Just a few weeks ago, Paradox Interactive and Triumph Studios announced Age of Wonders 4, the next chapter of the veteran fantasy take on the Civilization formula, and I've been spending quite a lot of time with a build of the game to see if it is as devilishly addictive as its predecessors.
The game puts you in control of a nation in a fantasy world and from the very beginning, you notice that customization is a big factor in Age of Wonders 4. Not only do you get to choose your race, but you can deeply personalize the looks and traits of your people to suit your playstyle.
You can pretty much recreate whatever flavor of fantasy people you have ever experienced in games, novels, or film, whether they're prolific, stalwart humans, haughty imperialist elves, or brutish orcs. If you want to completely overthrow these stereotypes, you can do that as well.
You can also extensively customize the world you'll play on. This doesn't just include the shape of the continents or the climate, but also plenty of more specific scenarios that will influence the story you'll weave as you conquer. Is it a decaying world full of undead? Perhaps an ancient land governed by dragons? Maybe there's a dominant demon prince that holds everyone else under his steel heel in perfect Dragon Quest fashion. The possibilities are nearly endless. I've actually tried to calculate the number of possible combinations and I gave up almost immediately, not only because I'm terrible at math, but also because there are way too many variables.
Of course, there are plenty of pre-made options in terms of available rulers, races, and maps, if you're not into the customization aspect, but in that case, I'd say you'd be missing out a bit.
Once you're on the map, you'll start growing your civilization from a single city. gradually expanding its reach to the nearby region and building more and more advanced structures while also assembling your armies. While this doesn't reinvent the wheel, there are several aspects that set Age of Wonders 4 apart.
On top of founding and building your own cities and conquering those belonging to your enemies, you'll encounter plenty of Free Cities governed by independent rulers. Of course, you can choose to brutally crush them, but you can also use diplomacy to bring them under your fold, gradually assimilating them within your empire. This also allows you to gain access to different races in case you want to create an empire of different people with diverse traits, strengths, and weaknesses.
Heroes are another important aspect of Age of Wonders 4. The ruler you create is your first hero, and they can lead your armies in battle, but you can recruit more as you progress, either from a growing pool or among the rulers of the Free Cities you absorb. You can fully customize and evolve each, and equip them with exotic mounts and magic items, providing an extreme level of depth and personalization. This aspect of the game is super engaging, and I spent more time nurturing my perfect generals than I'm willing to admit.
I only wish that the character design offered a bit more variety in terms of looks. Most of the faces available feel a bit "samey" and tend to lean toward the rugged, angry, and middle-aged stereotype. Not that there's anything wrong with that kind of look, but this is a fantasy game with extreme customization potential, and if I want my ruler to be a handsome young knight or my elven princess to be actually beautiful like a classic Tolkien elf, I'd love to be granted that ability. The more options, the better.
Of course, war is another important aspect of this kind of game, and you'll have plenty of battles to fight if you so wish (or if your neighbors force you into a war if you're a pacifist). These are handled on separate battle maps generated according to the terrain, and you get to control your units tactically on a hexagonal grid. They're quite engaging, and I didn't find myself autoresolving them much, which is a good sign. Of course, you can autoresolve every battle if you don't want to be bogged down into many skirmishes, but I've enjoyed those I've played, and I could definitely get better results than the dice roll.
One of the most interesting and complex aspects of Age of Wonders 4 is magic (quite obviously). At the beginning of each campaign, you'll choose your first magic book and then you'll research spells pretty much like you research technologies in any 4X game. When you've researched a spell, you'll be offered a choice among three more, making the progression non-linear.
That being said, your first spellbook is far from a limit. After learning a few spells, you'll be offered another among a metric ton of books of various elements, allowing you to pick and choose your route through the Age of Wonders 4's extensive magical lore.
The books you choose will also determine your elemental affinities, which in turn unlock six different skill trees for your Empire Development (a seventh general tree is available by default), providing one more layer of personalization. This is pretty much the theme of the game: you can determine your progression to an extremely granular degree. The level of complexity this game offers is fascinating, and yet it manages to still remain intuitive and user-friendly.
Roleplay is an important aspect of Age of Wonders 4, as you'll often be offered choices and quests that will determine what kind of ruler you want to be. Are you an evil, ruthless conqueror or a merciful, kind nurturer? You can be either, and every shade of grey in between.
One of the elements I thoroughly enjoyed is the Pantheon. Whenever you finish a campaign, you can save your ruler in the Pantheon. You can then select them if you want to play against them in a future campaign and can even appear as recruitable heroes (actually, both can happen at the same time, which is admittedly a bit weird). You'll also earn points that will let you unlock further options including cosmetics, traits, types of realms, banner icons, and more. I definitely like this, as it provides a sense of overall progression instead of feeling like your efforts are completely reset when a game ends.
It's worth mentioning that I've tested the PC version, so I can't yet speak to the quality of the control scheme on consoles. Yet, the PC built felt solid and I haven't encountered big issues. It also looks really pretty (character design variety aside, as mentioned above), which never hurts.
Ultimately, I found Age of Wonders 4 extremely promising. Two months before its May 2 release for PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S, the build I tested is already really enjoyable. As a matter of fact, it caused me to lose way too much sleep. If you're wondering whether it sparks that addictive "one more turn" feeling, it definitely does. When I get to the embargo of a preview of this kind of game severely sleep-deprived as I am now, it's certainly a testament to the potential of the game.
TechRaptor previewed Age of Wonders 4 on PC using a copy provided by the publisher.