Review by Derek Zoolander
I played Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings and I absolutely loved it. The varied units; the ever-changing and fun gameplay; the beautiful environments and scenarios – everything about that game exuded detail and polish. So, I decided to “borrow” (hahaha…) the original Age of Empires from a friend to see what the second version was built around. Suffice to say, I was not impressed. Age of Empires seems like it’s from an entirely different series; it’s not as fun, not as varied (in terms of units, maps, civilisations…most everything, really), not as strategic and most definitely not as refined. There are also numerous gameplay flaws and a lack of options that can get very irritating.
Perhaps my perception is being skewed by the wonderful sequel, but in any case this game has major problems. I suppose it was fairly good and original at the time of its release, but in reality this is just a fairly standard real time strategy game with some nice historical spin.
This game takes place way back a thousand or so years before the sequel – during the time of the very early civilizations. You are the leader of your little “Empire”, which is more-or-less a little nomadic tribe. You start out with a few villagers and a scout. Through collecting resources with the villagers – wood for construction of buildings; stone for fortifications; meat for producing villagers and units; and gold for research, technologies and upgrades – and construction of economic and military buildings, your little empire can grow in size and capabilities. Economic buildings such as granaries will allow you to store certain resources and upgrade your villagers’ building and resource-collecting capabilities, while military buildings like the Barracks or Academy train troops and produce siege weapons. In the end, it’s all about destroying other civilizations with your advanced military; while a nice, prosperous civilization is a plus, you can’t really do much without a military.
Which brings me to flaw #1: you’re supposed to build a nice empire, and yet the economic side of things is sadly neglected. Apart from the obvious reason of collecting resources, there’s really no point in you making your little town beautiful or culturally advanced. In the end everything centres on military might, and in the meantime economic practices such as trading are painfully primitive. Sure, the game is set way before the rich empires of AoE 2, but that’s no excuse for basically only being able to trade with yourself (you can build a trading ship to ‘trade’ by sea but come on, that’s often not worth the trouble). Plus there is no diplomacy apart from determining whether you want to be allied, neutral or hostile towards other civilizations. Yup.
“Well, screw you” you say. “I don’t give a damn about diplomacy. We all know that this, like most other games in the genre, is about gathering resources and military might. So what’s the military aspect like?” Well, glad you asked. First of all, the units all look and “feel” quite authentic, from the horse archers to composite bowmen to war elephants. Nice. However, the units aren’t varied or balanced enough. You’ve got three or four types of archers, and the same number of types of infantry and cavalry. I would’ve liked more units and unique units, but no… oh well. A bigger flaw is that, unlike the sequel and other strategy games (even earlier games), the units are quite unbalanced. Archers are often weak and not very ranged, whereas elite infantry units like the Hoplite/Phalanx/Centurion can basically devastate any other unit with their huge HP, attack, and powerful armour. Think of a Pikeman from Age of Empires 2, only with more than a hundred extra HP and 30 attack. Now that’s just unfair. Sure, these infantry units are often slow, but when it comes down to business a small phalanx of elite infantry units guarded by a few archers or cavalry will take down most anything that comes near – and also easily destroy small buildings such as houses or granaries that have ridiculously low hit points. What’s more, few units have attack bonuses against other units, and so you don’t have any ‘specialist’ units. This is a pity, because having troops which are superb against a specific type of unit (say, heavy cavalry) but weak against most other units adds lots of depth, and also balances the military equation. Not much balance here.
Now, one more flaw to piss you off even further: the control is really quite mediocre, and there’s a lack of conveniences that many strategy gamers have gotten used to. For example, there is no unit queue! This means that if you want to create multiple units (say, five villagers), you’ll have to come back to the appropriate building after the first unit has been completed, and click on the “build unit” button again to build your units one by one. This gets quite annoying and is also a waste of time. Also, selecting multiple units is primitive. You have to drag a box around them with your mouse; there’re no shortcuts such as double-clicking on one unit to select all units of the same type. Bah! Annoying, especially during heated battles. Finally, the icing on the cake: the units are all idiots. You select five villagers who happen to be spaced out in, say, an L-shape, and tell them to go to a specific location; they’ll go, but they’ll retain their spacing and come to the location in the same L-shape, some units ahead of the destination and some behind. Jesus, can’t these units come together? There are no formations, and in fact the units can’t even navigate a path from Point A to Point B unless it’s nice and straight, as they’ll often get stuck around obstacles or water. All of these inconveniences mean that gameplay can often be tedious and annoying, and it’s hard to organise a successful strike and even harder to get your men to execute your orders correctly.
Don’t lose all hope, though. The gameplay isn’t all bad. In fact, much of it is good, which might justify why this game actually won some praise. You’ll note the authentic units, the nicely detailed (and varied) terrain which offers some much-needed variation in gameplay, the nice visuals and audio, and the little touches here and there. For example, there’s lots of native wildlife like deer, hawks, crocodiles, lions, and elephants. Some animals are docile, while some are aggressive and dangerous, and most can be hunted for food – and they also add to the natural atmosphere. You might even have fun exploring for forage bushes or simply exploring the terrain. The well-designed campaigns exploit the varying terrain and present you with strategic challenges, which are interesting and fun (and which would be even better if you could actually control your units).
Overall the gameplay is a mixed bag, full of flaws and annoyances but still oddly atmospheric and semi-addictive.
It’s good to know that, despite all the control problems and quirky gameplay, this game is still nicely sweet to look at and hear. All units look detailed, decked out in their little costumes and armour. Silver and gold shiny armour; decorative sashes; swords and bows… everything looks realistic and is drawn well. It would’ve been good if the units were a bit larger in appearance, but you’ll get used to it. The smooth movements and nice attacking animations are also good. Buildings look a bit primitive and small, and aren’t as splendorous as their counterparts in The Age of Kings, but that’s okay given our primitive timespan. Upgrade to the Tool and Iron Age, and you’ll see the buildings get better-looking, larger, and more glamorous. The majestic but painfully expensive Wonders provide some arrogant eye-candy for your little Empire, and walls and fortifications have a similarly nice effect.
The terrain also shows lots of attention to detail. While the textures and level of detail can’t compare to later strategy games (cough-Age of Empires 2-cough), everything still looks neat, colourful, and almost semi-realistic. You might be walking on grass, or dirt, or leaves, or a road, or a cliffside…there are lots of terrain types, elevations, and so on, and you’ll like the variation in vegetation and animal life too.
As you switch from walking on grass to walking on dirt or concrete, the sounds of your footsteps (and the footsteps of your horses) will change subtly. This shows some of the attention to detail that is sadly lacking in the gameplay and control areas. In any case, walking, gathering, and fighting all produce realistic sound effects – baskets rustling, wood being chopped, steel upon steel. Nice. Your villagers will grunt in affirmation of your commands, cavalry will snort, infantry will grunt, and so on. These little visual and audio touches certainly are nice to experience and cover up a few of the gameplay annoyances.
Unfortunately the music is not particularly good. There are a few catchy or nicely dramatic overtures but most of the game’s limited tracks (there are only ten or so, and each is only two or three minutes meaning that the music loops a lot) are annoying or boring. Percussion, especially mallet sounds, abound, and most tunes are simple one-or-two instrument affairs. I suppose this is meant to symbolise the simple, almost primitive life of your villagers, but in the end it annoys more than it inspires.
There’re several rather long campaigns, as well as some nice other options such as deathmatching and random map games (in which, true to the name, the maps are randomly generated and so offer potentially infinite variety of replay.) However, despite all this the game gets a bit boring after you’ve played it a few times because the overall style never changes much, no matter the civilization you pick or the circumstances you’re in. You’ll play it a few times, just to experience all the terrain types and units, but after that it’ll just get too annoying for you to continue much further. Lack of a unit queue…lack of formations…little annoying things like that will really piss you off and reduce your interest level in the game.
It’s not a bad game, I’ll give you that. It’s a fairly good concept, executed rather well, and there’re some nice historical tidbits. The nicely made, authentic campaigns are a definite plus, and hell, even the graphics and sound are nice. Unfortunately the gameplay basics are somewhat shallow and there are few really innovative features, plus we’ve got too many gameplay flaws to call this a ‘good’ game. The units aren’t balanced, not to mention stupid in terms of following orders, and there’s surprisingly little focus on building your Empire… and yet despite all this, if you’re looking for a fairly good game combined with semi-interesting history lessons you might like it. Still, I recommend you look elsewhere first because there are lots of more creative, more fun games to play.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 11/16/01, Updated 11/16/01
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