The World Is Not Enough
Were I ever to set up my own business I’d have to seriously consider becoming a Dominatrix. I mean think about it, I could set my own hours, dress in lots of cool and kinky outfits, hire a cute assistant to do admin etc. it would be great. But then I realise that what I really want is something grander, something that truly befits my ambition and desire, Empress of the entire known universe? That’ll do. Hence why I likely have a penchant for strategy games where large scale subjugation is on offer. Total War, Civilization, it seems I’ll take any chance to consume the world in my fabulousness (aside from the Paradox grand strategy games, I’m not your dad).
As such, Age of Wonders: Planetfall sits neatly within this admittedly psychotic wheelhouse of mine and I dare say does a pretty good job of it too, spanning multiple planets and giving you all sorts of toys to torment your would-be rivals. I do wish the commander customisation was a little more extensive but its inclusion is more than welcome.
It is also an extremely dense game mechanically, but it avoids issues of accessibility by virtue of these mechanics being very familiar. If you’ve played any recent Civilisation then you’ll quickly get to grips with its world map, city management, research and diplomacy systems and despite some subtle changes it’s suspiciously similar to Sid Meier’s behemoth series in how it handles the overall management of your faction.
Likewise recent X-Com players as well as long time turn-based veterans will recognise the combat system, its use of percentages and action points, cover and flanking along with its UI layout. Maps aren’t as intricate though, with pretty much all of Planetfall’s combat taking place on relatively flat planes with cover dotted around randomly. There’s also no fog of war, making battles much more of a straight up fight with no real room for any sneaky positional tactics.
But whilst it’s easy to mock the game for such clear appropriations it is gratifying to see a developer recognise good design and understand that high standards of craft ought to be replicated rather than avoided for the sake of novelty. The consequence is that of a game which is both intricate and intuitive, and yet more crucially, is actually fun to play. The one more turn compulsion is there and it’s very satisfying to see your cities grow and develop over time.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have elements of it's own design. For all the copying on show this isn’t a complete facsimile of other games. Planetfall is far more quest and objective orientated than its contemporaries. Yes, you can win by simply crushing your opponents militarily if you so wish but the game offers an agreeable choice in terms of how to succeed in each of its campaign missions, tying these differing strategies to its story beats.
Victory can take the form of establishing alliances, creating plot devices and doomsday weapons, with the steps often involving a journey around the map, meeting other factions and characters which can make for a nice change of pace from the straightforward Progress Quest style victories you see in something like Civ.
Combat also has its own nice little touches with the ability to call down powerful reinforcements, healing stations or giant lasers to help turn the tide. There are also hero units with their own skill trees, mods to attach to your units and generally more variety in abilities than you’d typically find in similar games, perhaps in part to make up for the straightforward battlefield layouts. The number of different damage types, resistances etc. give you more to think about than is immediate apparent.
Where the experience suffers however is in the art, where some novelty and uniqueness could have given these solid underpinnings some appealing context. As it is we have a bland mix of hoary old sci-fi clichés resulting in some pretty forgettable faction designs. So of course you have your insectoid and machine races but none of the factions have the kind of striking aesthetic that’ll have you clamouring for desktop wallpapers.
Aside from a couple of decent tracks the music is fitting if unremarkable and the voice acting pinballs between half-decent and downright amateurish. There is a story, and as you move through the individual campaigns you discover it's quite an interconnected one. However it squanders things a bit with a lot of forgettable dialogue and so loses what otherwise could have been a compelling narrative thrust to the game overall.
All this showcases the biggest problem with Planetfall; for all its admittedly borrowed mechanical competence, everything that surrounds it feels lacklustre. The look and sound of the game, the storytelling, even the UI comes across as lacking when you consider the kinds of beautiful and stylish lines you can find elsewhere (the Total War series comes to mind).
This might not have been such a problem had the gameplay stood out on its own, but its similarity to other games leaves it struggling to escape their shadow. It’s a frustrating experience as it's an especially well made game given it's complexity, but without that certain something it just doesn't feel ‘special’ and in the very crowded space of modern gaming that can be an undeserved death knell. Imagination, alas, is not its strong suit.
The best way to encapsulate this is by way of yet another Civilisation comparison. In Civilisation 5 we had Leonard Nimoy narrating the science discoveries, usually recounting a famous quote from a significant and relevant historical figure. It had gravitas; it felt profound even if it wasn’t. Planetfall by contrast has some random voice actor (usually terrible) give a made up quote about a made up technology. It’s not profound and you could probably pick your nose with more gravitas (…yep, confirmed).
Yet these issues can't take away from the essential quality that's at the heart of the game. Age of Wonders: Planetfall manages to combine elements that other games struggle to get right on their own and does so remarkably well. Although it may not have the name recognition nor the flair of its influences, it is nonetheless more than a match for them where it counts.