A Monarchist's Love Story
Long ago, in a time of mist and shadows, a little game from Microprose called Civilization hit the gaming scene with all the subtly of a Washington Post political expose. Some time later, Civilization 2, the hot-damn sequel, perfected the formula. Bruce Shelley (co-designer of Civ 1&2) took note of another game that hit the scene, Warcraft 2, a newcomer in the brand new Real Time Strategy genre. Shelley, who later lost his mind just long enough to sign on with Microsoft (the prevalent Faustian bargain of the 90's), neatly combined the two games into the eminently engaging Age of Empires. Although mired by a few niggling flaws, AOE was one of the most distinctive RTS games on the store shelf.
The popularity of the game, which was a million-plus seller, easily justified the logical sequel. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings takes the franchise into the Dark, Feudal, Castle, and Imperial ages of A.D. history and adds more depth and gameplay to the already rich AOE than I could describe in any review.
Taking place in a more recent epoch of human history, Age of Empires 2 is able to do something that wasn't really feasible in AOE; that is, to add character to an otherwise impersonal style of gameplay. In the single player campaign mode, you can take on the role of a trusted confidant/aid/advisor to William Wallace (training campaign, Scotland), Joan of Arc (France), Frederick Barbarossa (Germany/The Holy Roman Empire), Saladin (The Saracens), or Genghis Khan (Mongolia, and almost everywhere else). Each campaign for these five leaders/civilizations is based on actual historical data and a narrative, read from the perspective of your persona. It really adds atmosphere, purpose, and drama to each and every mission in the campaigns. This is quite advantageous, given that the difficulty of most campaign missions will have the player occupied for hours and the heightened drama helps to hold interest in slower moments.
In total, there are 13 civilizations (as opposed to 12 in AOE) to play in the AOE2's multi-player or non-campaign single-player modes. What is really remarkable about AOE2 is how the 13 different civilizations are both unique from each other and flawlessly play balanced. Each one has particular strengths and deficiencies that force particular attack and defense strategies. The Franks, for instance, have excellent food production and are in it for the long haul, while the Mongols have trouble with resources but are excellent at hit and run attacks. Considering that most games (like the recent Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun) only have two or three sides to play balance, the brilliant execution of 13 sides in AOE2 is absolutely stunning.
As far as pure gameplay mechanics, AOE2 is rife with enhancements. For starters, troops may now be garrisoned in buildings (which appear to scale now), assigned formations, and given attack stances (more commonly known as behavior/aggressiveness settings). The technology tree has been greatly expanded, made to be much more like that of Civilization 2.
Also, the greater technology of the time period in AOE2 allows for more sophisticated cities and fortresses to be built. Remarkably, AOE2 has managed to solve the problem of the tank rush almost completely. By giving almost all units profound weaknesses and strengths, the game forcees the player to use sophisticated attack strategies involving the formations and combat stances. The old tactic of "build 55 catapults and bash up the base of the bad guys" will fail miserably time and time again. For the tactically gifted, AOE2 will be a comparably satisfying challenge as a good hard-core wargame. For others, it may get extremely difficult at times, but it will make a good player out of you.
Graphically, Age of Empires 2 is a pleasant refinement of the already good looking AOE. The terrain has been greatly smoothed out and the variety in topography and foliage has been increased. Most striking are the new graphics for the buildings. Because of their much greater size on screen, the detail afforded to the buildings is lush and exquisite. The first time you get a good look at a French cathedral or the city of Cairo, your jaw is likely to drop quite a bit. Supporting more resolutions than my monitor, AOE2 is the best looking of the 2D RTS games out there right now.
Music and sound are about the same as AOE. The music is pleasant, thematic to each civilization, and perfect for the game. The sound is at times powerful, such as when a troop of knights ride by, and also effectively communicates the variety of civilizations through some great voice acting for both the regular troops, the narrators, and the 'hero' .
Multi-player is also handled very well. The great diversity and depth in both the resource gathering, building, and combat portions of the gameplay make for some excellent multi-player action that (so far) never falls prey to the sort of cheap tactics one might find in a game such as C&C2 (the infamous special-underground-delivery-engineer trick comes to mind).
In almost all ways, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings expands and nearly perfects the already proven AOE formula. A few remaining AI and path-finding glitches are a bother, but overall there are very, very few things that one can fault AOE 2 for. This is easily the best RTS game to come out this year, far surpassing the original, and destined to immensely entertain eager RTS fans for a very long time.