Dominions 3: The Awakening
At a Glance
God is dead. Long live... you! As a "Pretender God," you must use your powers to raise an army and conquer the world. Dominions 3: The Awakening ($60, free demo) is a game of development and conquest, often called "4X", akin to the Civilization or Masters of Orion series, though with even more choices and options. (Only Dwarf Fortress, in my experience, exceeds it in detail.) With a mix of mostly static, two-dimensional screens, a pre-Windows GUI, and often-indistinct icons, Dominions 3 is not going to win any beauty contests, but it will provide more gameplay for your dollar than just about anything else in the genre. There are more decisions to make just setting up your Pretender God (your avatar in the game world) than there are in some entire games.
At its heart, Dominions 3 follows the basic pattern of most such games: You start with a single, poorly-developed territory and a handful of resources. You explore the nearby world, raise armies, and send them to conquer the neighbors. This causes you to gain more resources, which you invest into your expansion, and so on. Fairly soon, you meet enemy nations who try to destroy you.
In Dominions 3, you have "commanders" (individuals with special powers) and "units" (everything from naked Celtic spear-throwers to dragons, demons, and many, many, more... 1200 units in all). Commanders don't just lead armies, though--you send them to scout territories, research spells, build temples, and much more. (If I say 'and much more' often, it's because there's simply no way to list every option...the PDF manual is 300 pages long, and it's an overview, not an exhaustive compendium.) There are many different types of commanders, each with their own special skills and weaknesses. Some have crafting skills and can make magic items, which they can give to others. As an example of Dominion's level of detail, the documentation notes, when discussing equipment, that "a non-human commander may have no head slot. Or no feet."
To begin your reign of conquest in Dominions 3, you send scouts to nearby territories to see who is weakest, begin researching spells or constructing defenses, then assign troops to a commander and order them to march in the direction of a hostile region. You can fine-tune the orders for each squad of troops, and the orders for the commander, and the positioning of each squad relative to the others, all with multiple levels of detail and choices, Then you "end turn," and a message pops up to inform you there was a battle and tell you how it went. Similar to Gratuitous Space Battles, there is no battle-level control; you pick your troops, you give them orders, and you hope. What you can do is watch an animated replay of the battle, where you can see your troops do battle, casting spells, lobbing spears, and otherwise engaging in violence. It can be fun to see the results of your planning, and learn from success or failure. I experienced some oddities with the battle playback, but updating graphics drivers and applying a downloadable patch corrected them.
The primary flaw I found in Dominions 3 is graphical, but not the fact the graphics are simplistic and 90s-styled. Dominions aims for functionality over aesthetics and criticizing the lack of 3-D explosions in this game would be like criticizing the lack of a deep storyling in Doom. The problem is that some of the graphics aren't very functional. When choosing units to assign to armies, I had to right-click very often to read the unit's names; it was difficult to tell my spear-throwers from my light infantry by the icons alone. Simple graphics are fine, but indistinguishable graphics are not. The second flaw is the high level of modality; almost everything you do takes up the full screen, so it's impossible to look at one type of information when making a decision about another. This causes a lot of redundant backing in and out of screens as you check various factors.
Based on the game's goals and target audience, I give Dominions 3: The Awakening four out of five stars. Sixty dollars is a lot for a game that's not bleeding-edge new, but the amount of gameplay you get for that money is exceptional, and there is an active modding and multiplayer community. If you like deep, detailed, turn-based play and like to have mountains of statistics presented to you (from the armor type of the troops to how well they can survive without food in any given terrain), you will very likely enjoy Dominions 3 immensely. If you prefer real-time games, glitzier graphics, or a more modern interface, Dominions 3 may not be to your taste... but give the demo a try, just in case. The demo has a 40 turn limit on games, and offers fewer nations, units, and spells.