I must state from the beginning that this review is based strictly on playing the campaign, without caring for any other scenarios and, as usual in my case, without any multiplayer, seeing as I have no interest in that aspect. What’s definitely not usual for me is that I didn’t even try the editor either, despite the fact that I often tend to do that even before starting to actually play a game that offers one, at the very least to get a better idea of what I may end up facing. And no, there was no particular reason why I didn’t do so with this game; I simply dived straight into the campaign, temporarily abandoned it at some point, and after returning to it I was set on finishing and didn’t even look at anything else.
Despite clearly enjoying the game, I find it rather difficult to think of any specific thing I liked. Still, it must be said that it does do a good enough job of creating that “one more turn” feeling that’s required for any decent turn-based game, it occasionally made me lose track of time for a while and there were moments when I was rather excited about playing it, especially in the “special” scenarios and towards the end. In fact, that final scenario was quite interesting and I was rather surprised that, despite the odds being so heavily stacked against you from the beginning, it wasn’t frustrating. To a certain extent, the game as a whole can be said to be rather difficult without being frustrating and there were a couple of other interesting scenarios as well, but that final one made a significant contribution to my overall impression on its own.
Otherwise, Age of Wonders II features certain elements that I tend to see as mandatory for this type of games, such as having heroes that actually act as such and can be relied on and allowing all other units to move freely as well. I find it somewhat difficult to consider these as positive aspects in themselves, as I tend to only consider lacking these elements as a flaw of those other games, but I guess I must point out that, by comparison, I clearly liked having those heroes to handle important battles and, especially in groups of two or three, just about all the offensive on their own, usually leaving only the task of defending my territory to the other units.
Once they gain enough levels, the heroes can become extremely powerful, though never quite invincible, so if you are so inclined you can play the game as something of an RPG with an added strategy element instead of the other way around, which is great from where I’m standing. Add the teleportation gates that can be built in cities and, perhaps as the one clearly positive aspect, in the sense of a feature that I don’t consider as absolutely necessary, the interesting and massive battles that can be fought since all armies in adjacent hexes enter combat, and you probably have a good enough explanation for my lack of frustration, which is rare enough in itself.
Moving on to the negative aspects, I must start with the lack of information. When you first need to select your starting skills, you won’t know what each does. When you develop your first heroes, you won’t know what the attribute cap is, nor will you know the maximum level for skills that have multiple levels. When you research summoning spells, you’re given no real information about the units in question. The description of some spells can be lacking as well, and the same thing can also be said about some skills. In addition, no attack or damage information is shown for units that only have ranged attacks, but on the other hand those attacks have effective attack and damage values, as well as chance to hit, listed when they are used, which doesn’t happen for melee attacks. And, while I’m at it, a list of armies would have been particularly useful as well.
Then there’s the matter of the AI, which is generally poor and at times terrible. Granted, the game is difficult enough even so, which means that a good AI would have made it next to impossible, but that’s no excuse for the computer not doing so many simple things that’d make a difference, starting from moving another unit away to be able to take the wizard to the tower of the city it respawned in if the garrison was full at the time. During sieges, it can be quite laughable, taking units all the way around to another gate instead of perhaps waiting one turn to be able to enter through one that was already destroyed or, perhaps worst of all, assuming that a breach was created when one of its units that can climb or pass walls does so and making all the others in the area waste a turn by pointlessly gathering behind it. In addition, it rarely seems to notice when moving units in a different order will bring benefits, makes rather poor use of units with multiple skills or of powerful heroes, doesn’t properly develop its cities, never uses transports, so it’ll never take units that can’t fly or swim across a body of water, and even enemies will make deals with you that will greatly harm them.
Some annoying bugs exist as well. I didn’t experience any that made it impossible to continue, but some certainly make things more difficult, such as the fact that it often seems to check whether a quest, particularly a build quest, was completed only when you capture a structure, and at times it seems to fail to check at all, so you’ll be told you failed even though you did what you had to do. Some negotiations also seem to simply be ignored, which I think happens when the AI would have accepted the deal but it doesn’t have the required mana to make the transfer, or perhaps when it doesn’t have the amount of gold you asked for as well. During one scenario, both of my AI allies simply stopped moving as well, I believe after such ignored deals. In addition, though I’m not sure whether these are actual bugs or not, it’s definitely unpleasant that the allied victory condition doesn’t trigger if your allies aren’t allied to each other as well and there’s no way to persuade or force them to do so, leaving defeating one of them as your only option, and also that being pulled into combat alongside an ally means you don’t see the battle and the ally controls your units, but they retain control of theirs when they’re pulled into combat alongside you.
I should also state that the story is little more than an excuse to get you from one scenario to the next and the low number of special events during said scenarios is, at the very least, a clear missed opportunity. I already mentioned that there are a few that are different, but most, and those you must complete in order to advance in particular, can hardly be said to have any story of their own. Some sort of unit descriptions would have been nice as well, and some more notable effects of your relationship with the various races wouldn’t have hurt either… And, solely for the fact that it doesn’t fit anywhere else either, I’ll also add here that I’d have liked magic to be more powerful, though I guess that’s a matter of preference.
Once again, I focused far more on the negative aspects, but there are plenty of them and they significantly affect the overall experience, so I doubt I was unfair, though the brief notes I wrote down while playing the game probably were, seeing as they included a very brief summary of most of those negative elements but lacked as much as one word about anything I actually liked. However, as I already stated, I clearly enjoyed playing this game and will stress this now, in the conclusion, if otherwise the review may have given you a different impression. The simple fact that, at least if you don’t count Castle of the Winds, it’s the first actual game I finished in about a year and a half should be proof enough of that.
Granted, the enjoyment may have been at least in part generated by the fact that I was rather starved for a decent fantasy TBS that actually featured those elements I listed above as mandatory from my point of view and didn’t frustrate me with things such as time limits, lack of control, choices that result in completely missing significant areas, parts of the story or development opportunities, or an unfair difficulty, pitting me against challenges that planning and tactics aren’t necessarily enough to overcome. However, it seems that such games are all too rare and, despite its many flaws, I’m glad I finally got around to playing this one.