It seems to me that strategy gamers fall — with some loyalty — into one of two factions: those that enjoy combat-heavy real-time games, and those patient and cerebral gamers that love nothing more than to hunker down with a long, deep 4x campaign that goes on for hours and hours. In some ways, Age of Wonders: Planetfall strikes a pretty good balance. Although its combat is turn-based, it’s engaging and exciting enough for the real-time folks, and the game certainly drills deep into the 4x mechanics.
Unlike prior Age of Wonders titles, Planetfall moves the franchise into a fantasy-colored sci-fi future. Three factions compete for domination and of course you must select your preference between the Syndicate, the Assembly or the Amazon. All of the factions are interesting and well-balanced and while they spring from time-worn strategy tropes (warriors, “magic” users and robots) with a rock-paper-scissors relationship, there are lots of unexpected and creative variations to the formula along the way.
Like most games in the genre, Planetfall tasks the player with research, exploration, population management, construction and diplomacy. Along the way there are dozens of campaign-advancing goals and side missions that increase wealth or expand territory or upgrade units, often at the cost of political alliances or population happiness. Planetfall might not reinvent the fundamentals of 4x gameplay but its setting and story are well-imagined, even if the dialogue and delivery are a bit on the wooden side.
Planetfall could really use a lengthy, patient tutorial campaign. It does try to ease the player into its story and mechanics but much is learned by trial and error and deep diving into the game’s somewhat disjointed and disorganized UI, spread over multiple tabs.. Relatively few 4x games — especially those as layered as Age of Wonders: Planetfall — escape the flaw of too many choices and too many menus and submenus. On the console, things are about as good as can be expected but it isn’t always easy to find critical information.
Although Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a 4x game, it leans heavily into its frequent turn-based combat scenarios and generally, that’s a good thing and probably the game’s greatest strength. Combat is fun, in part because of the dizzying number of options, weapons and upgrades and hero abilities from which to potentially shape the course of battle, but also because the game looks its best in the thick of conflict. Colorful, explosive clashes of infantry, armor and fantastical sci-fi units can create some epic scenes with dozens of combatants. The exciting combat helps district from the not-always-detailed textures, sometimes repetitive maps and the tendency towards visual clutter. More successful is the artistic, randomly generated overworld map.
Impatient gamers looking for immediate gratification may have a struggle with Age of Wonders: Planetfall’s leisurely, semi-opaque early game and mildly vertiginous learning curve but the pace picks up and patience pays off as the game evolves into a challenging mixture of combat and civ-building. On console, in particular, there are relatively few 4x games of note and Planetfall is a welcome addition. For PC fans of the genre and the franchise, the sci-fi/fantasy setting is well-executed and strong enough to make the series feel new again.