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Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings

Real-time strategy buffs are surely getting their due this year, and rightfully so. For the last two years the pickings have been fairly slim for RTS groupies, and many naysayers had the genre written off, especially after last year's domination by action-oriented titles like Half-Life, Rainbow Six and Thief. But like the tank rush that started it all, real-time strategy is upon us once again and rolling along in high gear. When you look at the amount of high-quality titles released so far this year, the numbers are staggering. The long awaited Command & Conquer 2: Tiberian Sun, Sierra's game of the year candidate Homeworld, Ubi Soft's surprisingly good Shadow Company, Bullfrog's follow-up Dungeon Keeper II, Cavedog's fantasy-based sequel to Total Annihilation and finally Ensemble's heir apparent to Age of Empires, AOEII: Age of Kings are all examples of why 1999 will be recorded as the second coming of real-time strategy.

First a little history. The mixed reviews of Age of Empires didn't seem to have any effect on the public's willingness to pick up and play the game, as the original title sold over a million copies and is one of the best selling PC titles of the decade. And while the best-seller certainly had a lot going for it, (the combination of Civilization and Warcraft II sales pitch didn't hurt), the hard truth is that Age of Empires was a good product, but not a great one. The highly publicized Civilization-like features never materialized, and problems with pathfinding, artificial intelligence and a limited variety of nationalities caused many reviewers, including this one, to give it a cautious recommendation. After a nearly two-year development cycle, Age of Kings is finally upon us, and with it Ensemble has given us a title filled with ten times the depth found in its predecessor.

It should be pointed out that at first glance, this game and its mechanics are very similar to the original. In a nutshell AOEII: Age of Kings is Age of Empires, with improved graphics and a few added megatons of depth and refinement. For starters there are now thirteen (instead of twelve) nationalities to choose from, including the Britons, Byzantines, Celts, Franks, Goths, Japanese, Mongols, Persians, Saracens, Teutons, Turks and Vikings. Each of them are capable of building their own unique unit, and each have different bonuses and weaknesses that counter the race they're fighting. On the surface, this may only seem to be a minor addition of one nation. However, the added depth that was missing in the original Age is brought forth in Age II in the form of variety and style between the nations, much like what Starcraft did for the RTS genre. While the disparity between races is not nearly as defined here as it was there, it is still refined enough that players will be able to play with each nation and derive a different experience -- not something that could be said about the first Age.

The second most prominent addition to this series deals with the technology tree and how players go about upgrading their economic systems, armies, and industries. While AOEII: Age of Kings is still nowhere near the complexity of Civilization II, it is much closer than it used to be, and is still able to deliver quality gameplay in a real-time setting. With nearly 60 upgrades and technologies, it's doubtful that individual games will last long enough for all of them to be researched at once. Like before, all of the technologies, soldiers and buildings that can be trained or constructed in a given scenario are directly linked to the given period of time, or age. There are four ages to progress though in AOK, including the Dark, Feudal, Castle and Imperial ages. As time passes and new technologies are researched, players can upgrade things like food production, worker capacity and performance, soldier efficiencies and powers as well as building strengths and capabilities. The real beauty of how Ensemble designed this is that many of the units, buildings and available upgrades are dependent on the nationality of the player. For example, while the Mongols have excellent scouts and can manufacturer heavy cavalry better than most, their limited faming technologies are sure to impact their abilities to produce some of the game's more advanced units (like spies) in long, drawn out scenarios. From this, you can gather that when playing against a Mongolian opponent you should expect attacks quickly and often. All of the thirteen nations have similar traits, with some strengths and equally balancing weaknesses--this is only one example.

Other new and cool features include the ability to set gathering points, which allow you to choose where new units will gather upon creation, such as villages near a forage bush or infantry near a strategic point in a city's defense system. I also like the town central bell ring feature. Here, villagers will stop working and gather like an angry mob near the town center and provide protection for the city while it is under siege. Clicking on the idle villager button, which helps you locate any and all lazy town folk not currently working, can also more easily identify villagers. While most scenarios that I have played still come down to whomever can manufacture the most units wins, because each building can now be garrisoned, AOK does allow for players that take a more defensive approach a better chance of success. The last new addition I'd like to make particular mention of is the cartography feature. This allows allies to use each other's data and see (open up large areas of the map) though the eyes of those designated as friendly units. These subtle and refining features do a nice job of adding depth to an already solid gameplay format.

Age's balancing act moves from the confines of resource management to the battlefield with precision. A different but equally complex set of weaknesses and strengths affect the balance of power in one-on-one, squad vs. squad and army vs. army combat. To be an effective battlefield commander, you'll need to know the details of who you're fighting, and, once again, this is all somewhat dependent on the multitude of nationalities involved. But unfortunately, gaining this knowledge about your enemy isn't that easy; in fact, it's difficult to learn about yourself. I had a hard time distinguishing between types of units, especially when they were grouped together in large platoons or brigades. Controlling your units in combat has been improved over the original, but there is still something not quite right about large battles. Unit artificial intelligence is a bit more refined in this version but is still not near what it needs to be. Pathfinding is also improved, but alas, it still manages to frustrate, especially when trying to navigate armies across bridges and through gates.


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