Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings Review

Developer:

Ensemble Studios

Publisher:

Konami (Playstation 2)/Microsoft (Mac, PC)

Platform:

Mac, PC, Playstation 2

Release Date:

Mac/PC: September 30, 1999/Playstation 2: November 2, 2001

Genre:

Real-time Strategy

Players:

Single-player, Online/Local Multiplayer

Rating:

T

-David Ruddock

The king of kings of RTS games

Age of Empires was, for a long time, the final word in RTS (Real-time Strategy) and has left its mark indelibly on the genre ever since.  The convention of gathering resources, building armies and crushing your opponents was popularised most widely by this game because it got the sequence so perfectly balanced as to make it a joy to play.  It has aged rather badly though, and while you can pick it up for next to nothing it won’t stand up to much scrutiny past nostalgia.

The gameplay is rigid and blunt, which while not allowing much room for flexibility or freedom to play a tactics-heavy game, does mean that combat is straightforward and easy to pick up.  There is a basic combat triangle that goes only ankle deep but which still means you won’t be relying solely on one unit to achieve conquest.  Fortifications are notoriously durable, even under sustained trebuchet fire, which can seriously slow down gameplay but otherwise you’ll find that the game runs at a constant, steady pace where, especially in skirmishes, training raiding parties and building defences and infrastructure must be balanced in order to secure victory.  There is a certain pleasure in creating an aesthetically pleasing base, if not one that is super-efficient, but whereas modern times use many hot keys to make selections and commands seamless and instant back then such indulgences were less obvious so flitting between different buildings can become an essential skill in itself.

The 1000-year period that spans the games eras is very clearly captured and the whole package is, oddly enough, quite inclusive (there is no problem having club-wielding cavemen fighting hand-cannon foes here).  Each of the civilizations has its own specific technology tree and unique units, though the building aesthetics is split into regions rather than one for each (Asia, Eastern Europe, Middle East, and so forth).  While this does keep the game fresh for a while the choice of civilization doesn’t have any bearing major enough to warrant much thought to go into it.  Aside from knowing that you prefer camels to horses there is no real reason why you’d pick one side over another.  The historical context is considerably accurate though and, in retrospect, was a not-so-bad collection of brief history lessons and insight.  The story of Saladin, for example, is surprisingly balanced and explains to the player how the man was renowned for his chivalry and honesty as much as for his fierceness and battle prowess.  I learnt a surprising amount from this game.

The best part of the game for me though is the mission editor, a comparatively user-friendly map maker with all the tools necessary to make your own skirmish maps, custom scenarios and even whole campaigns.  What with the game being drawn on square tiles the ease with which you are able to create huge cities and intricate woods is deceptively so.  You may often be inspired by the game as you play through the campaigns and with these tools you are able to recreate or reimagine everything you encounter.  There is also a trigger editor for the brave of heart because, while it is extensive and resourceful, it is also difficult to decipher at times and can make for frustrating test runs when a seemingly simple trigger just refuses to cooperate.  That said when everything does come together and you start concentrating on the flourishes the editor really comes into its own.

It is always difficult looking back on a videogame through rose-tinted glasses to point out what actually did and didn’t work, but with Age of Empires II the flaws are glaringly obvious.  That said there is more than enough here to make up for it, and though it may not be the giant it once was, nor Ensemble Studios who have sadly lost their way since then, this is still worth a revisit if you remember it fondly because that is more than enough to see you through the rough patches.  Get it now for a pittance and enjoy the makings of classic RTS gaming.

Pros:

  • Balanced RTS gameplay
  • Engaging campaigns
  • Great editor

Cons:

  • Combat is a little shallow
  • Doesn’t hold up well outside of nostalgia
  • Choices between civilizations is minimal

Final Verdict: 80%

Age of Empires 2 Intro (Uncut Version)

Were you a fan of this series? If so, how did you feel about this particular entry?