Monday, February 15, 2016

Age of Wonders - 2/20 hours

Most of my first two hours were spent playing the tutorial. I didn't notice any startling new features, but it didn't hurt to get a refresher on the rules of the game. Unfortunately, it looks like all the worst parts of the original Age of Wonders survived into the sequel.

The thing you have to do, where in order to select a unit, you right-click on it, and in order to move the unit, you right-click on its destination - that is physically unpleasant. I've played the Age of Wonders series now for more than 20 hours, and it still trips me up from time to time. And having to press a button to select your next available unit is both tedious and confusing.

But the thing I'm most disappointed to see return in the sequel isn't so much a "thing" as a "strategic consideration." Thanks to the way the game's AI is set up, your opponent often decides to send nuisance squads of fast but easily defeatable units behind your huge, indefensible front lines to take over your economic buildings. The calculus of unit-upkeep to vulnerable targets does not allow you to post a defensive garrison in everything that you might want to protect, so you have to play with an active defense, dispatching a mobile attack force to take down these interlopers before they can do too much damage.

It's a style of gameplay that is barely tolerable on my best day, and actively infuriating on my worst. Because the AI isn't getting any sort of advantage from these attacks. It can't hold a half-dozen watchtowers and mines with a single cavalry unit. Which means the only conceivable aim for this strategy is to annoy the human player. Maybe I should be more sanguine about this, and look upon it as an opportunity to practice my active-defense (a skill I also lack when it comes to RTS games, despite it being vital to the genre), but it's the very nature of geometry that my amount of units will scale linearly with the number of cities I control, but the amount of area I have to defend will increase with the square of the number of cities I control. A map layout with sufficient bottlenecks will mitigate this, to a certain degree, but it's still not an activity I enjoy.

I think my biggest regret in purchasing the Age of Wonders series is that I didn't realize it was a more-or-less pure wargame. Usually, in empire-management games I try and play as peacefully as possible and develop my internal infrastructure in hopes of a diplomatic or economic victory, but here that's not an option.

A large part of my annoyance with Age of Wonders 2's active-defense-centered strategy probably comes from that intellectual blind spot. These quick AI raids are pointless from a perspective of strengthening the enemy economy. They get, what, maybe one or two turns of gold as I sigh and dispatch a unit to chase the raiders down, but if I take the stance that the AI is my enemy, then anything that thwarts me, slows me down, or distracts me is a net advantage, even if the advantage is small. Presumably their aim is to make me over-spend on defense and draw as much of my army as possible away from the front lines.

Seen from that perspective, complaining about the shifting tides of fortune is churlish. I might as well complain about taking hits in a fighting game, or spending gold pieces in an rpg. . .

Okay, so I'm a little churlish at times. I think this is a flaw I can work around. All I have to do is resolve myself to a course of personal improvement - I WILL muster my focus and put in an effort to play the game the right way, instead of just complaining about it all the time.

And who knows, maybe I'll actually get good.

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