Version tested: DS
Let's hear it for turn-based strategy. Too often decried for being a plodding throwback to the 16-bit era, it's a tried and tested gameplay format that is long overdue a comeback. Real-time strategy is all very well but, a few notable exceptions aside, most RTS games are more about the real-time and less about the strategy. Frantically harvesting resources and churning out combat units before click-dragging the whole bloody lot and flinging them at the enemy - there's not really much room for nuanced thought in that equation. By using the lowly chess approach, turn-based games force you to ponder, to think and to - hey! - strategise.
In transforming Ensemble Studios' flagship franchise to the diminutive DS, Backbone Entertainment has shaken things up in a mostly refreshing way - the most obvious change being the shift from RTS to turn-based play. The game has a few pressing flaws, of which more later, but none of them stem from the slowed-down pace. They've ignored last year's Age of Empires III and looked back instead to 1999, and Age of Empires II, for the foundations of this edition. It's a wise move. Wise because the third game was something of a disappointment, but also because its relatively lo-tech predecessor is a far more suitable candidate for the shrinking process required.
To Be This Good Takes Ages
Of course, shrinking is a relative term. By PC standards, this version is a cute diversion. By handheld standards, it's an absolute beast. There are five civilizations to command, each boasting unique strengths and weaknesses, as well as five or six historical scenario missions apiece. There are over 65 unit types, many exclusive to certain civilizations, and all finely balanced. There are 15 building types, each bringing distinct benefits to your battlefield ambitions. And there are also dozens of researchable technologies which boost your efficiency in key areas.
Coming in a week when Sid Meier hinted at bringing Civ to the DS, it's a tantalising display of how much can be crammed onto one of those dinky cards. Especially impressive is how Backbone has stripped the Age of Empires series down to its component parts and then reassembled them into something that looks and plays nothing like the previous titles, yet is still recognisable as Age of Empires. The conversion process hasn't been entirely successful, but we'll get to the nitpicky bits later.
Single-player games can take two forms. First is the empire specific Campaign Mode which leads you through some surprisingly detailed potted history lessons, requiring you to fulfil certain objectives along the way. The empires are ranked from Easy (Joan of Arc, whose missions also act as a tutorial) to Hard (Richard the Lionheart). Sprinkled in between are Yoshitsume, Genghis Khan and Saladin. It's accurate in that broad Braveheart manner, with characters like Robin Hood entering the fray, but it's still a slyly educational experience.
In It For The Long Haul
Rather than simply throwing you against an opposing force and asking you to emerge triumphant, the narrative flow of these campaign missions means that you'll find yourself tracking down holy relics, defending besieged cities or recreating legendary battles. Successful completion of mission objectives accrues points which can be traded in at the main menu for an additional eight specialist unit types and other goodies. Sometimes the task will require you to build towns and harvest resources. At other times, the mission will just be a test of your military mind. Rest assured, these campaign missions alone would be ample content for most games. Even Joan of Arc's introductory chapters boast hours of gameplay, and are hardly the pushover the "tutorial" tag suggests. If you want to work your way through all of them, you'd best set aside a few free months - or at least book some very long train journeys.
Additional to the campaigns is the more freeform Empire Map mode, which starts you off with your ruler, a military unit and a villager and lets you find your own way from there. There are twenty maps to choose from, with an extra 15 to be unlocked with your campaign points, so once again you're faced with an impressive array of choices.
Empire Map play is against one of three AI opponents, each of which can be set to one of three difficulty settings. Sadly, it's here that the first of several complaints begin to arise. Despite apparently having different temperaments, no matter which opponent I chose, or which difficulty level, the enemy always made a beeline for my fledgling empire with a suspiciously large military force and smacked the bejesus out of me. You can play against another person - either through the wireless hook-up, or simply by passing the console between you - and strategy fans with similarly inclined friends will get more satisfaction by playing this way.
Part of the problem is that these freeform maps are just too small - most measuring no more than 25x25 unit squares - so its inevitable that you'll clash with your neighbour sooner rather than later. This leaves you with precious little time to establish your presence, which in turn means you end up playing in the RTS style I grumbled about at the start, slipping into a cycle of "harvest, build, train, attack" that doesn't really inspire much long-term strategy beyond keeping your empire armed and aggressive.
Money Money Money (And Wheat)
The non-military aspects of the game are rather perfunctory anyway, with the available resources reduced to just two - food and gold - both of which are required to build or train. Once you've established a few farms and goldmines, this side of the game pretty much takes care of itself, leaving your villagers to scramble around the map, avoiding death and finding places to construct the latest buildings. The same is true of research. Although they're presented in the Civ style, there's little subtlety to their implementation. They're really just fancy ways of boosting your stats - advanced mining techniques bring 10 per cent increases in gold output, inventing better shoes gives villagers an extra movement square per turn. As long as you prioritise the areas needed to advance your empire to the next age, progress isn't that hard. As you advance from the Dark Ages to the Imperial Age, new buildings open up to enable new unit types - stables train cavalry, barracks train soldiers and so on - with more sophisticated versions becoming available with each stage.
In keeping with the truncated maps, the timescale of the game has been accelerated as well. Regardless of size or complexity, training units, researching technologies or constructing buildings always takes just one day of game time. This simplifies things, but it does mean another avenue of strategy is lost. There's no need to keep the bottom rungs of your army supplied with grunts while working on the more lethal weaponry - you can just churn them all out overnight. This rapid turnover also makes it incredibly tough to topple an enemy town, as each turn spawns fresh troops to replace those you manage to vanquish. To balance this out, the game imposes a unit cap, so when you reach a certain number of units (including villagers) you have to wait for one to be defeated before you can train another. Injured units can be merged to reduce numbers, but while the technical reasons for this restriction are obvious it's still a frustrating barrier to place in your path.
The units are thoughtfully balanced against each other, though there is still an element of "rock, paper, scissors" evident in the way victory is dictated by using the right unit to attack with. Pikemen make mincemeat of those on horseback, but foot soldiers fall before cavalry. Terrain plays a part, and your ruler unit can also call upon special powers to boost the stats of nearby allies. Once you get into the rhythm of the game, there's a compelling ebb and flow to the battles that feels tangibly real, two forces pushing against each other on different fronts, rather than just a series of unrelated scraps. This is all fairly standard stuff in the PC series but to see all these elements interacting so convincingly on a handheld, even in an occasionally rudimentary form, is still quite an achievement.
Graphically, the game opts for an isometric view on the bottom screen, with unit information and battle scenes played out on the top. These little skirmish animations are quite cute - and there's a genuine thrill to seeing your archers let fly with a satisfying "thwup, thwup, thwup" volley of arrows - but they can be skipped when you tire of them. It's on the bottom screen where the game's main visual flaw emerges. While the isometric view certainly makes for nicer screenshots, once the map fills up with units it becomes increasingly difficult to discern who is where and which is what.
It doesn't help that some units look very similar. Briton villagers and men-at-arms, for example, are nigh indistinguishable in the middle of a ruck. You end up relying on the right shoulder button to skip to each available unit, rather than trying to prod the right square with the stylus, and then checking the top screen to see who you've selected and what condition they're in. It's not an unworkable way of playing, but it is rather clumsy and could easily have been smoothed out with the simple inclusion of an optional top-down battlefield view.
None of these flaws are enough to diminish the achievement that Age of Empires represents on the DS, but they do serve to tarnish the overall experience a tad. Just when you're dazzled by how much has been crammed in, you bump into an invisible gameplay barrier that reminds you that for all its numerical might, it's not quite as big as you think, enough to make it sometimes feel more like a tantalising hint of things to come, rather than a leap forward in its own right. While there's still plenty to improve in a sequel, it sets an imposing benchmark for the next DS strategy title to measure up to.
You've probably noticed that I've studiously avoided mentioning Advance Wars so far. As the only other strategy game of note on the DS, it's obviously tempting to pit the two against each other, point for point, but there's no reason why strategy fans shouldn't enjoy both. Indeed, they almost certainly should. For all its ambition and scale, Age of Empires on the DS has a few too many shortcomings to make it the superior game in my eyes, but it definitely has the upper hand in some noteworthy areas. If nothing else, Age of Empires DS provides a title that will appeal to those Discovery Channel Dads who picked up the stylus for Brain Training, and proves that Nintendo's flip-top toy can supply grown-up depth as well as giddy frivolity. Now, if we can just get a DS version of Laser Squad Nemesis...
7 / 10