Fifteen years have passed since The Conquerors was released and six years since the closure of Ensemble Studios. Since then, the base-building subgenre has long since headed into terminal decline, leaving genre aficionados yearning for another golden age of yesteryear. Fortunately for those fans, the least few years has seen a rise in popularity in re-releases, HD updates and remakes that has allowed gamers to enjoy titles that may not run on modern computers. One title which benefited from this trend is Age of Empires 2.
As well as The Forgotten and the recently released The African Kingdoms DLC, Hidden Paths have made a number of tweaks in this remake; some areas of the game necessitated change while other areas benefit from subtle improvements. Two of the more important inclusions are the online multiplayer and Steamworks. The former became important due to MSN Gaming Zones stopping its support in 2006 and the latter because a game that has a map creator is crying out for the love and attention that an active community can provide. Both succeed somewhat in the services they offer, but joining games through the online service can often take a while to join and, even then, these matches can be occasionally hampered due to latency.
As a base building game, one of the fundamental elements of the gameplay is to develop through the four Ages: Dark Age, Feudal Age, Castle Age and, lastly, the Imperial Age. Progressing on to later Ages opens up the gameplay, allowing the player to build more buildings and units and form a stronger defence and offence. Progression in the game is wonderfully signposted through architecture that changes in appearance as the player moves through the Ages and and the jingling of bells that signals the ushering of a new Age.
Each of the 27 civilizations have been uniquely tailored so their historical strengths can be used to gain an advantage during battle. These perks come in a variety of forms, but each can be equally fundamental during a match. Trade bonuses, quicker building construction and faster cultivation of crop are a few of the less noticeable ones, while other perks include powerful units which are unique to each civilization. The British, for example, benefit from having skilled archers, Longbowman, who can fire arrows further than most units and the Spanish can easily overpower opposing naval fleets with their devastatingly powerful ballistics.
Initially, it will take a while to master each civilizations strengths, but it is rewarding to discover which technology to research to nullify an enemies’ tactics and how to effectively utilize different units. Each civilization has a tonne of perks and passive bonuses and it would be easy even for veteran players to overlook some of these potentially game-changing bonuses. AOE 2 has masterfully weaved the strengths of civilizations into its gameplay without compromising balance or relying on less interesting bonuses.
A number of noticeable gameplay improvements were made in AOE 2. One of the more fundamental inclusions, the technology tree, allows various areas including military, science and religion to be upgraded. When a unit or building is highlighted, the relevant technology will be displayed as small icons in an easy to understand UI grid at the bottom of the screen. This design choice allows beginners and casual gamers to easily pick up on the intrinsic connection between a unit or building and the options that will be available if it is highlighted, avoiding any potential frustration. For advanced players, certain units and buildings can be grouped or individually hotkeyed and technology can be quickly accessed through preset shortcuts.
Technology plays a pivotal role in the choices the player will make for strategies and counter strategies. For example, the irritatingly long range of the skilful British Longbowman could be countered by research into archery, and the potential damage of siege weapons could be reduced by the fortify walls upgrade. Some civilizations naturally excel in the early part of the game and have perks such as quicker cultivation of crop or faster construction that could allow them to quickly muster an army and attack the enemy. Other civilizations become more powerful later in the game, benefiting from various perks such as stronger, cheaper or quicker unit production that allows them to overpower opponents. This can make the first ten to fifteen minutes feel quite intense as the player will be unsure of the best way to develop their civilization.
Fortunately, though, a new defensive gameplay mechanic was introduced in AOE 2, garrison, that enables villagers to safehold themselves in towers, town centres and castles whilst also increasing that structure’s fire power. However, even early on in the game, a base that doesn’t have any secondary defences will still be vulnerable and an untimely attack could cripple that civilization. The fog of war cleverly instils insecurity as players will be unaware of whether their opponent are quickly advancing to the next Age or building an army for an early attack.
However, even though a lot of the implemented gameplay mechanics stand up well against modern titles, the AI can be occasionally coaxed into poor decision making which, unfortunately, highlights the games age. AI units can be coaxed into moving away from their base and picked off and occasionally they will continue to take a carrot on stick style bate even if they are being attacked at a distance. Similarly, some of the strategies the AI chose to use seem redundant or wasteful. Sometimes computer opponents will settle on attacking an enemy base with a handful of units every couple of minutes until they are ready to make larger attacks. It is these moments where enemies make mindless, robotic decisions that can make playing through battles cumbersome.
Just like the first game, Ensemble pay meticulous attention to historical detail; whether it is through audio, narrative, units and buildings, players will quickly notice how every facet has been carefully considered. However, although the game has a strong historical focus, the series has always known how to have fun. Some of the more bizarre things that the player can do include being able to send monks from one side of the map to the other to collect large, dense relics, and cheat codes that if typed into the command box allows weaponized racing cars, extra gold, instant victory to be activated.
Each mission starts with expressive narration and wonderfully designed inkwell drawn storyboards that perfectly sets the tone prior to battle. The narration during the Barbarossa campaign is particularly brilliant, managing to tell the story through a man sat at a bar and then later revealing that the man was Henry the Lion. Of course, following a war narrative through short, isometric perspective missions and quick video intros limits the amount of detail that can be provided, but can be unravelled over a handful of missions as the details of these events have been simplified.
Important historical figures will often make appearances during these missions, spearheading attacks on enemies. These units will often have their own unique lines of dialogue that occur at set times and locations during missions that either provide more information about the ongoing war narrative or instruct the player on a new objective. Even though these units have regenerating health and can take a lot of damage, they are susceptible to falling in battle if they are not carefully micromanaged. AOE2 would have benefited from a feature similar to that in Warcraft 3 where special units have their own icon which displays their health and can be quickly clicked when they need to be moved. Losing a battle due to the mismanagement of these units or a momentary lapse in concentration can be infuriating as it can often feel like a cheap victory for the enemy and a waste of time for the player.
The soundtrack of AOE 2 is serviceable and, even though some of the tracks can be enjoyable to listen to whilst playing the game, it often feels like a wasted opportunity as the audio could have been used to highlight the uniqueness of each civilization. However, soundtrack aside, the audio in the game has been used to great effect. Each structure has its own identifiable sound and progression into new Ages is signalled by short audio clips that functions as signposting for the player. Military and villagers have also had a similar amount of attention lavished over their audio with units articulating their thoughts into the languages and dialects that were used during the time of each campaign. Hearing Middle English, Medieval Latin, and other languages is delightful and highlights the time and effort the developers have spent into creating immersive and believable worlds.
The developers had the almost unfathomable challenge of creating a game where the core gameplay is the same for each civilization but, at the same time, interweaving their unique historical traits into the game. Both Ensemble and, recently, Hidden Paths have overcome this hurdle and they have created a game where fundamentals can be learnt quickly but attaining mastery could take weeks or months. Initially each of the civilizations play similarly, but by the Imperial Age there will be lots of unique flourishes that add depth to the gameplay.
Even though RTS games are constantly evolving, the base-building RTS sub-genre has more or less died out, meaning many of the gameplay mechanics that are unique to this sub-genre are somewhat immune to ageing as badly. There are a few niggles scattered throughout the game that wouldn’t be experienced in modern RTS titles, but perhaps they are part of the charm.
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