Age of Empires

Your Minoan advisor says: “Learn well, young king, for these are dangerous times. The blood cry of battle may call to you, siren-like, across the years, but you must guide and govern your people with wisdom befit of this age of empires.” “Yeah? Well sod that, I’m off with a kickin’ army of catapults, battle elephants and war ships to teach those son-of-a-Horus Egyptians that houses have vertical walls. You can stay here and develop irrigation, ‘til the cows come home. As soon as you’ve invented farming, that is,” you spit back. Peaceniks taste cold steel
You see, Age of Empires is like that – it’ll have you nurturing embryonic civilizations, dashing breakneck through scientific development, and then use any inventions to spread peaceful messages of universal love. Either that, or you’ll march straight in on a tide of chariots and introduce rival empires to the wondrous invention of tempered steel. Age of Empires is a heady brew of two strategy favourites: Civilization II, with its almost fanatical approach to discovering techno- and sociological advances and applying them to your society; and real-time battle games, such as StarCraft. Taking up the reigns, as soon as you’ve built a stable, of one of 12 fledgling empires – from Egyptian and Greek, to bottom-of-the-league Choson – you have to guide it through a multitude of campaigns, including battles, land grabs, monument building, and city building. Graphically, it can be breathtaking. Using an isometric 3D view, your villagers wander around the map, hunting game, fishing, building huts and ploughing farms – all in such detail that sometimes it’s all you can do not to simply give the mouse a rest, sit back and take in this mini-world. The buildings are immaculately modelled, and whales even surface, spouting water over your fishing fleet – all lending Age of Empires a feeling of life. And it’s life you’ll need to take, too. By building different structures, you can research more sinister developments: catapults, archers and armour. Next, build an army and trundle off into battle with a rival empire, marvelling at how attention to detail extends even to battle scenes. The catapults recoil after ejecting their load of rock-balls, which sail in a graceful arc before smashing into the defender’s city walls. The graphics are more than matched by the music – a melody of tribal drums, panpipe music and full-on orchestra that adds much to the atmosphere. There’s also a lot of game here. Not only are the single-player campaigns large, but there’s a very comprehensive map editor so you can roll your own. Also, up to eight players – Mac only, you can’t play against the evil Wintel empire – can battle it out over a TCP/IP or LAN network. However, it isn’t all good news – and both StarCraft and Civilization II still rule the roost. While the graphics are hot, there’s little variation, keeping it strictly to grass plains and sandy deserts. Also, the video cut-scenes are poor quality, and there’s a bunch of annoying things, such as the inability to queue the development of warriors, for example, meaning you have to build one, then wait, then manually build the next, and so on. But perhaps the biggest, single failing is that you are limited to just 50 units – leading to some decidedly unepic battles.

OUR VERDICT

Age of Empires is a riot, and while you may end up a bit frustrated over some of its shortcomings, this really is a game for those that don’t just want a ten-minute gaming fix. You can spend hours on one campaign. It’s the most fun I’ve had with catapults since I was a boy.

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