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SummaryAdmirable, but not truly lovable.
The GoodThe production values in Age of Empires (AOE) are simply outstanding. The graphics are quite luscious, and we're not just talking about the terrain tiles, units, and structures here. There are all kinds of brilliant little touches, from scrumptious-looking flora (palm trees, berry patches, etc.) to exotic fauna (deer, elephants, lions, crocodiles…even birds soaring overhead!).
The soundtrack is also splendid, with appropriately sweeping music and juicy sound effects (including the unit responses made popular by WarCraft II). I especially appreciated the sounding of the trumpets that alerts you to battle action occurring somewhere.
Equally impressive is the instruction manual, which not only does an adequate job of explaining the game, but is also full of historical background info on the civilizations that appear in the game. It takes me back to the glory days of MicroProse and its thick, beautifully-written and -illustrated manuals. Which makes sense, as AOE designer Bruce Shelley previously worked with Sid Meier on a few MPS classics, including the almighty-and-everlasting-king-of-them-all Civilization.
Finally, I have to admit that AOE includes a long list of features that I wanted to see in an RTS following the overwhelming success of Command & Conquer and WarCraft II. Most obvious is that the subject matter is human history, not the cheesy sci-fi/fantasy of the aforementioned games – a huge improvement in my book! There are a slew of playable civilizations instead of the then-standard two sides. There are campaigns, scenarios, and (best of all) random map and deathmatch options which generate a new playing field every time. I don't much like set scenarios and campaigns in real-time strategy games (historical wargames are another matter); I prefer the infinite variety of random maps. I'll admit right now, then, that I didn't play through all of the AOE campaigns. If I wanted to play a story, I'd get a Sierra or LucasArts adventure! Strategy games should let you make your own story, and AOE does just that.
Still, I give AOE kudos for having the scenarios/campaigns for those who want them, as well as what seems to be a quite robust editor. Same goes for the multiplayer options. I'm a solo player, so I have never used them, but they were a no-brainer to include given this type of game.
The BadRemarkably, once you get past all of the slick presentation and the impressive laundry list of features in AOE, you eventually discover that the actual gameplay isn't all that good.
Command and control issues are guaranteed to sink any real-time game. AOE has MAJOR issues. The unit pathfinding AI is absolutely appalling, regardless of the setting you select in the Game Options screen. As a result, the player feels more like a diaper-changing, hand-holding babysitter than a god or a general. Making matters worse, the pretty—but also pretty useless—isometric perspective can actually get in the way of selecting and moving your units.
The worker units are quick to abandon their tasks when attacked, but they don’t resume their work when the threat is over. They pretty much just stand in place, slack-jawed, presumably waiting for the Stone Age Godot. And heaven help you if your worthless workers should complete the task you assign to them, as they are usually too incompetent to take the intiative and find something productive to do with themselves.
You can build walls, but you can’t build gates. You actually have to manually delete a section of wall in order let your troops enter and leave your own compound. Give me a break!
The military units are generally cool, but they seem a bit unbalanced. The siege weapons seem especially overpowered, given their very high hit points/power/range. As a result, walls and towers aren’t as effective as you might think they should be. Granted, this is hardly ruins the game, but it does make AOE seem biased against the defensive player.
There are no build queues, which just heightens the game’s overly ADD-friendly, clickfest atmosphere (although AOE is admittedly deeper and slower than most RTS games before it). No unit formations, either. I don’t care if those weren’t considered standard features in RTS games at the time. They should have been standard all along.
Not a single one of the victory options feels truly satisfying. Pure conquest mode drags things out long past the point where you know you’ve won. Building a wonder certainly looks impressive, but it means you can pretty much play a whole game without much contact with outside civs—pretty boring, really. The artifact and ruins options almost seem like cheating. Maybe that’s why there is no High Score list or Hall of Fame. No need to preserve your achievements if they weren’t that big a deal in the first place.
Farms frequently "go fallow," which means you constantly have to rebuild them manually. This gets to be ridiculous. It doesn't add anything to the game but busywork, and it isn't even really in keeping with the "realism" found in the rest of the game. In Real Life, buildings rot and need repair over time, but AOE doesn't force you to fritter away your time rebuilding them!
You can build docks to trade with other civilizations for resources (well, gold, at least). This sounds like a good idea, but it is usually more trouble than it is worth. And sometimes the other civs don’t even build docks, which renders the whole trade issue moot!
There is a dearth of information. I find this especially disturbing given that this is allegedly a strategy game. How the heck am I supposed to plan and manage when I have almost no data to work with? How many houses have I built so far? Farms? Archers? Hoplites? Who knows?! Apparently I'm supposed to just "guesstimate" these details. Yuck.
Before playing AOE, I thought I liked Warcraft 2 in spite of its shallowness. After playing AOE, I think maybe I loved Warcraft 2 *because* of its shallowness. Or rather, because of its elegant simplicity. AOE’s designers seemed obsessed with piling on more stuff, to the general exclusion of making genuine improvements to the RTS genre (which has always needed a lot of improvement!). This isn’t a crime or anything, but it is disappointing.