Dominions II: The Ascension Wars Review
Developer: Illwinter Game Design
Platform: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Solaris
Reviewed on Windows
Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 300 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 250 MB HD space, Windows 95 or more recent operating system
"Too long have you been confined to this mortal realm. Too long have you been denied what should rightfully be yours. Are you not a god? Should you not be the One True God of this miserable dirtball? Yet there are others that dare challenge your authority. Pretenders to the throne, with their false priests and prophets. These miserable creatures that have the audacity to impugn your rightful place in the cosmos! But you will show them, won't you? Gather your armies, raise your fortifications, and let loose the dogs of war! The time has come to assume your proper position, to crush your enemies beneath your boots and take what is meant for you."
Dominions II is a deep, turn-based strategy game that thrusts players into the command of a nation striving for supremacy in a fantasy world. Your agenda as a Pretender God is to dominate the world's belief system and banish other Pretender Gods. The people you lead are your believers, and often your best tool for spreading your dominion, but your interests are imperfectly aligned. You need to protect your dominion (for you will perish without believers), and ensure your belief spreads while also expanding your sponsoring nation. To spread your dominion, you can manipulate the management of provinces, recruit commanders, send your commanders into the field with armies, research and cast powerful magics. And that's just the beginning. Dominions II plays much like an unbelievably complex board game in the style of Diplomacy or Risk, and supports myriad play styles. The game has sweeping potential, and (except for combat playbacks) runs well on older computers. Everything that is wrong with Dominions II could be fixed with a good series of tutorials, a bit more contextual help in the user interface, and an improved manual.
As it stands, the game's tremendous complexity is both its strength and its greatest weakness. Very little in Dominions II is obvious – not even advancing to the next turn (turn results are calculated simultaneously, so for both single player and multiplayer you need to hit "Host" between selecting and playing turns), such that even experienced gamers may find their first experience in Dominions II like being dropped into the middle of the ocean and told to swim. The game desperately needs an extensive set of tutorials to explain the many facets of the game in detail. An experienced gamer and reviewer (Bruce Geryk) has constructed a basic walkthrough that at least gives you the turn-based strategy equivalent of water wings with which to strike out for the nearest island. The manual, despite its size, is really just a glorified list of spells and magic items, with very few explanations to help you along.
Beyond the basic third-party tutorial, most aspects of Dominions II can be learned through extensive trial and error. That makes for a difficult learning process, but at least everything makes sense once you've done it wrong a few times (usually losing the game in the process). The good part is that there are just so many things that strategists can experiment with and ultimately control. It might be a long time before you learn that you can adjust the tax rates and defense settings of provinces (let alone how to do so and what the impact thereof might be), but once you do, you'll be amazed at the wide-ranging yet exactingly detailed impacts each small decision can have.
Just managing your believers' empire is a complex task that is deeply satisfying when successful. Construction, research, patrols, and unit recruitment all involve carefully balancing your resources. While they are hardly all you have available, gold income, resources (limiting unit construction) and supplies (to keep units supplied), as well as the time of your commanders, all need to be balanced carefully. Buildings with administrative value can be built to redistribute resources between provinces. Tax rates can be increased, but at the expense of unrest in the population. If you don't monitor the satisfaction of your people, provinces might rebel. It also requires skill and practice to learn how to defend your borders while still spreading your faith and expanding your nation's territories. Maps rarely have easy choke points, so you'll need to learn to use independent provinces to help you guard your borders against other nations. At the same time, it's important to have armies ready in case an expedition breaks through and starts capturing your undefended provinces. Just balancing army construction and placement with the resources generated by your provinces is a game unto itself.
Combat is another fascinatingly complex puzzle. Because all turns are resolved simultaneously, you determine which forces to send into battle, as well as the placement and orders for each squad and commander, and then watch the conflict resolve. There is a vast array of unit types and magical beings, and it will take some time before you have a concept whether the units your spies have spotted are an insurmountable challenge or a paper tiger. Placement of units is important, as many units have special abilities, and attacks are rarely completely accurate. Poor troop placement will have your elephants trampling your infantry as they flee, or your own archers lobbing volleys of arrows at the backs of your cavalry. Flanking troops are useful, and flying units can easily attack vulnerable commanders and support troops without wading through lines of pikemen. The only problem with combat is largely tangential to the actual game. Battles are rendered in a 3D view that runs poorly on even a powerful machine and doesn't look good. You'll need to watch battles for a while to understand troop placement and learn about the fantasy units of Dominions II, and even then you may not be clear if you killed an enemy leader before he fled. The game would be far better served with a more abstract display for battles that ran more smoothly at the game's otherwise low system requirements.
Magic is vital both in and out of combat. Particularly in the late game, powerful mages and priests are a mandatory accessory to a successful army or expeditionary force. The magic system, like everything in the game, is deeply complex. There are magical paths such as Water, Fire or Death. Mages have power ratings in each of the paths to represent how in touch they are with that source of magical power. There are also schools of magic, each of which contains a particular style of spell. The school of Conjuration contains summoning spells while Evocation controls many aggressive spells such as the ability to throw a fireball. Schools must be researched to provide access to more powerful spells, while paths are largely innate to individual mages and can be augmented somewhat through rituals and other spells. With eight paths and seven schools, the magic system is complex.
Mages also require supplemental power in the form of gems that concentrate power. These are produced by magical sites, but magical sites need to be found. This means that mages must search for such sites of power, or cast spells to locate them. Of course, searching for sites takes the mage's time away from researching schools of magic, summoning creatures, casting global spells or leading armies into combat. Nor are all styles of magic the same. Nature and Fire magic require gems of power, but Blood magic requires blood slaves – virgin girls with special blood that need to be sacrificed to enact Blood spells. Blood Mages need to search the populace for such victims, deeply upsetting the people and causing much unrest. Even if found, they need to be protected should the Blood mage enter combat with a chain of Blood slaves drugged into complacency (which makes them easy targets).
Perhaps the one thing (beyond tutorials) missing in Dominions II is a diplomacy system. Other Pretender Gods (controlled by the computer) are always out for your blood (or ichor... or whatever) as you stand between them and godhood. It's not surprising that, given the enormous complexity of Dominions II, it would be exceedingly difficult to build challenging opponents. The lack of diplomacy is also offset by the ease with which you can play multiplayer games. The game is set up so that hot seat games, games on a central server, or play by e-mail games are equally easy to run (although play by e-mail requires a bit of fiddling with files). The simultaneous turn resolution also makes it easier to run large games, as no one player becomes a bottleneck for the entire process. You can finagle deals with other humans as much as you like.
Most strategy games are a complex set of algorithms, coupled with random events. For hardcore fans, the more complex the game, the longer they can enjoy playing and replaying the game, honing their understanding. In Dominions II, there are so many variables that players will always be discovering something new, rather than simply optimizing an approach to the game. Modifications and new maps are already available for the game, so the game will probably continue to expand faster than it can be mastered. It's hard to describe the sheer variety of actions that can be taken in Dominions II. In addition to everything above, this review hasn't even described the diversity of attributes in provinces and the need for priests and prophets to preach your faith. All of this makes for an incredible game – if only it could be learned without days of confusing play. For those who choose to climb the steep learning curve, the strategy game they will find is deep and entertaining.