The Good News
In a bizarre turn of events, Microsoft's best-selling real-time strategy game Age of Empires II has been released on the PlayStation 2. Published by Konami to spare Bill and the boys the indignity of having to kow-tow to Sony in person, the result is a very faithful console port of the game, which is something of a mixed blessing. The upside is that PS2 owners get the whole Age of Kings package with only one obvious ommission. The best place to start is the tutorial campaign based on the exploits of William Wallace, which does an excellent job of teaching newcomers to the genre the basics of combat, building and resource gathering. It also serves as a refresher for more experienced players, and although controlling a real-time strategy game with a joypad feels a little odd at first, by the end of the tutorials it should be second nature. The only real problem is the lack of grouping and other hotkeys, for which you will need a USB keyboard. All five single player campaigns from the original game are also included, putting you in the shoes of historical leaders ranging from Joan of Arc to Genghis Khan and then setting you tasks such as building up a settlement, defeating an enemy army or recovering religious artifacts. Once you have exhausted these the random map generator comes into play, offering a wide range of options for setting up skirmish battles against the AI using any of the game's thirteen civilizations. In fact, the only thing missing is online support, although if you happen to have a spare PS2 lying around you can play against a friend using an i-Link cable.
The Bad News
The downside is that the game's interface was hardly a miracle of efficient design even on the PC. Displayed on a TV set it occupies almost half of the screen and looks appropriately big and clumsy, while some of the text and icons can be hard to make out from a distance. The larger buildings in particular still look fairly impressive, but overall the graphics lack clarity and the animations don't seem quite as smooth as they were in the original version. Indeed, apart from the intuitive control system, very little effort seems to have gone into fitting the game to the console's strengths and weaknesses, from the ever-present tinny MIDI music to the way the framerate sometimes starts to chug during large battles. These slowdowns are especially disappointing when you consider that this is a two year old PC game which was hardly cutting edge even back then. Despite these flaws Age of Empires II remains an enjoyable if not exactly groundbreaking game, and it is after all one of the few true strategy games currently available on the PS2. Unfortunately it looks rather dated, and doesn't offer anything more than the (somewhat cheaper) PC version; so although it could be the perfect present if you want to tempt a console-owning friend to the dark side, given the flood of quality releases at the moment it's hard to recommend otherwise.