13-Aug-2001 Chris Anderson finally tore himself away from XCOM 3 to review Age Of Empires, Microsoft's new strategy game. He is now a very confused soul indeed, torn betwixt two absolute gems of strategic excellence. It's a hard life, isn't it.
I'm going to make a startling confession here which won't win me any friends in the strategy gaming community (Oh dear, I don't like the sound of that - Ed.). Civilization 2 was, to all intents and purposes, basically Civilization 1 in SVGA. At least it was in my humble opinion. I know a lot of you will disagree strongly with me on this one, and I fully expect to receive tons of hate-mail, but I expected a hell of a lot more from the sequel to one of the finest strategy games of all time.
For instance, there's still hasn't been any effort made to properly animate the soldiers and units in the game. In my opinion, this is totally unacceptable, especially when games such as Settlers 2 and Red Alert have at least attempted to produce units that moved realistically around the screen.
You could probably argue that Civilization is more geared towards the strategy side of things, so it doesn't need to be so realistic graphically. Well, that argument may have held up a few years ago, but given the technology available to the Civ 2 team in 1996 (which was when the game was released), I don't see why we shouldn't expect Civ 2 to be as impressive graphically as it is in terms of gameplay. As it happens, there are a few people around who seem to agree with me. Enter Ensemble studios with Age Of Empires.
In many respects, Age Of Empires is the game I thought Civilization 2 was going to be. Take a look at the screenshots and try to imagine what these highly detailed sprites look like when they're moving. Take it from me - it looks drop-dead gorgeous. I don't think I've ever seen a strategy game that looked anywhere near this good. In fact, the first time I saw Empires I had pretty much convinced myself that any game that looked this hot couldn't possibly deliver the goods in terms of gameplay. This completely negative and irrational reaction was spawned from the fact that as a games reviewer, I've pretty much more or less come to expect addictive gameplay from games that don't look particularly exciting (Civ 2 or XCOM, for example), or stunning graphics for games that play like shit (hundreds of games from French developers, for example).
Age Of Empires has it all - stunning graphics, meticulous attention to detail and incredibly addictive gameplay. Speaking of gameplay, any of you who are at all familiar with Civ or any of the other strategic explore 'em ups will immediately feel at home with Age Of Empires.
At the beginning of the game, you choose one of 12 tribes which you'll control throughout the game. Areas you haven't explored appear as black areas on the map (it's the whole map at this point). You'll have two or three villagers to carry out your orders and you'll probably want to start the ball rolling by a) building some houses so you can accommodate more units, b) sending one of your men out to gather food, and c) sending the last guy out to explore the surrounding area. So far then, all fairly standard stuff for this type of game, as I'm sure you'll agree.
As you progress from here, you'll find yourself wandering further into well-charted strategy game territory by building a barracks in which to train military units, sending men out to collect gold and ore, sending scouts out to explore as much of the map as possible and building new structures which allow you to upgrade all the stuff you've built in the game so far.
You'll be feeling pretty pleased with yourself at this stage. You'll be very confident. You'll be marvelling at the gorgeous graphics and looking at all your little men go about their business with a growing sense of pride and a nice, warm tingly feeling inside. Until, that is, you meet the enemy. And when that happens...
When you do run into your computer adversaries, you'll soon discover a few things. For example, you'll find out how technologically advanced your opponents are. Unless you're playing the game at nonce difficulty level, there's a good chance they'll either be as advanced as you are, if not even more so.
Advancements are made over four Ages - Stone, Tool, Bronze and Iron. So if, for instance, you're still on Stone Age, and one or more of your enemies have advanced to Tool Age, you're stuffed. They'll have better weapons. They'll have better units. Their buildings will be more sophisticated than yours and they'll be researching better stuff than you. At this point, you'd better act fast and get to the next age pronto or as soon as you're attacked you'll be history.
And so endeth the first lesson. This is the sort of scenario most of you will encounter the first time you play the game. You'll have to spend a few hours getting to know it before you'll be able to find the fastest routes to each main advance and what you should be researching first to get to the weapons and buildings that suit your style of play best. But then this is the sort of thing that gets people hooked in the first place. And hooked you will be. I was lucky enough to get an early build of Empires before I received the copy under review here, and as a result I've been playing the thing non-stop for about a month. I've got to admit it's refreshing to find a game that's so strong in single-player mode - not that I've got anything against multi-play, you understand, it's just that a lot of software publishers are using the strength of their multi-player mode as an excuse for the weakness of their games in single-player mode. Age Of Empires, needless to say, triumphs in both departments. With the exception of XCOM 3, this is the best game I've played in a year and a half. Strategy fans, invest in this game among games. I can guarantee you won't be disappointed.