Making friends and annihilating aliens in Age of Wonders: Planetfall

I’m a massive sucker for 4X games. There’s something about being a god which I find so enticing, but just because my therapist says I’m a classic megalomaniac doesn’t mean that I give every new 4X game a free pass. They still need to be good, while adding something a little different to distinguish themselves from all the rest. Thankfully, Age of Wonders: Plantfall builds off elements from the previous games in the series and others in the genre, keeping things both refreshing and comfortable.

Centuries ago, the galaxy was run by The Star Union, an empire that governed thousands of worlds connected by a network of wormholes called the Nexus. Out of nowhere, a nasty event called The Collapse came along, making travel through the Nexus impossible due to gravitational storms, plunging the galaxy into a cosmic dark age. This cataclysm lasted for centuries, isolating worlds and leaving the now disconnected alien races to fend for themselves. Years later when the storms dissipated, these various races have started exploring the galaxy once again and slowly started to make first (or second) contact.

Of the six races in the game, three were available for us to play, the first of which were the Vanguard. The Star Union sent out these folks on a long journey, putting a mixture of colonists and expeditionary forces in cryo sleep. Unlucky for them, when they woke up, the Star Union had collapsed along with their purpose.

The Amazon were another expedition that survived the collapse, but these bio engineers had to adapt when they found themselves suddenly stranded on a feral planet. What’s a bio engineer to do, but engineer some bio? In order to survive they performed experiments on themselves to the point where all males were eradicated from their species. They love terraforming and they love animals, including giant freaking penguins and T-Rex with lasers!

Finally, you have the Kir’Ko, the race I spent the most time with. This alien race was previously enslaved by the Star Union, but broke free of the hive mind that controlled them and are now trying to make it on their own. Imagine if the Starship Trooper aliens were not completely murderous and actually wanted to make friends.

The whole premise of Planetfall almost feels like a bit of a murder mystery, as each race is trying to figure out who or what caused the events that brought the former empire down. Old beefs will still exist as you try to figure out this mystery, and you can either go about it by reigniting old fires or making new friends.

The first thing that made me smile was the ability to customise your own commander and race’s raison d’être. It makes you feel like you’re role playing a race and their leader, as opposed to most other 4Xs where everything is set in stone. You start off by selecting your Secret Technology, which are fields of forbidden research hidden from the general population. Mastering these technologies are key to victory as each one contains additional units, mods, Operations and a Doomsday Weapon – the ultimate goal of the technology. Doomsday Weapons are planetary scale weapons which you can use to gain a massive advantage and potentially win outright.

After this, it’s over to your commander unit to customise their background, skills and looks. Perks can be added, giving your commander a backstory, as well as vices, which give you more points to build your commander with, but also bring consequences during the game. I chose to make my commander a Scholar, meaning I was able to learn Secret Technology faster, because I really wanted my Doomsday Weapon.

I was fairly surprised at the visual customisations you could give to your hero. I spent far longer than I should have, making sure I had the right coloured metal legs to match my flowing cloak. Then I ruined it by topping his look off with the ‘meme glasses’. Yep, I was walking around the map, giving off a ‘Thug Life’ vibe as I colonised areas.

Any initial trepidations I had were immediately alleviated as I played the game. The planetary interface is very similar to Age of Wonders 3 and Civ, so I was feeling pretty comfortable, and a handy tutorial meant I was able to blow through the opening turns with ease as I explored the map with my army, picking fights with the local beasts and trying to take areas for my own. Like Heroes of Might and Magic, exploring armies consisted of up to six squads or heroes. Standard squads would have a certain number of units who could be killed off in fights, so you need to plan your battles carefully.

When you entered battle, unlike Civ games, Planetfall takes the Heroes of Might and Magic approach with turn-based combat that can serve as a nice way to break up the planet management and add an extra depth of strategy. As the Kir’Ko, a lot of my units were melee based, so I had to carefully time my moves to make sure I was first to hit to increase my chances of victory, though a few of them had a toxic puke attack which came in handy for dealing with ranged combatants. I didn’t do too badly for my first battle, losing only one unit from a melee squad. The next battle I decided to let the game auto-resolve and the results were definitely not in my favour. I won, but I lost half my army in the process!

Surviving armies and your commander can gain experience and increase their stats along with the ability to attach mods, which is a nice feature. These are researched through the tech tree and can once again be tailored to fit your play style. I was able to gain a bunch of skills for my Kir’Ko leader (Dave) who ended up becoming a bit of a crack shot with his assault rifle.

Back on the campaign map, the core of the game consists of building up my settlement, learning new doctrines, expanding tech and eventually sending colonisers to set up new homes and meet other races. Like Civ, zones can be constructed in order to enhance energy gain, production for building or food so your colonists can grow. As their numbers rise, so can the number of sectors you can build to. Sectors will need to be discovered and annexed to a colony first before it’s economic potential can be harnessed. If they are too far away from your Colony Center, you could just establish another Colony all together, expanding your reach and influence.

Flowing production and growth all depends on your citizens and you need to keep them happy. Positive happiness can lead to economic boosts, while negative happiness (AKA unhappiness) can lead to riots which is what happened to me. The happiness score is treated as a resource, pooling together until a happiness event occurs. What you don’t want is an unhappiness event to occur as this leads to rioting. Thankfully, a quick dose of Martial Law put all of my citizens in their place and straight back to work.

This was entirely my fault as I’d picked the wrong option in my tech trees, but it wasn’t something that was crippling. In fact, it was fairly forgiving. Another forgiving aspect was how other races actually treated you. Generally, and I’m sorry to keep making the comparison, in Civ games the AI tends to be quite aggressive. In Planetfall, I found all my neighbours to be fairly accommodating, complimenting me and trying to strike up alliances fairly promptly. Maybe it was the glasses? All of your relationships with other races are managed in the easy to navigate diplomacy interface. Like other 4Xs, diplomatic actions can lead to mutual benefits, like joint wars or trading resources.

These games always take time to learn, but in the short time I had, I could see Planetfall definitely has depth and a lot to offer. Triumph Studios have clearly taken the foundations of Age of Wonder 3 and built upon it, creating this unique world to craft your own sci-fi planet conquering stories. It borrows a lot of good elements from some very good examples of the genre, but manages to maintain some uniqueness. With more still to come before a release in August, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is shaping up quite nicely.

Written by
Consummate professional, lover of video games and all-round hero that can be found doing a podcast, writing about games and also making videos. Oh, I have saved the world 87 times and once hugged Danny Trejo. You're welcome.