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.