Phasers, light speed travel, dog fights among the stars—all things that sci-fi have become synonymous with. Film series such as Star Wars, Star Trek and more recently the MCU’s cosmic-oriented entries all centre around huge scale conflicts that span galaxies and involve exotic races and planets. These grandiose space operas often focus on flashy fights and interstellar wizards that make things move with their minds, but rarely do they shine a light on the internal workings of the civilisations in the stars. Age of Wonders: Planetfall, the newest 4X strategy game from Triumph Studios, adds in turn-based combat to bring together the excitement of intergalactic battles with the diplomacy and strategy necessary to build a mighty empire. If you are new to this genre there might be a fairly steep learning curve to begin with, but if you trudge through the overwhelming amount of information thrown at you to begin with you will be rewarded with a brilliant strategy game with a huge amount of depth and variation.
All right let’s get some housekeeping out of the way first and foremost. For the uninitiated, 4X strategy stands for explore, expand, exploit, exterminate and Xzibit. Think Civilization, where base building, resource management and diplomacy are the bread and butter. Secondly, I am far from a strategy game connoisseur. Turn-based, real-time or otherwise, I am predominantly a novice in this genre so please be gentle with me as we discuss this title. Alright, with that out of the way let’s get to it.
Sure diplomacy is an option, but would you trust that stache?
All space operas require a strong foundation in the form of a well rounded universe with interesting races, diverse worlds and expansive lore. Luckily Planetfall has all of these things in spades. The universe is peaceful and united under the Star Union, a conglomerate that live harmoniously amongst the stars and have spread themselves across many solar systems. This all came crashing down when the Cataclysm, a destructive cosmic happening, destroyed civilizations and left the Star Unions’ citizens stranded from one and other. This paved the way for factions to rise from the Union’s ashes, all vying for control over the cosmos. Now if that isn’t one hell of a sci-fi narrative then I don’t know what is. An issue that I often have with strategy games is that despite having a story, many titles in this genre tell it in a mundane way, making it hard for me to care. Planetfall tells its story through text that is simultaneously being voice acted. Though this may not sound impressive, the voice acting is done well enough that you won’t want to just read the text and skip through to the next panel.
Speaking of those factions, there are six that are playable. From the familiar space marine Vanguards, to the dinosaur riding Amazons, there is a great deal of variation between each army and not just in appearance. Each of the factions have a different motive. For example The Assembly are a race of genetically altered cyborgs that strive to assimilate all living things. This transfers into gameplay as their success requirements often revolve around either domination of the opponent or just good old fashion genocide. The differences don’t stop there either, as each faction has their own unique combat style, so playing as each different faction will feel fundamentally different. My personal favourite was the Dvar, a group of Russian space dwarves (yep) that rely heavily on machines and defensive fortifications.
What an absolute unit!
Gameplay consists of two main factors—combat and world management. Once you achieve planetfall (dropping onto a planet and setting up camp), you will be tasked with completing certain requirements specific to your faction in order to succeed. As I mentioned earlier these could include brokering peace with another race, conquering the planet or simply wiping out life on it. Regardless of intent, you can explore the landscape and spread your influence by annexing sectors, or in layman’s terms, moving into an adjacent sector and building a settlement. You will need to manage resources such as food, power and settler happiness (Preston Garvey sends his regards) by annexing sectors and building facilities that produces said resources. From your base you are also able to construct or recruit new units to increase the size and power of your army, though you will have to balance production of military with the needs of your settlers lest you have a riot on your hands. This side to gameplay is satisfying if you are on top of things and terrifying if shit hits the fan. I’ll be honest, the amount of micromanagement was mighty intimidating at first. Even in the tutorial where things are simplified it was difficult as a strategy scrub to get my head what exactly I was doing. There is definitely an attempt to ease you into things, but if you aren’t familiar with this genre you might find yourself in over your head.
There is a progression tree for both military and society and the balance of the two is vital
Combat on the other hand felt far more welcoming. Similar to games like X-COM, Planetfall uses a turn-based combat system that is gratifying and challenging in all the right ways. Do you move to take cover and wait for the enemy to come to you? Or do you make the first move, charging in with reckless abandon? Both options have pros and cons and each are necessary in certain situations. Different units vary greatly in ability; some are used as support with healing capabilities and buffs, whereas others are pure powerhouses that deal damage and that’s about it. You will want to find a balance in your army between different units, as I found myself leaning too heavily into damage output and eventually paid for it. Commander units, the player character and leader of your faction, have upgradeable abilities that further expand on combat, allowing you to focus on building defence, expanding your arsenal or sticking to good old firepower and strengthening your damage. As you progress, you will be able to expand your empire further, both in infrastructure and military. You can choose to focus on providing food and entertainment for your settlers, raising their happiness and spirits, or set your eyes on building an armed force large enough to level cities. Again, your choices ultimately shape your experience so many different play styles will be satisfied.
There are a two different options in terms of gameplay—situations and campaign. Situations allows you to choose a faction commander and a difficulty to then be thrown into a randomly generated world with completion requirements that must be met in order to win. Campaign is… well it’s a story campaign, that one is fairly self-explanatory. The campaign is both lengthy and worthwhile. Featuring the six playable factions each with their own motivations and goals, there is a lot to bite into here. Will you choose to approach opposing factions with outreached hands in hopes of peace? Or does full militaristic might sound more your speed? Depending on how you play your story will change dramatically. In fact, after playing each mode it’s pretty clear that the campaign is by far the better option. Sure situations theoretically provides replayability with its randomly generated worlds, but without the story beats driving encounters forward it feels a little flat. Not saying that you shouldn’t play the game this way, it’s a great way to test your skill, but it’s just a little dull.
Combat can be tense, exciting and difficult all at once. The locations are varied and fun to boot
Despite my lack of talent when it comes to the strategy genre it was hard not to appreciate Planetfall. With unique and varied races that are genuinely interesting both in terms of narrative and in gameplay, hours upon hours of content and a story that should pique the interest of any sci-fi fan, this is a 4X that delivers on many fronts. If you are a newby like me you might find the systems rather daunting, but if you stick with it I am sure you will find something you enjoy.