Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne offers a compelling blend of strategy, fantasy, magic, and tactical combat. Players take command of an extremely powerful and immortal wizard, then engage in fierce battles with enemy wizards. Negotiation, trading, topography, tensions between races, alliances, unit upkeep, and minor deities all affect gameplay and strategies. Gameplay is buggy, with several annoying features, and the single-player campaign is tough even on the easy difficulty setting. Games can go on for days, making the feasibility of multiplayer games questionable unless conducted daily via e-mail. However, fantasy strategy gamers will appreciate AW II's multifaceted gameplay, intriguing characters, and beautiful boards.
Players familiar with Etherlords will be amazed at the similarities. Though AW II doesn't use cards, the tactical unit battles are comparable. Players will control heroes, just like in Etherlords, but in AW II the heroes are even more powerful, allowing otherwise unusable spells to be cast during battles and into enemy cities. The hexagon-based maps, resource accumulation and hoarding, and strategies are similar too, but AW II manages to improve the entire experience.
Unlike Age of Wonders, where players could choose from a variety of race-specific campaigns, AW II has a main story and individual scenarios. The single-player campaign centers on a human wizard, Merlin, who's trying to master the seven spheres of magic. Though Merlin favors humans, over the course of his travels he controls other races as well, and that's when things get tricky. Trying to pair human champions with goblin wolf-riders is likely to trigger a revolt. Astute wizard-kings will quickly learn to balance the necessity of utilizing different racial abilities with the need to keep everyone content.
The real fun in the game is controlling a race long enough to unlock its powerful unique units -- a few Frostling Dire Wolves can turn the tide of a battle quickly. Unleashing the powerful units takes time, however, usually around 80 turns of careful resource and unit management. Mana portals must be found and guarded, cities conquered and protected, and minor quests solved. The computer AI is proficient, even on easy difficulty settings, and will aggressively attack weak points. Leaving a mine unguarded, or a city with a single weak zombie unit, is a good way to encourage a costly invasion. The standard early defensive tactics seem to work best, though a contained early attack can be beneficial as well, depending on the scenario. Economic domination, when achievable, virtually guarantees success.
The tactical battles are interesting, initially, then protracted and repetitive. Players can opt for simulated results, but will likely fare worse than if they controlled their own units. Unfortunately, this leaves two bad options: without simulated battles scenarios drag on interminably, but simulating battles makes campaigns unpredictable and even more difficult. A moderate solution is to simulate any battle with decidedly favorable circumstances, but control any situation where the forces are roughly equivalent and/or any pivotal situation. This works pretty well.
Gameplay is marred by several bugs. One causes the game to exit to the desktop. Though the game can be re-entered without any negative consequences, having to go through the process every five minutes gets very irksome quickly. Also, frequent and varied saves are necessary during the campaign because of a bug where an opposing wizard never finishes his turn, making the game unplayable. Probably a patch will correct these problems, but it's unfortunate the game was released with them.
These problems are small and mostly superficial, however. Fantasy strategy players should enjoy AW II for a good long time. The game's depth allows many different strategies and styles of play, the multiplayer modes offer extended options, and the graphics make exploring each map a pleasure.
Graphics: Brilliant maps and fierce creature animations enhance the gameplay.
Sound: Sound effects and unit noises are initially interesting, but later grow tiresome.
Enjoyment: The single-player campaign is challenging and enjoyable, and the multiplayer modes offer lots of promising options.
Replay Value: With so many different races to control, maps, scenarios, and multiplayer possiblities, players will stay busy.
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