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Two years ago, I sat down with Ensemble's original Age of Empires and walked away seriously disappointed. While trying to blend the historical and world building feel of Civilization with the well balanced real-time strategy power of Warcraft II, the developers seemed to miss the point of both. While the game certainly had a few high points, the fact that the game suffered from hideously bad pathing, a severe lack of unit (or race) creativity and boasted none of the play subtleties that make a game worth owning, ended up crippling the title so badly that it just couldn't stand up against the fine competition of the day. Now Ensemble is back for a second try at real-time civilization building – offering up a load of historical scenarios, a scenario editor, better graphics and load of new units to entice gamers back to the license. While the result still isn't perfect, the team has come a very long way in a very short amount of time. The question is, did they put all of their effort in the right place?
At first glance, Age of Empires II still appears to operate very much like its predecessor. Each round revolves around collecting as many of the four basic resources (wood, food, gold and stone) as you can and using them to build an army to destroy your enemy. The units that you build this army out of are, with one new exception, still split into four basic types – cavalry, archers, infantry and siege engines. As you advance through the various ages, you'll have the power to improve each one of these four unit types with new technologies and training styles, but for the most part, they still serve the same purpose on the battleground as they did in the first game. And, as in the last title, these technologies are simply purchased with resources gathered from the surroundings rather than requiring any sort of scientist units or buildings.
Power to the People
So what has changed? Plenty. Behind each one of these simple categories lies new game mechanics designed to enhance the experience of long term play. Let's start with the resource gathering. While there's not all that much that can be done with the standard RTS peons-gathering-the-goods feel (even Tiberian Sun and Homeworld are still stuck with it), Age of Empires II has done a very good job of keeping you involved with their labors by offering up plenty of technology options that can not only improve the quality and speed of a villager's work, but also increase their value to you as a whole. As with the first title, farms can be improved so that they can be harvested more times before needing to be rebuilt, new axes and saws increase the speed with which wood can be collected, mines can be improved so that gold and stone come in more quickly, but now there are new options as well. Once you've constructed a castle, you'll be able to research Sappers, which will give each of your villagers a strong bonus when they attack buildings, which makes them a useful combat tool when you don't have enough resources to build a siege engine. Better still, at anytime, you can ring your town bell and all of your villagers will stop what they're doing, rush into the town center and start taking potshots at attackers – quite useful when you find yourself low on conventional troops. I managed several times to take out entire attacking groups with this tactic (later technologies improve your people's aim) not to mention the fact that I didn't lose an entire field full of workers simply because they were too stupid to get out of the way. Villagers now play an important role not only in the collection of resources, but also in town defense and even in combat. Don't get too cozy with them though, later in the game, you (as well as your enemies) will gain the ability to research spying (Treason in a Regicide game) which gives you the ability to see through the eyes of the enemy peasants. This last ability, although very expensive (200 gold for each villager the enemy has), is especially vile when someone uses it on you in a multiplayer game and often heralds the beginning of the end. The best defense against this tactic is to either ensure that your enemy doesn't have access to that much gold, or to have enough peasants on hand that he won't be able to afford the purchase of the technology.
One thing that disturbed me for a quite a little while about Age of Empires II is that, despite numerous complaints from... well everyone, each of the included 13 races are, on the face of things, pretty much the same. Fortunately, once I got into the game, I realized that this just isn't true anymore. In addition to the fact that each side has its own special unit that can't be built by anyone else and special attributes that make them more effective at various combat and economic functions, the different races don't have access to the same technology upgrades which limits their access to the various combat units available. Here's an example: Celts are the only race that can build Woad Raiders (their own special unit), but they have no access to the Camel, Heavy Camel, Arbalest, Hand Cannoneer, or Bombard Cannon. Their inability to research Plate Barding, Bracers and Ring Archer Armor mean that their Calvary and Archers will not be able to advance as far as others. The civilization's overall attributes allow them to build Siege Workshops 20% faster, allow their Siege Weapons to fire 20% faster and allow their infantry to move 15% faster than other civs. What this means on the battlefield is that the Celts are best equipped to make rapid assaults with their fierce infantry units and use their Siege Weapon advantage to destroy an enemy's combat structures before they can build more troops to stop them.
Restrictions on a civilization's research don't just fall under combat either. Certain cultures have a real problem when it comes to the construction of certain defensive or economic structures which, while it won't hurt them once they're on the battlefield, may make it a lot more difficult for them to get there in the first place. The Goths, for instance, can build gates, walls or any sort of guard tower, giving the enemy open access to their encampments. The Japanese have access to every type of infantry, archery and monastic unit and upgrade, but the fact that they can never develop Improved Mines or Crop Rotation may make it very hard for them to afford those units when it comes time to build an army. In the end, each of the different races is very well balanced with small differences that do a pretty good job of delivering the feel of particular civ. On the other hand, the fact that the units are still all pretty much the same keeps the game from ever delivering the same battlefield impact of Starcraft or Tiberian Sun.
Duking it Out
Once you land yourself in a battle, you'll discover another facet of Age's delicate balancing act. Each unit type on the field has at least one other unit type that it is really good at attacking and at least one unit that is its nemesis. Archers are excellent at wiping out infantry, particularly Militia units, but are destroyed in a hurry when attacked by Skirmishers. Cavalry can cause absolute mayhem when it hits a battlefield crowded with foot soldiers, but is halted by Pikemen or Camels. It's all very confusing at first, but it all makes sense and eventually you'll be responding to combat threats like a pro.
Another new addition to the combat engine is the inclusion of combat formations and individual or group attack stances. When marching into battle, you can select from five different preset formations: Line, Box, Staggered, Flank and Horde, or you can choose to create your own custom formations (which I didn't find all that useful). The preset formations are actually very useful and do a pretty good job of intelligently preparing your troops for battle. In the Line setup, your units walk in a double file and turn to face the enemy as a wall if attacked. As a Box, your soldiers will move to protect the weaker units by forming four human walls around them. This is particularly useful in the multiplayer Regicide mode when you need to move your king across the playing field. I didn't see much use for the Staggered formation until the first time I faced down a Mangonel and it wiped out most of my fighting force with a few shots. When Staggered, your units are spread out enough that they won't be completely devastated by an area of effect attack. Flank splits your group in two and attempts to surround whatever you are attacking and finally, Horde just moves your troops in a disorganized mass. I don't know what this last one is really good for, but it looks good when you're attacking an enemy with Woad Raiders. FREEDOM!!
Combat stances are also very helpful. By setting your units to defend, attack, or stay put, you can put an end to those horrifying moments when you realize that your town is under attack and your entire army wandered off across the continent because they saw a villager. In attack mode, your units act pretty much like they did last time, moving to attack nearby enemies and keeping after them until somebody dies. Defend mode works in a similar fashion – units will engage the enemy when they see 'em, but won't go too far afield before they return back to their original starting point. In Stand Your Ground mode, units will attack the enemy, but won't move from their current position. The final mode, No Attack, has your units stay put, and they won't attack even if they're being attacked. I'm not sure what this is good for, but it's a lot of fun to watch. Other new troop options include Patrol, which lets you set patrol points so your troops can cover a wider area, Guard, which will have your troop stay within sight of a selected building or unit and attack anything that tries to hurt it, and Follow, which has your unit tag along behind anyone you click on.
One more new addition to the game's combat engine is the monk, a unit that is built in monasteries (I bet you knew that) and has both the ability to heal your troops and to convert enemy troops to your side. OK, so it's not entirely new. The monk basically replaced the priest from the original, but they do look a lot cooler. The monk's abilities massively affect the game's balance. Since there are units that heal, you can take a group of soldiers into an enemy outpost, destroy it, and still have enough power to plow further into their territory. The conversion ability is pretty powerful, but is balanced out by the fact that monks have to rest for a while after each conversion. At later technology levels, certain cultures gain the ability to improve their monks with Fervor, which makes them move faster (they're real slow to start with, Sanctity, which gives them more hit points, Redemption, which gives your monks the ability to convert enemy buildings (with certain exceptions), Atonement, which allows your monks to convert enemy monks, and Illumination, which decreases the amount of time monks need to rest after a conversion. Players who are concerned about such things can also develop Faith which will make all of their units more resistant to conversion. While I never really warmed up to the monk as anything but a medic, their conversion ability is useful when you want to grab an enemy unit that you don't have access to. The bottom line though is that monks are just too damn expensive (especially when you get done with all the research you need to make them truly effective) to use close to the front line.
In the end, my only real problem with the game's overall balance was the fact that the "produce a lot of troops and sling them at the front gate" strategy is still one of the most effective in the game. There's a certain strategic subtlety that games like Dark Reign and Starcraft inspire that is in many ways missing from Age of Empires 2, particularly in the single player mode. While this shortcoming never kept me from enjoying the game as a multiplayer exercise or in the historical campaigns, it was a pretty disappointing throwback (gather resources – build troops – sling at enemy – repeat if necessary) to an era long since past when playing the random map missions.
Knowing is Half the Battle
One area that hasn't improved all that much over the original Age of Empires is the technology layout. While there are certainly a lot more techs to research this time around, the research progress is still very much linear and never really delivers the feel of the interconnectivity of knowledge that could be found in Civilization and Alpha Centauri. Militia become Men-at-Arms become Long Swordsmen simple because you spend a certain amount of resources to make them so. Once you have one, as long as you civilization is allowed the next, all you have to do is burn off some resources and voila, instant progress. If Age of Empires II was a more detailed and complex game strategically, this wouldn't be such a big deal, but as it stands it flattens the game a little bit.
The one bright spot here is the aforementioned curtailing of technology advances for certain civilizations. Here, less is more. By keeping certain technologies out of the hands of certain civilizations, Age manages not only to deliver the feel (through limitations) of a certain culture, but also to better balance the game. Still, I've already covered this ground, so let's move on.
Getting Your Friends Involved
As a multiplayer game, Age of Empires II really impressed me. The game ships with standard options for IPX, LAN, Modem and Serial cable competition, and also supports Internet play through the Zone. In addition to the standard Random Map and Deathmatch options, Age of Empires II also serves up an excellent new option called Regicide. In this game, both sides are given a king unit, a Town Center, a Castle, and a handful of villagers. The game continues until the king dies. While this may sound simple, there are dozens of different strategies to use here ranging from the very obvious (protect the king by placing him inside a dozen walls protected by a hundred troops) to the very dangerous (keep the king on the move so that the enemy can never find him).
Obviously listening to the frustration of gamers everywhere, Ensemble has also been kind enough to tack on a save feature for the multiplayer mode. Not only is it quick and easy to use, but it's set up so that the same number of players who were playing before have to log back on in order to open the game. This will discourage that nasty urge to jump in and cheat when your buddies aren't around.
Another multiplayer option is to take on your buddies in a custom scenario that you create yourself in the Custom Scenario Editor. This helpful little tool lets you set up your own landscapes and starting troop mixes so that you can recreate your favorite battles of history (or in my case to just create really funny battles). This little feature adds years onto the life of this product and I'm really impressed that they put it in without trying to sell an add-on pack.
Wrapping it All Up
Age of Empires II is a huge game, and there's still a lot that I haven't covered in detail here. We're already assuming that you're fairly comfortable with the historical campaigns since we covered them in depth over the course of the last month. For those that want to play catch up, you can read up on the Joan of Arc, Saladin, Genghis Khan, and Barbarossa campaigns by clicking on them.
Graphically, the game is light years ahead of its predecessor, with amazing attention to detail in every pixel. I'm a little bummed that every civilization doesn't have its own specific look (they're broken up into broad categories), but maybe that's too much to ask. All of the units move extremely well and I never saw any evidence of the pathing problems that plagued the original game. One negative that should be mentioned before closing though is the game's god-awful speech. While Age II boasts an excellent soundtrack, the voice actors in the game, who are supposed to be medieval French or Scottish commanders are terrible. This may not seem like all that big of a deal, but it's so bad that it's actually distracting. Worse still, these speeches are supposed to be your reward for finishing up a tough level. I found myself cringing towards the end of the level because I knew the pain was coming. When they need a Scottish accent, why can't they just ask a Scottish guy to do it?
Age of Empires II is an excellent game, but one that still doesn't stand up to the subtlety and depth of games like Starcraft. With that said, there's not much out there right now that a lot better. If you've been looking for a good multiplayer game or don't mind your strategy served up in a very straightforward way, there's a lot of fun to be had here.
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