Review by Yoh_of_Izumo

"Ingenious Creation"

After getting involved in real-time strategy games such as Starcraft and the original Age of Empires, with the release of Age of Empires II, I could not just wait and sit around and not play the hottest real-time strategy game available for PC. But, yes, I did sit around and wait, and once the expansion pack was released, Age of Empires II: The Conqueror's Expansion, I borrowed my friend's Age of Empires II disk, installed it, then installed the expansion pack, and enjoyed playing in the wonderful world of the Medieval Age.

As mentioned, Age of Empires II: The Conqueror's Expansion is an expansion pack for the Age of Empires II: Age of Kings game. If a person only purchases the expansion pack, he or she will be unable to play the game until the base's game, Age of Empires II: Age of Kings, is installed on the computer as well. So, if you are lacking in the base package, and do not have a friend for whom you could borrow this package from, I suggest you buy the two games in one.

Age of Empires II: The Conqueror's Expansion takes place during the Medieval Age, about a millennium after the original Age of Empires game took place that spanned the Stone Age to the Iron Age. While this does have some history in the Dark Ages, it does not get fun until a player advance all the way to the final age. It is a real-time strategy game, unlike turn-based strategy games where the opponent must wait his turn before the move of the other player. In this game, not only does strategy play the role, but a somewhat assertive mind, because instead of playing a moderately paced chess game, at the serious multiplayer level, this can almost become blitz chess, where you must see ahead and be prepared to counterattack instantly.

Compared to the original Age of Empires and Age of Empires: Rise of Rome games, there is much improvement to the Age of Empires II series. Not only have major flaws in gameplay issues been resolved, but also musically and graphically has this game received a serious boost. Though while resolving these issues, Ensemble Studios wisely continued to preserve the unique style of gameplay through their interface to make it unique to other real-time strategy companies. There is blood, there is conquest, and there is adventure to be had in this game.

So then, let the journey of the review begin…

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Gameplay: 9/10
Keeping to the saying, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it,” all noteworthy values of the original gameplay in the original Age of Empires were preserved, while most of the issues that sometimes frustrated myself during a match were repaired upon and thus greatly boosted my overall approach to this game. First, the population cap was boosted substantially to allow players to strategize with massive attack units as well as massive support units. Second, while troop movement and villager movement can sometimes prove annoying, there have been added aids in the game such as rally points and directory points so that a soldier will not take the bird's eye view path and instead take the path that will get him to his destination and not get stuck on the edge of a cliff. And finally, with the issue of the villagers getting stuck and not seeming to be productive members of society, there is a village idle button to inform the player of the stragglers so that they can be put to work, and of course, if a villager is stuck in a snag and cannot move, well, you always have the option of killing him and just producing another villager in the town center, only 50 food. Some great improvements to the heads up display have also been added. Though the new buttons seem confusing or actually not needed at first once a person has mastered the slightly tricky Age of Empires game, this can actually be seen as an intelligence unit that can spoil a player quite nicely with the ability to see enemy, attacks, resources, and select specific views of such, a player can enjoy focusing on one key aspect of the overview map instead of having to deal with the hundreds of detail dots scattered among it.

Now the most important part of the gameplay system is the gameplay setup of the game. And of course, it is a fairly easy and wonderfully simple setup even though there are so many possibilities at a player's fingertips. A player must progress through the four ages of the medieval age from the Dark Ages, Feudal Ages, and onward and with each progression through the ages, a player is rewarded nicely with more available units and technologies. The way to play a real-time strategy game nonetheless is through the simple application of the two-click mouse with the left-click to select and the right-click to move. Once players understand the mouse setup, they have basically understood about ninety percent of the gameplay of a real-time strategy, and that is the key. It is very important to keep the gameplay of the real-time strategy game simplified so that a player can focus on the keys of battle and not grabbing his or her hair trying to furtively figure out how to get such and such units from point A to point B, while still maintaining the defenses of the main city.

As this is a historical real-time strategy game though, there are a vast quantity of units and buildings available at the disposal of the player, and this can prove quite daunting. While the rock-paper-scissors strategy is basically nullified by this great amount of units, there is still a great amount of strategy to be learned. The strategy can be seen in the simplest of terms, but should only be seen as the foundation and continue to be built upon. While stable units are superior to archers and swordsmen, stable units succumb to the pikeman, while the pikeman succumbs to the far away archers and close in swordsmen. In this sense, equilibrium is established between the units. Unfortunately though, that oversimplication is nullified through the establishment of other units most notably from the castle and from the siege workshop. With the units from these places, spanners can be thrown in to normal gameplay that can be disruptive, but overall can force adaptation and make players constantly adapt instead of mundanely placing archers along side swordsmen. With the siegecraft there comes the scorpion and the battle ram, which can rip apart walls and suffer minor damage from artillery pieces but succumb quickly to the steel blade. Though the scorpion can add additional confusion with its stone projectiles, because not only does it serve to tear down fortresses from afar, but also to soften up the enemy if they are too close together or are very numerous. It is basically the equivalent of the bombers of today. With that said though, there is another unit from the castle that has the sole purpose of ripping apart walls and builds and that is the deadly trebuchet. A totally unique unit to the Age of Empires series, its damaging stones can level cities quickly, but without adequate defense, the trebuchet can be destroyed in seconds. With the castle also comes a unit unique to each civilization and with these unique soldiers, their usage can be truly effective on the battlefield. Finally the most crucial part of the gameplay field that adds uniqueness to the Age of Empire II games is the introduction of gunpowder. No longer is there a need for bows and arrows, but heavy stoned and steel projectiles that can be fired from guns, ships, and towers makes this game the even more deadlier. Walls are still continually as strong as ever and now with the addition of gates into this iron defense, there is quite a great deal of fun in the gameplay as no longer does the defense have to be sacrificed with openings.

The campaigns, the multiplayer, and the random games are so bountiful and awesome. With these at your fingertips you will enjoy an endless amount of superior gameplay. The multiplayer aspect of the game is awesome, because not only do you get to test strategy against artificial intelligence, but you also have the ability to try it against a human mind where surprise can be the name of the game. With random games as well, a player can setup certain aspects of the game as he or she likes it. Whether a player wants a map to be small or large, whether there are several players on the map, whether the map is resource rich, whether the objective is kill the other players or construct a wonder, and so much more. This can add more flavor to the gameplay aspect of the world. And finally, let us not forget the scenario editor where a player can create his or her own campaigns and maps to test out new strategies and learn from previous mistakes. With added cheats as well to the game, a player can toy around with the gameplay and watch as James Bond style Cobra car with machine guns annihilates a Bombard Cannon tower and mow down the approaching enemies. Though it takes away from the overall sense of victory, and can prove fun once and a while.

The only problem facing the gameplay setup is the amount of units that can be selected. As in the previous game and in many other real-time strategy games only a set amount of units, about ten to twenty units, can be selected at a time. This can prove quite annoying when a player wishes to move an army of forty or fifty units and is forced to move the slower units first, jeopardizing their safety, and have the fastest units move last in a hope that by the time the slowest units come into the line of sight of the enemy, the fastest units will have already arrived in front of the slowest units to defend their flanks. Though this usually works, it can prove a pain in the neck if you just lost the siege weapons that were suppose to knock down the towers and have the enemy as well as the bombardments of the tower raining down on you as well, when your plan was to take out the tower swiftly, and then only have to deal with the foot soldiers.

Nonetheless, with the ability to adapt, that slight fallacy in gameplay design can be overlooked when compared holistically to the overall gameplay of the Age of Empire II games. With the expansion pack, there are of course new units and civilizations, and also some new campaigns, which improve upon the gameplay and make the game truly worthwhile to play.

Story: 6/10
Unfortunately, unlike in the previous Age of Empire games, in the Age of Empire II games, the ability to tell the best story in the world, history, was watered down. No longer were there big narratives of the story in the debriefing room, and actually this time there was not a debriefing room. Instead, a player had the opportunity to watch a diary entry of the history portrayed in just a biased viewpoint that did not deliver on the meanings and intricacies of history. Instead, all we got was some fluff material that would not even be fit for putting into a history paper. Obviously it appeared as though Ensemble Studios got lazy with their research or people just did not feel as if they needed to read into the history of the growth of Western Civilization, and instead enjoyed watching the fluff as it scrolled across a page. I was deeply disappointed. I would not have minded the added fluff of a cinematic diary entry, but why did Ensemble Studios have to not include background information on the history of the battle and only have the obvious in the story “oh…Joan d'Arc was burned at the stake” with an obviously faked over and overly emphasized French accent: it is more of an insult on history and my intelligence to push such superficiality. Though fortunately, since this is a game though, I can understand that most people have no need to partake in furthering their knowledge base, but for the person who enjoys the good story of history, please, just put it in. There is no need for audio narration, I would gladly read it as I would in a history textbook. If you are going to place emphasis that this is a game that focuses around history though, I expect to learn history and not some elementary school nonsense.

Graphics: 10/10
I have to say, these are some of the best real-time strategy graphics I have ever seen in a game. The detail from the bricks in a tower to the wood planks on the side of a building to the detailed clothing that laced over the horses, it was truly a spectacular sight and a giant leap in real-time strategy graphics. Now people could actually watch the battles take place and not only enjoy seeing whether their strategy worked out, but also admiring the graphical nature of the battle with the gleam of the sword, with the smoke from a hand cannon, and with a detailed spherical cannon ball falling down on top of an enemy, it is truly a satisfying assurance. In my opinion, I found the graphics of this game to be even better than those of its sequel, Age of Empires III, but maybe I am wrong, but maybe I am not. Especially for the graphical hardware that was only available back then, it was obvious that game designers to took these graphical pixels and tweaked them to make horses gallop accordingly and ships to sink other ships honorably. Another noteworthiness about these graphics is that the landscape is so finely tuned that it actually seems as though the units are walking through the grass fields of England or through the desert lands of the Middle East. There is nothing coarse or underdone about these graphics, and for a real-time strategy game, I was pleased with them. I guess I should go into the detailed graphics of the units, since in my opinion, this is the most important part of the graphics. When a player looks at a unit from the Dark Ages, he or she can obviously see the lacking technology in his weaponry, but as new technologies are added on and as units are upgraded, there as an obvious change in a unit, and a player can tell the difference between the elite units and the weaker one. My favorite part of the graphics though is probably the buildings. From the castles to the marvelous wonders, I am amazed that the game designers had the ability to fit such detail into a real-time strategy game without compromising it. Not only were the gameplay aspects of this game fully featured, but also the graphics to add the icing on top of the cake: it was pure brilliance. My favorite unit probably though was the trebuchet. Watching it launch the projectiles into the cities and watching the buildings crumble, I just could not take my eyes off the animation until after watching the spectacle a few times. And with the added gunpowder and watching cannonballs fly out of towers and ships and crushing the incoming opponent with diligence, it was quite satisfying. Finally, to put some ice cream on top of the icing, there were the detailed cinematics that had a player understand a little bit more about the history of the campaign. Though the scribbling diaries looked a little plastic, the cinematic before the game and after the completion were truly stunning. The graphics in this game were superior.

Sound: 9/10
The sound quality was also improved upon from the original game with definitely a continued spirit in the quality realm as well as an addition in the quantity field. My only complaint was that sometimes the variations in the main theme of music could have been better accomplished, and why was it necessary to compress the music to take some of the orchestral tone quality out of the sound? Maybe to save space…I do not know. Had the tonal quality remained though, the music of Age of Empires II: Age of Kings and Age of Empires II: The Conqueror's Expansion would have been superior. As this is a real-time strategy game, it is necessary that the music be soothing to keep the mind focused on playing, and not awkward so that a player is listening more to the music than keeping his or her focus on the playing field. Of course, the original theme music of the Age of Empires series was slightly altered, but I still enjoy its tune as one of my most favorite game songs.

Replayability: 8/10
There is a ton of replay value in this game from the campaign, to the multiplayer, to the random games, to the scenario builder. It is possible to spend well over a hundred hours on this game, but I find that unnecessary. Although this game is classic, it still does not win over the fans of the Starcraft era. I am not sure what it exactly lacks, but it is still a noteworthy game to play through on the campaign and have a little multiplayer fun. Though with the release of Age of Empires III and its expansion pack, the Age of Empires II multiplayer community has faded, and so there might not be as much joy in the replayability factor of this game. But I did not come to play this game just for its game value, but also for its history value. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed in how it portrayed the story of history and how I hardly learned anything in this game as compared to the bountiful learning I enjoyed in the Age of Empires and Age of Empires: Rise of Rome games, the gameplay and the graphics were so stunning that I just had to try some parts of the game over again. As with all games, there needs to be an essence to drive a player to keep playing. Will a person read a book, if the book has no story (well, maybe if you are forced to read it)? No, and neither should a player play a game that lacks a story as well. Though the game does portray a very superficial exposure to a limited branch of medieval history, it does fulfill its purpose and allow the player to carry on so that the suspenseful cliffhanger can be acknowledged.

CONCLUSION
Using my rating system for real-time strategy games:
27.5% Gameplay, 25% Story, 20% Graphics, 7.5% Sound, 20% Replayability

Overall Game Rating: 8.25

OVERALL RATING: 8/10
Suggested Action: Borrow from a friend, but do not buy unless less than $10.


Final Comments: Age of Empires II: Age of Kings and Age of Empires II: The Conqueror's Expansion are two great games. Unfortunately though, when I play a history game, I expect to learn some history about the game as well. If I did not want to learn about history, I would have solely stuck with Starcraft. Although if a player can get past the lack of history, he or she will truly enjoy this well-constructed game. Not many games can match the gameplay or graphics that this real-time strategy game has delivered. Although with the release of Age of Empires III and its expansion pack, it may be more worth your time to spend the money on a better improved upon game, then a rather outdated, but still noteworthy one. It is a classic game, but unfortunately it is not classic enough to allow a gamer of more advanced hardware to backtrack on as opposed to the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in which it was released on the N64 and still received with popularity when released on future consoles. Would I play this game again? Probably not. There are better real-time strategy games out there, and you should invest your time in those. This is not a game that will be remembered in future hearts of serious gamers, but it was a great game for its time.

Fin


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 07/20/07


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