The Star Union has collapsed, throwing the galaxy which it bound together into chaos. As various factions rise, all of them seeking to find their place in the galaxy and potentially clinch the throne to revive the old or build a new empire. With this futuristic setting, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a big shift from the fantasy fare of the series so far, but still provides some good old 4X gameplay.
There’s a nice mixture of different races in Planetfall, leaning on a blend of fantasy and sci-fi tropes. The Vanguard are your basic space navy jarheads who find themselves waking up from cryosleep to discover the Star Union collapsed while they were dreaming, while the Kir’ko are insectoid aliens freshly freed from their hive-mind and Star Union slavery. The Syndicate meanwhile specialise in slavery and covert ops, the Dvar are Russian space dwarves, and so on.
On the world map, the fundamentals remain the same, as you make planetfall – Hey! That’s the name of the game! – starting off with a single colony, a couple of hero units and their armies and then having to branch out from there. You expand your foothold on the randomly generated planet through a mixture of founding new colonies and annexing sectors, but can also spend your influence to set up forward bases that can later be converted. Each sector has two biomes with associated resources, which can be further exploited to boost a colony and empire’s production, food, research, and energy.
Some of your first few steps will see you encounter the locals which range from angry wildlife camping out on abandoned Star Union facilities to bands of marauders and the local pockets of civilisation, who will happily give you little quests to complete to gain their favour. You can also expect to run into rival empires, deciding to try and befriend them or simply crush them beneath your heels and with maps going from small to enormous and up to twelve factions vying for victory there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.
There are some differences, such as the Dvar being able to prospect sectors in a grab for quick resources, but you’ll feel them more when researching military technologies and leading your armies into battle the armies you can build and take into a manual battle. It’s there that you have to adapt your tactics to take the Vanguard’s preference for ranged combat into account compared to the melee of the Kir’ko and the Amazon’s riding genetically modified dinosaurs into battle, and you’ll either encounter despair or delight in utilising the Assembly’s ability to reassemble fallen units.
The turn-based tactical combat plays out on a hex-based map, with each unit having three action points to spend on moving, using abilities and attacking. The percentage probabilities for hitting can often feel low at times, but are often balanced out by the new grazing system, where there’s an additional chance to deal half damage.
Battles can get pretty meaty, with any armies on hexes adjacent also being involved and the battlefield growing to accommodate, not to mention the defences and militia garrison that a colony might have. However, each individual army stack only goes up to six units, whether it’s a basic soldier, hulking biomechanical monster, or flying gunship.
You’ll typically try to build an army around a hero character, with some light RPG elements as they level up to pick skills and gain additional abilities. You can equip them with different weapons, building a hero sniper or phasing melee assassin. Other units can also be customised, paying to add up to three augments and creating templates.
In truth, you can often auto-resolve a lot of battles, so long as you’ve continued to evolve your armies, and military might will come into play against wildlife and marauders, even if you take a more pacifist approach. Victory conditions include usual suspects like unifying allies or simply researching and using doomsday weapons, but if you’re playing through the lengthy single player campaign, hopping between factions, you’ll typically finish a map before then. The narrative leads you to different points on the map, pushes you to ally or defeat factions, and throws some choices your way, often letting you complete a map and move on well before you would in a custom scenario.
Playing on console works pretty well, with a control layout that largely makes sense and with the game not relying too heavily on menus to get things done. In particular it’s simple to flick between awaiting events with the right trigger, and you can hop between colonies and armies with the left shoulder button and trigger.
However, there are some persistent niggles that I have, both with the controls and some parts of the game design in general. Managing the units in an army is streamlined with unit stacks of up to six, but delving in to deal with upgrades or split armies up gets me in a laborious tangle of button presses every time. That’s not helped by a pervasive feel of lag in menus for this, the tech tree and diplomacy, with D-pad presses often skipping two items at once.
There’s also just a bit too much micromanagement for exploring the map, where I’ll build a couple of scout units and send them off out to peel back the fog. However, you can’t set them to auto-explore, nor can you send them to hexes that haven’t been previously revealed, and when their movement range is further than their sight, it quickly becomes a chore. It feels like the game’s intent is that they’re part of larger armies, certainly within the story campaign, but that’s not how I would expect many people to play.
In general, the world view is also simply too visually noisy for console. Units are a bit too small against the environment, and it’s sometimes tricky to spot which landmarks and interactive elements have got wildlife infesting them. It’s better when zoomed in or sat close to the TV, but then you lose the grander perspective. Thankfully, clicking the right stick will give you a cleaner world overview, which helps a lot when trying to understand the lay of the land and territorial borders.