Age_of_Empires_II_-_The_Age_of_Kings_CoverartIn 1999, Ensemble Studios made a game that changed the world.

Trivially, every game changes the world. Even a game programmed and left unreleased in a military bunker changes the world, insofar as there is now less free energy to make more games. But Age of Empires II did more than accelerate the universe’s incoming heat death. It gave us cause to regret it.

You don’t hear much about real-time strategy any more. I experienced the history of the genre in reverse, starting from AoE2 and working backwards through all the classics. It was like being a gaming Benjamin Button. Everything just getting crappier and crappier. Starcraft only lets you select 12 units at a time. Total Annihilation has craptastic pathfinding. Age of Empires I has a 50 unit limit and no production queuing. Warcraft II only lets you select 9 units at a time. Command and Conquer has clunky controls and rat-fecal AI. Warcraft I only lets you select 4 units at a time. Dune II only lets you select ONE unit at a time. It felt like the joke where a Jewish kid asks for five dollars, and his dad goes “Four dollars? What the hell do you want three dollars for?”

Curiously, I don’t experience the reverse experience when I play games made after Age of Empires II. There’s no sense of “wow, this is much better”. I suspect Age of Empires II was about as good as the genre ever got.

The game’s tons of fun. It takes the first Age of Empires’ “Warcraft but now you can pretend to mum and dad you’re learning about history” hook and takes it into the middle ages. Can Frankish paladins overcome Persian war elephants? Are Mongolian cavalry archers a match for Turkish artillery? Will your prepubescent opponent question your sexual orientation and your mother’s virtue? Learn these answers and more.

As a new player, your first instinct will be to haul ass to the single-player mode. General surgeon’s warning: AoE2’s singleplayer is slow, boring, repetitive, and teaches you bad habits. Spent as little time there as possible.

Play multiplayer instead. This game’s multiplayer is great, and at a certain skill level, transcends great and becomes godlike. There’s so much artistry, so much finesse, the axle of a 1vs1 turning on such pivots as a forward tower losing 10hp to an attacking villager, or someone having a position that’s slightly downhill. The game’s surprisingly almost balanced between civilisations and unit types, and various fan mods and patches scratch the word “almost” away from that description. 1vs1s are like a fencing match, full of lightning-fast action and counteraction. 4vs4s change the dynamic to something huge and Game of Thrones-esque. It almost feels like a totally different game.

But let’s be honest, these games are dark triad simulators.

Age of Empires II puts you in control of many putative human lives, but not in a way where they emotionally effect you. They’re so far away on the screen that your brain just registers them as “game pieces”. There’s no “grieving widow” meter in this game. Everyone’s just kind of cannon fodder. How careful you are in sacrificing men depends entirely on how much food, gold, and wood you have to make new ones.

In Grand Theft Auto, human beings behave like human beings. Even a primitive game like Doom puts you up close and personal to the monsters, so you can see them react in pain. But real time strategy games seem like how a sociopath views the world. I know I lasted about a week on my first Age of Empires II forum before I stopped calling my soldiers “men” and started calling them “units” like everyone else.

Potentially disturbing insights into your psych aside, Age of Empires II is an aesthetically nice game. Starcraft and Total Annihilation are set in dismal hellscapes. Age of Empires II takes place in landscapes as pretty as a travel brochure. Everything has a nice heft and sense of scale – castles tower above the landscape, galleons seem appropriately big. The game is visceral enough to break through the sociopath filter every now and then, although not always intentionally. You can control sheep, and send them on long journeys across the map. Demonic possession? And slain bodies swiftly decay into skeletons – often while other soldiers are still fighting around them. Disturbing, as if everyone is caught in a time-lapse vortex.

These days I see a bored programmer going “who gives a fuck, nobody will care about that” and punching out for the day. But back then, these little flaws in the reality of the game were kind of creepy. They seemed like they must have been planned. That’s one of the things about being a kid. Everything seems planned.

I first played this game as a child, and although I commanded a kingdom, mentally I was probably more like those villagers, who trustingly obey orders even when you make them walk in circles, or into enemy fire. These guys don’t realise that sometimes the ship’s captain is an idiot, or that sometimes the ship has a broken rudder.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that this game is pretty good.

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