Review by Derek Zoolander

"A very good strategy game, especially for people new to the genre."

This was the first strategy game I bought for PC, and it was basically the first time I’d thoroughly played a real-time strategy (RTS) game. Because I’ve never really liked or been good at strategy games, I was expecting little more than nice graphics and a little medieval-style combat. Surprisingly, Age of Empires 2 delivered enough to land it right in the top echelon of strategy titles – having taken a big leap from the ambitious but largely flawed original. AOE2 shows its stuff with sharp, clean visuals, matched by its solidly fun gameplay.

Gameplay: 8+

Basically, you are the Emperor of your civilization and you play against one or more other civilizations. All civilizations start with just a scout cavalry and a few villagers (peasants), as well as a Town Centre from where you can make more villagers. These villagers need to gather the four basic resources – wood, food, gold, and stone – so that you’ll be able to improve and enlarge your civilization, through building structures like barracks, universities and mills that enhance resource gathering, produce military units, upgrade technologies and the like. Use all the tools at your disposal to build a beautiful civ and of course, screw up everyone else’s work. You can always try trading with allied civilizations, if that’s your thing.

All this is done through Age of Empire 2’s attractive interface – its texture and structure varying slightly depending on your civilization – which shows you a condensed map of your world, as well as information on troops & economic reserves, and options for all the other advanced functions. Instead of cramping everything up on one screen, you can switch between types of displays (e.g. economic, military, trade…) to simplify things. You can choose to play campaigns, or simply spar with the computer or other players over the Internet. Both modes have their drawing points; campaigns are deep and involving, while a short & sweet multiplayer game never hurts anyone.

Unlike more military-based RTS games like Starcraft, AoE 2 tends to focus more on economy, as you try to build up your civilization, get your people better equipment and your civilization grander structures, and so on. You’ll have plenty of time to do this, since there are many defensive fortifications such as walls, guard towers and castles to repel invaders. So, instead of a series of hit-and-run assaults, you’ll probably be building up your economy for at least the first half-hour or so, before starting to move on to military measures, making for long but varied – and not too gloomy or battle-based – matches.

Once you get onto military stuff the game really gets fun. There are lots of kinds of troops, each with a different purpose. There’s light cavalry, for scouting, heavy cavalry for assaults, archers & cavalry archers, infantry, siege weapons (fear my trebuchet!) and tons more. Particularly nice are units like the unassuming skirmishers and pikemen, who are generally worthless except against the all-conquering elite archers and Paladins (heavy cavalry). Mmm, taste my counter-attack.

With these little attack bonuses and other civilization-unique tweaks added in, you’ll need to maintain a balance of offensive and defensive troops, and mix all this in with your resource gathering. Every good RTS game does this, but few have the sheer number and variety of troops and potential battle plans as AOE2. You can even tell your units to attack or defend, or station them in different formations to suit their role.

But this game isn’t just get resources--make troops--kill other troops. There are lots of other things to do, such as exploring the landscape, hunting local wildlife, looking for gold-generating relics, or even building decorative monuments. Okay, so they’re not exactly worth the price of admission in themselves, but they’re pleasing little touches that top off your civilization’s corner of the world. And depending on what geographical region you’re playing in, you might have to focus on getting sparse resources before the enemy does, or you might want to build warships instead of troops. Civilizations themselves offer unique advantages and varying technologies and units - one may specialise in naval warfare while another is a more economic civ.

With time for economic development and basic diplomacy, AOE2 creates a good balance between economy and military, and players who like one side of the spectrum can find ways to stay there (for example, if you’re an “economy” person, you can make an alliance with another civilization that focuses on military matters; they can help you defend your civilization while you can send some resources their way to help with troop building). However, at the pointy end of the stick – i.e. the latter part of a game – you may well be forced to work on your military might. With the varied battles and units that can be created, this is not much of a problem, but after a while AOE2, pared down to its land-based battles, can lose a bit of its shine. But this is a fairly minor point, as invariably the authentic, fun environments draw you back in.

Graphics/Sound: 9

These graphics look excellent on a standard computer, and even on my 800x600 laptop everything looks nice and detailed. Colorful and detailed, you can choose from a variety of geographical settings to play in, from forests to coastal areas & deserts to islands. As you change locale the terrain will also change: woodland, cliffs, foothills, mountains, desert, pools, sparkling oceans, rivers, marshes, whatever. For all practical (gameplay) purposes there’s only a land-water distinction, but at least your eyes will be happy. Take a gander at that detailed grass model!

The buildings also look nice, detailed, and more or less realistic. On guard towers you can see the little murder-holes and small holes for archers to shoot out of, and you can see training dummies in the barracks courtyard and targets in the archery range. There are several types of each building, as the civilizations have different architectural styles. The Chinese, Mongols, and Japanese have oriental, brick/straw, peaked-roof kind of buildings, while Persians, Byzantines, and Turks have stone, whitish, squarer types of buildings. Pommies and Celts have still different architecture.

The units are similarly well drawn. All the troops have nice little costumes and armor and the cavalry have different types of markings. If you’ve played the game enough, you’ll be able to tell scout cavalry from light cavalry, spearmen from pikemen, knights from cavaliers, cavalry archers from mangudai, etc. etc. The troops also move well; a large group of cavalry steadily advancing on a target, swords crashing, opposing bow and arrows primed to shoot, looks great as a screenshot.

And don’t forget the death animations. Horses collapse and throw their riders off, archers crumple pitifully, while war elephants give one last thunderous blast and then collapse. On the negative side, buildings are built and collapse with only minimal intermediate frames. Hmm.

Age of Empires 2’s music is generally minimal, but it works very well. Woodwinds and low-key, medieval melodies stay mostly in the background and blend with the twittering of birds and other ambient sounds.

The sound effects, from moving of units to the clashing of swords and the firing of arrows all sound pretty authentic. In addition, all units respond by making a noise when you select them or give them an instruction. Cavalry will snort, siege weapons will make a mechanical noise, and villagers will say something to the effect of “All right” or “I’ll get to it!” (in their own language, no less!). The voice acting thrown in to stitch together the excellent single-player campaigns seals the deal.

Replay: 7+

This game should last you a while. There are several difficulty settings, and the harder ones are very challenging. The campaigns are pretty long and varied, and beating them all is not only enjoyable but also a pretty long task. You can survey the historical backgrounds to the battles and civilizations in the in-game history chapters. And after finishing the campaigns you can still try out all the civilizations in random map games (i.e. multiplayer against the computer) or play against human opponents over the Internet. Either way, good stuff.

Overall: 8+

Age of Empires 2, while not brilliant or innovative or truly memorable, is nonetheless a strong game that combines economic development with medieval warfare. Whether you like to build your civilization to great heights, launch quick hit’n’runs against others, or surround yourself with walls and dare others to assault you, you’ll find a map or civilization that suits you. The atmosphere and general mood are well crafted, the tactics are deep and varied, and the single-player campaigns impressive. A few minor flaws keep it from receiving a 9 or a 10, but AOE2 still has all the hallmarks of a fine title.

Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 06/01/01, Updated 07/25/03

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