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In this god forsaken realm of ash and lava there is only war. I’ve been fighting it for so long, I’ve forgotten why I’m even in it. Set inside the caldera of a giant volcano, this is the perfect field for battle – and yet, subterfuge has its place. I have taken out two of my fellow Godir by infiltrating their dreams and identifying their weaknesses, giving me optional objectives on the campaign map, which allowed me to lure them over to my side, greatly strengthening my forces.

One of them may have already died once while fighting my wars for me, but you really need to understand that service in my empire is eternal, for I’ve achieved the highest possible level of Shadow magic – I have conquered death itself.

The later stages of a game in Age of Wonders 4, the turn-based 4X strategy game from Triumph Studios and Paradox Interactive, are truly a power fantasy. I have four great cities under my control and in the no man’s land surrounding them, where once proud cities of other races stood, a handful of outposts guard resources or ancient wonders – the only things I deemed worth saving from these fallen civilizations. Well, not the only things. Their Souls, naturally, have been a great contribution to my cause. A network of teleporters connects all of these hubs, allowing me to maneuver my forces and reinforce them in a short time.

That’s not strictly necessary, at this point. I can summon entire armies of Undead wherever I want, and supplement them with powerful Snow Elementals, another summoned unit. My cities churn out so much Mana, I feel like I could bury this volcano in ice if I wanted to. Such is the freedom of Age of Wonders 4 that I can kind of do that. Despite the heat, my cities are clad in ice and surrounded by snow, as I maintain eternal blizzards around them – both as protection and to provide valuable buffs to some of the structures I built here, which gain bonuses from being on snowy terrain.

Like every other 4X game, Age of Wonders 4’s terrain provides certain resource values, which you can exploit by building province improvements. There is Food, Production, Gold, and Draft – and then there can be special resources, which will depend on how exactly your faction works, like the Souls mentioned above. On a base level, the system is quite simplistic and the amount of special terrain features like gold or iron deposits is quite low – the Civilization player in me is yearning for more diversity here. However, the number of different improvements and buildings you can construct in your cities depending on your culture and research is quite astounding. A good amount of planning is required as well, because some improvements require specific terrain types to work or gain bonuses from having certain structures adjacent to them, which gives the system enough depth to be interesting.

Age of Wonders 4 City.

You can build different buildings and improvements based on your culture, tech, and Affinity.

There is an improvement called the Spelljammer, which blocks enemies from using world or combat spells in its vicinity, so if you want to attack a city protected by a Spelljammer, it’s a good idea to raid that province before laying siege to the settlement. It's not a pleasant surprise to discover that you can't call upon your combat spells all of a sudden. 4X games often neglect the idea of strategically valuable terrain and infrastructure, focusing only on cities, so this is a great addition I’d love to see more of.

Age of Wonders 4 allows you to pick a premade faction from a list that steadily grows, because races you meet and defeat are added to it. One of the cool additions of this sequel is the faction designer, which enables you to simply make your own race – you choose how it looks, add traits and a culture, decide which magic it starts with, flesh out its background, and make a leader for it, which is going to be your starting hero. Every decision you make here will influence how your game goes – there is clear Stellaris influence here, but it’s also a natural evolution from Age of Wonders: Planetfall’s hero designer. No matter if you want to min-max or have a cool faction to role-play with, the designer adds a lot of value.

You can even unlock additional options as you play thanks to the game’s new Pantheon system, a progression mechanic that awards you XP after every match, no matter if it’s in the campaign or against friends in multiplayer, based on how well you did. You can invest this XP to get more faction traits in the designer, additional cosmetic options and items, or gain more modifiers to customize your games with.

That’s another big innovation in Age of Wonders 4: Realms, which is what the game calls maps, can be modified with lots of conditions. In the game I described above, every faction declares war against anyone they meet immediately and every three turns in combat units have a chance of going berserk, which means you’ll temporarily lose control over them and decide their own targets – which can be your own troops. There is also an Underground on this map, which is a second layer under the surface you can explore and exploit. This is a Realm that’s part of Age of Wonders 4’s campaign (a series of Realms loosely held together by the narrative of the banished Godir returning with unique win conditions), so it’s been premade, but you can modify Realms however you like in custom matches against the AI or other people.

These modifiers help a lot in keeping the game fresh, and here’s why that’s necessary. Triumph is giving players a lot of freedom in the way research works in the game. You choose a Tome of Magic, like Necromancy, which adds new spells, units, and tech to your research pool. Everytime you finish a project, you get to choose one out of three random things from this pool to research next and after a certain amount of finished techs you gain access to a new Tome of Magic. While you only gain access to higher tiers of magic you already researched lower tiers for, you can always choose to begin working on a completely different type. Again, lots of freedom, and a big emphasis on choices. Awesome.

However, the devs at Triumph know their audience well. They know that we’ll optimize the fun right out of this system by always going for a build we think is the best. Realm modifiers force you to adapt a bit by, say, making it so that you play on a freezing map, which kind of steers you into getting Cryomancy so you can make your units immune to frost damage. Ironically, limiting players in some way can lead to them trying different things. Now, if that’s not your thing, you can always avoid modifiers like this, and so Age of Wonders 4 has something in store for every kind of 4X player – the min-maxers and the role-players. That said, the start of a game (in terms of resources and enemies nearby) has been streamlined a lot for the benefit of less experienced players, which can make it feel a bit samey to veterans of this genre.

Speaking of role-playing, there is a greater emphasis on this aspect in Age of Wonders 4. Random events, often related to diplomacy, allow you to really get into character and play them out in a way that’s dictated by the personality you gave your faction – but not just the personality you inscribed at the design table. Every research choice you make and every hero you recruit changes your faction’s Affinity. A race going all-in on Cryomancy and Necromancy will have a lot of Shadow Affinity and that, in turn, can unlock additional, very thematic choices for how you want to resolve events. That’s a really awesome way of reflecting and rewarding your journey as a faction and allowing you to immerse yourself in a certain fantasy. The same goes for the powerful transformation magic you can learn, which will change the way your people look, giving them demonic wings or sprouting icicles from their bodies.

Affinity plays a huge role in Empire Development as well. Empire Development is a skill tree that contains bonuses you can unlock based on your Affinity (each type has its own branch) by investing Imperium, another resource. Imperium is interesting, because you seldom have enough of it as you also need it to make certain event decisions and expand your empire, so you have to set your priorities when it comes to using it.

Age of Wonders 4 Empire Development.

The Empire Development tree requires Imperium and allows you to unlock tech based on your Affinity.

Though you can have as many Outposts as you want – small bases that cover one to two provinces – your capacity for cities is quite limited overall. To a Civilization player, Age of Wonders 4’s wide playstyle won’t feel wide enough. It’s not a map painter. That’s completely fine, though I can’t help but feel a bit sad when I see all those gorgeous spots for potential settlements I can’t use. That goes especially for Realms with an Underground layer, which often remains completely unused due to the city limit. In general, though, it feels pretty great to spread out your influence over the map, taking control of rare resources and especially the ancient wonders.

These are dungeons you can enter with only one army and clear out. Once annexed by a city or Outpost, they will provide you with unique bonuses as well as units for a mechanic called Rally of the Lieges. Every few turns, the Rally of the Lieges will allow you to recruit units from a varied recruitment pool into your capital. That pool consists of contingents from ancient wonders and your allies, allowing you to access a really diverse set of troops – that ancient grave you took over? You can call upon its corrupted souls to fight for you. That city of demonic Cat-people you vassalized? Here’s their elite infantry for you to recruit. Again, this feels really immersive, as it reflects and rewards the decisions you’ve made so far, transforming them into a tangible benefit.

Age of Wonders 4 ancient wonder.

Ancient wonders are one of the coolest features of Age of Wonders 4's map.

Armies in Age of Wonders 4 contain up to six units, though combat gets a lot bigger as up to three armies can fight alongside each other on both sides and then grow during battle due to summons. The developers have hit a good spot here, making the battles feel epic and grand enough in scale while keeping things manageable. Performance tends to get a bit shaky with many units on the field, especially when you speed things up or cast army-wide spells. Each army on the campaign map has a reinforcement range around it, which allows them to help allied forces inside that range in battle – a really good feature that eases the need for precise movement. You can auto-resolve battles as well, with a manual retry available in case you’re happy with the result – another really good quality-of-life feature. If you’re approaching NPC armies that are far below your strength, they’ll sometimes surrender without fighting, saving you time as well as giving you some units or gold. That reduces unnecessary busywork.

Battles themselves are as fun as they have always been in the series. The more advanced your units become, the more abilities they pack. Flanking is the most important maneuver you need to account for, and the AI will mercilessly exploit any weaknesses in your formation. There are tons of status effects and weaknesses, which you can easily look up in battle. The only annoying thing is that there is no explicit movement order in combat, which can lead to frustrating misclicks. In general, though, battles look and feel great. Every unit feels valuable due to the action economy and every bit of damage is important, as units will have less attack power as their HP is reduced.

Age of Wonders 4 makes use of the fantastic nested tooltips system, following games like Old World, Crusader Kings 3, and Total War: Warhammer 3, to display all the information you need about spells, traits, and everything else without sending you through five different encyclopedia pages. I only wish that there was a little indicator to show you how long you need to hover over the keyword for it to become sticky, like in CK3 or TW:WH3. You can manually adjust the delay timer, which is nice. While the UI is very functional in most cases, things like the lack of a movement tool in combat or the awkward placement of special province improvements are a bit baffling, especially because other areas of the game are so full of love to detail.

Whenever you raise zombies in battle, for example, the unit models will be based on the race of the corpse you made them from – if you killed a unit of Cat-people with demon wings, Undead raised from their bodies will look like that. Same with skeletal units. A small detail, but one that does wonders for immersion. In general, the game looks really nice. The campaign and battle maps are gorgeous and have a really lovely style. Combat maps are varied and provide some tactically important terrain to play around with, though I’d love more variety in the siege maps – especially as the siege project mechanic on the campaign map is quite good. You can recruit heroes you’ve captured from the enemy and even force them to serve you in death, reanimating their corpse – and when you do, their skills are reset so you can customize them however you wish, which is another fantastic quality-of-life feature.

The keyword of Age of Wonders 4 is “choice” – the game provides a lot of it, expressed in all of its mechanics. Lending itself to near unlimited replayability, especially once the ambitious plans for expansions and new content are realized, Age of Wonders 4 is a natural evolution of the series’ classic formula and will have min-maxers and role-players alike suffer from a severe bout of one-more-turn fever.

Score: 8/10

  • Story and narrative: 7/10
  • Technical performance: 7/10
  • Art: 9/10
  • Audio and music: 6/10
  • Mechanics and systems: 10/10

Age of Wonders 4: technical breakdown

The developers have put in a lot of work to iron out the glitches and bugs we saw in the preview version. They haven’t caught everything – if you load a combat save and click at an inopportune moment, the campaign map UI will cover up the combat UI, for example – and big battles remain somewhat prone to stutters. Status effect icons sometimes show up as white rectangles, which is not very helpful. However, there have been no crashes in combat or on the campaign map for me, so performance seems to have been improved throughout the board. This may not be the case for every system, however.

Version tested: PC.

Age of Wonders 4 launches on May 2, 2023, on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S.