Review by grasu
"The genre perfector (is that a word?)!"
Ahh the dog days of 1999... Everquest, Quake 3, Unreal Tournament, Heroes 3 and Age of Empires 2.
In the minds of the many LAN party addicts and MS Zone gamers AoE 2 did more for the genre than any one game, even Starcraft. And, why not? AoE 2 invented balanced sides, unique units, paper-rock-scissors, mind-blowing online play and had beautiful graphics to boot.
Sure, it crawled on a P166, the "minimum" requirement and it was probably the last main stream game to work on 3 year old PCs but, what the hell? It was fun and it will forever remain in the minds of gamers as one of the greatest games ever made.
Well, it wasn't Homeworld, but it wasn't bad either. The graphics featured in AoE 2 put many of my friends on the grill back in the day: "Will this work on my P200 with 24 MB RAM", "How about my 686 166Mhz? etc. Well, I don't know how it worked on their PCs but it didn't start on the 486 I had at that time... yeah, I was really sad.
But, on to the facts.
For a game released in 1999 the resolution in AoE 2 was downright amazing. A whooping 1280x1024 pixels could fit on screen at the same time along with the simply, yet beautifully animated buildings and backgrounds.
The detail featured in AoE2 was never seen before in an RTS game. Buildings looked superb, they were animated well and they grew from the dark ages to the Imperial ages in both grandeur and architecture. The plethora of building models and the surrounding animations (birds flying, villagers working, horses grazing) all made for a true feel of "I'm actually living in this medieval village!
Units were superbly animated and drawn, with unique styles and great detail paid to everything from the galloping of the horses, to the death of the archers and the destruction of the trebuchets.
There were problems however. Explosions were poor... very poor for this time period. Starcraft, one year earlier, had much better explosions. Furthermore, the poor 2D graphics of AoK didn't even TOUCH the majesty of the pseudo-3D graphics of Tiberian Sun or the glory of Homeworld.
What AoE 2 lost in the graphics department, it made up in the sound department. To this day I don't think there is a better sounding RTS than AoE 2. This game is like an orgasm for the ear.
Amazing music accompanied by awesome, clear, and concise sound effects and UNIQUE languages for each faction in the game. Add to all of that some great voice actors for the campaign intros and you got a whole cake with frosting, and a cherry on top.
Microsoft and Ensemble scored big points with the fans because of this category: Gameplay in AoE 2 is hard to put in words... not because it's needlessly complicated, but because it's amazingly good.
Looking at the game mechanics in AoE 2 might make you wonder what's so great about this game, because, honestly, this all seems pretty logical for most "Age" games today. In 1999, it was not.
AoE 2 featured the same 4 resources as it's forbearer: food, wood, stone and gold. Resource gathering was still a huge part of the genre back then and AoE 2 follows by the book as far as this goes. You could assign as many villagers to one resource as you pleased, farms ran out and so did the rest of the resources. Of course there were different gathering sites for each type of resource. Not surprisingly the first 3 ages in AoK are mostly a run for the gold/stone and the last age is all out war. Obviously this doesn't stand the test of time too well. Its just way too annoying to go running for resources, and, most of the time, not even getting to use all of them.
Never-the less, resources were important... and no resource was more important than stone. AoE 2 is still the leader in fortress building. No game after it or before it does castle building so well. Wall building and castles were of utmost importance in AoE 2. Not only did castles build your special unit but they built the most important piece of artillery in AoE 2: Trebuchets. Along with cannons (which are made practically useless since they appear only very, very late in the game) trebuchets are the only sure fire way to destroy walls, and if you can't destroy walls in AoE 2, you're dead.
Castles also provided defense, but after a few years of practice online, they became more of a "last-ditch-effort" than real defense. Never-the less AoE 2 was among the first, if not THE first game to provide this kind of balance between defense and attack.
Speaking about attacking, AoK brought 2 amazing additions to the genre: unique units and the paper-rock-scissors (PRS) system.
Unique units are pretty self-explanatory. Imbalances abounded among these units and the nations that possessed them (Teutonic Knights ruled the battlefield for months before a patch was cooked up) but, just like in any other game, people found ways to get passed them. Fair to say though, that some unique units were totally useless. The French and Mongolian units were especially bad. Low on HP/Attack and defenses these atrocious archers were easily defeated by much cheaper, much better, archers that were common to all nations.
The PRS system, however, was by far the best thing AoK brought to the genre. A perfectly and ingeniously thought out system of prey/predator, it finally whipped out the practice of the 50-unit-of-the-same-type-rush and it dawned a new era of progress on the RTS community. For those of you who don't know, the PRS system is a unit-balancing mechanism. Using PRS every unit is strong against one unit and weak against another. For example: Knights kill archers, archers kill swordsman, pikemen kill knights, and swordsmen kill pikemen. A 360-degree circle in which each unit is represented.
This system was extremely successful in AoK. It was really balanced to perfection. While in games like EE, even with this system, the unit imbalances are absurd AoE 2 PERFECTLY orchestrated HP with attack and with the PRS system to make no unit a 50-rusher. Finally, the PRS system encouraged spying and exploration. If someone was stupid enough to mass hundreds of Paladins it would be nice if you could use a mass of much cheaper Halberdiers to take them out.
Among other additions were domestic animals, a well-made system of waypoints and rally points, accessible interface, formations, idle citizen button, friend/foe colors, team locking, enhanced diplomacy, tradable resources, trade between nations and other such minor additions that helped enhance the game.
AoK also featured an expansive tech tree. Both military technologies and non-military technologies were well represented in this tech tree. You could upgrade your tools, your farms, your villagers, etc. You could also upgrade you Men-at-War, Pikemen, etc.
AoE 2 didn't lack units... no, it had a TON of units. In fact, to this day I haven't built every unit available in AoK. The upgrade tree for units is huge. A whole new gunpowder age opens up after you finish with most research in the Imperial age. Units rage from horsemen, to camels, to elephants, to all kinds of artillery, to musketeers, and pikemen, and horse archers, and everything that goes through your mind. Units are well spread throughout the ages and make for interesting combat whenever you're ready to attack.
What makes AoK great though, is not each individual game mechanic, it's how they're put together. With a plethora of maps and an even bigger selection of strategies, battles in AoK are spectacular. AoK is the first game to truly emphasize strategy and well built tactics. It's easily the most strategic game released in 1999 and it's just absolutely a blast to maneuver armies, ambush groups from hills or from behind the woods, send your early scout to kill a few villagers, or any other crazy or conventional tactic invented through the years. It all ties together like an awesome orchestra.
Minor problems drag this game down... which is a shame. Things like no auto-rebuild for farms, and the resource run can get really annoying and bog you down with too much attention on the economy and little attention to the war in the early stages of the game. Minor national imbalances also drag the score down a bit.
The first was a great game, but the second is an AMAZING multiplayer game. The same amazing games on small maps, everyone dashing for resources and fighting small wars are enormously augmented in fun factor with AoK's balancing.
Throw in lagless multiplayer through Zone and a group of players that goes above 2000 people, even at this time, online and you have one of the best multiplayer games ever made.
If you need proof of the greatness and popularity of AoE 2: AoK you need not look further than google. Typing in: "AoE 2 Strategies" will result in so many results you'll be stunned. People made a strategy on how to have you soldiers piss, in what order to build houses, or how you can use psychological warfare on your opponent. Yeah AoE 2 is that great.
Go out now and get the Gold Edition to also receive one of the greatest expansion packs ever made, and enjoy hours of fun and discovery.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 12/27/04
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