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SummaryThe best RTS since StarCraft.
The GoodEver since Dune II, the conventions of the Real-Time Strategy games have been pretty much set. You gather a lot of resources, build some military to defend with and advance your technologies, then build a LOT of units and fling them at the gate. They are usually 2D, isometric, with good production values, and online play. Very few RTS games (such as Homeworld) manage to break this mold in any way. And while AOE2 doesn't exactly break new ground, it manages to execute this formula better than any game since StarCraft.
Produced by Ensemble Studios, the takes as its setting the medieval lands of Europe and Asia. The folks at Ensemble deserve credit for their exhaustive research and commitment to historical accuracy in this game. While I don't think there were many epic skirmishes between the Japanese and the Britons, it's a refreshing change to have something other than plasma beams or exploding dwarves in an RTS.
You start off with a Town Center, a couple of villagers to gather resources with, and eventually, buildings that produce infantry, archers, cavalry, and siege weapons. The elaborate chess system of strengths and weaknesses between the varieties of these units is amazing. For instance, a special kind of infantry is very good against cavalry, but is helpless before archers. But a special archery unit specializes in killing standard archers, and those are in turn easily disposed of with a siege weapon. Very intricate. Thrown into the mix are Monks, your standard healers, except they have the amusing ability to "convert" enemy units, and eventually enemy siege weapons and buildings.
The isometric landscapes of AOK are very good-looking, and actually play active roles in your game. For instance, you may need to use a certain siege weapon to bust down the forest separating you from the enemy. Archers firing from cliffs receive a bonus, and vice versa. And be sure not to herd your sheep too near those wolves. The interactive environments are very detailed. And although only four types of architecture (Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Arabia, and Asia) are used, each of the buildings is to scale and beautifully rendered.
The sounds in the game are spot on. A nice touch is that the farther the action from the center of your viewscreen, the weaker the noise. And the elegant music tracks range from nondescript to amazing. Very solid audio.
And while most RTS games only give you 2 or 3 sides, AOK offers no less than 13 different civilizations. While there is only one unique unit per civ, they are made to play very differently by giving them certain percentage bonuses to certain types of buildings or units, and taking away their ability to produce others. For instance, the Goths have powerful infantry, and villagers that hunt exceptionally well. But since they are unable to build advanced defenses, they are one of the worst races in the game. Very intricate.
The single-player campaigns are very well-done, telling the stories of actual heroes from the era, including Gengis Khan, Joan of Arc, and my personal favorite, Saladin. The tales fit surprisingly well in the context of the game itself, and the objectives are challenging without being frustrating.
Also included is a powerful Campaign Editor, which lets you design and customize every aspect of your campaign. Virtually everything the designers could do, you can, with the nifty Trigger system and even the ability to add custom *.avi intros and endings to your episode.
The BadFirst off, this is a Microsoft game, so the MSN Gaming Zone is your one and only option for multiplayer. Expect nothing even close to as efficient as Blizzard's Battle.net. And once you get online, multiplayer games usually devolve into a race to see who can build the most Town Centers. It's just not very fun.
And the enemy AI isn't much of a help either. Once you've played a few games on each difficulty setting, you can easily spot patterns in the computer's thinking. However, Ensemble helpfully included a how-to guide for programming your own AI, so some alternatives should surface via the Internet.
The voice acting for the single-player campaigns in universally horrible. The William Wallace training campaign in particular sticks out. Why can't they just hire a Scottish guy to do the voices?
And while Ensemble put "Advanced" commands that tell your units to auto-patrol, escort, and the like, they have a very thrown-in feel. The unit AI, nothing to write home about from the start, gets really hilarious when a unit is told to guard something.
Finally, the micromanagement of the economy, while a nice novelty at first, gets tedious once your focus shifts from foraging berries to building an unstoppable military force. You're expected to take time off from coaching a battle royale against the enemy army to go back and tell your villagers to reseed farms. More unit AI would be appreciated. [This was fixed in the excellent Conquerors expansion pack to the game, but this annoyance in particular I would have liked to see addressed with a free patch as well, rather than gouging us another twenty bucks.]