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SummaryA million problems and the occasional flash of brilliance
The GoodAge of Empires is the first game of the current mega-developer Ensemble Studios, and caused a massive amount of polemic in the real-time strategy community. On one hand, it was full of errors, bugs, and blatant design idiocy. This could probably be attributed to first-time blunders, but were enough to totally ruin the game for many people. But others were capable of looking beyond the game's problems and enjoying the game's good points, which are many. Age of Empires ended up becoming very influential and is often regarded as the one of the forefather of the "historical RTS" sub genre (Empire Earth, Cossacks and the Total War series to name a few). In various top-10 lists of most influential genre games around the web Age of Empires usually gets at least a grudging mention.
Whatever bad things you can say about the game, at least it has vision. Rather than being a Warcraft or Command & Conquer clone it depicts real history (10,000BC-2000BC). You take control of a tribe of cavemen and lead them from the stone age to the iron age shortly before the rise of the Roman Empire. It gives you a great sense of perspective to be hunting lions and mammoths at the start of the game and then later build a huge walled fort equipped with ballista-shooting towers on the same spot.
Gameplay is the typical empire-building affair popularised by Civilisation except it obviously isn't turn based. You build cities, harvest resources, and eventually fight against rival nations. It's a simple theme but works for the game. You have a huge assortment of cultures to choose from (Sumer, Greece, Egypt, Shang, etc.) which aren't noticeably different but have small culture bonuses that encourage you to play to that culture's strength (Egypt has better chariots, for example, and the Assyria has cheaper archers). While the game bases itself on history (Bible students will have a field day playing Age of Empires) it isn't anally retentive about it, and has no problems with shafting history for the sake of gameplay.
Units and buildings are just as all-encompassing as the civilisations that train them, with a huge selection of infantry, cavalry, archers and siege weaponry. Ensemble Studios came up with a great idea that preserves the flow of gameplay and avoids anachronisms, you advance your culture in "ages" which cost a lot of resources but give you access to more powerful units (you start in the stone age and can only build clubmen, but advance to the Tool Age and you can build axemen, bowmen, and scout riders, and so forth right up to all the cool stuff on the box which can be built in the iron age). It doesn't sound terribly spectacular on paper but it dramatically changes gameplay by forcing you to pay big in order to advance your culture. This isn't some empire-builder where you can just rush to the Iron Age, max out everything on a dime and then dominate the opposition. In some cases it pays to stay in the earlier ages longer and focus on building up your economy.
I'll keep focused here so this doesn't turn into one of those boring "nothing but a summary" reviews. What is the single greatest thing about Age of Empires that has caused people to love it despite its obvious faults? Content. This game is loaded with content. I'm not just talking about a diversity of cultures and unit types (although the game has a plethora of both), but of attention to detail that is found in every aspect of the game. Everything in the game was designed and placed with care. It might not succeed in all of its aspects but you could NEVER call Age of Empires a production-line game.
The game puts you in an immersive environment right from the start. You have rolling plains and grasslands filled with animals that can be hunted for food, seas that can be fished, forests that can be felled lumber (or alternatively, used as a natural barrier against enemies) and so forth. Age of Empires encourages you to make use of the terrain, soldiers fighting from an uphill advantage do considerably more damage than those on lower elevation. The difference here is marked next to contemporary RTS games. Maps in Warcraft II were grid-based boards with sprites on them and the game scarcely tried to conceal this fact. Maps in Age of Empires are actual landscapes, with every nook, cranny and hill a potential strategic chokepoint that can swing the game in your favour.
The game has a reasonably good single-player component, with story driven campaigns that let you play historical personages such as Hammurabi and Alexander the Great. Far more fun is the multiplayer "random map" mode, which is one of the coolest parts of the game and perhaps the only one to be implemented flawlessly. With a mouse-click you can generate an unlimited number of randomised maps to play on, each of which will be totally different thus ensuring no two games are the same. Age of Empires has easily the best random map generator of its time and this dramatically extends the game's replay value.
As opposed to most RTS games where your goal is to destroy everything, there's actually an attempt at sophistication here. You can build a "wonder" (which is a massive building costing a ton of resources that takes forever to build) that causes you to win the game if it stands for long enough, and you can likewise recover ancient relics scattered across the map to win the game (I'm not sure what the historical context for this is, but hey). Religion plays a part of your society, you can recruit priests who heal your injured soldiers and even convert enemies! Few things match the enjoyment of stealing your enemy's super-expensive war elephants with a priest. You can have treaties and alliances with other players, and even declare an armistice if you want. Ensemble Studios has tried to make a game where you can win through trading, diplomatic manipulation, and getting a monopoly on resources rather than simply killing everything in sight. Unfortunately, the game doesn't really exploit these concepts well and at the end of the day the winner is usually the guy with the biggest and best army. But at least they tried, and that puts it light years ahead of most brainless combat-oriented strategy games.
Age of Empires sports great production values, complete with lavishly-animated FMV (far better then anything Blizzard has yet given us), full voice-acting for all units in the game and all the bells and whistles of a triple-A Microsoft game. Your soldiers will answer you in the language of their homeland, a really cool touch. Another nice feature is how the user-interface changes to match the art style of the culture you're playing as. Graphically the game uses a 2D isometric engine, and so is rather dated next to games like the fully-3D Total Annihilation. But the game still manages to be graphically stunning due to laboriously detailed animation, a distinctive art style, and clever use of a limited palette (I didn't realise the game was only 256 colour until someone pointed it out to me.) The same applies to the game's use of audio, which is far from being a technological breakthrough (the soundtrack is midi) but nevertheless does its job of setting up atmosphere.
In terms of presentation, it also bears mention that the game comes with outstanding documentation. That may sound like a strange thing to be talking about but it annoys me when a game gets shipped in a $60 box of air consisting of a CD and a flimsy, four page instruction guide (or worse still, no paper documentation at all). Age of Empire's manual is a work of art in its own right, complete with extensive information (both gameplay and historical) on all of the civilisations and units, fully illustrated by professional artists, and with enough historical trivia to write a term paper. The game has a easy learning curve thanks to an in-built help system and this makes it a very "newbie friendly" game, unlike most contemporaries where you're dumped on your ass and left to figure out the mechanics of the game through trial and error.
The BadHere the autopsy begins. Ensemble Studios was a development house composed mostly of people who had no prior experience in the video game industry (classic example: lead designer Greg Street was a marine biologist prior to working for Microsoft) and it shows. Oh boy, does it show. You can tell that a lot of love and excitement was put into this game, it oozes from every electronic pore that here was a group of people passionate about making games. However they lacked experience to temper that enthusiasm and as a result you have the mixed bag that is Age of Empires. It's a cool game, but to enjoy it you must endure a lot of quirks, a lot of design-based problems, and a lot of ass-headed stupidity.
Age of Empires is so unbalanced it almost breaks the game. I mentioned earlier that each civ receives a set of unique bonuses, right? Well one civ, the Shang, gets a blatantly unfair bonus in the form of half-price villagers. In multiplayer, this means a Shang player will be able to afford way more villagers than a non-Shang player, and this gives them such a huge advantage you can walk in to any online gaming room you like and find everyone exclusively using Shang. What's the point of having 17 different civilisations when only one of them is competitive?
The amazingly skewed balance is found in all aspects of the game. Infantry is crap, archers and cavalry will mow them down effortlessly and they're too expensive anyway. Chariots cost virtually nothing and are waaaay overpowered, so as a result early battles are usually not-so-fun contests of "guess who can build the most chariots." In the late game siege weapons dominate, you can build whole armies of helepoli, catapults, nothing else and expect to win. And there's too big a gap between the Tool age and the Bronze age. If you get to the Bronze age ahead of your opponent you're pretty much guaranteed to win since you have access to all-powerful chariots and he doesn't.
The above may sound like petty geek whining but balance is one of the most important aspects of an RTS game. Strategic gameplay means being able to make choices. If you're shoehorned down one path while playing (due to unfair distribution of stats among units/civilisation) then it removes the entire element that makes the genre fun. You can't say you won because you outthought and outsmarted your opponent. You can only say you won because you executed a formula more effectively.
Over to more general problems, the game is micro-hell. Early in the game you have to rely on hunting game and picking berries to feed your people. Your villagers aren't too smart so you have to constantly check back on them to make sure they're still working and aren't standing around doing nothing. You'd think a 1997 game would be able to incorporate the minimal basics of AI. After these sources of food are exhausted you have to switch to farms, which need to be replanted every few minutes. By hand. That's right. Every few minutes you have to take your focus off the battles and make sure your people don't starve. It's quite strange, since most gameplay innovations found in new RTS games try to reduce the emphasis on this sort of mindless busywork.
The game slaps you with a population limit of 50. That sucks. You need at least 20-30 villagers to keep your civilisation's economy afloat and when you factor in the need for scouts and priests you don't have much room left over to build military units. The result is "epic" battles between six or seven warriors. BLECH.
Maybe they got confused somewhere and thought "AI" stands for "Artificial Idiocy". You remember classic examples in Warcraft II where you'd send your army down a completely clear path and half of them would inexplicably get stuck against trees or rocks? Yeah, it's even worse here. Incredibly bad path-finding means you have to baby-sit your soldiers every step of the way, making sure they don't get trapped against tiny obstacles or against each other. And of course there's to oh-so-fun instances of where an enemy sneaks a catapult up to the edge of your line of sight, blasts half your army to hell with one shot, and the remaining soldiers don't do anything. Weeeeeee...
Maybe this wouldn't be so bad if the game had a halfway decent user-interface or system of control. Unfortunately, they only give you the bare minimum of control over your men. Want your men to hold their ground and not go chasing after every stray scout that wanders into their line of sight? You can't. Want to instruct your men to patrol an area, or follow waypoints? The game doesn't let you. And if you're expecting modern conveniences like multiple production queues, formations, and customisable stances...think again. Think very hard again.
So we have an insanely micro-intensive game, compounded by a less-than-helpful interface, bad AI, an obtrusive unit limit that screams "ARTIFICIAL LIMITATION" like an air raid siren, and unbalanced gameplay mechanics, and you'd got one critically flawed game.
The Bottom Line...And perhaps even an irredeemably flawed game. Do I recommend Age of Empires? It depends on whether you're the type of guy who skips through the songs he doesn't like while listening to a CD or the type of guy who sticks it out and listens to the whole thing. If you are capable of tolerating bad design you'll find a really good game, maybe even one that has the makings of a classic.
Or you could always get Age of Empires II, which contains all of Age of Empires' good points and none of the bad.