Dominions II: The Ascension Wars

Dominions II: The Ascension Wars

The original Dominions is the poster child for brilliant game design obscured by interface opacity and primitive graphics. The sequel won’t win any art awards and the interface is still cumbersome, but these two aspects have been improved just enough to let the incredible gameplay shine through. And once you’re hooked, the rest makes little difference.

Deep, Deeper, Deepest

The way the game reveals itself in layers is simply stunning. At first glance, it appears to offer just a map divided into various provinces in which you move your armies, collect income, build fortresses and temples, and research magic, all with the goal of extending the religious dominion of your pretender god. Even with the help of the thick manual, it all seems a bit bewildering at first. Then you’ll figure out how to take advantage of your race’s strengths in the tactical-combat system. (You can give detailed setup and targeting orders, but you can’t directly control armies in combat—instead, you watch a nail-biting replay of the battle.) Then you’ll learn how to augment your armies with selected spells from the rich magic system. Then you’ll start to see how dominion control works. Then you’ll realize that you’ve spent points on your god in the entirely wrong way, and you’ll see how to improve everything. Then it will be 3 a.m.

The game has a lot of nuances that can be picked up only from repeated playings, but the basic rules are straightforward. Provinces are rated for income, resources, native race, and population, and they may have magic sites that provide crystals for the detailed magic system. Armies can’t move without commanders, and the way in which you set up your troops before combat makes a huge difference in their performance. You’ll have to build temples to expand your dominion, fortresses to gather resources, and laboratories to research magic and hire special units. There are many races with widely varying abilities—not just renamed units with different models. All turns are resolved simultaneously, which creates a real feeling of tension, especially in the excellent multiplayer mode.

Head Of The Old-School Cclass

Those who harbor any nostalgia for the old days of gaming will find that Dominions II actually brings them closer to the cherished immersion they got from games like Seven Cities of Gold than any emulator or port can, yet it also stands on its own as probably the best 4X strategy game of the past five years. The way in which barely adequate graphics combine with incredible gameplay depth is mysterious yet intoxicating. The game has everything: massive armies, epic battles, a ton of cool spells and magic items, great music, and more strategy than you’ll be able to figure out in a year. You can even play as the Cthulhu race, complete with void summonings and Deep Ones as your soldiers. Trying to describe the game in this small space is futile—if you end up buying it, you’ll be talking about it forever.

Verdict: The most gameplay in any 4X game available anywhere.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Computer Gaming World.