Review: Age Of Fear 2 brings back classic turn-based strategy gaming
At a Glance
Age of Fear 2: The Chaos Lord is a turn-based fantasy strategy game, though it likes to push the "fantasy" boundaries a bit; one scenario features modern soldiers vs. zombies. It deliberately and unapologetically invokes the spirit of early 90s strategy games, before real-time strategy became the fashion and reflexes became more important than tactics. I reviewed the PC version, but it's available for Linux and Mac as well.
After a few turns of experimentation and getting comfortable with the interface, gameplay becomes fairly intuitive. You click a unit on your side and select an action, usually "attack," "cast spell," or "skedaddle the heck away" That last one, more formally just "move," is vitally important in Age of Fear 2. Running away is nothing to be ashamed of, and even the AI is smart enough to get fragile units off the front lines.
Actually, the AI is quite smart. It will target weakened enemies, gang up on strong foes, and charge past some targets to get a shot at your archers or mages. If you expect the enemy to march one-by-one into the jaws of death, expect again. Further, many scenarios begin with your army outnumbered and surrounded; getting everyone into position for maximum effectiveness before the enemy closes on you is a learned skill. For example, many of your casters will begin the fight with no mana; they can't do anything for two or three rounds, during which time, you need to keep them safe.
Movement in Age of Fear 2 takes a little getting used to, and it's the game's most unique feature. Rather than hexes or free-form movement, each unit has a region it can move in, determined by its native speed and what's blocking it. If you select a unit and it can't move where you like, you might want to move another unit out of its way, first.
You can also see the possible movement range of the enemy. This is vital, as many units have only one hit point, so landing the first blow is crucial. Of course, trying to get to striking distance of the foe's ranged attackers means exposing yourself, but the other option is to be picked off. Every turn in Age of Fear 2 requires balancing risks and managing resources. It's not just enough to win a battle; in a campaign, you need to keep units alive to gain XP and "evolve" to more powerful units in order to win later fights.
Units have a variety of powers, combat skills, and special abilities. Most units in Age of Fear 2 do single point of damage with each attack, so something like fire bats, which do 2 if they hit, are very powerful -- but they're also very vulnerable, with only one hit point. Spells have short ranges, even "long" ranged ones, relative to the battlefield, but moving in a turn means you can't cast a spell... so if you move into position to reach an enemy, you could be swarmed by the next turn.
The two campaigns included in Age of Fear 2 provide a good amount of gameplay, with some branching options. The demo has only the first few battles of each, enough to get a feel for if the game style is to your taste.
For the negatives, Age of Fear 2 needs some polish. I experienced two crashes, though the autosaves meant I didn't lose much progress. The effects of terrain on movement or combat are minimal. At times, the interface is oddly unresponsive, not registering clicks or targeting. The game text is in slightly-fractured English. While I do appreciate the tactical challenge posed by fragile units, the fact so many die in a single hit means there is a fairly strong element of pure luck. Also, while it may seem a minor point, the succubus's breathless reactions to orders caused my wife to wonder aloud when I'd gone from reviewing games to reviewing porn.
Ultimately, Age of Fear 2: The Chaos Lord is a decent entry in a very underserved genre. It's not perfect, but it is fun, playable, and challenging, and it shows every sign of rapidly improving itself.
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