The Age of Wonder Bread.
There is no zergling rush. There is no undead assault. There are no frantic moments tying your fingers in knots trying to remember your unit and map location hotkeys. Best of all, you can get up to go make a sandwich whenever you want.
These are turn-based strategy games, and I think new ones arrive so infrequently because developers know their fans are by nature a patient bunch. Should I attack that city first, or go capture another gold mine? Hrm…. I'm going to think about that while I make a turkey on rye.
But even I, with a capacity for patience that would embarrass a Zen monk, have been getting antsy waiting for a new good turn-based strategy game. The astonishingly bad Empire of Magic, which I was recently forced to play, did absolutely nothing to slake my hunger. So while Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is not an entirely new game, I've been enjoying it more than I thought I would.
I should point out that Shadow Magic is not an expansion pack and works without Age of Wonders II: The Wizards Throne. This is great because new, hungry players can get started right away, but it also means that it comes with the slightly higher full game pricetag of $40, which will cut into some people's sandwich money.
The story picks up right after the events of Age of Wonders II. The realm, united under the magical power of the wizard Merlin, comes under attack by mysterious demons from the unknown and dangerous Shadow Realm. Merlin himself is trapped in the Shadow Realm, and the human population blames the wizards for their current plight, turning their hatred against all things magic. As a practitioner of magic yourself, you'll need every trick in your spellbook just to survive, not to mention helping the imprisoned Merlin save the world.
Although I had only a lukewarm feeling for Age of Wonders II, I was more prepared for Shadow Magic. I knew right away, for example, to turn off the very poorly designed auto-move feature in the Options menu. I also had some familiarity with the complicated interface and the strategies of combat. But even if you're not as well-equipped, the excellent new tutorial missions will bring you up to speed with little pain. For players new to AoW, this game is actually a better starting point than its predecessor because of the great training element.
From here on out, though, the game feels more like a thorough expansion pack than anything else. New videos and voiceovers flesh out the continuing story, but the in-game graphics are identical to those in AoW II. Like before, the highly detailed and well-animated sprites look good from a distance yet suffer when you zoom in close. There are some new map objects and the spooky Shadow realm, but for the most part, the game looks exactly the same as before, just like all the sandwiches at Subway.
The audio is also ported over from the first game. The soundtrack is mostly the same – a decent score, but eventually it wears thin. The sound effects, which could have used some upgrading, haven't been upgraded. A little extra effort and maybe some spicy mustard would have really helped out.
The gameplay is absolutely identical (noticing a pattern here?), with your armies moving around and capturing the all-important cities, while your wizard stays back in his tower, flinging spells about the map. It works fine and those new to the series won't really notice that it hasn't changed much. Still, there is a fair bit of new stuff, including plenty of new spells, a new unit for each race, new dwarven siege units to help you tear down walls and three new races you can fight or control.
Two of the new races are native to the Shadow Realm and have some interesting new abilities. However, most importantly, they do not suffer from the debilitating shadow sickness while traveling or fighting through the Shadow Realm. The other new race, the Nomads, have the unique ability to pick up their cities and move them elsewhere, adding new quirks to the multiplayer game strategy.
While the multiplayer game hasn't changed at all, Age of Wonders continues to serve up super-sized portions with fries on the side. The lengthy single-player campaign will take you through 16 long levels, some of which might take you more than a full day to complete (depending on how well your fridge is stocked with luncheon meats and bread). Now add to that a dozen stand alone scenarios, a smart random map generator and the full AoW toolset, which lets you edit everything from maps to items to units, guaranteeing more downloadable fan content than you can imagine. You're definitely going to have to make a run to the deli.
Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is like an unexpectedly good BLT. It's based a little too heavily on Heroes of Might and Magic, making you long for the days of the Armageddon Blade, but with some nice crisp bacon and cool fresh lettuce, it still makes for a satisfying sandwich. Even though Shadow Magic is a sequel, it's the better starting point for the AoW beginner, although current AoW addicts should rightfully feel a little cheated by the full game price.
But for the time being, Shadow Magic has satisfied my hunger. I will enjoy chewing through all the scenarios until a more robust Reuben or other serious tummy-busting sandwich shows up. Any developers out there want to answer my prayers for Incubation 2, or maybe another X-Com game? Go for it, but hold the mayo.