The Dominions series is back, once again bringing along its deep, engrossing, and incredibly detailed turn-based fantasy strategy. Fans of the series can rejoice, as Dominions 3: The Awakening continues to improve on the franchise, smoothing out some of the rough edges of the earlier titles. However, Dominions 3 is not much more newbie-friendly than its predecessors, and with the enormous amount of information to be processed each turn, and the novel-sized manual (which is actually helpful), the learning curve can be frighteningly steep. Still, there’s a very good game under all the number-crunching and years-old graphics, for those willing to dedicate the time and effort to find it.
Story-wise, not much has changed since Dominions 2. Once again, special beings (called Pretender Gods) are awakening, and they’ve decided that they’d really like to become a bona fide god. Unfortunately, there’s only room for one god in this particular universe, and most are willing to fight to gain that particular position. The only way to godhood is to convince the mortal population of the world that, in fact, you are the real god, and the rest are all just a bunch of phonies. This can be done is several ways, but the most straightforward is a nice show of strength. Gods are puny, after all. So players build up armies to capture and convince neighboring provinces of the Truth. Priests and temples are helpful in converting the minds of the peoples, and flashy displays of magic and strength help, too. Once enough folks are willing to follow a particular Pretender (which usually means the rest of the Pretenders are beaten into submission), that lucky being is able to ascend to whatever higher plane/fiery pit/slimy dimension might be appropriate for their deity.
As in the rest of the Dominions series, the early choice of nation and Pretender is probably the most important in the game. It can also be incredibly time-consuming, with hundreds if not thousands of different abilities, schools of magic, and various qualities to choose for the burgeoning god. Often the entire strategy of the game is set out in the initial choices, so these are quite important. The developers give some good starting strategies for each of the races involved, but those are only helpful hints. Players can choose to have a terrifying Fire-based Pretender, wrapped in the physical form of a mighty dragon. Or they could choose a puny, mysterious human Pretender, wielding Cthulhu-like powers from beyond the world of the sane. Or, they could be a rock. A rock with aspirations to godhood, mind you.
Play is turn based, and turns are simultaneous. Orders are given to each province and unit, and all carried out when the turn is ended. Dominions uses the hero/army concept found in many strategy games, meaning armies need a hero-type unit to lead them around, and they fall apart should the hero fall. While setting up orders for these units, orders and battle positions are also set in place, as battles themselves take place during the mid-turn number-crunching. While players can watch the battles unfold, they have no control once the fighting starts, which means careful planning is a must. Each unit in every army can be preset with an entire battle queue, from spell-casting to charging forward to meet the enemy.
Magic is also a very important concept in Dominions 3, and there are hundreds of spells to bring to bear. Part of every turn is dedicated to researching spells and finding valuable gems to power them. Some spells are mildly useful, and some can literally change the face of the world. Choosing the best spells to employ for a given Pretender is quite a challenge, and one I just haven’t been able to pull off successfully.
Games can be set in Early, Middle, or Late ages, allowing players to choose whether to have a magic-heavy Early start, or a largely-martial campaign of Late-aged conquest. In addition to the pre-set maps, Dominions 3 also comes with a random map generator, a welcome addition to the franchise. The random maps can come up with some pretty crazy layouts, but they’re still fun when you’ve played through the rest of the maps.
The graphics are almost an afterthought for the Dominions series, and the third installment is no different. Quite honestly, the entire game could be played out on a spreadsheet, so the graphics are just not necessary. However, those that are in place are functional, and the interface is much improved over the previous titles. I had a difficult time just moving from screen to screen in earlier games, but Dominions 3 has smoothed that out considerably. There are some rudimentary sound effects in place as well, again not necessary and certainly not very good.
Dominions 3 is perfect for play-by-email and hotseat play, for those wanting a human challenge. However, the AI is quite good on its own, and it has trounced me completely in each game I’ve played. I just don’t quite have the hang of things yet, and I haven’t found the perfect Pretender to suit my liking. However, there are countless combinations to try yet, and I’m sure I’ll get it right eventually. And I’m having a blast in the mean time.
So is Dominions 3 worth the ticket price? For Dominions 2 fans, you’ll find a smoothed-out interface, random map generator, and a few new races and tweaks to keep you busy for a long time. For others, I’d suggest snagging the demo first. Dominions 3 is a great game for those die-hard strategy fans out there, with countless hours to be had in fantasy conquest.