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Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic PC CD-ROM

Published by Gathering
Developed by Triumph Studios
Released - Out Now
Price : £29.99

It's difficult to have nothing but admiration for Triumph Studios. When Age of Wonders was released, many moons ago now, it faced stiff opposition from other well established, and hugely popular, fantasy based strategy game series. Heroes of Might & Magic, Warlords and many others were going strong and Age of Wonders had a lot to do to win over gamers. However, Age of Wonders was a very good game and it not only survived but also attracted it's own loyal following. Last year when the sequel, Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne, was released it was clear that the Age of Wonders series had become a major force and as good as anything else in the fantasy strategy genre.

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic isn't really a sequel as such, at least not in the true sense, and actually appears to be very similar to AoW 2. It would probably be more accurate to call Shadow Magic a deluxe version of AoW2 but with a different campaign at it's core. Triumph have gone to great lengths to ensure Shadow Magic will appeal to both newbies and seasoned players. A new, more comprehensive, tutorial has been included which makes learning the game much easier this time around and this makes Shadow Magic the best title to buy if you're looking to buy a game in the fantasy strategy genre.

The main inclusion in Shadow Magic has to be the random map generator. The big criticism with AoW2, from veteran gamers, was the lack of a random map/scenario creator. Don't get me wrong AoW2 had many hours of play in it but a random map/scenario creator means that the game need never end, even when you have finished the campaign and stand-alone scenarios. To create a random map/scenario you can opt to go with the basic setup and choose either a Battle scenario, an Epic scenario, an Archmage scenario or an Empire Building scenario. Alternatively you can opt for an advanced game setup and select a multitude of parameters such as which races are allowed, what terrain is allowed, the number of heroes and cities, the number of independents and the number of magic spheres etc. It truly is a superb addition to the game.

Other new additions include three new races (the Nomads, the Shadow Demons and the Syrons) which bring the total number of races in the game to an impressive 15. More spells and units have been added. The game is now more finely balanced and as a result the game is a great experience no matter what race you pick to play as. There are now race specific buildings that build special units. For example, a secret glade allows the Elves to build a Treeman. An Item Forge has also been added so you can create custom items for your wizards and heroes. A new level has been added so now you have the surface, underground and shadow world to keep you busy. Those of you who like to construct your maps will be very pleased to know that Shadow Magic features an enhanced editor which allows for painless campaign creation. Even if you don't like to create your own campaigns, this tool is a great inclusion as it means you'll eventually be able to download user created campaigns from the various fan websites.

Of course with all these additions and refinements it's difficult to remember that there is actually a 16 scenario campaign at the heart of the game. The campaign is concerned with the quest to unite the ancient races, thwart the Shadow World and bring down Emperor Phobius, not forgetting that we have to rescue Merlin. It's a nice touch that the campaign offers a choice of starting points as it adds incentive to be replayed. You'll also find a tutorial in the campaign but this is optional (although it highly recommended as it's excellent for beginners).

Graphically thinks haven't really changed from AoW2. This is no bad thing though as it looks as impressive as it possibly could for a 2D title and the game wouldn't really benefit from being in 3D. The superb, 3D assisted, spell effects still look excellent too. You can also add your own custom portraits for wizards and heroes if you want too. Shadow Magic can be run in resolutions ranging from 800x600 all the way up to 1600x1200 and it's also possible to run the game in windowed mode.

Shadow Magic is absolutely fine for deaf gamers. All information within the game is given in text. The campaign scenarios begin with both speech and scrolling text to deliver the story. The objectives can be recalled at anytime from the options menu so you'll never lose sight of the goals that have to be achieved. The only part that isn't subtitled is the introductory cutscene which is a shame as it gives the background story for the campaign. I don't know if there is a strategy guide for Shadow Magic but thanks to the wonderful depth (and usefulness) of the superb 192 page manual you're never going to need one. The manual covers all the information you could possibly wish to know and includes detailed descriptions of each of the games 15 races.

Shadow Magic is the best version of Age of Wonders so far and I would say it's the benchmark title in the fantasy strategy genre. The additions and refinements that have been made since AoW2 make this well worth the asking price. The game can even be played over a LAN or the Internet and the Gamespy online gaming system is fully supported. It's a highly polished title that will appeal to newcomers and series veterans alike.

Overall Game Rating: 9.3/10
A superb overall package. Shadow Magic is the most complete fantasy strategy title to date and sets the benchmark for the genre.

Deaf Gamers comment:
Aside from the introductory cutscene being unsubtitled there are no problems for deaf gamers with Shadow Magic.