Some games are definitely worth a second look. Such is the case with the surprisingly enjoyable and deep turn-based fantasy strategy game, Dominions 2: The Ascension Wars. When I first loaded Dominions 2, just before the Christmas rush, I was underwhelmed. At that time, it seemed a bit clunky, none too pretty, and horribly, horribly complex. A few hours’ play didn’t seem to help too much—there was no in-game tutorial, the manual wasn’t all that kind to the newbie, and I found myself consistently getting trounced on the easiest difficulty setting. This did little to build up my self-esteem, so I set it back on the shelf for a bit as I trudged through a few other titles.
On my second foray into Dominions 2, I came back prepared. I headed out to the developers’ discussion forums (www.shrapnelgames.com), found some very helpful strategies and advice, and began to finally “get it”. Bolstered with new confidence and resolve, I dove back into the game, this time eager to get into the extensive strategies I began to see shining through. After some much more extended play, I still haven’t managed a victory, but I’ve been having such a blast that winning isn’t all that important right now. Besides, next time, I’m certain I’ll crush all those who oppose me…
In Dominions 2, players take on the role of a powerful mortal, called a “Pretender god”, wanting to achieve ascension to real godhood (hence the title). Worship is needed for a Pretender to become a god, so much of the game is spent trying to win enough prayers and supplications to kick off the ascension process. Those that refuse to see the Bright Light of Goodness (or the Tentacle-y Slime of Evilness, depending on your preference of Pretender) need to be summarily ground into the dirt, being heathen unbelievers. Of course, there are other paltry mortals who have come under the mistaken belief that it is their Divine Right to achieve deification. These false Pretenders are busy raising their own armies, sending out their own preachers and prophets, and so they must also be dealt with if the Rightful Power is to ascend.
This all boils down to a familiar turn-based fantasy strategy outing, complete with the requisite resource gathering, army building, and magic researching. This in itself doesn’t set Dominions 2 apart from any of the other turn-based strategy games, until one considers the sheer enormity of the undertaking. Even from the beginning, the choosing of the Pretender god, the choices are almost overwhelming. First, players must decide which race will be their Chosen ones, the Holy Arm that drives them to power. There are almost 20 different races to select from, each with vastly different play styles. After a race is chosen, players must choose the proper Avatar to represent their Pretender. Different Avatars have differing strengths and weaknesses, and there are dozens to choose from. Some are fierce warriors, some powerful mages, and others are much more exotic representations, such as an immobile black obelisk or a shimmering, sentient fountain. Finally, the Domain of the Pretender must be designed, which entails hundreds (if not thousands) of different possibilities.
Once a Pretender and Dominion is decided, the game can actually begin. Players start with a single province on the map, garrisoned with the Pretender’s Avatar, a few leader units, and a handful of regular units. The game flows in typical turn-based strategy fashion, with the collection of resources (gold, magic gems, and the general “resources”), building up of armies, research into All Things Arcane, and eventually the conquering of friends and neighbors. Since achieving godhood is the main focus of Dominions 2, spreading the word and worship of the Pretender is just as important as crushing enemies. Each race has priest units, able to preach the glories of their Pretender to the newly conquered masses, which increases the Pretender’s influence over a particular province. In each turn, the various Pretenders set up all orders (building, research, movement/combat, recruiting), and then every order is carried out simultaneously. In addition to making Dominions 2 perfect for play-by-email multiplayer goodness, this makes for some interesting (and often difficult) choices. Armies you wish to attack may very likely move out of their current province just as you’re moving in. Reports from spies are always a turn out of date by the time you can react to them. Chasing a particular enemy commander is very difficult, almost puzzle-like, in attempts to block them in. This simultaneous turn mode also makes combat a bit unique.
Since all battles take place during the simultaneous “Hosting” phase of the turn, they are completely automated. Battle formations and orders are given during the turn, but once battle begins, the units are on their own. Players have the option of micromanaging, to some extent, due to the intricate army-managing screen. Mages can be ordered to cast particular spells in certain sequence, fighting units can be ordered to charge forward or hang back, and can be told to target particular types of enemy units. Or, for those who wish a more hands-off approach, these choices can be left up to the AI to handle. Most units are formed into squads, a commander followed by several non-commander units. These squads will rout when their commander is killed or they suffer enough casualties. Once the entire army on a particular side is routed, the battle is over. At the beginning of the next turn, players can watch the replay or read the report of the previous turn’s fighting. The battles themselves aren’t all that exciting to watch, but it is enjoyable to hit the “next-turn” button with fingers crossed, waiting to see how it all turned out.
While watching the battles can be a bit nail-biting, it certainly isn’t pretty. Nor is much of the rest of the game. Most of the game plays out on a static, 2D map overlaid with various pop-up menus. The battle scenes aren’t much more exciting, with small and often hard-to-differentiate units duking it out. Since this is primarily a turn-based strategy game, graphics really aren’t all that important. Sound is also a bit lacking, but again, this doesn’t detract from the play of the game in the least. The music is actually pretty good, but there isn’t very much, so it becomes repetitive rather quickly. I tend to play my own soundtracks for turn-based strategy games, so this isn’t much of an issue either. As for my initial impressions of a clunky interface, well, I got over most of that. It’s still not as smooth as I would like, but there’s a lot of information to process, and the pop-up menus do a decent job. Learning the hotkeys is important, though, and will help a lot in smoothing over the slightly rough interface edges.
I really can’t begin to scratch the surface of this game in one small review. There is a lot of depth and strategy here, which can be very rewarding for those who wish to take the time to delve in. This is also one of those games that just won’t appeal to everyone, nor is it even a safe bet for turn-based strategy fans. I was turned off at first, but after a bit of time and patience, I’ve found Dominions 2 to be an incredibly enjoyable (and challenging) game. I highly recommend the “try-before-you-buy” approach. Head on over to Shrapnel’s website
, grab the demo and walkthrough, and give this title the time and patience it deserves.