With deep and meaningful strategy games making the leap onto consoles in unprecedented numbers recently, players have never been so spoilt for choice. Even so, relatively few strategy games have the same grand ambitions as Age of Wonders: Planetfall — which combines the turn-based 4X gameplay of games like Civilization with the squad level tactical combat of X-Com. To say I was intrigued would be an understatement.
Planetfall begins with a tutorial, as you might expect. Over the course of several missions, the player will be introduced to a web of systems that expand outward like the roots of a tree. You might be forgiven for wondering how you’ll ever take it all in, but for both better and worse, Planetfall isn’t as deep as you might expect, and whilst there are many things to take in, relatively few of them will challenge the average beyond reason.
With that slightly vanilla criticism out of the way, I should make it clear that I’m reviewing the Xbox version, and so I’m willing to give Planetfall some allowances that I might not, were I playing it on PC. Why’s that, you ask? Well, let’s be honest; console-bound strategy games might be more frequent than ever, but the Xbox and PS4 simply can’t allow the same level of depth as PC’s can, whether than be because of the control scheme, or the raw power on offer.
Before we dive into some of Planetfall’s finer details, let’s begin with how it looks and sounds. From a visual perspective, Planetfall is bright, colourful and filled with unique and individual features. The units are hugely diverse, which is also a testament to the broad range of different factions (mostly playable) in the game, including human, alien, mechanoid, plant and animal based constructs.
The maps look good in general, especially in the turn-based 4X mode — which is presented in an isometric planetary view. There’s lots of visual diversity, again, and huge mountain ranges separate forests, plains, deserts and much more, giving each planet a very distinct feel. Where this visual density falls down slightly on Xbox is clarity, and I found that it was often difficult to make out the finer details of the map without close zooming.
When Planetfall switches to the tactical map, things are also fairly good. Battle maps tend to look relevant to the location where the battle is taking place (linking to the 4X map) and are filled with terrain features including buildings, cover and more. Better still are the units when viewed in this mode, with each one demonstrating its own individuality very clearly.
The only downside, perhaps, is animation, which is a bit jerky during movement and lacking in general when the status of a unit changes — such as when it is destroyed, or when it enters a space adjacent to something else and clips through it. Most of these issues are minor and won’t actually be visible if you play at a high level of zoom more often than not.
In terms of how Planetfall sounds, I’d say there are three areas of focus. The music, for the most part, offers the kind of sci-fi backdrop that most players will be able to appreciate, without ever thinking that they want to invest in the OST. Sound effects are similar, doing their job well and almost never causing an emotional reaction — for better or worse. The voice acting is the final piece of the puzzle, and unfortunately it’s a bit mangled. Whilst not terrible in terms of quality, I just found every character to be incredibly annoying, to the extent that I ended up relying solely on subtitles — you have been warned!
Flicking back to how Planetfall plays, there’s certainly a lot to do. The campaign itself is about twelve missions long, including a couple of planets that I would consider to be exclusively focussed on teaching the game. What’s interesting here is that the player will switch between races from one mission to the next, so the story ends up focussing in on the “galactic level” conflict that the races find themselves in.
Whilst the story itself is basically bog-standard fayre, the idea that several dominant races have each contributed to a significant cataclysm that they must somehow fix (each with their own view on how to do so) is a good one. I enjoyed watching it play out at a mechanical level, but because of my reservations about the actual voice acting and even some of the scripting, I did find myself more focussed on the overall picture than I did any of the particular races, events or characters.
Missions, including those in the campaign and in the five or so scenarios that can be customised to play afterwards, generally involve taking control of a single planet and becoming dominant. There are occasionally other ways to complete a map, including objectives that can enable a mission to end early, but as often as not, I found these alternative ways to win effectively required me to be dominant in all respects anyway.
Each mission unfolds with the player taking control of a small force and a single settlement. From there, they will expand their reach into neighbouring sectors by either annexing them to the nearest settlement or by using a colonising vehicle to build a new settlement. Planetfall’s 4X map plays similarly to many other games of the type, but I like the fact that players can control the spread of their own nation with the annex feature (rather than have it spread organically.)
Because the focus is on action as much as it is on strategy, there’s a lot to explore on most maps. Little golden glimmers appear all over the map as the result of conversations, mission parameters and just because a unit spots them in the distance, and all of them cry out to be visited by a scout unit. Players can stack as many as six units into a single army, and when such an army meets an enemy, a fight occurs.
When Planetfall switches into combat mode, players can choose to either auto-resolve combat (good when the odds are in your favour) or take control themselves. When a player takes the latter option, the game switches to a turn-based tactical combat simulator where units act one by one based on initiative and action points.
As I mentioned before, there are many units ranging from scout drones to huge mechs, as well as all manner of animal and plant life (warriors riding big cats, for example) in between. Terrain, cover and various unit statistics all play their part in how far something can see, move and shoot, as well as how much damage it will take. Getting to grips with the make up of a good army, depending upon your enemies and the environment, is the most complex aspect of playing Planetfall, especially when you consider the many upgrades and loadouts that can be factored in on your hero units.
The combat itself is fun and logical, with the classic “percentage chance to hit” being a key decision making force on each turn. Anything about seventy percent feels decent in Planetfall, and you won’t miss more than thirty percent of your shots at that (which sounds logical, but some games make the odds feel much worse than they are).
Thanks to this mathematical fairness, you’ll stay in cover, work the angles and so on, but you won’t need to move adjacent to enemies just to get a 100% hit chance simply because anything else feels doomed. That’s a good thing in my book, and it means that more often than not, I’ll play out the tactical battles myself (rather than skipping them) if the odds are even or worse. Sadly, because maths is maths, you’ll find that you’ll lose most of the battles that are strongly against you, simply because you won’t have enough tactical options to counteract the enemy threat.
When the battle is over, you’ll still have plenty to do to help your chances next time. For starters, Planetfall features research trees for both societal and military technologies, as well as offering players the ability to upgrade units, in particular heroes. It’s possible to take one of these powerful units and add custom weapons and skills to create a very powerful and specialised individual, who will be capable of taking down several enemy pieces on their own.
There are other features like diplomacy and resource management to factor in as well, although in some areas Planetfall is weaker than its peers. Resource management, for example, is made a little hard thanks to the poor user interface that isn’t very informative until you learn its symbology off by heart. Diplomacy is at the level you’d have expected from a PC game in 1997 – it’s about on par with Civilization II, and leaves a lot to the imagination.
When all is said and done, if I look at it as a console strategy game, Planetfall packs a lot in, with lots of different things to put your time and effort into, none of which are particularly deep. That’s not too bad for a console game, and it allows the player to focus more on expanding their empire and then fighting in the very enjoyable tactical combat missions. If I were reviewing the PC version, however, I think I’d take a slightly dimmer view, although I’d still suggest that it offers a good bit of knockabout fun.