Age of Empires II review

Written by Julian Schoffel on . Posted in Real Time Strategy

Age of Empires II game image

Most real-time strategy (RTS) games are modelled around sci-fi or fantasy themes but Ensemble Studios’ 1999 PC gaming classic, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, used an authentic historical backdrop and featured 13 different civilisations for players to control.

I recall that when I first looked at Age of Empires II nothing about it immediately jumped out and bit me on the arse. But the further I delved into the game the more I discovered just how much effort Ensemble Studios had put into it.

For starters the game featured a swag of intricately detailed units and structures. And unlike other RTS games of that era (i.e. Tiberian Sun), the units themselves were large and extremely well animated (somewhat reminiscent of Warcraft II or Starcraft). Another nice touch was the game’s mini-database of information which documented the history of the various civilisations on offer.

Age of Empires II included a special “William Wallace” tutorial campaign where players learnt the basic gameplay mechanics, along with the functions, strengths and weaknesses of various generic units and structures.

A history lesson, only not boring…

Age of Empires II allowed the player to control any of 13 different civilisations which included the Britons, Vikings, Turks, Franks, and Chinese. While many of the game’s units and structures were generic (i.e. Castles, Stables, Mining Camp, Barracks and so on), each civilisation had its own unique unit. These included everything from British Longbows to Persian War Elephants, and French Bombard Cannons. To make the game even more different for each civilisation, the designers also tweaked the resource costs of particular units and structures, along with the associated research and development tree.

Each civilisation had its own set of dialogue and to be honest the quality of voice acting ranged from good to horrible (the French accents sounded like something from a Monty Python flick). However the music and ambient sound-effects were uniformly excellent.

The single-player portion of the game encompassed five historical campaigns and a sort of ‘instant action’ random map mode. The campaigns themselves were only mildly engaging, and after playing through the tutorial, many gamers inevitably ploughed straight into the random maps.

No control issues here

The interface of Age of Empires II was controlled via the mouse and was simply a joy to use. Game control was very intuitive and when a unit or building was selected, a menu of possible actions popped up in the bottom left corner of the screen. Also, grouped units appeared as stacked tiles in the menu bar, making it easy to issue specific commands to a particular unit in the heat of battle by clicking on the relevant icon.

Souped up AI

The weak AI (artificial intelligence) of computer opponents in the first Age of Empires game had been widely criticised and Ensemble Studios put a lot of effort into addressing this for Age of Empires II. After playing the single-player campaigns and “random map” modes extensively I came to the conclusion that they succeeded and the game’s varying difficulty settings (ranging from ‘easy’ to ‘very hard’) provided ample challenge for all but the most gifted players.

At the highest difficulty level you could expect your computer opponents to advance through the ages with alarming speed and you’d soon find yourself on the receiving end of a heavy trebuchet-based assault. The path-finding and combative AI of player-controlled units was also first rate. Indeed one of the best facets of the game was the unit formations which players could use to group their forces protectively around weaker units or form tight offensive spearheads.

Old school multiplayer options

Age of Empires II featured the usual assortment of multiplayer options including support for modem, LAN, Internet and direct serial link connections. Multiplayer game modes included everything from deathmatch (where players started the game with a stack of resources and then slugged it out on the battlefield) to regicide (where you had to find and kill the enemy king). For random maps, victory conditions included goals like being the first to build a wonder or capture all the relics on a map, to conquest where you basically had to annihilate your opponent.

Review Summary
Score: 91%
Info: Age of Empires II was an incredibly addictive and compelling RTS game which certainly deserves PC gaming classic status. The game’s creators, Ensemble Studios, eventually disbanded although many of the original team members went on to found Robot Entertainment – I guess that explains why the Orcs Must Die! series is so damned good!
The Good: While Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings didn’t deviate from the traditional RTS formula of resource management and tactical combat, the whole package was just so well put together most gamers found themselves hooked from the word go.
The Bad: One of Age of Empires II’s only weaknesses (if it can be termed as such) was the lengthy playing time with even random maps taking upwards of three hours to complete!

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Julian Schoffel

From 1994 to 2007 Julian was a contributing editor for Australian PC User Magazine. He has also written for numerous publications which include Australian Personal Computer, PC PowerPlay, Hyper, Ralph, Megazone, The Disc, PlayNow, TechLife, The Sydney Morning Herald and IGN.

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