Friday, July 27, 2007

Age of Empires: The Age of Kings review

Two reviews in one week? It's a mad house! A MAAAAAAD HOUSE!!!!

Developer: Backbone Entertainment
Publisher: Majesco
Release Date: February 14, 2006 (North America)
ESRB Rating: E10+ for "Everyone ages 10 and up"
ESRB Notes: Mild Violence

Age of Empires has long been a big name in the genre of Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games. But, when making the move to the Nintendo DS, it was changed from an RTS to a turn-based strategy game, along the lines of Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics. Did the move go off without a hitch? Read on to find out.

The most important factor of any game (Especially turn-based strategy games) is the gameplay, so where better to start? As suggested by the name of the game's genre, gameplay is divided up into turns. Each turn you may move your units once and attack once, in that order. There's no attacking and running here. Some units have special abilities that can be used instead of attacks. For example, Monks may attempt to convert a nearby enemy unit and villagers can build or repair your structures.

In addition to your standard units, you also have "Hero" units. These characters are based on real people from history, such as Joan of Ark and Genghis Khan. Heroes boast much higher attack power and defense than most other units, and they carry special abilities to boot! For example, Joan of Ark can use Inspiration to heal the heath of herself and all adjacent units by 20 (Total health for any unit is 100, so that's a pretty good amount). However, like all other units, Heroes can still only move and attack/use an ability once a turn each, which helps to keep them from being too powerful. Also, if your Hero dies, you lose the battle immediately.

Buildings may also perform certain tasks, such as producing units. Farms and mines give you food and gold (Respectively), which can be used to construct more buildings or create more units. You also get a small amount of money and food each day from your respective nation, just in case your supplies run too low to build a farm or mine (Which can happen, ironically). This government allowance isn't very much, though, so you'll always need a few farms and mines of your own.

When playing, one very important factor to take into account is the terrain. Some types of terrain can limit movement (Such as forests and mountains), some increase or decrease the scope of ranged attacks (Mountains and hills increase range, while forests decrease it), some enhance sight (Mountains and hills), some are impassable by certain units (Cavalry units cannot pass swamps), and one type of terrain (Water) is impassable to all units. Some types of units, such as those riding horses and Axe Throwers, are strengthened by the terrain they are standing on (Horses are strengthened by flat ground, while Axe Throwers perform better in forests).

Also, in some missions, you will have to deal with "Fog of war", which limits how much of the terrain can be seen at once. When starting a level concealed in the Fog of war, you will most likely only be able to see where your units are. Sometimes a target (Such as a town) will be illuminated, so you know where it is you have to go. Also, if you've been to a location and then left, a thin fog will fall over the area your unit can no longer see. You can still make out the terrain, but all enemy units and buildings withing the thin fog become invisible to you. This can lead to some pretty tense moments! Not knowing where you enemy lies puts you at a great disadvantage, making levels with Fog of war very difficult and stressful.

So then, enough about the mechanics of the game! Now on to the important part: How does it play? All of the above mentioned aspects mesh together beautifully to create a surprisingly deep experience. Age of Empires: The Age of Kings is a real treat to play, but it is somewhat slow-paced. Not for those wanting fast and furious fights. But, for a turn-based strategy game, a snail's pace is merely par for the course.

When the Nintendo DS touchscreen was first revealed, many people thought "Wow! This is perfect for a turn-based strategy game!". That was in theory. But, how do the controls fare in practice? Sadly, the touch recognition is somewhat sloppy here. For example, I'll tap a square in the game, and another square, three tiles away, will be selected. This doesn't happen every time, but it is a common occurrence. For the most part, I suggest sticking to the good ol' D-pad and buttons. Not only are they more accurate than the stylus, but they're also much quicker (Even compared to the times when the stylus functions properly). So, ignoring the sloppy stylus interaction, the controls in this game are pretty solid. It's just a pity that the superior button controls make it so this game could have been done on just any old system.

Of course, important to any Age of Empires game is the story. Well, in this one, there's five of them! Each campaign follows the exploits of the Heroes starring in them, following history nearly to the letter. The battles are tied in very well to the story, giving a seamless experience to the player (That is, unless you're a history major...).

And how does it look, you may ask? Well, The Age of Kings isn't exactly a supermodel in the graphics department. But, then again, few strategy games are! The isometric birds-eye view nearly always takes away most artistic freedom, due to the units being so small. However, while in battle, the fights are displayed with beautiful 3D characters (Pictured below).

For freedom!!

While the units look great in battle, a lot of them look pretty much the same on the map. Knights, Knights of the Round, Horse Archers and Scout Cavalries all look almost exactly the same. If I had a nickel for each time I mistook my ranged-attacking Horse Archer for a close-combat Knight, well, I'd sure have a nicer computer! It always pays to check your units carefully! I learned that the hard way... Now where's my nickel?!?!

The audio in The Age of Kings, like the graphics, isn't terrible, but it sure isn't fantastic. The sound effects do their job, I guess. Warriors yell as they charge on a group on enemies, and the swords smashing into each other sound pretty nice, but again, nothing too special. As for the music... Wait, music? I almost forgot it was there, it's so damn quiet! I'm not sure if there's a way to increase the music volume (I haven't checked), but even if there is, the factory default is far too low! Anyways, the music (When you can hear it) is pretty standard fare as well. There's a steady tune in the background while on the map. The music shuts off during battles, giving the fights a bit more of a dramatic feel. At the end of a skirmish, a victorious sound byte plays if you fared better than your opponent, and a slightly sadder tune if you do badly. As I've said before, nothing special, but not bad, either.

There is a multiplayer aspect to the game as well, but I have yet to try it out. One neat little thing I noticed while flipping through the booklet is that you can have a battle with up to three of your friends on the same DS! You merely pass it to the next player when you end your turn! There's also a level editor there, for custom fights. You can play multiplayer with more than one DS, but that also requires more than one copy of the game. No Single Card Download Play here. Looks impressive, though. But, since I haven't personally done a multiplayer session, I cannot rate this feature.

What's this game's lastability? Well, I've been playing for a few hours each day since Friday, and I'm still in the Tutorial stages! These battles take a really long time to finish. Granted, it is the last level in the campaign and I have lost a few times, but it still looks to be a pretty lengthy game. After the French, there's still the British, Mongol, Saracen and Japanese campaigns to deal with! I oughta be busy with this one for a good while...


Gameplay: 9.0/10

The sheer amount of factors present in this game is astonishing, especially considering it's all crammed onto a single game card! On the downside, though, it is pretty slow-paced, but it's still extremely fun.

Controls: 6.5/10

While the D-pad and buttons work very well for controlling this game, the sloppy nature of the stylus controls is very disappointing. Since buttons seem to be the best method of input, this game could really be done on any console.

Story: 8.0/10

Based on real history, Age of Empires: The Age of Kings features five factual, fleshed out storylines. There's minor discrepancies here and there, but overall, very close to the real thing.

Graphics: 7.5/10

The game may not be the most beautiful piece of software, but then again, it is a strategy game, a genre with some pretty low graphical standards. The battles are a real treat to watch, but the units on the map sometimes look too much alike.

Audio: 6.0/10

The sound effects do their job, and little more. Also, why the heck is the music so damn quiet?!

Lastability: 9.0/10

I've been playing for a while each day for a week now, and I'm still only in the tutorial stages! Past this, there are four more campaigns to tackle, and I'm nearly positive each one will be longer than the French Tutorial stages. I oughta be busy with this one for another few weeks!

OVERALL: 8.0/10

Age of Empires: The Age of Kings is a really great game. The amount of strategy involved is amazing, and it also looks to be a very long game to boot! However, the sound isn't too great, nor are the stylus controls. In the end, I definitely recommend buying this game, especially considering how cheap it is nowadays. Just don't go in expecting anything really fast-paced.

The Duck Has Spoken.

1 comment:

SteveDaWonder said...

I really enjoyed your Review. I'm going to pick it up as soon as possible.