Friday, March 30, 2012

Age of Empires review - Moving on up! (In Ages) Moving on out! (With Armies)

As some of you already know, I take requests for games to review, and most of the reviews I write are actually requests. (Thanks guys! No seriously...thanks) So when I found this request from a person I never expected a request from, I was quite pleasantly surprised.

Age of Empires was released by Microsoft Games (yeah, really!) and was an instant hit. The Real Time Strategy (RTS) genre already existed, but as soon as Age of Empires came along, the entire method, meaning and structure of the genre changed instantly.

When I contemplated what to write in this review, at first I was pretty stumped. I usually try to just jot down a few notes on the general points I want to say, then I just power ahead and write things for the next 2,000 words. (Structured of course) However when I came to this, I realised that there really wasn’t much to write about as such. However, I settled on just explaining the game, telling some funny stories and the like. Enjoy!

Walling in - great tactic!
When you first play Age of Empires, prepare to be blustered. Like most RTS games of the time period, you need to be decent to get good, and need to be good to get decent. Practice does however, make perfect. You will find yourself going through the tutorials, which are possibly some of the most banal and patronising things ever, if you know anything about RTS’s already that is. You can then dive into the campaign, although I’ve never been one for campaigns in RTS games. It’s so banal and annoying. You build a base, beat some peeps down, then move on. Build another base...I’ll get back to the campaign later...But anyway, I as always, lept straight on the scenario mode, which is code for “skirmishes”. Now then, I’ve played Age of Empires before, so I knew the VERY basics, because the last time I played the game was at least 7 years ago. That’s a long time...but still, no one forgets how to build villagers in an RTS, it’s basic stuff. So, I trundle along in my first scenario match, building some villagers and all that. In Age of Empires, you have four different resource types, Food, Wood, Stone and Gold. At first, all you need to build your stuff is food and wood. So, that’s what I did, divided my units, stacked just slightly towards food rather than wood, and just trundled along. I scouted out a bit, found some more stuff, more foraging, more hunting, etc etc. Now then, we’ll take a side step from my little story, and talk about the key, and most innovative, feature of Age of Empires.

Age of Empires is called what it is thanks to the system that takes from its namesake, ages. Ages in Age of Empires are a system which is now so ingrained in our RTS games, call them one thing or another, but they are there. Age of Empires (Ed. At least to our knowledge) was the first to implement them. In a nutshell, you have a few stages of development, in Age of Empires it is Stone Age, Tool Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. At the Stone Age period, you can only build basic buildings, such as storage pits which are like alternative collection points for resources, and a barracks...which can only train clubmen. When you build enough “Stone Age buildings”, and pay a large sum of resources, you can advance to the Tool Age. In the Tool Age, your...everything begins to look more “modern” and civilised. You can upgrade your clubmen to axemen, build farms and watch towers. The Bronze Age then proceeds further down the timeline, and the Iron Age even further. It’s a system which works, but doesn’t. For example, if you get to the Bronze Age, and the enemy doesn’t, you have a huge advantage, as your units are more powerful and more diverse. As you “Age up” you get more technologies to research, allowing for more damaging units, and units with more armour. Your enemy however it stuck with axemen and bowmen, whereas you have Roman style hoplites! (Those guys with long sticks) This is naturally a compound effect. Instead of the losing player being given a chance to fight back, you just become more and more powerful. There are strategies however, to slow down the opposition’s Age-ing. The most prominent strategy being to slaughter his/her workers. The villagers are as you thought resource collectors, and I won’t patronize you too much by explaining any more. But if you kill even 3 villagers, the resource collection of that person is stymied and buggered to quite a point. There are of course provisions to rebuild those three villagers, but that’s time and food that you have made the enemy waste. Food being the main resource to advance through the beginning Ages, and furthermore – every villager costing 50 food. I admit that you can do the same to him, but still, once you’re on the backfoot, it’s very hard to get on to the front foot. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but once you know that the enemy is an Age ahead with a much stronger economy, if it’s not part of some master plan you have – be prepared for hell.

Two armies collide
Anyway, back to my fun little story. At this point, I had a pretty stable economy. I wouldn’t say that strong, but stable none-the-less. I had villagers here, villagers there. At around 15-20 minutes in, I advanced to the Tool Age from the Stone Age. At this point, I started to build a very basic military, just some axemen and bowmen, maybe 4 max of each. I scouted out a little, and found part of their base REALLY close to mine...*gulp*. This did quite frankly, cause me panic considering that the closest building was a barracks, and they were at the Tool Age as well...Quickly, with a vast amount of deftness, and defying nature, I built a watch tower and planted some bowmen next to it, in case of an advance. It didn’t come. I decided after about another five minutes to begin to raze that barracks to the ground. I moved in the army and realised that they had a watch tower on overwatch, so I pulled the axemen, and left the bowmen. After a minute, I see a villager go over, and try repair the barracks! I shoot him with the bowmen, continue with the razing. Then another one comes, shoot him. Another one...Then it hit me. I could cheese the hell out of the AI!  All I then did was wait for a villager, shoot him, return barracks to previous health. Eventually, I had gathered enough resources and created a large enough army to take over the base...but then something funny happened. The AI decided that they had run out of stone, so they should come into MY BASE and mine there. This was about 15 villagers they sent on exodus. Not to mine. My military had a field day, then I made the counter attack. There was no defence, no military, just one watch tower which I knew the location of. By the time I was done, I hadn’t even proceeded to the Iron Age. Maybe a higher level of computer is more appropriate for me...but I just don’t care enough to actually play another game...

I admit that this review is possibly less total and complete than something from say, IGN, but it’s my experience with the game. It’s fun, but I didn’t really, enjoy it. However by the same token, I like Company of Heroes and that style of tactical RTS, so in essence, Age of Empires is really not my cup of tea. Focusing on economy AND military, for me detracts with both the economic part and the military part. When a game like Company of Heroes comes along and bases the economy on the military, the military strategy improves exponentially. With Age of Empires, there really isn’t a strategy in the basic use of the military; you just right click to attack. Cover is irrelevant, that kind of strategy is irrelevant. You win a battle before you enter it, just because of the unit composition. Predicting fights, is more of a science than in a game such as Company of Heroes where a tactic can change the fight. A grenade loosed can mean a won fight, when the odds were stacked, whereas here, there is no grenade to throw. Reinforcements can be called, but only from the units you’ve...already made. Villagers are too precious, economies can be crippled irreparably. The same can happen in Company of Heroes, but the counter attack can change the tide of the war...

The genuine size of your "empires" can become pretty damn big...

In conclusion, I really like Age of Empires, but I just can’t personally get into it. It’s a combination of games I’ve already played and just the general style of the game. Kind of like my friend who couldn’t play Company of Heroes because of Close Combat: Invasion Normandy, I can’t play Age of Empires, because of Company of Heroes. It’s cyclical...

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