This review is dedicated to the memory of Graylien Cat. She was equal parts feline and alien, and everyone who met her loved how she had no tail and ran like a bunny rabbit. She will be missed. -UD
The original Age of Empires was noteworthy not just for its excellent gameplay, but for being the rare breed of strategy game that wasn’t focused on contemporary or futuristic warfare, instead delving into antiquity for its source material, and giving players the opportunity to lead the Egyptian chariots into battle or bring the power of the Phoenician navy to enemy shores. Strategy honks loved it for its depth and intuitive interface, and history nerds like myself dug it for covering a period of history that rarely gets any video game run. The success of the original prompted Ensemble Studios to churn out a sequel, this time moving the clock ahead to the Middle Ages with 1999’s Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, and its expansion pack, The Conquerors, which we’re combining into one review today for the sake of convenience.
Like the original, the goal is quite simple: build up your fledgling civilization through the four periods of the Middle Ages, the Dark, Feudal, Castle, and Imperial ages, balancing your economic development with military buildup, and eventually squashing those who oppose you. There are 13 civilizations to select from in the standalone game, encompassing most of the Old World powers, from the Franks, Vikings, and Teutons of Europe, to the Byzantines, Saracens, and Persians in the Middle East, to the Mongols and Japanese in the Far East. The expansion tacks on another handful of nations, most notably the Aztecs and Mayans, making the game feel more all-encompassing.
Each group has their own separate bonuses and strengths, as well as their own unique unit, based off of each nation’s military specialty, like the English longbowmen or the Persian War Elephant. Each civilization also has different permutations of the tech tree that reflect their historical tendencies, so the Turks have more access to gunpowder-based technologies, and the Britons butter their bread with advanced archery techs. The expansion also features unique techs for each group, and, if you’re so inclined, you can turn all techs on, unlocking the full tree at the cost of unique bonuses.
Controlling your tribe is a very smooth and intuitive process, given the scope of available actions. Villagers, the backbone of your nation’s survival, can build, hunt, fish the shore, mine, and harvest lumber. Left-clicking selects units, and right-clicking issues their marching orders. Different buildings can be built next to resources deposits to expedite the collection process and research economic techs, and most importantly, everything makes sense, such as a lumber camp being used for, ta-da, collecting lumber. Military units especially have an expansive selection of orders as well, like Follow or Guard, as well as different stances that dictate their AI behavior if they encounter enemies, and a handful of different formations for groups of units.
As you progress through the ages, you’ll unlock more buildings, units, and technologies. You can’t produce your civ’s unique unit, for example, until you’ve constructed a castle, which, as you might imagine, requires you to be in the Castle Age. Some siege equipment is available in the Castle Age, but the higher-end engines, like Trebuchets and Siege Onagers, only start rolling out in the Imperial Age. I’m also happy to report that military buildings are also logical, archery units are built at the Archery Range, and so on.
The combat system works fairly well and balances quite nicely, with every unit having at least one foil: archers being vulnerable to skirmishers, who are fodder for cavalry, who are weak against pikemen, and so on. It’s not quite paper-scissors-rock, but you’d still be wise to diversify your army, especially on higher difficulties. You can form large groups of units and assign them to a group with Ctrl+1-9, similar to Command and Conquer, but group size is actually limited here, so alas, your massive cadre of 40+ unique units is gonna have to be broken up into two groups. Combat animations are fairly solid as well, but very rarely will you ever encounter the kind of open-field battles between two massive armies you might expect, as most battles revolve around siege warfare by the attackers and a frantic scramble by the defenders.
Quite a few wrinkles add to the gameplay here, also. Players are free to forge alliances with other players, usually after taking a bribe, but once an alliance is solidified, extra gold can be generated by creating trade routes, either on land with trade carts running between markets, or on the seas with trading ships going between docks. You can use the chat feature with AI players as well, using a number of commands like telling your allies to go on the offensive, create extra villagers, build a navy, and best of all, have them fork over any extra resources they might have lying around. Extra coin can also be ginned up by finding relics scattered throughout the map and having monks return them to a monastery, and that gold can be spent at the market to purchase resources you may be short on, although, much like real life, the more you buy, the more the prices rise accordingly. Very cool.
There’s quite a lot of game modes to be found here as well. Aside from the standard Random Map games, there’s Regicide, where players begin with a castle and ten villagers, and the objective is to kill the enemies’ kings, Death Match, where players begin with large stockpiles of resources and are encouraged to start cranking out troops early and often, and Wonder Race, where the objective is to be the first player to reach the Imperial Age and construct a Wonder, among a couple others. There’s also a number of campaigns based on historical figures, from Genghis Khan (!) to Joan of Arc (!!!). The expansion pack also tosses in a couple new campaigns, as well as the Battles of the Conquerors, which are one-off scenarios featuring important battles from across the medieval era. New players can also dip their toes in the water with the very sound tutorial campaign based on the battles of William Wallace, which each scenario introducing a new concept of gameplay.
Even more awesome is the inclusion of an extremely expansive campaign and scenario editor. You can start from complete scratch; a blank chunk of land you can add lakes, trees, and hills to, or select from a wide variety of pre-cooked map types, choose which nations you want to pop in, add units, both from the normal game, as well as powerful hero units from the different campaigns, and even lay down decorations like signposts and shipwrecks. For the really intrepid, given a bit of time and practice, you can also utilize a trigger system that allows you to script events in your scenario, such as dialogue popping up on screen or uncovering areas of the map by reaching certain areas. As I said, it does take a bit of trial and error, but after you start to understand how to parse events, you can put some fairly elaborate twists and turns in your map. You can also link different scenarios together into an overarching campaign, complete with hints and scouting info at the outset of each scenario.
Perhaps some of the highest praise I can give AoE II, though, is for how well they got the little things right in terms of trying to create authenticity. Despite the fact that everyone draws from the same pool of units and buildings, the different limitations in each civ’s tech tree provides enough variety to make each one handle a bit differently, even for veteran players. Civs from different regions also get their own art set, so a Viking castle looks markedly different from a Japanese castle, and so on. The campaign mode is presented through different narrators recalling the past, which works a lot better than the hamtastic cinema scenes we were getting in other games of the era, not to mention that different civs have different voice samples. I’m not well-versed enough to know if they’re remotely authentic, but they’re not nearly as grating as the endless stream of pseudo-military speak in other games. There’s also a massive history section with detailed histories of all the available civs, as well as medieval warfare and the Middle Ages in general, which is worth a read if you’re interested.
I do have some issues, although some are addressed to an extent in the expansion. For one, since you have four different resource types to harvest, that requires a good bit of micromanagement, and worse, unlike other games with only one or two resource types, or games where resource sites never run out, you can, and probably will, forget about at least one group of villagers who’ve exhausted a mine or forest and will just stand around aimlessly, although in the expansion, you can queue up farms to be replanted after they run dry.. Another hiccup is that there’s no limitation on where you can build, which leads to some bush-league moments, especially on higher difficulty levels, where the enemy will just plant military buildings right outside your town and harass you with an endless stream of cheap units. Third, and perhaps most importantly, if you’re trying to play this on Windows 7 like me, you’ll probably have to find a workaround to make the colors come in properly, which, in my case, forced me to create a batch file that shuts off Windows Explorer before starting the game.
Overall, though, it’s not hard to see why Age of Empires II is one of the most beloved strategy games in history. It’s relatively easy to figure out, even if you’re new to the genre or the series, and deep enough to suck you in for quite a while. I highly recommend it if you like real-time strategy or have even a passing interest in medieval history and warfare, and always remember, elephants > samurai.
Plenty of depth in gameplay and a variety of modes, excellent historical campaigns, rather intuitive for how much you can do.
Micromanagement is required, you may have some stickiness getting it to run on modern systems.