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Age of Empires

Score: 75%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Microsoft Games
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Media: CD/1
Players: 1 - 8
Genre: Real-Time Strategy

Graphics & Sound:

Age of Empires makes use of the isometric semi-3D viewpoint that we all know and love. The graphics are fairly well detailed, even by today's standards, and the game even supports changing resolutions up to 1024x768. The various units and buildings look prerendered, like most games of the sort. One graphical oddity that bothered me was the fact that 'unit carrying meat' looked the same. It seemed sort of incongruous carrying huge slabs of meat off after killing a crocodile. Eh--that's a pretty minor nitpick.

The game has FMV, but it is a number of years old, and the video is grainy and hard to really see.

Sound is definitely one of Age of Empires' weak points. The music is solid enough, with tribal beats alongside more 'classical' music. There are quite a few nice tracks in the game, which is a pleasant change from the usual repetitiveness of the genre. Sound effects, on the other hand, are weak, repetitive, and quickly grow annoying. The sound that the dock makes every time you click on it grates on my nerves, and the various sounds for each of the buildings does not make it immediately evident what building you clicked on. The same thing happens in battles--the aureal clues just aren't enough to let you differentiate just what's going on. It's a bit disheartening, especially when the action gets warmed up, but the game's still playable without solid audio cues.


Gameplay:

The real question is: do you want to play Age of Empires? The answer is not so simple. If you'd like to see the origin of the style that Age of Empires II has, you can't go wrong; unfortunately, Age of Empires has been far surpassed in playability by games that have come along since then, and it's hard to recommend for any reason other than reminisce value. It's not an inherently bad game--far from it--but there's much better stuff out there.

The concept of the game is intriguing. You pick one of over ten different civilizations to play as, each with differing specialties (faster build times, stronger troops, and so on). From there, you take them from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, improving their combat abilities and eventually wiping the map clean of your opponents.

Unfortunately, the actual gameplay more closely resembles Warcraft II than any deep Civilization-style game. In the end, most of the trappings of technology feel like just another tech tree, and unit rushes are still the easiest way to win a battle. While Age of Empires aspires to more, it never quite gets there.

You generally start out in the Stone Age. Your villagers subsist on hunted animals and picked berries, as it should be. Slowly but surely your civilization starts to grow, and as you build a dock and barracks you become able to build a number of different units. The various civilizations have only a certain selection of units, so there's some variety there as well.

Progressing to the next Age is simply an expenditure of resources, like wood and food and gold. Each Age gives you a number of new units and buildings to play with, but the old ones stick around. It should feel a little more epic than it does; as it is, going to the next Age feels like just another notch on the tech tree.

Controlling your units is simple enough, but the micromanagement required for successful campaigns is downright silly. Why don't your warriors fight when nearby locations are attacked? Why are your villagers complete imbeciles when it comes to finding similar work to do? The pathfinding is also pretty atrocious. All of these things have been fixed in games since the release of Age of Empires (and some before), making it hard to play nowadays.

There are a large number of playmodes, though. You can participate in a number of campaigns, which are mildly entertaining but generally take entirely too long to do. You can also go the single-scenario route, with prebuilt maps and empires. There's the requisite multiplayer, through the Zone. And my personal favourite is the random map generation, which lets you play on different terrains and really keeps the game spiced up.


Difficulty:

You can choose your difficulty level before you pick any of the various mission types. The AI ranges from boneheaded to slightly less so, and most of the difficulty of the game comes from fighting the controls and determining just what's happening as you play. For the most part, the various goals in the campaign aren't overmuch hard to succeed in, they just take way more time than they should. Experienced RTSers shouldn't have many problems with defeating the AI in this game, although the higher settings could take you for a spin.

Game Mechanics:

The game is mouse-driven, with the requisite keyboard hotkeys as in all RTS games. There are some basic things missing that would have made the game a lot easier to control, unit queues being the most obvious. As I stated earlier, micromanagement really ends up bogging the game down more than it should, and dealing with flaky pathfinding and weak AI only exacerbates the situation. Fortunately the core mechanics of the game are solid enough, even if they're a wee bit more derivative than I would have liked. Yes, the Stone Age goes way too slow, and the fifty-unit maximum is downright silly, but the later Ages move fast enough and have enough interesting things to play with that it's worth toying around and getting there.

Let's face it: Age of Empires is old, and it shows its age. There have been a number of improvements in the real-time strategy world since the game was released, and while it's good for historical reasons it's hard to find a really good reason to play it now instead of its sequel. It's not a bad game, but neither is it great, and with so many other RTS games available on the market chances are good you'll have a better time with something else.


-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

Minimum System Requirements:



P90, 16MB RAM, Win9x/NT, SVGA video card with 1MB RAM, 80MB HD space, 4x CD-ROM, mouse, soundcard
 

Test System:



Athlon 1.1GHz running Win98 SE, 512MB RAM, GeForce 2 GTS w/ 32MB RAM, SoundBlaster Live!, 8x DVD-ROM

Windows Adventure Pinball: Forgotten Island Windows Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare

 
Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated