OK, let’s get one thing clear. A lot of people will not appreciate Dominions 3. This makes them neither stupid nor “graphics whores”. You are not smarter or better because you take the time to figure out how all the pieces of this elaborate world fit together. Recognizing the sublime quality of this turn-based fantasy game does not necessarily make you some sort of gaming purist.
It does, however, make you right.
Not that there aren’t serious criticisms to be levied at Dominions 3. It is more like a bigger, badder Dominions 2 than a truly new experience. All that backstory stuff in the manual never really leads anywhere. There is still too much information to gather on too many things organized by too Byzantine an interface. In order to become good at Dominions 3, you will have to stop learning other games and maybe give up sleep.
But so much is better in this version of the game that all of that can be forgiven.
For the uninitiated, Dominions is set in a world without a dominant God. So, you create a Pretender to the position, giving him/her/it strengths and weaknesses tailored to take advantage of whatever your particular race brings to the table. From here, you fight and magick your way to the top, building a stairway to heaven from the corpses of your enemies and their false gods.
I’ve already praised the print documentation. But Illwinter has recognized the importance of visual cues, as well. Gone are the vague banners that provided a poor estimate of enemy armies, replaced with rows of soldiers, clueing you into the size and composition of their forces. Who is holding which gems or items is now clearer – a small thing but it means a lot fewer menus to go through. There is a tutorial that goes a long way to getting people into the rhythm of play, though it won’t necessarily make you any good. The random map generator is in from the beginning now, though experienced players may miss a wider range of custom deisgned maps.
Dominions 3 excels as a strategy game. A lot people point to the variety of options. Dozens of races, hundreds of spells – how could you not fall in love with that? For me, though, it’s not really about the size. It could be a lot smaller and still not lose its central charm. The design beauty in Dominions 3 is the same, in many ways, as the design beauty in something as simple as Civilization or as fast paced as Company of Heroes: When do I make my move?
See, in Dominions 3 you can’t do everything, even though the size of the game makes it appear that everything is available to you. It demands focus, attention to the moves everyone else is making and some good recon. All good strategy games are about timing, and few turn based games emphasize timing as well as Dominions. As tempting as it is to eliminate all the independent neutrals around you, that’s not necessarily the best use of your time. This isn’t a world conquest game, after all, but a world domination game. Will that high level spell be done in time? If not, should I focus on some lower level stuff? Quantity or quality? Where and when? Though it can sometimes seem overwhelming, Dominions 3 is probably better at conveying that Grand Strategy sense of ruling a kingdom at war than any other game of 2006.
Think of it. A fantasy strategy game with wizards and centaurs is better at making me feel like Napoleon than Crown of Glory.
Looking back, Dominions 3 could be the best role playing game I’ve played this year, too. You are the evil foozle. Or the good foozle. You are undoubtedly a foozle sending hordes of minions to take over the world. And, like many foozles, ultimately your boss creatures and their soldiers are just meat for your unholy grinder. It’s not really about good and evil or alignments at all. It’s about making everyone worship you. You craft the items that enemy armies fear. You cast world shaking spells just to get a tiny advantage. You round up peasants for blood sacrifice. This is the top down view of all that stuff George R. R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkein are writing about.
Of course, it doesn’t really help that Dominions 3 still looks like a washed out board game. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of those maps of Middle Earth that people draw. All the terrain looks exaggerated, the units themselves are basic icons that start to run together after a while. (Which monkey soldiers are dying now? The good ones or the crappy ones?) Though certainly much more colorful than its predecessor, I sometimes wonder if a top down representation of the battles wouldn’t help more than the museum diorama look. The map look, at least, fits the style of the game and is a fitting homage to the types of things that the Illwinter team has been inspired by.
Some people complain about the price, but this is a game with more replayability than almost any flashy FPS and it comes with one of those “real manuals” that people say they used to like but miss ever since Electronic Arts sold its soul to a monolith. This is not a game for everyone, and it’s taken me months to even think that I am beyond the “not terrible” phase.
But when the dog days of August come around and my computer needs to have stuff removed to make room for the next Age of Supreme Civilization expansion, Dominions 3 isn’t going anywhere.