Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic

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Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is the third entry in the award winning fantasy strategy series. This fan-favorite enhances the series’ praised fusion of empire building role-playing and tactical combat with the eerie Shadow World and battle with races never before seen across new and diverse landscapes.

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Review

As of late, turn-based strategy has been relegated to standing in the shadow of real-time strategy and its massive line-up of top quality titles. Few turn-based strategy titles have broken into popularity and matched the prominence of real-time strategy games over the last couple of years; nevertheless, titles like Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic prove that turn-based strategy games are equally as epic and outstanding as any real-time strategy game. The latest game in the Age of Wonders series, Shadow Magic offers a deep, compelling strategy game with immense gameplay that stands as an example for modern turn-based strategy gaming.

Shadow Magic begins at the height of the Phobian Empire, as the Emperor Phobius starts enacting harsh laws restricting the use of magic and persecuting wizards. As military personnel begin patrolling the lands in search of wizards, reports trickle in describing an evil “shadow land” full of dark, insidious creatures. Naturally, the Emperor suppresses the intelligence, preventing the public from knowing the growing evil that is surrounding the empire. Fortunately, the master wizard Merlin contacts you from within the shadow realm, explaining the rising power of the shadow magic and his imprisonment within their realm. Merlin requests that you seek out Julia, a female wizard of great power, so you may journey with her to the shadow realm, rescue Merlin, and vanquish the shadow magic attempting to overrun the world.
Shadow Magic offers a number of gameplay modes rich in turn-based strategy including Internet and LAN multiplayer, user-made scenarios, individual scenarios, and the main campaign. Comprised of 16 scenarios, or missions, the main campaign follows the unfolding story of Julia’s quest to free Merlin and defeat the Shadow Magic. You’ll tackle scenarios requiring the allocation of resources and the construction of units for use in combat against enemies of 12 different races. Aside from the main campaign, you can play individual scenarios unrelated to the campaign or create your own scenarios using the map generator and editor; in addition, maps can be used in multiplayer scenarios online or over an LAN. The sheer number of modes available in Shadow Magic ensure that you’ll be playing the game long after you open the box.

Although Shadow Magic features a turn-based system, the game utilizes simultaneous turn-based gameplay. Essentially, the game enables you to take your turn while other players take theirs, reducing time wasted waiting for turns to be completed. You’ll still be allowed to take your time in deciding actions and unit movement without penalty, yet you’ll rarely have to wait for enemies to take their turns or human opponents to finish up theirs. The simultaneous turn system greatly reduces gameplay latency and definitely speeds up the game, resulting in a far more engaging experience than many classic turn-based strategy games; nevertheless, ardent fans of classic turn-based mechanics have the option to switch the game’s system to classic.

During turns, movement points determine unit movement. Each turn grants units a set number of movement points that limited the distance a unit may travel. Units may form parties of up to eight units, in which the party’s movement is restricted to the weakest unit’s movement point total. Once all of your units have used all of their movement points on the world map, your turn is over. Moving toward landmarks such as towns, towers, or mines, simply captures it for your party. Moving next to enemy parties will instigate an attack that will prompt the battle window.

Combat follows the same turn-based mechanics as the world map, limiting units’ movement according to their movement points and attacks per turn. Attacks can be made on enemy units that are within a unit’s range of movement; in addition, projectile attacks can be made on enemy units within the unit’s range of sight. Selecting a unit during battle, you’re able to determine the potential strength and success of an attack by the color of the unit’s attack path, represented by colored dots starting from the unit and ending at the enemy unit: green, a strong, successful attack, to yellow, a moderately successful attack, to red, a weak, improbable attack. Units that are attacked will automatically counterattack proportionate to the level of violence dealt to them by an opposing unit. Terrain plays an important role in the game, affecting unit movement and attacks. Launching offensives against cities and towns with walls and defensive positions is more difficult than attacking enemies on open grasslands or forests. Strategically placing units on the battlefield, diversifying your units, and accounting for enemy offensives and counterattacks, as well as terrain are necessary for winning battles in the game.

Shadow Magic’s faster gameplay enables a number of elements from other genres, such as role-playing and real-time strategy, to be incorporated as well. During scenarios, you’ll need resources in order to construct units for use in combat. Mines, windmills, and cities, which are captured simply by walking over them, provide the income necessary for unit construction. Dependent on the resources and research level of your towns, you’ll have a variety of units to choose from for construction, from longbow men, infantry, scouts, druids, and even catapults. Advanced units obviously require more research and resources, but tend to be worth the effort as they provide more versatility and strength in combat. Units gain experience from battle making them stronger; therefore, by keeping units alive and using them in battle, you’re able to create powerful, experienced units that are more likely to achieve victory in difficult battles.

Shadow Magic wouldn’t be complete without the use of magic; consequently, in each scenario you’ll take control of a wizard with the ability to use magical spells. Obtaining spells first requires research. Either one spell, a magical incantation for the world map or during battle, or ability, a one time statistical upgrade, can be researched at a time. Once you’ve selected a spell or ability to research, the game will inform you how many turns until the spell or ability is researched. Using spells costs casting points that are regenerated each turn to the maximum value. During combat, wizards can either move or cast a spell, but not both in one turn. Spells vary from offensive magic like shooting star, to unit enchantments such as resurgence, and even spells summoning magical entities. Progressing deeper into the game, magic becomes an integral tool that requires careful management per turn.

Shadow Magic contains an astonishing amount of gameplay, not only across its different modes, but simply in the variety of elements and factors involved in playing the game. Constructing units, deploying them for combat, exploring the land, capturing enemy mines—all take a good deal of time. The game features a nice variety of maps and scenarios that are fairly large and take anywhere from 1-3 hours to complete each. Combat varies in difficulty, from extremely easy to frustratingly tough; but most enemies can be overcome with a little time spent in building up resources and constructing an army of units. The introduction of role-playing elements is a nice touch, encouraging you to keep units alive, rather than attacking enemies in kamikaze fashion (which I’m a fan of). Overall, Shadow Magic is a solid turn-based strategy game that should capture gamers with its deep, strategic gameplay and entertaining story.

While its gameplay is outstanding, Shadow Magic’s presentation doesn’t quite live up to the same standards. Graphically, the game is a little outdated, using the same graphics engine from Age of Wonders II. Nevertheless, the visuals aren’t bad; they just fail to live up to the standards of the game and current, available hardware. Contrasting the visuals, the game’s music and sound are phenomenal. From the beginning of the game, the music places you in the game with gorgeous melodies and ambient music. Sound effects and unit voice clips are well done, making the game feel alive with activity and sound.

Final Thoughts:

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic stands as an example of a complex and engaging turn-based strategy game that is able to compete with real-time strategy titles. Despite the recycled graphics engine and undulating difficulty, Shadow Magic offers outstanding gameplay with unlimited playability in a variety of gameplay modes. The sheer depth of the game’s turn-based battle system and magic system are enough to draw the attention of strategy gamers. Combined with a compelling story, Shadow Magic is an excellent game, giving turn-based strategy fans a reason to step out from underneath the shadow of real-time strategy.

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