As Reaxxion’s house curmudgeon, it’s my job to stand athwart gaming history with my middle finger in the air. That translates into telling you why Steam achievements are stupid, explaining why critically acclaimed AAA titles are a cancer on the game industry, and mocking gamers who jack off to polygonal characters having sex. But it also means I have to praise the occasional modern game that gets everything right.
Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension is the kind of game that melts my icy, cynical heart. I enjoyed Civilization II back in the day, I loved the Age of Wonders games, and I blew many a weekend in college on Galactic Civilizations II, but I’ve found the one game that trumps them all. Dominions 4 is so complex, so rich and so addictive that it took an act of God to get me to shut the game down long enough to write this review.
Be forewarned, though: this game is merciless. If you enjoy pretty explosions, half-naked women and cinematic plots, stick to playing Call of Duty. Even gamers who enjoy more popular turn-based strategy titles like the Civilization series will probably run screaming from Dominions 4. This is a game for the hardcore of the hardcore, the battle-weary gamers for whom “just one more turn” represents a wasted youth. We paid for our choices, and Dominions 4 is our reward… with interest.
Learning Curve? More Like Learning Cliff
Just about everything about Dominions 4 is designed to repel the casual gamer. When you first boot the game up, you’re treated to a main menu panning over a barren fantasy landscape while medieval Celtic flutes pipe away in the background. The game’s 3D graphics are cutting-edge for 1997, featuring ugly, low-res textures and units that are nothing more than 2D sprites. When you’re not watching crudely-drawn mages waving their hippie sticks at each other, you’ll be staring at the overview screen, which looks like a hand-drawn map from a paper-and-pen RPG.
The premise of Dominions 4 is that you’re a pretender god, and your mission is to exterminate all the other pretender gods so you can ascend to divinity yourself. You do this by conquering provinces, spreading your dominion (the range of provinces who worship your pretender, regardless of whether you actually control them), and researching magic to wipe out your foes. Dominions 4 introduces a new feature called Thrones of Ascension, special provinces that grant your pretender additional powers and make winning the game less of a slog compared to its predecessors.
Think you can just jump right in and play? Think again. You begin by creating your own pretender, choosing from one of 75 different nations, each based off of real-world mythology (for example, the nation of Arcoscephale is derived from ancient Greek myths). Depending on which nation you choose, you also have to pick between three eras: Early, Middle or Late, with earlier eras emphasizing magic and later ones focusing on technology. Then you customize your pretender by adjusting dozens of variables, ranging from the physical form your pretender takes to the specific climate of his/her dominion.
Starting to get confused? Try thumbing through the game’s manual, which is a hair short of 400 pages and contains everything from detailed statistics on every unit in the game to in-depth digressions on Dominions’ lore. If alt-tabbing between the game and Adobe Reader gets to be a pain, you can order a print copy from Lulu for only $11 plus shipping and handling. It’s worth the money: Dominions’ manual was written by Bruce Geryk, best known for the “Tom vs. Bruce” columns he co-authored for Computer Gaming World. And if what Geryk says is any indication, Dominions 4 is well on its way to becoming Skynet.
A Cult Is Just a Religion With Bad PR
But assuming you can scale this Mount Everest of obtuse interface design and overcome the lack of in-game help, Dominions 4 will suck you in like a turd down a toilet. The game’s customization, from creating your pretender god to leading your nation to victory, is so varied and deep that you could spend the rest of your life playing nothing but Dominions and never even get close to exploring all its different options.
Dominions 4 is also fantastic because it actually has intelligent AI. In contrast to Civilization V’s annoying AI players who will declare war on you, then sue for peace ten turns later without so much as getting a single unit into your territory, Dominions’ AI nations actually put up a fight. Expect to lose and lose often until you’ve gotten the hang of the game’s mechanics, even on the lower difficulty settings.
What keeps me coming back to Dominions 4, to the point where my editors are going to need to lob tear gas into my apartment to get me to meet my deadlines, is that it’s a game where just about anything can happen. Much like Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft, there’s a certain joy in watching the game’s randomly generated worlds spit forth scenarios that are so surreal you couldn’t make them up. Dominions 4 is a game where you can watch African tribals clash with the spawn of Cthulhu, enslave mermen to fight alongside elephants and giant snakes, and lay waste to entire continents through the power of blood magic.
If you’re the kind of gamer who’s caught yourself playing turn-based games into the wee hours of the morning, Dominions 4 will glue your ass to your computer chair. The game’s DOS-era accessibility, primitive graphics and poor optimization (on my relatively new computer, the 3D graphics chug at around 17 frames per second) will send the kiddie gamers back to their coma-inducing first-person shooters. If you have an attention span longer than an episode of Pawn Stars, though, you will be enthralled by Dominions’ world.