Every so often a game comes along that manifests itself as a reviewer's delight. Far more the exception than the rule, this happy event occurs much too seldom in practice considering the tremendous number of computer games released each month (circa 1999). This might be expected, though not excused, due to the complexity inherent in most new titles as the limits of computer gaming technology expand in ever widening increments. Who can blame the designers for trying to take advantage of every new possibility as they forge games with more and more capabilities and scramble to pack their products with the latest enhancements and technology of game design?
Unfortunately, with this increased capability comes the logical downside, a necessary evil of modern-day gaming -- the obligatory patch or patches that soon follow on the heels of the original game release, usually fed by fan feedback through on-line forums, e-mails, news groups and so forth. In light of this discouraging and dismaying trend, the release of a RTS game free of any major problems is a significant event. This brings me back to the subject of this review, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, a game that incorporates the best features of the real-time strategy genre and manages to avoid the numerous pitfalls that often lessen a gamers experience.
While not perfect, AOEII contains no sharp-stick-in-the-eye game busters or fatal flaws that suddenly leap at you after hours of play. The designers have 'fixed' the majority of major complaints levied at the original Age of Empires and, in one fell swoop, have improved the product immensely while incorporating significant features in nearly all aspects of gameplay. In effect, any faults AOEII may have are niggling at best and don't critically affect the intense and absorbing qualities of this real-time strategy success.
For those who like historically based strategy games, look no further than Age of Empires II. Even though the on-screen images of similar types of units may at times be difficult to discern (especially in the furious heat of large battles), the designers have more than made up for it in several ways. The 13 civilizations are easily recognizable due to factors that include distinctive cultural philosophies (in both political and military areas), the flavor of realistic language indigenous to each race that, while somewhat limited in scope, is still very influential in developing an era-enhancing atmosphere and proprietary architecture that evolves throughout the various ages.
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Regardless of which civilization you choose to play, each will exhibit traits, weaponry and research proclivities based on the historical record. One highlight of the game (there are many), features buildings that are upgraded pursuant to advancement through the four ages: Dark, Feudal, Castle and Imperial. These structures, shown amazingly to scale with astounding details, eventually build to magnificent showcases that dazzle the eye. Individual units (a vast number exist) can be periodically upgraded as well along with the effectiveness of purpose for which they serve.
Level headed and decisive management of requirements, resources, research and goals are essential in AOEII:AOK and can seem daunting at times in the flurry of real-time activity. To help novices conquer the learning curve necessary in the game, a short campaign-based tutorial is provided that guides William Wallace through his attempts to thwart the British troops of Henry Longshanks as they try to bully the Scots into submission. Additionally, the manual contains an exhaustive 'tips' page for beginners not familiar or experienced with real-time strategy games.
The actual movement of your forces on-screen couldn't be simpler, especially with the point-and-click interface and shortcut keys that, once learned, make manipulation of the many aspects of gameplay a breeze. The selection process of grouping like units together could be difficult but isn't, due to the intelligent visual depiction of groups that allow for a fast winnowing-out process. In fact, several methods are provided for selecting individual units as well and establishing a rallying point (a flag) that can be situated just about anywhere on the game map.
Speaking of grouping units together, the introduction to the game of a central bell-ringing option at the town hall is enormously helpful. With this handy tool, you can call the populace away from their daily jobs to garrison buildings or locations in order to fend off surprise attacks, especially when your military may be away from the town. You can gather the masses to conduct group healing, position them for protection (safety in numbers) or generally take stock of your population. Once the crisis has passed, a simple second bell-ring will send them all back to work automatically.
The technology tree in Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, while not as exhaustive as the one in Civilization, is still formidable and won't likely disappoint anyone involved in a specific campaign or scenario. The game comes with a marvelous fold-out reference chart that contains an incredible amount of information and is nearly priceless as an aid to keeping track of possible advancements by the individual 13 civilizations.
The chart unfolds to four panels, each filled front and back with indispensable data regarding each civilization's specific attributes. Included are unique units (e.g., the Persian war elephant and Viking berserkers) and specific bonus awards tied to culture-based historical characteristics of the race (e.g., the Chinese receive a significant bonus for farming while the Turks' gunpowder units train 20% faster than their counterparts).
Unit strengths and weaknesses are covered with each showing the best response unit to use against specific attacking units, the best counterattack unit and a clear indication of which units are not appropriate for that specific skirmish. The major units addressed in the chart are archers, infantry, siege, ships, cavalry and monks. New units introduced in AOEII:AOK are depicted in red on the chart, thus providing an easy reference and comparison for those familiar with the original.
One side of the four-panel fold out is devoted exclusively to a color-coded technology tree that spans the four possible ages and shows tie-ins and cross-links associated with buildings, technology and units. Another color-coded matrix shows buildings, units and technologies not common to all civilizations in conjunction with each type of civilization and the age in which it is prominent. These two may sound similar but the manner in which the subject matter is displayed offers the user a complete perspective of the varying elements.
If that weren't enough, the manual contains comprehensive charts for each of the 13 civilizations that cover every single aspect encountered in the game while controlling any specific race. The appendix also contains matrix charts showing building attributes (economic and military) broken down by Age, cost, hit points, attack, garrison and range values. Unit attributes are summarized and include cost, hit points, attack, armor, range, speed and special abilities. Technologies, broken down by specific units, show costs and benefits inherent to each.
Actual gameplay proceeds in crisp fashion with little time for boredom to set in. Once all the keyboard shortcuts are mastered, the pace can be very quick and on-screen activities expand at a fast rate. Keeping up with this activity is one of the many challenges provided by this real-time strategy game. Fortunately, the designers have added some features to help the player overcome this potentially daunting problem. These include the aforementioned town hall bell, an AI that minimizes the amount of micro-management required during large-scale battles, gathering points and a 'find-idle-villager' button that allows quick identification of workers who are currently non-productive.
Militarily, the game introduces the heretofore missing option of formation types and stances. You can configure your troops to form in line, box, staggered, flank or horde formations but the best new option in this area is the availability of combat stance, more easily identified as disposition. Assigning your forces to take either aggressive or defensive posturing becomes an integral part of battle strategy and tactics as do the orders to simply 'stand your ground' or not attack.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings provides every opportunity to play the type of game you wish. There are four main campaign games centered on Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, Saladin or Frederick Barbarossa, each with a handful of linked historically-based scenarios that must be played and won in linear fashion to advance. Quite possibly the best feature, though, is the random map game where no scenario is ever the same. Nearly every aspect of gameplay is adjustable including number of players, civilizations to be used, map type and size, population limits, starting resource availability, which Age to begin in and victory conditions!
The fun doesn't stop there however. You can choose to play the single- or multi-player version of the Regicide Game with its survival-at-all-costs motif where your king must be the only surviving royalty and where special rules are built in to change the results of certain technologies, thus creating a very different type of game. Equally intense is the Death Match game with specific rules and its fight to the death scenario.
The game has various victory conditions that can totally change the way you need to play. The most common is the Conquest mode where defeat of your opponents requires meeting specific criteria, not just eliminating them. Another option is to play a game wherein the winner is the first player who builds a Wonder of the World within the specific Age required! And yet another innovative victory option revolves around becoming the first player to collect all of the relics within a certain age -- but with a twist. Once a civilization has possession of all the relics, a countdown clock commences that allows the other civilizations a set amount of time to wrest a relic away from the controlling civilization, thus terminating the countdown clock.
Other types of play are available such as victory being awarded to the civilization that has the highest point score when a set amount of time has elapsed or a victory predicated on reaching a pre-determined score, without time limits. Multi-player action is accommodated via a LAN or the Internet (up to 8 players) or through a modem or serial connection (two players). As in the single player games, multi-player action in Age of Empires II offers a ton of adjustable game parameters.
The fact that the game contains a campaign/scenario creator and editor module is just pure icing on this cake. Not only can you design your own campaigns and/or scenarios, you can create computer player scripts which basically give the computer instructions on how to handle specific game elements such as AI behavior and building parameters. These new edited or created scenarios and campaigns can be made available or traded with game fans on the Internet, thus providing even more replay value beyond the random map generator.
I've barely touched on the incredible amount of detail to be found in Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. The possibilities of this real-time strategy game seem nearly endless and it definitely is on my short list of personal 'game of the year' nominees. If the music and sound isn't spectacular (which it's not), it's my opinion that most strategy gamers will focus on the game's stellar gameplay and forgive any minor shortcomings, the largest of which is possibly the lack of a zoom or map rotation feature.
Graphics: Only held back by the similarity of some units in the earlier phases of the game. Otherwise, a beautifully rendered world with stunning architectures that evolve dramatically throughout the four ages of the game.
Sound: Most of this rating is due to the wonderful sound effects--the clanking of armor, the brash sound of blade on blade, the synchronicity of battle sounds as armies meet armies, the day-to-day hum of ordinarily citizens going about their jobs, and the thoughtful inclusion of race-specific languages and tones. The music neither adds nor detracts significantly from the gaming experience and isn't necessarily attuned with the on-screen action at all times.
Enjoyment: They don't come much better than this. The designers have done a masterful job in combining the best of all previous RTS titles and, in fact, have exceeded expectations by introducing new and fresh ideas that make the game shine like brightly polished armor.
Replay Value: Between Internet downloading of new scenarios and campaigns, designing your own, or using the incredibly diverse random map generator, this is one game that will remain on my hard drive for a very long time to come.
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