Age of Empires II: The Conquerors
The Rise Of Home for the original Age Of Empires set the standard for all subsequent expansion packs. It was no longer enough to churn out expansions that consisted of little more than the levels rejected from the original version. Now gamers expect a hefty shot in the arm and a new lease of life as a result. The Conquerors Expansion for Age Of Empires II meets this expectation head on. Yes, you're going to get additional campaigns, but they come packaged with a host of improvements that will revitalise your interest and add a new shine to multiplayer games.
OK, when you load up The Conquerors you're not exactly going to be bowled over by the extensive graphical changes it introduces. In fact, let's get that one major gripe over and done with now. Considering that five new civilisations (Spanish, Huns, Aztecs, Mayans and Koreans) have been introduced, it's a bit poor that there's only one new set of building graphics. But once you get beyond that you'll begin to understand where all those product development dollars have gone.
Ringing The Changes
What Ensemble Studios has rather cunningly done is invest a lot of time in playing its own game and then ironing out the wrinkles. Let's take the use of siege weapons as a classic example. In most RTS games, siege weapons - or other heavy weapons platforms - are generally controlled by MrThicky of Thicksville. Invite him along on a raid and he'll quite happily mow down half a dozen of his own troops in his eagerness to take down one lonesome enemy soldier. Thankfully, Ensemble has given him the boot and replaced him with Mr Smart Bastard of Clevertown, who will refrain from having a go if there's any danger of his own side or his allies getting hammered by "friendly fire".
"Fantastic," you say, "at last I can stage some realistic siege warfare." But wait, there's more. Instead of sending in those battering rams while your foot soldiers hang around on the sideline until the rams have done their job, you can now kill two birds with one stone. Just put your troops inside the ram and not only will you get more speed and damage capability, you'll also protect your troops in the run up to the enemy's walls.
Many of the additional changes have been designed to enable you to focus on strategy instead of housekeeping tasks. So once the villagers have built certain types of buildings, they will head off and do something useful rather than hanging around waiting for you to give them orders. You can also order farms to be replanted In advance so you don't have to check up on them so often, and so on. These and the half-dozen other changes to the basic engine may not be the most visible aspects of what you've spent your money on, but my point is they are probably the most valuable In terms of adding longevity to the game.
Games Conquerors Play
Despite all that, you'll expect to be given some more meaty single-player action to get your teeth into. This comes in the shape of four new campaigns.
As the name of this expansion pack implies, these are all based on the activities of history's bona fide heavyweights. You can ride along with Attila The Hun as he mops up the remnants of the Roman Empire, win back Castille with El Cid, or hold off the Spanish with Montezuma. Finally, there's a varied collection of single missions focusing on great military leaders from Erik the Red to Henry V.
All this adds up to a hefty number of hours of gameplay. As far as the difficulty level is concerned, Ensemble Studios seems to have opted for a middle ground between meeting the needs of hardcore AOEplayers and relative beginners. Fair enough, but if you've played AOE extensively you may well find that the single-player campaigns don't engage you as much as they might have done (without playing at the Hard setting, that is).
Having said that, if you've played AOE II to the extent that you know it like the back of your hand, you're going to be surprised by some of the tweaks to the standard units and the introduction of new technologies. I wouldn't try to be too smart and rely on the understanding of unit strengths and weaknesses you've built up over hundreds of games.
There Can Be Only One
Again overshadowing the single-player campaigns for longevity are the additional single and multiplayer game types. King Of The Hill is a particularly good example. Players begin with a small settlement at the edge of the map. In the centre of the map is a monument, but it's surrounded by water, trees or ice. Your first objective is to find a way to get to the monument. Once you are there you've got to defend it for 500 years. That's made a little trickier by the fact that you won't be allowed to build anything in the vicinity of the monument. In the case of a monument placed on an island, for example, your only choice is to defend it with ships. Still, that will give you a good opportunity to check out all those new ship formations.
If you haven't got the time to play a lengthy game in which there's a hefty amount of resource management and army building to be done before you see any action, then I thoroughly recommend Defend The Wonder. Every player starts in the Imperial Age with a huge stockpile of resources. One player is in a walled off enclave which also contains a Wonder. Everybody else starts on the outside of the wall and has to break in and get to the Wonder. It makes for some truly spectacular battle sequences. If you haven't got a map literally strewn with corpses within ten minutes of starting play, you're doing something wrong.
There's a whole host of extras that we just haven't got space to cover here, including additional terrain types and maps, which help to spice up AOE Ifs standard fare. And if you get really stuck for something new to do you can always tackle the obscure scripting language and attempt to create some new map types of your own.
When all's said and done, Ensemble has to be congratulated for putting so much effort into what is, after all, an expansion pack. It's always a good sign when developers play their own games to the extent that they are able to make significant improvements to the gameplay in the way that's demonstrated here. If you've tried AOE II previously and found it doesn't really tingle your taste buds, I couldn't in all honesty say that this expansion set is going to make you change your mind.
But if you're a hardened addict, then you'll find plenty here to maintain your interest for some time to come.
Download Age of Empires II: The Conquerors
Let's take stock, for the moment, of the current state of the world in online gaming. On the one hand, you have a lifetime's worth of first-person shooters. Led by the mighty Half-Li fe/Team Fortress (or a total conversion thereof) and the equally impressive Quake III Arena, these are ideal fodder for a weekday lunchtime. You can get into the action instantly, polish off a dozen lesser opponents and get out just as quickly. On the other hand, there's the ever-growing selection of on-line RPGs, offering the role-playing connoisseur many evenings of exploration and character development, punctuated by the occasional bout of combat.
Stuck somewhere in the middle of this is the poor RTS community. You know the score, we've all been there before. You start a game, spend three-quarters of an hour building forces and hardly seeing anything of the other players and then... wham, bam, thank you Mam... somebody triggers an apocalyptic battle and it's all over in seconds.
On paper, Conquerors otters the multiplayer aficionado a welcome departure from this sad state-of-affairs in the shape of its new game types: King Of The Hill, Defend The Wonder and Wonder Race. These do seem to have been designed with multiplayer games in mind. In fact, don't bother challenging the computer to a game of King Of The Hill unless you're looking for something to cure your insomnia.
Defend The Wonder is the perfect antidote to the lengthy pre-battle stages that curse most RTS games. Because everybody starts out in the most advanced age and with an obscene amount of resources, the only sensible course of action is to quickly cook yourself up an army to your taste and wade in there. Then there's King Of The Hill, which tends to be time limited because once somebody reaches the monument at the centre of the map, play becomes fast and frantic until the end.
Imagine my disappointment on discovering that among the now thriving Conquerors community on MSN Gaming Zone, there doesn't appear to be one person interested in any of the new game types. No, everybody is quite content with the boring old Random Map game, or at best a Deathmatch. Let's hope that the community on Wireplay is a bit more adventurous when it finally gets started.
Infamy, Infamy... They've All Got It Infamy
Another new aspect that didn't seem to be getting any takers is the Last Man Standing victory condition. In this case you can enjoy team play, but once the winning team has finished off its enemies, the team is dissolved and former teammates get to turn on each other. I thoroughly recommend it - it adds frisson to the proceedings because, while working together with your teammates, you should also be thinking ahead and ensuring that you start the end-game with the strategically stronger position. Multiplayer gaming hasn't seen this much deceit and treachery since Gauntlet.
Regardless of the game type, Conquerors seemed to maintain its update rate pretty well on a single-channel ISDN connection, but I wouldn't fancy your chances much on anything less than 56K, especially not with the bigger maps. One thing that did become prominent, though, is that the whole thing has a tendency to suddenly grind to a halt once unit and building numbers reach a certain threshold - annoyingly this was usually just as things were about to get interesting. If you have access to a LAN, you might well find this isn't so much the case. But on MSN Gaming Zone or any other Internet-based service, be prepared for more than a few abandoned games.
No matter how good a game is, over time there is always one feature that starts to annoy. In the original Age Of Empires it was your villagers inability to negotiate their way across their farmland. This 'fault' was repaired in The Rise Of Rome expansion pack. Guilty again in Age Of Empires II (or their lack of vision when it came to replanting spent farmlands, it looks like an expansion pack will once again come to the rescue. Yes, in The Conquerors you can queue farms to automatically replant - big wows, well, in this case it is.
Like all add-ons The Conquerors boasts more than its fair share of new missions and units, but like the differences between Age I and Age II, it isn't so much the obvious gains that count, but rather those little things that over time come to the fore, more often than not because they were omitted. Poor pathfinding is one of those things we used to accept that we no longer have to. Production queuing is another feature, which is now almost universal to all real-time strategy games. However, in Age Of Empires II, with its delicate balance of resource gathering and research, coupled with the advanced tactics through the use of formations, we have a game that has overtaken the likes of Command & Conquer in the features stakes. Unlike Westwood's Firestorm add-on for Tiberian Sun, we've come to expect that little bit more from Ensemble Studios.
For most people, the big draw of The Conquerors has to be the five new civilisations (Aztec, Mayan, Korean, The Huns and Spain) to add to the 13 already present and correct in Age Of Empires II. However, rather than crow barring in new graphics and changing a few attributes, the races will feature across a number of new single-player campaigns, four in fact, almost equalling the number of missions in the original game. Led by such historical figures as Attila The Hun, El Cid and Montezuma, campaigns will be fought across Europe, Asia and South America. Standalone battles will cover such conflicts as the battles of Hastings, Agincourt and Manzikert, and to add to the historical feel, ten real-world maps will feature, set across the UK, Spain, Italy, Japan, the Middle East and Texas.
With new civilisations come new units, 11 in total, all of which will feature in all the armies of the total 18 races. Specific to the South American armies are the scout-like Eagle Warriors, elite Jaguar Warriors and the Mayan Plumed Archers. The Huns will have mounted Tarken Warriors and the Spanish Conquistadors should make short work of anyone with their hand-cannons and trusty mounts. Complementing the new units, Ensemble has opted to add more than 20 new research fields, from the bizarre (Thumb Ring) to the obvious (Bloodlines). Many of the new technologies and units will be available only later on in the game, which should open up what were sometimes tedious and long drawn out battles.
Which brings us neatly back to those little things, such as being able to create ship formations, which is a welcome addition, as is the ability to garrison units inside battering rams, both to protect troops and speed up the ram's movement. Skirmish games against the computer will also be enhanced with commands that can be given to allied troops belonging to a computer-controlled player. These are the things we are looking forward to most, as they're the things that turn a simple add-on into an expansion pack. It's the features that improve how a game plays that count rather than how long the game lasts. Something Ensemble sussed out a long time ago.