Dominions 3: The Awakening Review
Developer: Illwinter Game Design
Reviewed on PC
Minimum System Requirements: Pentium II 600 MHz; 256 MB RAM; 500 MB HD space; Windows, Mac or Linux operating system
"The supreme God has suddenly disappeared. Prayers are left unanswered, and the smoke of offerings rise in vain to the heavens. No one knows why He disappeared, but it is certain that the people of the worlds are once again left without direction, without guiding principle, without order. Now is the time for the beings of great power and ambition to try their strength. The throne of the heavens stands empty, and only the strongest can rise to supremacy over all. Only the most powerful can ascend to take the place of He who came before. This is a time of great strife and suffering. This is a time of magic unequaled. This is – The Ascension Wars!"
Dominions 3: The Awakening is a must-have game for any community of strategy gamers, offering a deep turn-based multiplayer strategy experience. If you haven't experienced a Dominions game, Dominions 3 makes turn-based multiplayer strategy games even more necessary to play. The question is, if you've already committed to Dominions II, is it worth upgrading to the latest version of this franchise?
A serious problem with Dominions II was the lack of a tutorial. The inability to figure out the vagaries of a strategically bottomless (really deep) and almost infinitely complex game alienated a lot of players. Some couldn't even figure out how to start a game. Had Bruce Geryk (at the time, unlreated to the game) not stepped up and posted a tutorial for the game himself, it's hard to imagine that Dominions II would have caught on as well as it did. That tutorial became ubiquitous among Dominions II players. It's equally true that the Dominions II manual was an incomplete and poorly organized tome of information.
Dominions 3 rectified the situation by engaging Bruce Geryk to write the game's manual, including a tutorial. This effort has made the game far more accessible to new players, and has clarified many of the game's mechanics for experienced players. The manual makes many of the game's underlying rules transparent, and because of the game's complexity, understanding only enhances the experience. This isn't a rock/paper/scissors game in which min/max players can easily develop optimal strategies. With so many variations, every strategy has a counter (and sometimes many). Certainly, there are strong gambits, but number crunching will only get you so far.
The tutorial, however, was a missed opportunity. Just like Geryk's last impromptu effort, the tutorial is a text file (also found on pages 7-26 of the manual) tied to a saved game. Integrating the tutorial into the game would have gone a long way toward bringing the franchise solidly into the current century, and helped new players make another tentative step forward a bit more easily. The existing tutorial is far better than none whatsoever, but could have been better implemented.
The incredible variety in gambits is the game's strength, and what makes it so fascinating as a multiplayer experience. But with such complexity, a lot of balance issues remained in Dominions II. The greatest strength of Dominions 3 lies in its many tweaks to make game strategies and effects more even-handed. Some strategies that were simply overpowered have been brought into balance, and even more counters have been added into the mix. For example, there are lots of new ways to deal with demons and blood magic, mages now need more skill to farm pearls, and it's harder to emerge victorious using only a few powerful beings dressed to the nines in magic items.
These improvements are really the key point. While they have little impact on single-player games – the AI still isn't impressive enough for these changes to be significant – these changes transform the multiplayer game. As intended, basic national troops are a lot more important and lone supercombatants are more vulnerable. But what's good for a multiplayer game may be bad for your friends' pocketbooks. Convincing everyone in your community to upgrade to the latest version of Dominions will improve your multiplayer games.
There are myriad other changes and improvements, most of which are welcome. The most startling change is that players can no longer choose themes. Rather than picking a culture to play and applying special themes, the game takes place in the Early, Middle or Late age. The cultures that are available within that age then have their own themes. For example, instead of applying the Spring and Autumn theme to T'ien Ch'i, you can only play that style of game by selecting T'ien Ch'i in the early age. Also, you can no longer pre-select a type of fortress – the fortress that you build depends on the terrain and the nation doing the building. While these changes appear to reduce player flexibility, they work well in the context of the game. These choices multiply the number of culture combinations and make it less likely that certain fortress/culture/theme will tromp all other players beneath hob-nailed boots.
Other changes increase flexibility. Players get to design their own pretender gods according to a point allocation system, as in the previous game. Now, however, players can choose to postpone the date their pretender god awakens (and appears in the game). By delaying the date at which the god is usable, players get more points to spend on a more powerful deity. One change that I found more irritating than interesting is the addition of age. Now, units can grow old and die. In essence, this places an expiration date on powerful mages, who quickly become diseased and die. Players can create magic items to halt the aging process, bu this inexplicable addition simply undid some of the important balancing work.
Some changes are convenient or cosmetic. The graphics are polished, and the world map view now presents slightly more information than before, but these are tweaks rather than transformations. There are many simple additions that speed gameplay. For example, a single-player turn can now be ended with a single button press rather than going to a hosting dialog box, and the message screen now links to more information screens, such as for research results. Tweaks to the AI improve the single-player game (the AI now builds fortresses), but don't constitute a dramatic change.
For all the improvements, there are still many aspects of Dominions that should have been improved, and weren't. The most glaring issue is that the graphics on the combat screen still look antiquated. There's nothing wrong with that per se. The problem is that (no matter what graphical settings you've chosen) the game takes up far more system resources than it should to render a simplistic battle screen. Like in Dominions II, the battle screen could just as easily (if not as satisfyingly) been rendered as icons or tabletop paper chits. So, the problem with the amount of processing power required is that it disadvantages people with older computers who could otherwise enjoy this game, without rewarding people who own powerful systems.
Multiplayer is another issue. Most folks seem to play the game over e-mail, and Dominions 3 works as well as ever for that purpose. But it has problems when run on a server. Running the game on a LAN should be simple, but running two instances of Dominions 3 on a single computer (for both a server and a player) is enough to slow down (and even grind to a halt) a powerful machine. And while the new soundtrack is excellent, there's no way to adjust the relative balance of sound effects and music. So if you want to listen to the pleasant soundtrack, the sound of a psionic attack still risks blowing out your speakers.
If it seems like there are a lot of criticisms in this review, it's because Dominions 3 is such an expansive game with limitless potential. Dominions 3 is, at once, a testament to how much a small development crew can accomplish, and simultaneously evidence of how much it helps to have a large team and plenty of quality assurance resources. Dominions 3 is a spectacular game that still has plenty of room to improve. If you're planning multiplayer gaming sessions, this is a must-have.