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Age of Empires II: Age of Kings

Score: 90%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Media: CD/1
Players: 1 - 8
Genre: Real-Time Strategy

Graphics & Sound:

Age of Empires II uses a three-quarters pseudo-3D style, which seems to have become the standard in the genre since StarCraft or so. The maps themselves are quite nice-looking, with plenty of detail. You'll be seeing a lot of similar areas on the various maps, but as there are different types of maps in the first place, it never gets too repetitive.

The game does not allow rotation of the viewscreen, though, so units will get to places that you can't see them. AoE2 kindly outlines them in your colour to make them more visible, which is a nice touch, but it still would have been nice to have a rotatable engine a la Submarine Titans. Ah, well.

The various units and structures are fairly detailed -- the structures much more so than the units. There are a few different 'sets' of structures, and a unique unit or two per side, but for the most part, the various empires look very similar. For examples, the Britons and Celts use the same building style, as do the Japanese and the Chinese, or the Persians and the Byzantine. It's understandable, certainly, but it trivializes the differences between the cultures even more.

Thankfully, the sounds are different between the cultures. Each empire has its own language as the 'response' sounds, which is a nice touch. The sound effects, with the clangs of swords and other such goodness, is quite nice. As you pan your viewscreen around into a battle, you really feel like you're witnessing a struggle instead of a collection of pixels fighting it out. The music is solid as well, providing a good atmosphere for the game, both in and out of battle. The campaign voice acting can grate a little, as some of the accents feel a little silly, but it's certainly better than the 'bargain basement' stuff you usually get in games.


Along with its solid presentation, Age of Empires II: Age of Kings offers solid gameplay. Like the first game in the series, it takes you through four time periods, but the four periods are set considerably after the first game. You start in the Dark Ages, soon going to the Feudal Age, then the Castle Age, and finally the Imperial Age. Each Age has special skills and events pertinent to it, and progressing through the Ages is necessary to win the game.

The actual gameplay is relatively standard RTS fare. You have a bunch of villagers who can collect gold, chop down trees, gather food, and mine stone. All of these resources are used for various things. There are a lot of various technologies that you can research, and plenty of different units to build. Like a good RTS, when you get the next level of a unit, all of your previous units are upgraded to that type. No more having to off your lowly footmen because you've got Super Swordswingers of Death.

Each Empire has a slightly different feel to it, from the interface to the actual gameplay. They all have specific bonuses -- they may build faster, collect wood quicker, or do other things better than the rest. They also have slightly different technology trees. Although everyone uses the same base tree, every empire has certain techs that they can never research. Finding an empire with every tech you want is key, and every empire has its advantages and disadvantages.

The single-player game both has randomly generated missions for your enjoyment and a series of campaigns to experience. Each campaign has a historical theme, from the riding of the Mongols to the story of Joan of Arc. They're generally quite intriguing, and they help you learn the strong and weak points of at least a few of the different Empires.

But, of course, the real meat of AoE2 is the multiplayer experience, and the game definitely shines there. With a large range of options, both random and prebuilt maps, and oodles of gameplay, the multiplayer experience is highly enjoyable. Prepare to be trounced the first few times you play, as expert players can jump through the Ages blazingly fast and wail on you in a matter of minutes. Once you learn the ins and outs, though, it's a hell of an experience.

The game does have its issues. The Empires still play a little too much like each other, and although there's plenty of variety, you have to get pretty far in the game to really see its diversity. The fact that you still have to micromanage your farms is irritating, although there are ways to get around it later in the game as well. And the interface is occasionally a little too flaky, not letting you click on units when they're close together. But most of these are relatively minor problems.


Age of Empires II's campaigns start out relatively easy, but soon ramp up in the difficulty. They also have difficulty settings where you can adjust just how hardcore the A.I. acts. On Easy, any veteran strategy gamer should have no problems; on Hard, they can definitely teach you some lessons in management. The random maps are similar, and sometimes you'll do quite well whereas other times you'll be at a disadvantage with your position and resources. Such is the situation with random maps, though. Multiplayer difficulty, of course, depends on the skill of your opponents.

Game Mechanics:

For the most part, you control the game with the mouse only. There are a few things that are better suited for the keyboard -- building long walls, for example -- and as such, everything has a hot-key that you can press to access the command. The interface is easy to use, and everything has autohelp that contains useful information. The first time you play the game, the details of each structure are invaluable. As you become an expert, they can still serve as a good reminder. There is a problem with selecting enemy units that you're attacking when you want to check their health (especially walls), as the game rarely lets you click on them. And ships have a bad habit of sailing across sand. But these problems are minor.

Huge, detailed, and fun, Age of Empires II: Age of Kings offers a lot of game bang for the buck. Any fan of real-time strategy games would do well to pick a copy up, and those looking to get into the genre can start with either this game or the one before it. And with expansion packs available for both, chances are good that you'll have to play a long time before you exhaust either title.

-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

Minimum System Requirements:

P166, 32MB RAM, 200MB HD Space, SVGA Video Card w/ 2MB VRAM, 4x CD-ROM, Mouse, Keyboard

Test System:

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

Windows Anarchy Online Windows Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

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