A Brief History
Up until a few years ago, if you mentioned "Microsoft" and "game" in the same sentence, everyone thought of MS Flight Simulator.
But Microsoft stuck to their tried and tested model of "if we can't make it, let's buy someone who can", and bought up some talented design studios dotted around the world. Midtown and Motocross Madness did much to boost their credibility, but for many the pivotal game was Age of Empires.
This isometric strategy game had millions hooked for months. The winning combination of classic real time strategy gameplay and controlling real people, rather than faceless tanks, brought a breath of fresh air to the genre.
Cue Ensemble Studios and the sequel - "Age of Empires II : The Age of Kings".
Boasting a mountain of improvements, and an all-new graphics engine, Age of Kings promises to satisfy die-hard fans of the original, while also enticing new players into the genre.
For those not familiar with the series, here is the game in a nutshell - you take control of a small group of villagers from a particular civilisation and start with humble beginnings in medieval times.
You guide them through a unique evolutionary maze of technology until they are strong enough to defeat the enemy.
Of course, any decent game transcends the sum of its parts, and AoE II is no exception. The list of new features and improvements over the original game is over a page long, so here is a brief summary :
13 new civilisations, each with a unique unit and team bonus
New units, including kings, heroes, female villagers, knights, cannons and exploding ships.
8 new map types, including Arabia, Black Forest and Rivers, from a total of 15.
New ways to trade with other players over land, buying and selling resources at the Market.
New combat features - order military units to patrol, guard, or follow, and use formations to precisely control how your army moves during combat. You can also garrison units inside buildings for protection, healing, and surprise attacks.
There are five single player campaigns, including William Wallace's battle with the English, Joan of Arc's struggle against the English, and Genghis Khan fighting, not the English again, but the mighty Persian Empire.
Return of the Sprites
Proving that you don't have to have a rotatey-zoomy™ engine to be good looking, the game is played from a fixed isometric point of view. It supports resolutions up to 1280 x 1024 though for super crisp, high-res graphics.
The minimum spec is low and, surprisingly these days, the game actually runs acceptably at this level, even at 800 x 600. Increase the RAM to 64Mb and add a good graphics card and you can happily run at 1024x768 or higher if you have a mid-range Pentium II.
Overall I was impressed by the graphics, despite their bitmapped origin - all the buildings have been modelled to a very high detail in 3D before being converted to 2D sprites, and all the tiny characters have unique details to separate them from others. It is easy to distinguish units simply by the way they are dressed, or by the tools or weapons they are carrying.
Each of the 13 civilisations has its own unique style of buildings and dress, as well as its own unique technology tree. In the box comes a large fold-out map of all the races and the units they can build.
The technology tree is divided into four "ages" - Dark Age, Feudal Age, Castle Age and Imperial Age. You must construct the necessary pre-requisite buildings and have enough resources to advance to the next age.
Once there you are able to use a whole new group of structures and weapons. For example, once you have built a Barracks in the Dark Age, you can train villagers to become Militia. Once you graduate to the Feudal Age, you gain access to Men-at-Arms, who in turn give rise to Long Swordsman, Two-handed Swordsman, and finally Champion in the final Imperial Age.
The gameplay will be familiar to fans of the first game, but with enough new features and improvements to keep them satisfied.
Gamers new to the series are treated to an in-depth manual, and there are excellent tutorial campaigns, slowly introducing each new unit and building one at a time. There are a lot of things to think about, but you are gently reminded of the fundamentals every now and then - "Don't forget - keep exploring the map!".
This ensures that you get into the habit of doing several tasks at once, and to keep checking their progress so you can give new orders.
To make sure all your villagers are working at peak efficiency there is a new function which is so obvious you wonder why it has taken so long for someone to think of it. Just click on the "Idle Villager" icon and, hey presto, the screen focuses on the nearest idle villager. It's not exactly rocket science, but you would be surprised how useful it is.
The sound in AOE II really enhances the whole gameplay experience, and again, it is the attention to detail and subtle touches that elevate this game above its rivals.
For starters, each civilisation speaks its own language, so units respond in the appropriate accent. I think this helps the player really bond with their villagers - it gives them a personality, rather than the standard "Acknowledged" grunt of military RTS games.
The addition of female units also adds the variety, although everyone is equal - the women are just a capable as the men.
It's hard to describe, but it's just the general ambient sounds of busy villagers getting on with their work - woodsmen chopping, farmers harvesting, the hustle and bustle of the market - that helps you become immersed in the game.
Many subtle improvements have been made to the multiplayer experience as well to help make everything a little fairer, and a damn sight more tactical.
Gone are the days when you could simply make a handful of the appropriately lethal unit and then stomp your opposition in the first five minutes - vulnerable villagers are now able to take refuge inside buildings until the danger has passed.
In larger multiplayer maps, an attitude of "me vs the world" will very rarely end in victory. Strategic alliances with other players are crucial, allowing you to trade resources and mount joint attacks on the enemy.
A rather handy feature are the ally-friendly gates in your perimeter walls - they will open for you and your allies, but slam shut on the enemy. You can focus on other areas happy in the knowledge that your mates can come and go as they please, but the enemy will be repelled.
For a bit of variation, there is also a new type of multiplayer game called Regicide. The principle is similar to Chess, though on a larger scale. Everyone starts with a King, some buildings, and a few villagers. You battle against the other teams, protecting your King and trying to kill theirs. The winner is the last King standing.
It's good fun, as it opens the game to sneak attacks and suicide runs, as the only thing that matters is the death of their King. But don't leave yours open to counter attacks...
I never got into the original game, yet I find AoE II enchanting. The sheer depth of the technology tree and evolution of the civilisation are always a surprise.
I particularly like the intuitive logic that makes battles more tactical. Archers are good at medium range attack, but weak at hand-to-hand combat. To get past an enemy wall, you can use a battering ram, or catapult over it. This may all sound obvious, but it forces you to have a range of units in your arsenal - no single unit type can dominate a map.
With AoE II, Ensemble seem to have stumbled on to a unique combination that might amount to the gaming holy grail.
It is a sequel that is better than the original, with enough new material to satisfy die-hard fans of the original, yet a subtle learning curve to not intimidate new players.
The single player skirmish mode coupled with the varied campaigns make for a solid single player experience, and the multiplayer is about as tactical as you can get, which makes a nice change from the typical "tank-rush" of other games.
It appeals to people of all ages, and should find fans among the fairer sex, many of whom already play AoE.
And it is strangely playable on low-end systems, as well as top of the range hardware. How many games can you say that about? Release Date - available now