Age of Empires II

Welcome to the RTSC Age of Empires II section
Background consultant: Grant (Best Background 1995!) Freckleton

Nice change from robots and spacemen
Age of Empires II: Age of Kings (1999) is a historically based real time strategy game developed by Ensemble Studios and published by Microsoft Games. While it's predecessor, Age of Empires, was set in Ancient times, AoE2 is set in the Middle Ages and covers a wide selection of cultures - thirteen in all. These civilizations share four sets of graphic styles, and their character is revealed by the way they play on the field. AoE2 has a decidedly outdoor feel and a nice sense of "realism". AoE2's expansion, The Conquerors adds four new civilizations and some extra historical characters (Attila the Hun and the Aztecs spring to mind), but unfortunately I just haven't had time to get around and look at it. Many of the major AoE2 fan sites will help you out there.

Although still pretty much a Warcraft style RTS, AoE2 nonetheless feels less stylized through art direction and use of scale: castles are huge, while mines and houses are small, and the human and animal characters themselves are properly sized and proportioned. It has the clean cut, mainstream look you would expect to see in a Microsoft product (no airbrushed chrome, top heavy cyber chicks or nasty psycho killers) and even goes as far to be "educational" (and thus, family safe!) by adding all sorts of historical details and facts on the CD. Oddly enough, I can't think of a single person who's actually bothered to read any of it, although there are a few fan sites on the web that have included these details in their info sections on the game.

Graphically and technically, its a straight 2D strategy game that doesn't cut much new ground, other than for a change in art direction and feel and keeping up to date with advances in netgaming and strategy games. Most of the elements in it have been used before and are extended a little. Age of Empires 2 is a comprehensive all rounder of a game, offering a wide selection of units, cultures, tactics and strategies, researches and historical detail.

The most notable feature of any "Age of" strategy game is the ability to build strong defensive walls and structures very quickly. They effectively stop just about any rushing tactic and forces people to rely on strategy and co-ordination to win the day. However, if there is a problem with the game, its that the expensive resources gold and stone are quickly exhausted, leaving only wood and food as major sources of your economy for the duration. The Marketplace building can alleviate this to some degree, but if you haven't brought down your opponent within the few battles and stone walls have gone up, then everyone is in for a looong haul, since expensive units become more difficult to acquire later on, stone walls are thrown up faster than houses and cheap units will take for ever to batter down a wall.

Age of Empires also splits its early, middle and end games into distinct phases called Ages. There are four Ages: Dark, Feudal, Castle and Imperial. Each one is an expensive tech researched at your Town Hall (your HQ). Each Age releases its own techs, upgrades and unit types. E.g. in the Dark Ages you can only build Militias, by the Castle Age you can have archers, skirmishers, cavalry and giant Castles and Universities. Ages are somewhat arbitrary, but they balance game play and prevent people shooting up the tech tree too quickly without letting everyone else know and giving them the chance to catch up.

Structurally, Age of Empires uses the "standard" RTS design: 2D maps, specialized buildings, simple worker driven economics and research, and a closed repertoire of units that aren't readably customized without breaking up the strategic balance of the game. Its quite straightforward, and offers detailed help for for all aspects of the game on screen. Its system of waypoints is a little peculiar, operating backwards to most strategy games, but its use of formations ensures that grouped forces remain together. The usual commands of guarding, patrolling, following and aggressiveness settings are present. AoE2 has an excellent random map generator for multiplayer or single player skirmishes, which seems to have pretty much eliminated the need for custom maps and encourages people to constantly work on strategy and reconnaissance rather than just becoming the the usual hard core, mind numbingly dull, experts-by-rote on the same old maps you see in a lot of other games. (Big Game Hunters, anyone?*)

Its all a nice change from the usual spacemen and robots, well thought out and highly polished. Network options are seamlessly integrated into the game, offering many nifty features: saved netgames, recorded games and an autosave feature for rescuing crashed netgames that actually works! There's a wide selection of team variation, where by adjusting player and team colours, you can share the same coloured units with another player - unusual in the aggressively egocentric world of netgaming. About the only downside we've found was the awkwardness of getting into Microsoft's online gaming service. Compared to Blizzard's Battle.Net or Half-Life's, where everything was self contained in the game, AoE2 wanted to download files off the Net and muck around with Internet Explorer.

There's a thriving fan base, and one that has recently built itself the tools to start building custom mods. (For those that are keen to do their own fiddling I'd suggest the Mod Pack Stable homepage) Mind you, being historical in nature there's not the same impetus to completely transform the game or produce a Star Trek mod out of it! However, AoE2 has a considerable global appeal, as many of the Top 100 fan appear in many languages.

Age of Kings Overview
Last modified Thu, Dec 19 2002 by Lindsay Fleay

* That's a Starcraft/B.Net jibe, by the way. There's a large contingent of StarCraft gromits that only ever play the one, hacked map - Big Game Hunters and its endless variations. The "BGH" factor has been a bit of a issue for many of the old SC vets, and probably the main reason why many of them moved on. Sad but true! Back