Preview: Age of Wonders III -- Eternal Lords

When the light-themed Age of Wonders III expansion, Golden Realms, was released last year, it seemed as if it was only a matter of time until a darkness-themed expansion would be made.  After about a six month wait, that time has arrived, with the new expansion Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords.  The next chapter of this excellent turn-based strategy series will be released next week.  In the meantime, Darkstation has had a chance to play through the game’s first campaign map.

After Golden Realms, it was easy to figure out what direction Triumph Studios could go for the next expansion pack, because there was one feature conspicuously missing in the first two installments of Age of Wonders III – the undead.  They were a race in the second game, but they haven’t been in the third until now.  However, there is a little bit of a different twist to them this time around.  In this expansion pack, the undead aren’t actually a race.  Instead, they are the product of the new Necromancer class.  The Necromancer can create the undead out of the living with a variety of spells and special abilities.  The Necromancer can also rule over undead cities and build units from scratch, but the units that you build there are undead variation of a race that is already in the game.  Thus, you don’t have ghoul soldiers, but rather, ghoul Frostling soldiers.  These undead soldiers not only have some special abilities as undead, but they also retain some of their core race abilities.  Thus, the ghoul Frostling soldiers are also resistant to cold and susceptible to heat.

This twist on the undead promises to make their existence more interesting than they would be if they were their own separate race.  The Necromancer has some interesting abilities that don’t match up with what the other classes have.  One of these abilities is the increase in population that you receive from winning battles, as if the corpses of the slain take refuge in your cities.  Another fun ability is the ability to raise corpses during battles and retain those newly made ghouls as soldiers in your army.  In addition, you and many of your soldiers can gain the ability to regain health by eating corpses during battles.  These abilities come at a cost, however, as you might expect.  The undead can’t be healed through normal means, which means that it won’t do much good to have normal support units mixed in with a ghoul army.  In addition, the ghouls that you raise during battles lose health each turn on the world map, which means that they will wither and die in a few turns unless you are constantly feeding them with fresh corpses.  The Necromancer doesn’t appear to drastically change how you approach the game, but it does at least encourage you to use some new tactics.

Eternal Lords also adds a couple of new races to the mix – the Frostlings and the Tigrans.  The Frostlings take center stage on the first map, which occurs in the Arctic where just about everybody is a Frostling.  They have the usual assortment of units, like the infantry unit, the mounted unit, and the pikeman.  For the most part, they appear to be a standard race without a lot to make them very different from the other races.  A new race seems like a prerequisite for an expansion pack like this, and they are there, but they aren’t the game’s main attraction.  The game also has some other little new additions, like new special hexes on the world map that unlock new buildings in your cities.  Another new addition to the game is that your empire gains “experience” like your heroes as you win battles, unlocking passive upgrades as you progress through the game.

In the meantime, Eternal Lords contains plenty of the gameplay that you have come to know and love with this series.  As always, the AI is aggressive and will attack your every weakness.  And, as always, you will have to respond by calling on every tip and trick that you have learned in your previous experience with this series.  If the first map is any indication, you are going to have to rack up some huge kill ratios in combat if you want to survive against your strategically superior opponents.   Understanding little details like the nuances of city walls and the importance of flanking will go a long way towards determining whether you win or lose in this game.

Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords appears to be an expansion pack targeted at fans who want more of the same, but with a few tweaks, a new campaign with a story, and some new standalone scenarios.   Given how enjoyable the previous games implemented this formula, this approach makes sense.  What remains to be seen is how many times this well can be revisited before the pattern gets tiresome.  Hopefully, it has at least another 20-30 hours in it – enough to make Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords an enjoyable experience.