Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is an expansion pack for Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne. A new empire is threatening the Ancient Races with extinction and, even worse, legions of demons led by the shadowy Phobius are trying to turn the world into a living nightmare. Added material includes new races, more units for the existing races, additional spells for the immortal wizards, and a sparkling new campaign. Players can create their own maps and scenarios with the campaign editor, while the random map generator can create unique maps for every battle.
Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is the ideal "quick follow-up" title. Falling somewhere between a new game and an expansion pack, Shadow Magic jams so much new stuff into the design that it gives veterans of the series a reason to download this game. It's also an ideal way to introduce new players to this high fantasy world of turn-based strategy. Unlike the recent Disciples 2 add-ons, Shadow Magic provides a lot of bang for your buck; it's loaded with additional features, tweaks, and is simply a more balanced game from top to bottom.
There are three new races in the game (for a grand total of 15). New to the scene are the Nomads, Syrons, and the Shadow Demons. Each new race comes with a completely new retinue and set of rules. The desert-dwelling Nomads are always on the move and have the ability to "caravan" a city and pack up and relocate to a more hospitable location. The Syrons and the Shadow Demons are both denizens of the new "Shadow World," an alternate plane of reality that negatively affects every unit in the game except those that call the Shadow Realm home. This "Shadow Sickness" makes it more difficult for units to move, attack and defend, but there are spells and items in the game that cancel its effect.
Aside from the new races, each old race gets some sprucing up in the form of a new advanced unit and a new special building. For example, the humans no longer have the witch unit but now may recruit the healing herbalist and magic-hating chaplain. Most of the new units fit in perfectly with the theme of the race with which they belong, such as the elven treeman, the undead necromancer, and the dark elf succubus. The only odd choice is the new dwarven gargoyle. It just doesn't seem very dwarf-like. This was a balance issue as the dwarfs desperately needed a flying unit, but it was a surprise that it wasn't some kind of flying machine.
The advanced structures also fit each race like a finely tailored glove. The elves can build a special glade that hides a city from enemy units and the undead can construct the Hall of Doomed, which provides the undead army a fresh zombie each time a humanoid dies during a siege. These additions may seem small at first glance, but when you consider that there are 15 races, it adds much more variety and simply makes the game feel more complete. In addition to the special race structures, the new Item Forge -- an advanced structure available to all races -- gives you the ability to create magic items from scratch. The forge gives you complete control over your new item. You can name it and pick its abilities as well as its type (ring, weapon, armor, etc.)
The magic system is different from Age of Wonders 2 and actually reverts back to the system used in the original Age of Wonders, which was in turn borrowed from the classic Master of Magic. This change is definitely for the better as it allows you to pick and choose your schools of magic rather than be forced to go down one specific path. For instance, you can choose to dabble in Life and Water magic or Fire and Death, or any combination of the six schools that you desire. With the new system comes new spells. Personal favorites include Mighty Meek, a spell that allows a lowly level one peasant-like unit to be able to slap around higher level creatures. This one spell keeps cheap units from being obsolete later in the game. Infection is another nasty new spell from the Death school that infects an enemy unit with a parasite that causes "Physical Weakness" (units receive 150% damage) and if the unit dies the parasite appears on the battlefield and can infect other units.
There's a lot of game here. You get a 16-mission campaign, 19 individual scenarios, a powerful map and campaign editor, and a fully functional random map generator. There should never be a lack of maps to try as the community is already hard at work on pumping out new scenarios and campaigns.
So there's a lot of new stuff, but what makes it all gel is its exceptionally well-balanced design. None of the 15 races have an unfair advantage, which is magnified when playing a multiplayer game. Against the AI, traits such as Concealment don't work; the AI can see right through it. But when you play online, the full nature of each race becomes apparent. Races such as the frostlings and elves are particularly suited for multiplayer games as they make good use of stealth. Shadow Magic is very good turn-based multiplayer game due to its balance and the fact that everyone can take their turn at the same time. Games move along at a good pace, which is usually the bane of multiplayer turn-based games.
Finally, what makes or breaks a strategy game is its AI. A game can be loaded with features and options, but if the computer cannot put up a fight then the solo game is just a big waste of time. Shadow Magic passes the litmus test here, but it isn't as tough as it should be, especially at higher levels of difficulty. It's better than Heroes of Might and Magic IV but not as good as SSG's Warlords series. The AI has a tendency to build a lot of small to mid-level units and at times ignores the rest of its army list. As a result, once you get a foothold on a scenario, the AI has a tough time in regaining the initiative. That's not to say that the game is easy (or that different from most strategy games in this regard) but it can lead to some tedious moments late in the game when you have yet to achieve the mission's goal and are just mopping up the rest of the map.
While the AI annoyances keep Shadow Magic from being truly an elite game, Age of Wonders fans should waste no time in picking up a copy. This is a better product from top to bottom and makes the original game obsolete-and it's hard to ask for much more than that.
People who downloaded Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic have also downloaded:
Age of Wonders 2: The Wizard's Throne, Age of Wonders, Age of Mythology, Age of Empires III, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, Age of Empires, Age of Sail 2: Privateer's Bounty, Caesar IV
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