I need a hero!
Fans of turn-based strategy games are thoughtful, mellow people. They'd rather play chess than Quake any day of the week. They're patient, too, not just because they have to wait in between turns, but because they have to wait long periods for the very few games that come out in the genre.
Fortunately, they've had years of regular installments of the excellent Heroes of Might and Magic series. And a couple of years ago, they also got a surprise from Gathering of Developers, a Heroes clone called Age of Wonders. Age of Wonders II is now here, and while it has lots and lots of material, it still fails to be more than a Heroes clone.
The Age of Wonders has ended (this is the plot, not an editorial comment) and the world has plummeted into chaos. You are the wizard Merlin, no relation to the guy from Camelot. You must learn the 7 spheres of magic and unite the lands by... well... killing everyone who stands in your way.
As a wizard, you'll seldom go out and conquer anything yourself. It's much safer to stay in your wizard's tower and cast spells from a distance while your heroes and troops go out and do the bloody work for you. Each turn you can move your little men around, cast a spell if you have the mana, and check on the production at your cities. Then the other players, people or computers take their turns. Pretty simple.
Actually, pretty complicated. A clumsy interface makes many of your tasks harder rather than easier. You must read through a list of events every turn, sort of a daily news. But if you take action on any of the news items, it doesn't give you the next one and you lose your place. Not too hard to go back, but frustrating when it happens every single turn.
There are lots of little frustrating bits like this, but the worst one involves troop movement. If you have set one of your little troops along a long trail and you use the "next troop" button to go through your men (and you can have quite a lot of them), they will automatically move, even if you've changed your mind or an enemy has changed locations. If you don't want them to move without your say so, you have to hunt them down on the large overhead map and select them individually.
Things get more complicated because of the sheer amount of stuff. This, however, is a good thing for the dedicated strategy gamer. There must be over 100 spells to learn as the game progresses. When you take over a town (like in Heroes of Might and Magic), it belongs to a particular race that determines the types of armies it can produce. There are 12 different races, each with about 8 different units. Add to that another 20 or so creatures that you can summon, and that's a whole hell of a lot of stuff.
To top it off, each unit has attributes for attack, defense, hit points, morale, resistance, size, level, experience, movement, alignment, type, and even gender. Now tack on some special abilities like climb walls, night vision, concealment, poison strike, and about 100 more. You could spend years learning all the stuff in this game, which is great for the hardcore gamer, but will make more casual players punch their screens in frustration.
Hopefully they won't break their screens, though, because the graphics are pretty good. Everything is nicely detailed and well animated. Sure, it's not a 3D marvel, but it's not supposed to be. You can still play Age of Wonders II on your grandmother's old pc.
Sound, on the other hand, is pretty bland. Your little men grunt the same way every time and combat noises are identical. The music is uninspired, a limp orchestral score performed by synthesizer. It won't offend you, but you'll be turning it off before too long.
Once the music is off, though, you'll be able to play for nearly the rest of your life. Aside from the long campaign, Age of Wonders II comes with very robust multiplayer options. Because it's a turn based game, you can even play by e-mail. 56k modem users unite!
To extend the gameplay infinitely, just check out the powerful editor included with the game. More than just a map editor, you can create new items, heroes and even new wizards.
But unfortunately, Age of Wonders II turns out not to be a wonder at all. It's bland food that is only slightly improved by the huge portions. For starving fans of the genre, there's plenty to eat here, but the rest of you should save your money for a spicier meal.