Review based off of playing the Closed Beta. (Which is voluntary, and invites were sent based off of forum participation.)
I like TBS games, generally ones with interesting combat systems, and the last one I genuinely liked was XCOM. I've spent the past years lamenting every TBS game that came out, because of the combat systems that resolve the battle in damage exchanges on the World Map. So I was excited about Fallen Enchantress, and I played it for a while, but it had no multiplayer which inevitably killed it for me.
So, I was overjoyed to hear that Age of Wonders was returning with all the Tactical Combat and multiplayer features that I so loved.
I've played each of the games in the series, I thought that AoW1 was excellent, AoW2 was abysmal and Shadow Magic was great. For whatever reason, I actually expected to be disappointed by this entry and was considering not buying it. After playing the beta, I can see that my initial instincts were unfounded.
There are obvious graphical improvements, and I can't really fault them, beyond what I feel is an issue with the change to lower tier unit parties. Though each of the models is well detailed, because they are stood together in a tight stack I feel the units lose a bit of their definition, this might be because of the level at which I zoom out to, but at the end of the day I need to do that to see a practical amount of the battle.
I think the time it takes to enact tactical combat is good, there are speed settings to allow you to increase unit movement and attacks if you're in a hurry, and I generally am. The game ran smooth for the most part, and my biggest issue, which is fairly minor, with the combat is that the hitting animations don't feel particularly visceral in terms of sound, graphical action and reaction. (Some do, but for the T1/T2 melee clashes I didn't feel it was as brutal as the earlier games.)
I prefer the combat system to any TBS that I have played in the past years, and it allows for larger scale battles as well in beautiful settings. (When I compare it to HoMM, which I dislike, or XCOM's, which I loved, or Civ's, which I found boring as I'm sure I would Warlock, etc.)
Each of your Heroes/Leaders has access to a number of upgrades when they level up, leveling up is fairly easy and painless compared to the earlier games (where you had to get the final hit to get the exp) so your heroes become quite strong, quite quickly, but still steps below higher tier units until they reach higher levels. Each hero has it's own class, which grants it access to class specific upgrades, but they all share access to basic upgrades to upgrade stats like Defense, Attack etc. which are fairly straight forward.
Each Hero can become a spell caster, and each class has its own subset of spells, though only one spell can be cast a turn (regardless of how many spell casts you have in a battle) which prevents the issue of your army getting instantly destroyed by a barrage of spells in the first round.
Your heroes have items slots, and you can get items from exploring dungeons etc. You can also make your own items if your city is advanced enough. I felt that there the items available were interesting, particularly the range of mounts (which unlike other gear displays graphically) that allow you to fly about, in the case of wyverns or manticores, and offer other abilities.
I thought the leveling system for heroes was quite good, I found myself often upgrading the default stats and I didn't feel that there was much variation between each hero class type, though there were some cool melee orientated abilities for the Warlord and some interesting ones for the Theocrat, as well as the Rogue. A lot of abilities amounted to global damage reduction to your party, and so the differences amounted to a change in damage type.
The class you choose for your leader (which has its own levelling/point allocations and is quite similar to a hero) will determine what research/units you will have available to you through the game, as well as three sub-specialitions you can choose when creating your hero which can give you access to new schools of magic, or more practical exploratory/empire building skills. In that regard I thought that there was a good variation of research/summons/units across the six classes and the sub-specializations added extra replayability/variation to that.
Unfortunately, I haven't had time to play the multiplayer.
I thought that one of the campaigns was excellent, and that one of them was good, I had some issues with it, but I expect those will be resolved before release. Both of the campaigns were a cut above any TBS campaign I've played in the past, featured interesting protagonists, solid writing, and excellent voice acting.
Each campaign has a text, voice-acted prologue, and an epilogue for each mission, and throughout each mission there are text pop-outs for dialogue from your enemies and allies. In both campaigns there is a branching point where you have to choose sides so I believe that would result in at least four different endings, though I'm not sure.
Either way, there should be a good amount of replayability and entertainment value from the campaigns, and I'm sure that there will be more to come (both from the developers, and users using the editor), and the excellent mechanics of the games themselves (combat, beautiful world design, variety of units and strategies) will add to the enjoyment of those campaigns.
There are currently six races, each has different benefits/negatives to its racial units, there are some instances where lower tier units are quite similar, but I think that's to be expected. Overall, I thought there was a good range of units available and that each of the races/class combinations offered a good variety of choice. Across the campaign you play multiple leaders (races/classes) though your main character always sticks with you, either as the leader or as an accompanying hero.
I would recommend the game simply for playing the campaign, or for playing the scenarios available or using the random map generator. If you enjoy TBS games then you'll probably like this one, and it should provide you with hours of entertainment. I intend to play the multiplayer when it comes out, and I imagine it's going to be fun, but as I haven't played it I can't really say for sure.