The Age of Empires series, originally developed by Ensemble Studios and later published by Microsoft Game Studios after Microsoft acquired Ensemble Studios in 2001, was a relatively late comer to the RTS genre. Yet it quickly became a hit for the industry and would go on to establish an impressive and iconic legacy in the gaming community.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings follows its predecessor Age of Empires as a period development and expansion game. Players take one of thirteen civilizations (eighteen with the Age of Empires II: The Conquerors Expansion) from Dark Age hunter gatherers through three following ages of technology into the Imperial Age where they deploy highly advanced armored cavalry, heavy infantry, and siege equipment to destroy all who oppose them.
Players start with the central Town Center, a universal drop off point for resources and the only building that can train the resource gathering villagers and research the advancement tech to a new age. Villagers collect four types of resources (food, wood, gold, and stone) which are scattered around the map. Since these nodes are not always near the Town Center villagers may construct repositories like Lumber Camps and Mills to shorten collection time.
Villagers also construct all of the game’s buildings and remain valuable, and oh so vulnerable, through the game. Several military buildings serve as training sites for the games different types of combat units (Barracks for infantry, Archery Range for all ranged soldiers) and a single Dock building serves as the production center and resource drop point for all naval related activities. Research buildings like the Blacksmith and University develop technology to improve and refine the civilization’s military and economic capacity. More advanced buildings are unlocked as the player advances through the ages of technology, for example all of the resource collection buildings are available in the Dark Age but the mighty Castle can’t be constructed until the player’s civilization reaches the eponymous Castle Age.
The Castle is the only building which, despite having generic architecture, is unique to the civilization. It cannot be converted by Monks (the game’s healer unit and the only unit that can ‘capture’ enemy units and sometimes buildings) and produces the civilization’s unique unit (and with The Conquerors their unique tech). The Castle is also a powerful defensive building and provides several strong generic technologies and units.
Overall unit design in Age of Empires II is generic. Units are divided into the five categories of Infantry, Archers, Cavalry, Siege Weapons, and Naval units. Each individual unit has a set of statistics for its hit points, attack, and armor. Players accustomed to the unique faction skins of Command & Conquer or Starcraft may find the presentation a bit bland; but it is this generic approach to development that make civilization bonuses and unique units more applicable. For example the Frankish Throwing Axeman unique unit has a ranged attack but is classified as an infantry unit allowing it to defy other aspects of the game (such as ignoring the bonuses of counter-archer Skirmisher units).
Age of Empires II is nothing if not a historically based game. All of the civilizations, units, and even campaigns are designed after historical models. Five campaigns are available in which the player controls a single civilization through five missions that follow a historical figure during the pivotal events of their life (like Joan of Arc’s battles against the English and Genghis Khan’s uniting of the mongol tribes and subsequent conquest of Asia). Each mission is heavily scripted and expansive providing hours of game play. Several different skirmish modes against AI opponents with five difficulty levels are available and Age of Empires II also includes a scenario editor allowing players to duplicate the tools used in making the campaigns to develop their own scenarios and even campaigns.
The scenario editor is perhaps Age of Empire II’s greatest asset for replayability. With The Conqueror’s adding three new campaigns and several single mission historical battles the single player modes can provide at least forty hours of game play but restrict the player on available civilizations (many civilizations are never playable in the campaigns). Difficulty and victory conditions can be adjusted in Skirmish mode but the AI remains generally predictable and its competency tends to degrade as games run on. The scenario editor makes Age of Empires II the player’s sandbox and while primitive by modern standards is more than enough to flesh out the Age of Empires experience to the max.
Multiplayer is a very intriguing aspect of the game and one of the reasons Age of Empires II has remained popular over the decades. Multiplayer uses the same settings and victory types of the skirmish mode (scenarios can also be used if the scenario supports the right number of players) but the rest is up to the players. Using Siege Onagors to make a back door into an enemy’s base through the woods is a tactic the AI would never use and is legendary for its effectiveness.
Sadly multiplayer is touchy in Age of Empires II. Movement in the game is rapid and a relatively strong internet connection is required for all parties involved. Game crashes, while rare, are also a danger and can lead to a half hour of downtime. Players living in areas of limited connectivity will find Age of Empires II to be more valuable for its single player elements.
The release of the Age of Empires II: HD Edition on Steam has revitalized the game’s relevance to the modern gaming community. Now, anyone who expects the HD Edition to be an updated remake of the original will be sorely disappointed. The HD Edition is not a remake, it adapts the game’s graphics to be compatible with high resolution displays and makes the game acceptable on newer operating systems. The HD Edition also includes The Conquerors expansion and all of the original game’s modes and content. Mod support has also been added through the Steam Workshop and a new expansion from Microsoft, The Forgotten, has added four new playable civilizations and campaigns. This expansion, while officially published, is based off the community mod Forgotten Empires and features a noticeably unique style. With the HD Edition players familiar with the Age of Empires series can now enjoy what is quite easily the best of this classic series and hope for continued expansion and improvement in the future.