Age of Empires
It's rapidly becoming apparent that there are fewer and fewer truly well-designed games on the market, especially in the real-time strategy category. This genre seems to have fallen prey over the last year to the get-rich-quick mentality that has produced a whole host of mediocre Command and Conquer wannabes, but few real winners. With the high standards getting ever higher, the arrival of an RTS game from a company best known for such pulse-pounding titles as DOS 5.0 and Visual C++ might lead you to dismiss Microsoft's Age of Empires without a second look. That would be your loss. This is an absolutely stellar game -- our leading contender for Strategy Game of the Year by a good distance, even over the impressive recent releases of Total Annihilation and Dark Reign.
What makes Age of Empires great? A lot of things. Most importantly, it is incredibly fun and addictive. We've had the beta for going on three months and we've been hard pressed to stop playing it long enough to review other games. Add to the great gameplay absolutely superb graphics, the most balanced and intelligent economic model we've yet seen, and a truly innovative tech tree that builds on the best of Civilization, and you've got yourself a really amazing game.
Sure, Age of Empires is basically a take-over-the-world type game, and yes, it has a problem or two that's still hanging around in the retail release, but those cease to matter quickly once you're five minutes into the game.
You begin with only a tribal council fire and three villagers and must learn where to hunt and fish, gather wood and stone, and mine for gold. Once you have built a basic economy, you can begin expanding your village and researching new technologies that will eventually enable you to irrigate farms, smith iron and steel weaponry, perfect masonry for your city walls and educate your military cadets into deadly legions. Along the way, you'll have to deal with wild animals, famine, enemy raiders, and a vast map full of uncharted territories.
What immediately impresses, though, is not simply the richness of the world and of the work that went into all the intricacies this game offers, but rather the immersive experience of playingAOE. You know those games that you load up "just for a minute" to check out the demo and end up looking up at the clock at 3 a.m.? This is one of those.
First, because you play the game through four different ages (stone, tool, bronze and iron), each of which must be reached by accumulating various resources and proving your prowess by building the staple structures of a civilization for a given age. But don't worry, this doesn't take hours -- once you've learned how to coordinate your resource gathering and construction processes, you'll progress quite quickly. And with each new age achieved, you gain new technologies, buildings, unit types and defensive options. This makes for an RTS experience unlike any other game out there. Sure, other games let you "upgrade" certain units or give access to new units with the construction of a given combination of structures, but none ask for the sort of coordinated thought and strategy that Age of Empires requires. In a fast-paced multiplayer game, the decision to expend resources toward advancing to the next age vs. beefing up your guard towers and army could prove the difference between life and death. If your Neanderthal opponent shows up with a couple dozen club-wielding goons while you're getting enlightened, you're history. But advance your civilization and gain the wheel, advanced ballistics, and engineering knowledge, and those cavemen will be no match for your catapults led by Ben-Hur and his well-armed charioteers. Second, consider the fine interplay between various resources in AOE: instead of simply mining some abstruse material (spice by any other name), Age of Empires requires that you gather wood, food, stone, and gold. Neglect any one of these and you will lose. To win, you will need to send your villagers out to explore the map and secure the best gold and stone deposits with military units and guard towers. Then you'll need to decide what balance to strike between your hunters and gatherers and your military units -- AOE adds in the additional stricture of a population limit (there have been many gripes about this in the newsgroups, but over the course of playing the game better than 30 times, I can tell you that it is not only fair, but adds an excellent additional condition to the strategies within the game). Now I admit, there have been numerous occasions late in a heated multiplayer battle when I sent a squad of idle miners out to have a lunch date with the local lions, or had them wander a bit too close to an enemy guard tower so that I could crank out a couple more triemes or catapults back at the base, but this too adds to the skill needed to be an adept commander.
Finally, the absolute best aspect of the gameplay in Age of Empires is the vast number of options you have as a player. For one thing, you can set several different victory conditions other than simple conquest. Then there is the ability to trade with other players for needed resources, 50+ building and technology upgrades, a fantastic variation in military and domestic units, and distinctly different feelings to different phases of each game. This is not just a game of conquest, which is perhaps what confuses some of its detractors -- yes, it is first and foremost a military strategy game, but it is incredibly rich in its economic and technological model, even to the point of actually drawing on the historical aspects and abilities of the twelve distinct cultures represented in the game.
This is not a section you will usually see in our reviews, but there will no doubt be a host of flames from those who think I'm either sucking up to Microsoft or completely off my rocker, or both. So here's what's wrong with the game, or at least the accusations I've heard:
Bad path finding AI: yes indeed, your average woodcutter is, in fact, dumb as the stumps he leaves behind. In fact, sometimes he'll sit on one and do nothing until you find him and send him off to the next chore. And sure, your chariots will get stuck in a narrow gap between houses in your village if you build 'em too close to the stables or don't leave a good exit path through town. Word is, there's a patch in the works to help correct this (where it's actually a coding problem and not a symptom of bad urban planning on the player's part), but do you know of a single other RTS game that doesn't have slightly clueless units? That's why your troops need a good commander to inspire them.
It's Civilization 2 all over again: It's not -- if you've really played all three, you'd know enough not to make that statement. Age of Empires is the inheritor of some of the same excellent ideas from both those titles, but is itself a striking innovator in ways that neither of the earlier generation of strategy titles managed to achieve./
The population limit sucks; you can't really build an empire: play a few multiplayer games, then revisit that idea. Would you really like to have 3,000 units on each side? Really? Games would take forever to complete and there would be zero strategy besides a simple race to the resources and a blitzkrieg mentality. There are enough one-dimensional slugfest titles on the market. Can't build an empire? Well, true, not in the Civilization sense, but then a multiplayer game of Civilization was the sort of thing that most of us haven't had the spare time for since, say, junior high.
Bottom line: you can't satisfy all the people all the time, but you can definitely tick off the more reactionary elements by not having your marketing department include the disclaimer "Caution: some people might not like this game."
There is no better RTS game graphically than Age of Empires, period. Every tree, rock, bird, and bush is beautifully rendered; the mane on a charioteer's horse ripples in the wind, a lone eagle soars overhead, pausing every few seconds to flap its wings, and the villagers struggle under the weight of the loads of wood and stone they carry back to the village. There are times, in fact, when you will simply stop to marvel at the realism that was crafted into this game. Age of Empires will stand as the high-water mark for all RTS titles that follow in many categories, but the graphics are without question unmatched. If you doubt this, I encourage you to visit Microsoft's Web site and see the animations and renderings for yourself.
Yet one more area where Age of Empires excels, the audio is dead on the mark. From the rumble and creak of a heavy catapult getting underway to the metal-on-stone clash of swords and pikes against a sentry tower, the audio in AOE is perfectly rendered. A small sticking point is that there is a bit of a lag effect with the sound effects when a chat is going on between several people in multiplayer mode, but this a rare case, and is certainly not a problem limited to AOE.
I personally defy anyone to play 2 or 3 multiplayer games of Age of Empires and not be absolutely hooked -- I simply haven't played a more addictive multiplayer game since Doom. The many different aspects of the different cultures, victory conditions, map types, resources, and troop and technology nuances make this thereal time strategy game for multiplayer. Plus, given the ability to share resources among allies, use priests to convert enemy units and buildings, and use wildly varying strategies to succeed, there is virtually no limit to the ways this game can be enjoyed by a group of people -- it is the closest game I've yet seen to realizing the perfect mix between strategy, economics, technology, weaponry, and unit types without over- or under-balancing any of them.
Minimum: Windows 95; 16 MB RAM; SVGA 256 colors; 4X CD-ROM drive; SoundBlaster or compatible sound card Recommended: Pentium 100 or higher; 16 MB RAM; Win95, 28.8 modem, etc. Reviewed On: Pentium 133, 64 MB RAM, Matrox Millennium, 6X CD-ROM drive, SoundBlaster AWE32, 28.8 modem, Windows 95, mouse
Go buy this game. If you can't afford it, put it on your Christmas list and go get the demo. You really can't do better than Age of Empires, but I hope that a lot of game makers try in the future -- I'd love to see what they come up with. In the meantime, Age of Empires marks the first fully mature real-time strategy title. The criticisms I have heard -- which mostly focus on 1) similarities toand/or 2) hatred for Microsoft in general -- are both simply way off the mark. This is a great game, builds on the best of both Warcraft 2 and Civ 2 (would you rather they ignored previous successful games as models?), and quite frankly is the best game to ever come out of Microsoft. And let's not forget: although it has all the MS marketing and hype, this beautiful game was built by Ensemble Studios, which deserves all the credit for the substance behind the UI and the packaging. Watch what these folks do in the future, because AOE is a great game.
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AoE Game Series
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