Johnathan Vegas has two glowing fists that thump with the power of a thousand stars. I'm not entirely certain if that's per fist, or combined between the two, but honestly I think the distinction seems to be lost on most thumpees. Johnathan Vegas joined my jolly Planetfall gang and was tasked with a single mission - run a complete circumference of the planet and punch; punch anything that lives until it's dead.
While Johnathan "Don't Call Me Johnny" Vegas was off crushing anyone in his path (which basically amounted to popping random monster huts for treasure and experience), the rest of my empire was mostly cranking out settler units and grabbing territory. Because Age of Wonders: Planetfall is often a game about area denial.
You will all, no doubt, remember my Age of Wonders review from a mere five years ago. I liked it! It was a pleasing mixture of turn-based combat and turn-based 4X empire building that cherry-picked everything that worked well from a slew of other strategy games and stirred in a generous dollop of Tolkien to create something that was very much the exact sum of its parts but enjoyable nonetheless.
And now here's Planetfall, the Alpha Centauri to AoW3's Civilization. In large part, it's exactly the sci-fi re-skin of Age of Wonders 3 that you'd expect. Play either in campaign or scenario mode as one of a multitude of strongly-typed fantasy tropes catapulted into the future, from the weird undead-esque Assembly to the elfish Amazons. Build cities that are primarily there to generate money (and since this is a post-Alpha-Centauri turn-based strategy game, money is called energy, as usual) and troops to go stomp everyone else. Almost every feature of Planetfall will be immediately familiar to AoW3 players (and pretty self-explanatory to anyone who's ploughed a couple of days into any turn-based strategy game of the past 15 or so years), and those that take a little time to learn are pretty straightforward to grasp.
Straightforward. That's really this review in a nutshell. Planetfall is accessible, easy to learn and soft on mistakes. Heroes can die, but they'll either come back immediately (if they're important) or another one will offer their services pretty soon. While each of the races have their own strengths on the battlefield, the benefits they'll give you boil down rapidly into easy-to-grasp numbers and effects. Actually, one of the things I liked most about the game were the strategic doctrines. If you remember, in Age of Wonders 3 there were these battlefield-wide sorceries you could apply for a little mana to bring down huge, battle-changing effects on your foes (or boons to your own guys) and these are still here in Planetfall, closely bound to the spirit of each faction.
But on the world map you can pull off some pretty awesome feats as well - my favourite belonged to the Dvar (read dwarves, but with a natty penchant for soviet realism and strong Russian accents that no doubt have the Scottish Voice Actor's Union up in arms). This ability allows you to take an entire mountain range and level it to plains. I like to use this ability on a whim, because that's what the big dogs do. Flatten mountains just because.
Despite this mountain-flattening goodness and men who punch with the power of a thousand suns, there's a lot about Planetfall that I found to be lukewarm, predictable and safe. Which I guess is OK? I suppose it'd be true to say that it's as good a turn-based sci-fi 4X wargame as you're likely to see this year, but honestly it felt a little... obvious. The factions, the weapons (if there's a shotgun that does poison damage, you can bet up and down that there will also be a sword, sniper rifle, and pistol that also do poison damage), even the plots feel formulaic and tired. I mean it all works together just fine but the cost of this mechanical optimisation is... soul, perhaps. Planetfall is a game with no real soul. I felt that my decisions were meaningful, units were well-balanced, I had all the information I needed to play well, and everything made good sense. I never felt like the game was being unfair. These are all great characteristics. But there's just a lack of any real immersion. This is sci-fi setting #32817. Nothing more. Despite the communist dwarves.
Just like Age of Wonders, though, there is a lot of game here. The campaign is a decent length and doesn't just focus on world domination (although that's usually an option). There are normally a couple of factions involved to keep your attention split, and diplomacy has been beefed up so that you're not only doing quests for the friendlier factions, but also being forced to choose sides as they fight amongst themselves. As mentioned earlier, it's often a game of denial as you build forward bases as a cheap way to put your flag into territories you plan on coming back to incorporate into your settlement later. Although even friendly factions take these stakes in the ground with a pinch of salt, and will often build on your land and just hope that you're not going to throw a budding alliance away on a petty border dispute.
This enhanced diplomacy system is certainly an improvement (and hints toward Planetfall's move away from just 'dominate the map as the only viable victory condition), it sometimes seems a little simplistic. You can compliment a neutral party every turn so long as you're generating enough diplomatic points (and by default you kinda are), and once they cross a threshold, they'll be willing to start making moves toward an alliance - which can often be a victory condition that requires a lot less effort than resorting to fisticuffs.
I know it seems like a paradox to say that on the one hand, it's a well-oiled, impeccably balanced sci-fi empire building game with all the elements that make a great wargame; and on the other hand it feels a smidgen like they phoned it in, but there you are. That's precisely how it feels.