Monday Spotlight - Age of Empires


I’ve never been one for PC gaming. I love the convenience of an ever-ready console, the comfort of my sofa and the glow of my oversized HD TV. Sitting at my desk and staring at a significantly smaller screen just doesn’t appeal, and feels far too much like work. I appreciate the performance advantages of a PC, but the thought of modding and constantly upgrading a gaming rig brings me out in a cold sweat. If my PC starts playing up, I give it a swift kick and threaten it with a screwdriver. This is about as technical as I’m willing to get.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I have played precious few PC games. I have enjoyed a couple of city-building sims, such as Sierra’s Pharaoh, and Final Fantasy XI succeeded in ruining my life for two solid months. Being a huge FF fan at the time, I couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on a numerical instalment, so we made the necessary upgrades to our home PC and I wasted an entire autumn decorating my abode and loitering with everyone else, waiting for a party to turn up with a white mage.

However, there is one game that I have played on probably every PC that I or my family have owned over the last decade+: Age of Empires. A historical, real-time strategy game developed by Ensemble Studios, Age of Empires puts you in control of one of a handful of civilizations, guiding them through the Stone, Tool, Bronze and Iron ages.

Starting from humble beginnings, you send your villagers out in search of resources to fund your growth from a settlement of hut dwelling hunter-gatherers to the seat of all-conquering warriors. Units range from primitive axe men to heavy cavalry, with a range of different buildings required for producing each, as well as offering enhancements that will speed up your progress. The original game offered twelve cultures, spread across four unique styles: Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian and Asian. This roster was later bolstered by the Rise of Rome expansion pack, which felt almost like a whole new game, as well as other, unofficial add-on packs.

Age of Empires offered a deep single player campaign, where objectives included military conquest, architectural achievements and proceeding to a more advanced age. A random map generator provided yet more value, as did a map editor and Scenario Builder, where you could design an entire campaign along the lines of the single player story. Online and network play was also on offer, though back in the late nineties, in the days of noisy dial-up, lag and disconnection issues made it more trouble than it was worth. Age of Empires was always a solitary experience for me, and the first time I attempted a network game I was slaughtered by overly aggressive competitors, who valued military might over symmetrical housing and perfectly spaced porticoes.

With their debut title, Ensemble Studio mixed the city building and historical trappings of Civilization with more accessible strategy games such as Command & Conquer and Warcraft. AOE stood out in a market saturated by goblins and warlocks and attracted a substantial following. The reviews were solid and it gained steam as the year progressed, even garnering a couple of GOTY awards along the way.

The Conquerors expansion added the Aztec and Mayan civilizations to Age of Empires 2

With the success of the original, Ensemble Studios quickly got to work on a sequel. Released only a year later, in 1998, AOE2 marked a huge visual improvement and was far more impressive in scale, allowing for more units – a maximum of 200, as opposed to 50 previously - and bigger and more detailed cities. Covering a period of 1000 years (Dark, Feudal, Middle and Imperial Ages), it initially offered 13 civilizations, ranging from Mongols to Vikings. Subsequent expansions opened up more, including those of South America, whose units and buildings were very different to the European and Asian cultures. This allowed for fantasy smackdowns between Teutons and Aztecs, and other showdowns so ridiculous that they would be perfect fodder for a film industry that currently thinks that movies like Cowboys and Aliens are a good idea.

AOE2 also saw a move to consoles, though playing it on the PS2 did not compare favourably to the PC experience. Later ports aside, the sequel was greeted was unanimously positive reviews. It shifted two million copies within three months of release and won countless awards, ensuring the continuation of the series. It also marked the end of my relationship with the series, as subsequent entries and spin-offs didn’t grab my attention as the first two had. Also, my PC struggled to run AOE2, constantly crashing or freezing-up. Future entries may have caused it to implode.

A spin-off series first appeared between parts 2 and 3, which began with Age of Mythologies. It mixed the historical elements of the main games with myths and legends, and this series would go on to appear on numerous other platforms. Age of Empires 3 came along in 2005, complete with all the thrills we had come to expect of the series, inching ever closer toward modern day conflicts. Covering historical periods and cultures from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, it also benefited from a range of expansion packs and was warmly received by critics, who praised both its graphics and gameplay.

Age of Empires Online

In 2008, after the release of Halo Wars, it was announced that Ensemble Studios would close. It was finally shuttered in January 2009, with many of its key figures going on to establish new studios. However, the unfortunate demise of Ensemble did not spell the end of the AOE series, as the free-to-play Age of Empires Online was successfully launched earlier this month. I have yet to download it, for fear of becoming addicted to a huge time-sinker at the start of what is shaping up to be the busiest three months in the history of modern gaming.

My relationship with the series ended with the AOE 2: The Conquerors expansion pack, but my fondest memories of the series all come from the original game. I was first drawn to it by my love of ancient history - an interest that took root as a child and culminated in my studying history at university. To this day, if you find me with my head in a book it will almost certainly be a history one, or possibly a video game strategy guide!  Asked to name my favourite books, I would list the likes of the Iliad, The Campaigns of Alexander or Herodotus’ Histories and would struggle to recall the last novel I read, with the exception of my brother’s forthcoming debut.

The opportunity to recreate some of the most famous battles of antiquity with the original map editor was too much to resist. I poured hours into the Scenario Builder, recreating the greatest accomplishments of Alexander the Great, who has long been my favourite historical figure.  I gradually lost interest as the series moved further away from my preferred era and I started to play games exclusively on home consoles.

Despite my disinterest in PC gaming, I count Age of Empires as one of my favourite games of all time. I will still play it on occasion, usually when I’m supposed to be doing something else on the computer. Owls hooting and villagers spouting gibberish are still reassuringly familiar sounds, and the debilitating slowdown which always kicked-in at the population limit is now thankfully no more than a frustrating memory. Now that’s the kind of progress any civilization would be proud of.

Comments

  1. My first apartment in Mexico, I rolled the Karaoke Neighbor scenario. This batshit crazy prostitute in the next apartment would get up some mornings and start wailing away to bad 90s dance hits. It's a windows open country. She would have been oppressively loud in a place with closed windows and air conditioners running.

    But I'd just picked up a copy of Age of Empires 3, which has truly spectacular audio! The cannons in particular are very impressive. It's rare that anyone gets the thundercrack of artillery that right. So I dragged my 5.1 speaker set out of the bag and pushed the subwoofer up against our shared wall and every time she started singing I would turn our entire building into the Revolutionary War. The windows would shake and my cats would hide under the sink. It was awesome. After a few exchanges she got the message and karaoke mornings ended.

    On a more pedestrian subject, I gotta say, the differences between pc and console gaming, in terms of the ergonomics and screens and all that... are now so similar that I'm not sure there's even a difference anymore. It's actually easier to plug a 360 controller into the pc than it is the 360 itself, because the computer doesn't discriminate against "player 2" usb ports. (You should see the 360 USB civil war that breaks out anytime I try to plug in my Rock Band stuff!) Every television and computer monitor now has hookups for 17 different input formats, and every computer graphics card I've bought in the last two years has had dvi/hdmi out. I'm currently running both consoles and this rig off the same 32" LG TV, all of them on hdmi. It's not any harder or easier to have any of the consoles or pc on any screen in the house at this point, and there's nothing compelling you to be at any specific distance when we're well into the second decade of wireless mice, controllers, and keyboards.

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  2. You can't beat a story that involves a prostitute AND karaoke. Age of Empires was the icing on the cake.

    Fair point on the PC. I think I still (wrongly) view PC gaming as a hobby played-out 18inches from a relatively small screen, by people who enjoy tinkering with their rig. Clearly this is an outdated view, but I just dont ever see myself returning to PC gaming. I just love my consoles too much.

    Cheers

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