a few new ones.  Unleashing the right spell at just the right time or flipping a powerful enemy unit to your side can make the difference between victory and defeat.

In typical expansion pack fashion, Eternal Lords offers many minor improvements that help give the full game a slightly different feel from the previous expansion.  Races now gain experience as a whole, granting level-ups that unlock passive bonuses for that group.  A new victory condition, "Unifier", is an now allows for peaceful victories.  In addition, there are random cosmic events that affect the entire world, like a dark sun that reduces everyone’s visibility or a weather pattern that makes everyone more vulnerable to lightning damage.  There are new types of world map hexes and new magic items for your heroes as well.  There are other little tweaks that are too numerous to mention.  If you wish, you can take a spin with some of the new stand-alone scenarios or experience these changes on a randomly generated map. With Eternal Lords, you will have plenty of new toys to play with.

Besides the new races and the Necromancer, the other major piece of Eternal Lords is its new single player campaign.  It is a short campaign, arguably a little too short.  It is three missions long, with its first two maps being relatively modest in size.  The third map is a huge epic affair with five AI wizards and multiple possible alliances and outcomes.  These missions are some of the best that fans of this series have had the good fortune of playing, but it would have been nice if there would have been more of them for a $20 expansion pack.  With more missions, you could experience all of the improvements offered by the two expansion packs with a wide variety of character classes.  Instead, in this pack, you get to play as the Necromancer twice and an Archdruid once.  The story takes place in the same world as before, this time with Frostling Arvik the Dark as its main character.  Before long, Arvik is meeting up with some familiar factions like the Shadowborn and The Commonwealth.  Unsurprisingly, the story doesn’t add a lot of value other than giving you an excuse to build armies that can kill other armies and destroy lots of stuff.  Also, many of the rival wizards have been recycled from the previous two games.  The value proposition offered by this expansion is still acceptable, but the campaign could have used more meat on its bones.

When all is said and done, Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords is an easy expansion pack to recommend.  It applies a new coat of paint to the series that is good for another 30+ hours of addictive turn-based gameplay.  If you wore out the core game and the first expansion pack, then Eternal Lords is good enough to entice you to dust them off again.  It doesn’t fix what wasn’t broken, but it tweaks the formula just enough to breathe fresh life into the game.  There is still room for perhaps one more expansion pack if Triumph Studios wants to take a crack at it.  The epilogue of the campaign suggests that they intend to do just that, but it is hard to identify what the next game really needs.  Between the core game and the two expansion packs, Age of Wonders III is largely saturated with races and classes.  I, for one, would love to see a fresh story where you can play with all of the races and classes in one long campaign.  Until then, we have this expansion pack to tide us over.