They do move in herds…

Of all the varied visions of the future we see in games, some of my favorites have always been the ones that include dinosaurs. Age of Wonders: Planetfall doesn’t skimp on these Cretaceous throwbacks, and it’s all the better for it. Combining a detailed 4X campaign layer with XCOM-like tactical battles, Triumph’s first foray into sci-fi has a lot of elements that will look familiar to a turn-based strategy veteran. But the way they’re assembled is not quite like anything I’ve played before.

The backdrop for all this hex-based expanding, exploring, and exterminating is that there used to be a grand, galactic government that ruled over settled space peacefully, and everything was great. You know, unless you were a slave. Every shining beacon of spaceborne civilization has to have a rotting, decadent core after all. But a couple hundred years back, that all fell apart and left scattered groups of ragtag survivors to pick up the pieces and try to make something with them.

All of Planetfall’s factions represent some segment of the old galactic society that has gone off and developed new strategies for surviving in a much rougher, much less certain starscape. Each time you load up a new map, you’ll be aiming to help one such group either settle on a new frontier or, even more interestingly, reclaim a fallen world that was once a jewel of the old order. The developers said they took inspiration from games like Fallout for this latter sort of scenario, and in the course of my session, I found myself sending units into forgotten facilities and using dialogue prompts to make decisions about what to do with the abandoned secrets within. This interplanetary archaeology angle gives a welcome new dimension to the familiar process of clearing fog of war and revealing the map.

I got to check out three of the six factions hands-on ahead of its August 6 release, and they all have a strong personality and distinct fighting style. If you don’t want to get too weird, the Vanguard will probably be right up your alley. A militaristic band of good ol’ fashioned humans, they were soldiers of the old regime that have been in cryosleep for a couple centuries and are just now waking up to find that the institutions they served have long since crumbled. This gives them a Captain America-esque, “Man out of time” sort of outlook and a special drive to discover just what the heck the galaxy has become. Like the player, they’re encountering all of this crazy stuff for the first time. And if you’ve played other turn-based strategy games, their way of fighting will feel familiar as well. Using a combination of infantry, vehicles, and robotic drones, they rely heavily on taking cover and using overwatch to protect their entrenched positions.

But I know what you’re thinking. Where are my dang dinosaurs? Those would be wards of the Amazon faction, an all-female society that is the successor to all of the knowledge of biology and genetic engineering before the collapse. I wasn’t told why they’re all female, but that there is a lore reason for it we’ll have to discover ourselves. In addition to genetically enhancing their own bodies, the Amazons have brought back the dinosaurs to serve as mounts and shock troops. Because, c’mon – given the chance, who wouldn’t? They also have powerful archer units, giving them a good mix of melee and ranged options.

The last faction I looked at, and perhaps my favorite, is the Kir’ko. One of the only non-human factions, this insectoid race was enslaved by humanity under the old order and only managed to break free and forge their own path after the collapse. Their tactical style puts a strong emphasis on closing the distance to the enemy to deal heavy melee damage, and their hive mind makes their troops tougher when they stick together and have their buddies on adjacent tiles. The devs pointed out that there are hard counters to this, though, as there are with all factions.

Since the Kir’ko like to fight all bunched up, they’re especially vulnerable to area of effect damage. The Vanguard, with their reliance on ranged attacks, can be in trouble if you are able to get right up in their faces. There are a couple of ways to prepare for this, of course. For one thing, each troop type in your army can be upgraded to alter their battlefield role, emphasize their strengths, or shore up their weaknesses using gear and ability modules you’ll research or find by exploration. Another is to hire units from the neutral factions around the map, which can have their own crazy abilities and potential to set up combos. On one map, I befriended some psychic fish beings who gave me access to a powerful, flying spellcaster.

The other big feature I got a glimpse at is Doomsday tech, Planetfall’s very in-your-face version of a science victory. You’ll select one of the available Doomsday techs at the start of each campaign, and it’s not revealed to your opponents. If you can get to the end of the tech tree and finish the final project it unlocks, the world will be yours. Along the way, the Doomsday tech you selected will have its own section on the tech tree that builds up to the grand finale with related, smaller techs that can give you an edge. So even if you’re not going for a science victory, this choice will be highly impactful. The two Doomsday possibilities I was able to see were the Promethean, which involves hiding all of your friends in a bunker while you essentially wipe the planet clean of life from orbit, and the Xenoplague, which has you infecting everything on the planet with a microbe that will ultimately integrate everything into a hive mind under your control. Any faction can pick any Doomsday tech, so for instance, two Vanguard players on the same map might see their societies develop along very different lines throughout a campaign.

T.J. Hafer is a contributor to IGN. Talk 4X and/or dinosaurs with him on Twitter at @AsaTJ.

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