Review by Ninto

"Strategy games don't get much better than this."

Well one day I was wondering around my local games store until I stumbled across a game called Age Of Empires II, a Real Time Strategy game (RTS) for the PC. I looked at the information and screen shots on the back of the box and was stunned by its shear depth of options and graphical looks so without any hesitation I handed over my cash to the shop assistant and proceeded to run home as fast as I could to play it. Lets say this was not my first RTS game since I am very familiar with the Command & Conquer series but to be honest AoE2 is by far and away the better of the two.

Graphics -
AoE2 comes to you with a kind of isometric 2D view of the battle field, this really gives the maps a sense of space and enhances the ability to be able to make important strategic moves such as gaining the top of a hill so that your archers become more effective against the enemy down below. It is particularly stunning when large military battles take place. During a battle you can see sometimes literally hundreds of units on screen all jostling for position and attacking any 'enemy' they can see in their range. After the fierce military contests have ended (be it someone lost all their units or someone retreated) the remnants of the bloody battle are all too clear before your eyes such as siege weapons and military units witch have perished, slowly rotting away into the ground. Even the archers bows can be seen to decay when they have missed their target and have slumped miserably onto the floor. Loosers.

The different map terrain are amazing ranging from deserts, forests, islands and rivers, you will have great fun exploring these immense locale, but more importantly AoE2 has a lot of elevated ground which somehow makes you think that the game is in 3D when really it isn't.

Overall the graphics are stunningly realistic, each civilization has their own building style and when buildings are being constructed you are even shown the building process from begin to end as the villager works on them. All the units look very realistic, a nice amount of detail has been put into them and you can clearly see what each one is wearing and what weapon they are holding. Another nice little features such as wild animals, trees, lakes and ocean waves have been added to make the maps look even more stunning and real looking.

Gameplay -
To put it simply, the object of the game is to build a mighty civilization and defeat your enemy anyway possible, starting at the Dark Age and advancing through to the Imperial Age. Unlike most games of this genre it does not entirely evolve around a; get resources ----) make military ----) kill, basis because in AoE2 you can not only win via military victories but you can also choose to construct a strong economy built on trade, technology and craftsmanship, which is also helped by trading with so called allied players - trust no one! Villagers are vital for this kind of winning strategy and at the beginning of a game (Dark Ages) you start out with three or four of them and a Town Center which is needed to build the houses and military buildings required later in the game.

There is so much to do in this game. Campaigns included are mostly historically based around the middles age period in time, so you can take part in Joan of Arc, William Wallace, Gengis Khan, Saladin or Barbarossa campaigns, all of which are very well thought out, interesting to do and above all, fun. If you get bored with the campaigns then there is always the very popular Random map, Deathmatch and Regicide modes. In Random map you start from scratch with very minimal resources and a few villagers. You have to send these villagers to gather further resources so that you can build and research technologies in order to advance to the next age, or build military. A typical Random map game can take anything up to 3-4 hours to complete but believe me you will enjoy every second of it. Next up come Deathmatch, I particularly like this mode since the game is fast and involves a lot more battling because you start of with huge amounts of resources. There seems to be a lot more emphasis on just building up a massive army straight away and to worry about you economy later on in the game. Deathmatch games usually only take around 1 hour or so but it will seem a lot longer than that with all the fighting you will do. Regicide is another mode but I don't really play all that much, it is a cross between Random map and Deathmatch. Custom Scenario is another cool feature added. You can design and make a map of your own using the map editor feature. Something quite fun is trying to design maps that resemble your geographical area, bring the fighting a home feel!

The Civilizations
You can command any of the 13 civilizations in AoE2. They include the Franks, Byzantine, Japanese, Celts, Mongols, Turks, Teutons, Saracens, Goths, Persians, Vikings, Chinese and Britons. Each has unique attributes, units, buildings, and technologies based on its historical counterpart. Picking the right civilization is vital, and varies to whom you are playing against. For example the Britons excel at archers so to counter attack this you could choose a civilization who is strong on cavalry such as the Byzantine. For me I usually end up choosing either the Britons or Persians, Since I love attacking with a combination of Paladins and longbowman with the Britons and for the Persians, hundreds of Persian elephants, nothing can stand in their way, except for perhaps pikeman but oh well...the strategic aspect is just phenomenal, it just goes on and on...

The units
There are literally hundreds of units to play around with ranging from Villagers, Swordsman, Archers, Cavalry, Monks, Siege, ships and even unique units only available to a specific civilization. To obtain these units you do however have to build up a supply of food, wood, gold and stone, plus construct the required building such as the barracks to build swordsman, the archery range for archers etc... . Each unit costs you a different amount of your stockpile but you will tend to find the more advanced units (especially siege and unique units) will require a higher amount of resources so putting your villagers to gather the resources you needed is vital. Having the right combination of villagers to military can be make or break in a game like AoE2. The detail that has gone into the development of each unit is amazing, once clicked on a particular unit you are shown its health bar (which can be replenished by monks) and armour (can be increased by researching technologies). Each unit is super effective against some units while at the same time has a weakness towards others, it really involves a lot of strategy when you are attacking with your military because you have to make sure you have all angles covered, for example not go hauling into a battle with 100 archers only to find the enemy has 20 cavalry ready and waiting to take out your archers fast!

Requires a keyboard and mouse to get the full experience. To control very large military attacks there are hotkeys you can use which simplifies the game a lot and improves the enjoyment factor since your not stuck fumbling around on you keyboard trying to get each units to move one by one. You can scroll over huge amounts of units and control them as a group to make formations, a rather nice addition there and something else that improves the ability to make further strategic decisions.

Sound -
Ok, so the music maybe a little bland but when your playing a game like this it is not always the most important thing. You want to hear the noises of archers bows flying through the air at great velocities, the sound of cavalry charging, the crumbling of buildings as they collapse under military might and the sound of villagers and military dying a horrible, gruesome death. Well I am glad to say you can hear all this. The sound effects are simply breathtaking, This is really where AoE2 excels, if I was to list each individual sound effect used in the game it would take ages so take my word for it, the sounds are awesome.

Replay Value -
Wow, absolutely tons. When your done with the campaign aspect you can try your hand at the Random map or Deathmatch option. This can be played against the AI or over the Internet with human players. Playing against the computer can be rather hit or miss. On the first few difficulty levels it just becomes a bit pointless since you usually just end up winning, for the most part under 30 minutes which is extremely short for this kind of game. However, games of 3 hours and longer are not uncommon on the harder difficulties here. Most of my best battles on AoE2 have been over the Internet, some people may find they experience a little lag annoying (especially low end PC users) but overall nothing beats playing a living, beating, strategic thinking human over the Internet because no two games are the same.

Overall -
AoE2 is a definite buy for any Strategy games fan. For me it is definitely the best game I have ever had the joy of playing on a PC, I have spent so many wonderful hours on this game and I hope that you will join in the experience also, so I say it's a must purchase. Simply smashing.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 03/03/02, Updated 03/03/02

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