Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings
William H Gates III may well be the stepson of Satan, but by the horns of his adopted father, the boy's done all right for himself. No matter what gripes you have over Internet Explorer, DirectX or Windows, Microsoft's games have come on leaps and bounds since they released that soccer game a few years back.
Significantly, in fact, since Age Of Empires, Microsoft's steady stream of entertainment applications has generally been of a very high quality. And if Ensemble Studios' Age Of Empires IIis anything to go by, Microsoft's next batch of games are going to be even better.
Initially, after just a few hours of dabbling with the game, indulging in a spot of one-player skirmishes or dipping a toe into one of the five single-player campaigns, I wasn't too impressed. I actually blurted out - to my eternal shame - something along the lines that it was a bit shit. Then, as the hours rolled by, I gradually warmed to its hidden charms. I wouldn't go as far as to say that Age Of Empires II is the most addictive game on the planet, but I can certainly see myself playing it on a regular basis, at least until the next game appears in a couple of years' time -which I'm sure it will.
First impressions, then, are a bit 'been-there, done-that'. You collect resources (in this case food, wood, stone and gold), then you assemble buildings, spend resources on military units and then twat your opponent into submission, be they real or not.
However, it's not quite that simple. If we take the resource management side of things, it would be fair to say that Age II has no equal on PC. Getting food isn't just about sending your peasants off to gather nuts. You can herd sheep, hunt deer, pick berries, fish and farm. Then you have to build a mill to hoard your dead meat and fruit before it starts to smell, likewise, you'll need a mining camp to stash gold and stone, a lumber camp for wood and a dock from which you can send ships to dredge the oceans. The resource management could be a game in itself (though not a very good one, admittedly).
Go On Then, Say It...
'But we have been there,' I hear you all cry, and in a sense you'd be right. If you've played and enjoyed the original Age OfEmpires, you'll feel right at home with its sequel. You have the same resources to collect, essentially the same ages to progress through (though this time they're called Dark, Feudal, Castle and Imperial), and largely the same types of units: infantry, cavalry, siege weapons and ships. Like its predecessor, however, Age 2 is a carefully balanced blend of units, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses, and like all strategy games, Age II is the interactive equivalent of two people whipping their hands from behind their backs and one shouting 'Nyah, stone blunts scissors', before promptly being beaten about the jaws. It all comes down to evolution, really, and Age II is as about as highly developed a game as you are likely to find. Its subtle differences from its illustrious forefather may be small in number, but they have a big impact. Where the first game was brilliant, if a little rough around the edges, the sequel has been buffed up to a glorious shine.
After a brief introductory movie, you are immediately thrown into the usual opening menu. No doubt many people, most of whom will be familiar with the first game, will delve straight in by choosing a map, take charge of one of the 13 civilisations and start building with a few chums, whether they're online or artificial. To miss the single-player campaigns, however, would be a mistake. Unless you're a complete newcomer to this type of game (ie you're still trying to get your PC's foot pedal to work), I would avoid the William Wallace training campaign and plump straight for the Joan Of Arc series of missions. Whatever campaign you choose, you will notice straight away that far from each separate mission being a cut-down version of the skirmish-type of game, where you just build a base of operations and hunt down the foe, in most cases you start off with a ready-made army prepared for battle. You'll notice, too, that each mission has its own graphics, unique buildings and many scripted elements, as well as a historic background for you to lose yourself in. You will often march into a pitched battle between two massive armies, and although you won't be able to join in, you'll certainly want to watch.
It has to be said that some missions are very craftily written. I was stuck for a couple of hours on one where two British tribes were attacking my city and I had to destroy one of their castles. Waging a war on two fronts, as you know, is pretty tricky. How, then, to keep one enemy at bay while taking on the other? I figured it out in the end. Age II is not always about brute force -you need at least half a brain as well. Thankfully, one half of mine is still active, if a little slow.
Whether you play a full campaign, where your objectives are obvious and the means to achieve them are limited, or a deattimatch or random game where the scope is much broader, what is essentially so right about Age II is the balance of each of the units. Laying siege to an enemy settlement isn't just about planting a line ot trebuchets or bombardiers and pounding a wall into the ground. Enemy archers, garrisoned in guard towers will make short work of them. Then there's the knights streaming around the corner to worry about.
There are so many subtle strategies that come into play that every assault runs the risk of facing a successful counter. You can't be sure of anything. Just to illustrate this, there are 19 different infantry units, some of which are unique to the various races, but each is a specialist to some degree.
Add to that the option to upgrade armour, strength and weaponry, and the fact that each race has its own innate strengths, and you can see that to get good at any one strategy with one particular race could take a great deal of time.
What has always lifted the Empires gams above the norm has been the research elements. Churning out village idiots armed with sharp sticks is of no use if you come face to face with a bunch of finely-tailored infantrymen packing 'hand cannons'. Unless you can counter them with sheer weight of numbers, you'll need to get researching. To get your hand on Hand Cannoneers (assuming you've picked a race that can build them), you'll need to research chemistry, which means you'll have to have built a university in the Castle Age.
Not all research is military in nature, of course. One of the first buildings you'll assemble will be a mill to store food, allowing you to build a market once you advance to the Feudal Age, allowing you the benefit of trade. There are many more technologies available than in the first game: various types of armour, specific skills that boost particular units or extend their capabilities, and all the while you are building various units in the full knowledge that everything has a price, be it in gold, food, stone or wood. In short, every element in the game -collecting, building, fighting, researching - is integrated almost seamlessly into one big gaming ball of loveliness.
Some people have been critical of the computer AI in Age II, being a bit dumb. For sure, it's not perfect, but you have to realise that the game is aimed at all levels. If you've played the first game for any length of time, you can avoid the two lower difficulty settings for a start. In fact, due to one fat, annoying bug, the computer player will give up minutes into a deathmatch game set on 'easiest'. At its most difficult, the game is insanely forbidding - one for those who can pull off countless keyboard shortcuts at the same time.
In multiplayer games, of course, there are no such problems. And as with the singleplayer games, there are countless strategies open to each player. Walls and buildings are now harder to destroy, seige weapons are susceptible to any kind of attack, and infantry units are easily decimated by archers. Rushing certainly isn't impossible, but it is difficult to pull off - which is how it should be.
With the graphics, I was a little disappointed with some of the animations, specifically the larger units (ships and siege weapons) and their abrupt changes in direction as they traverse the map.
Perhaps my only real criticism is that the Age II is essentially an update ot a two-year-old game. Many of the units are just ported over from the first game; the Monks, for example, who have the ability to convert enemy units to your side, are just a medieval version of the old Healers. And the long-drawn-out castle sieges that characterised the period are too fast-paced for my personal taste.
Whether you choose to invest in Age Of Empires 2will depend on a number of factors. If you never liked the first game, prefer more action-orientated strategy, or -like Steve Hill - can't abide games where 'it feels like you're in a history lesson', you certainly won't find much to light your fire.
If you wanted to be a real wanker, you could say this is merely Age Of Empires v1.5, to which I would say Tiberian Sun is just CSC v1. 1. And I think many people would agree with that.
On the other hand, if you absolutely adored the first game and you aren't expecting anything radical from the sequel, you'll instantly find The Age Of Kings to your liking. As you play the game, you'll be constantly discovering little enhancements, all of which add up to a finely tuned and perfectly balanced game.
Overall, though, Age II pretty much covers everything you could want in a real-time strategy game. It's attractive, epic in scope and so endlessly varied that you'll still be dabbling in it two years from now. As the genre starts to embrace 30, Age Of Empires II is sure to be looked back upon as the last in a dying breed. Without doubt, it is the best and to miss it would be a crime for which you should be hung, drawn and quartered.
The Knights Who Say...
Breaking the sound barrier
Although the dialogue for each of the campaigns is cheesy (whoever did the Scottish accent for the William Wallace campaign should be shot), the sound is generally very good. Many sounds remain indistinguishable to the first game, but now, instead of one voice for all the races, each civilisation has its own. The villagers, of course, as you would expect, have all the best lines and consequently are just as intentionally humorous as in the first game. Not laugh-out-loud funny by any means, but certainly more interesting than the repetitive 'Yes Sirs' of other real-time strategy games.
It's The Little Things That Count
What's new in Age II
When building units, you can set gathering points for each building, to which each new unit will rally when produced or 'ungarrisoned'. Even better, place the gathering point for your Town Centre on a forage bush and each new villager will automatically start gathering berries for you to stockpile in the nearest mill. No longer will you have to spend ages searching for slothful villagers, either. Click on the 'Idle Villager' Icon and the screen will centre on any non-military unit that hasn't yet been put to work. Perhaps one of the best new features, for newcomers at least, is the option to pause the action at any time and take stock of the game. A quick stab at the F3 key and you can scroll around the play area, queue up orders and have a piss before resuming the action. Neat, eh?
New Combat Features
As well as setting your armies to be either aggressive (where they go berserk at the first sign of the enemy), defensive (where they'll come back after chasing the foe for a short distance), or to stand their ground, you can also 'garrison' your archers and swordsmen in castles and barracks, so that from relative safety, they can rain arrows upon the advancing ranks. At the ring of a bell, villagers can now be summoned to the town centre, whereas previously they were vulnerable to attack. One of the game's niftiest combat features allows you to form your grouped units into various formations, with cavalry at the fore, pikemen behind and seige engines trundling at the rear. All grouped units move at the speed of the slowest, with the hand-to-hand units breaking rank at the first sight of the enemy.
King Of The Castle
Reach the Imperial Age and each civilisation can finally build its very own castle, stick a few archers In there and be indomitable, at least until the siege rams come into view. Each castle allows you to create powerful rock-hurling trebuchets, as well as the one unique unit available to each race: the British have Longbowmen, the Japanese Samurai, and so on.
Trade Your Way To Victory
Tiding has been massh/ety overhauled in Age Of Empires II. As before, once you have a ramshackle trading centre at the heart of your settlement, you can sell excess resources to buy those you are short on, with prices fluctuating accordingly. One new feature, however, is the option to build trade carts, Depending on the distance between your ally's trade centre and your own, these will raise your income of gold - a valuable resource as you build more 'high-tech' units. The same is true with docks and trading ships.
New Game Variations
As well as the option to win by conquest, deathmatch games can also be won either by building a Wonder and defending it, holding a number of relics for a certain amount of time or a victory based on scores - which promotes trade, research and building. There is also a new game variant called Regicide, the aim of which Is to kill off the enemy's king while defending your own. If you have problems finding the defenceless monarch, a click on the Spying icon will soon highlight his whereabouts - for a short time at least.
At last, you can save multiplayer games, which means that for many Internet multiplayers, epic month-long battles can become a reality. Recording games is another new option, with little effect on speed. Each hour will take up around 1Mb of disk space and you can watch the action from the viewpoint of any player, even the Al-controlled ones, so you see how stupid or clever they really are. But you can't record the single-player campaign missions, which is a shame because we could have recorded a walkthrough and put it on next month's cover disc, saving us the bother of typing up the words. Oh well.
Download Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Two years ago, if you had asked the worldwide masses what the best real-time strategy game was, it would have been Dark Reign or Total Annihilation, with Age Of Empires trailing in third place. Since then, both Dark Reign and TA have slipped down the rankings and there's no doubt that it is the slow-bumer that has best stood the test of time. Even now, AOE and its expansion pack, The Rise Of Rome, are selling well in excess of what a game of its age should. Its offering of fast-paced strategic action coupled with Civ-style empire building and its infinite variety of gameplay has ensured that it remains one of those very few games that always creep back onto your hard drive from time to time.
For anyone who missed this gem of a game first time round, the aim was simple: choose a civilisation from the dawn of time and lead it through the ages (Stone, Tool, Bronze, Iron), collecting food, wood, stone and gold to build, trade and fight. In addition to the usual features then found in the common RTS, AOE offered more resources to collect and a balance of units which has yet to be bettered. More importantly, it was the 10,000 years of human history that set it apart from its tired sci-fi peers. AOE was, and still is, an epic game in the true sense of the word.
But wait. Every silver lining must have its cloud, and for Age I (as developers Ensemble Studios regularly refer to it) it was its single-player game. Not the single-player deathmatches you understand, but the campaign. After the variety and vast scale of the one-player random maps and multiplayer games, the confines of a series of poorly structured missions seemed at odds. It wasn't that the missions were particularly bad, they just failed to capture the epic sense of the passing of time that the 'full' game provided. There were no surprises either, something that Total Annihilation, for all its 3D graphics and devastating pace was just as guilty of.
"Greg Street, Sandy Petersen and Chris Rippy - among others - are the ones really responsible for addressing the single-player game," says Ian Fischer, designer of Age Of Kings, and a thoroughly nice chap who wouldn't look out of place behind a desk in your local Abbey National or a drum kit in a death metal band. He accepts that Age 1 failed, in part, to provide a cohesive single-player story for all its epoch-spanning glory. "Greg (a marine biologist by trade) hasn't even been here a year and yet he's done pretty much everything for our scenarios. He's really good at evaluating what makes them interesting. He scrutinised a lot of RTS games, took a critical look at the first AOE and then handed the programmers a list of what he thought would improve the single-player game."
For the sequel, instead of opting for one sprawling campaign, Ensemble have created a number of smaller 'campaignettes'. A Braveheart-style tutorial starts the series and puts you in command of William Wallace. Others, gradually increasing in difficulty, feature Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan. Inspired by Half-Life, missions will include in-game sequences where your troops witness massive battles. Most importantly, the missions will have a cohesive story that injects personality into the heroes within the game.
"A large segment of our audience will prefer the single-player campaigns," says Ian. "We didn't allow scenarios and campaigns to become too cinematic, we wanted to include in-game scenes that kept the focus on the game and propelled the story forward, not only between missions, but during them, too."
Before you start thinking that if you've played one huge-scale multiplayer game, you've played them all, Age IPs campaign missions will include specifically-made buildings and artwork. The idea is to provide a fresh alternative to the epic battles of single/multiplayer deathmatches.
"It's strange," says lan "but things like that add so much to the game. If you'd played skirmish or multiplayer games in Age 1, you'd have come across almost everything there was to do. Now we've included buildings in the campaign missions that aren't in the multiplayer game. They may not have a big impact on the way the missions are played, but it keeps everything fresh, with big cities, encampments and new scenery objects. We call them sandwiches - they're like little prizes that keep people interested."
A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours
So what else is better about this sequel? Well, for starters, it's set right about the time the mighty Roman Empire, and Europe as a whole, fell apart. Again, the game spans 10,000 years, taking in the Dark Ages. As a result, instead of phalanxes and chariots there'll be knights in shining armour and rock-hurling catapults. The interface is more streamlined, with more commands - production queues, for example. The game also includes a host of new features: troops can be garrisoned in towers and other buildings and villagers can be alerted and sheltered from attack. There are more race-specific units, a greater variety between the 13 civilisations, and the technology tree has been broadened.
"We've made it so that there are more strategies to choose from when it comes to progressing through the ages," explains Ian. "By making some of the technologies in Age I smaller and more discreet, there are now more options as to how you tailor your game plan. This is in addition to the fact that you can win via economic or military means, and should provide a lot more scope."
But this broadening of strategic options isn't just limited to the single-player game. Ian has made it his mission to look at how people played the first game, with a view to expanding the ways in which war is waged and to make it easier to counter your opponent's tactics. "A lot of people said there was too much rushing (where you have to get more units into someone else's town before they're ready for you) in the first game. It wasn't as if it made the game miserable because 90 per cent of the time people figured out a way to counter rushing. In that respect, strategies are always evolving. What I was more interested in was discovering strategies outside of that, something that can be done every single time that will cause you to win. "To me rushing is fun, because you have to be a really good player to get your game to the point where you can do a good rush. But rushing isn't enjoyable if the game is over ten minutes later. We didn't want to make rushing impossible, just very difficult. I think rushing is a good military strategy, attacking quickly when your enemy isn't prepared. I'm sure that there are experts out there who will pick things apart, which is why I spent time working with these guys, finding out how they are winning and how they are being beaten. We've got some really hard-core players who can tear the game apart and watching them is very useful."
The original Age Of Empires was also let down by its AI routines, although at the time they seemed acceptable. These days, expectation is a lot higher.
"I started playing games way back in pre-DOS days," says Ian. "I was used to buying a new game and spending two hours tweaking things before I even got it to run. I'm used to bad interfaces, and I've played games where people would ask why I was giving it the time of day. I'm not turned off by poor presentation, but I've had to train myself to see them because the pathfinding problems in Age I didn't actually bother me - I'd got so used to it that I didn't even notice. Some games are so immersive that you can forgive them almost anything, and Age l was one of them. However, to be a good games designer you have to be critical, you have to be able to look at the game from everyone's perspective, from the newcomer to the hard-core gamer. It's hard to step back and see what turns people off the game, but it has to be done." The use of formations immediately gives away the fact that the AI has been significantly revamped. By way of a few mouse clicks, troops can now be arranged into a number of attacking or defensive arrangements.
Infantry or pikemen will take the forward rank, with archers behind. If you have siege weapons, they'll take the protective centre ground and every one of them will stay in formation and move at the same speed. It's a powerful tool, and has been handled without the need for a complex interface. By the look on Ian's face, it's something he's immensely proud of: "The pace of the game is such that you don't even have time to pick from a massive array of formations. The interface has had to be streamlined and in the event of a surprise attack you won't even have to select a formation, because your troops will immediately switch depending on what units have been grouped together. Of course, if you're planning an attack of your own, you can choose the best formation for the job. Once the idea solidified and we saw it working for the first time, we were very pleased. Stunned, in fact. It worked beautifully. It's light years ahead of games where you just grouped similar units together, sent them all in en masse and hoped for the best. It might not have the depth of a real hardcore strategy game, but for the speed of Age II it works perfectly."
One thing that hasn't changed in Age Of Empires II is the attention to detail. Ensemble make a point of burying themselves in historical books and photographing ancient buildings whenever they're abroad (after all, the US isn't well known for its medieval architecture). Right at the heart of Ensemble's freshly painted Dallas offices sits a library of books spanning every culture that has ever populated the planet, a plethora of works that the British Library would be envious of. The main characteristic of the Age series is that every building and unit is historically and graphically accurate, even in terms of sound and music. In the sequel though, there will be even more diversity, including race-specific graphics, music and dialogue.
Some criticisms of the Age series have been unfair. For some inexplicable reason, its combination of Civilization and WarCraft was lost on certain gamers. Civ fans complained it was too fast, while WarCraft aficionados complained that it was too complex. Ian explains: "There was an impression somewhere along the line that we were attempting to merge two games that are worlds apart. Our vision was never for it to be half WarCraft and half Civ, and I believe that there was an article somewhere that called us CivCraft II, or something like that. That was probably where it all started. But that was never our intention: our intention was to take RTS, which was a pretty cool genre, and add some Civ-like aspects to it.
"I've had emails from some very die-hard historical fans telling me that you shouldn't allow arrows to damage walls. Let's get this straight: we're going to put fun ahead of realism any day of the week. We're working with a historical background, but that doesn't mean that we can't throw fun elements into it. And 1 like it, because for a few months at the start of the project I get paid for reading history books, so I'm happy with that. Anyway, the historical flavour is nice, it's easy to understand what the units in the game are -everybody knows what an archer is, but not what a troll does. It's a lot easier to grasp. Trying to make the game more like Civ or more realistic is missing the point of what we're trying to achieve. Maybe some day we'll do a more Civ-ish version of Age, but only if we can make it fun."
Test Of Time
So what next from Ensemble? Obviously Ian wasn't going to spill the beans at this early stage, but I was told that Ensemble want to become a 'two-game team' - creating their next two titles side by side. Will one of these be Age Of Empires III or 3D? "Perhaps," says Ian. "The sky's the limit. At the moment we're keeping all our options open and looking at what we think would be the most exciting thing to do next."
Imagine that: taking fast-paced historical strategy out of the feudal age and through the Industrial Revolution. For now though, we're quite happy to wait for the second instalment in the series. This may not be the technological quantum leap some are hoping for, but when it comes to Age Of Empires II, it's the little things that stand out, a testament to the fact that there really wasn't all that much wrong with the first game. Where many games developers are trying to be revolutionary, Ensemble have moved on to their evolutionary phase, honing their game and taking what made the first one such a joy and making it even better. Barring some freak accident, Age Of Empires II will certainly be an improvement on its predecessor, we've seen the evidence and we're willing to put money on it. So close to release, the only danger is that Age fans, Ion Storm, (their offices are just down the road), will be so addicted to the new sequel that Daikatana will slip by another year. But I think we could live with that.
What we thought
"Without doubt it is still the best, and to miss it would be a crime for which you should be hung, drawn and quartered."
What you think
- "At first this game appears to be a great sequel to an excellent game, but when you play it for a while you notice that it is almost exactly the same as the original. The units are practically the same, as are the buildings, and even the graphics to a certain extent. The most frustrating thing of all is that it's too hard. If you are looking for a good, original RTS game, go buy Homewortd instead - it's bloody fantastic."
- "I absolutely live for this game! It beats the crap out of the original, and will be the most played online game of all time. The difficulty setting is perfect, and the amount of strategies you can employ is startling. Every unit's AI reacts the way it should do - and well, what else can I possibly say? Buy this game now - it's a well-deserved classic."
- "Stone the elephants! I haven't had this much fun since, er Age of Empires actually. Somebody out there knows how to make a game. Take note Westwood!"
- "I'm finding it hard to differentiate between AoE, and AoEII. There's little to choose between them either graphically or logistically. The same argument applies to Tlberian Sun and its forefathers. Now, while football games like FIFA and Actua have survived on this formula for the last five years, applying the same half-arsed approach to games that supposedly promote original thought and innovation is clearly cheating the public. You condone that do you?"