Friday, March 5, 2004

Age of Empires: Gold Edition (PC)




Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Polished graphics and sound, great replay value, very fun
Cons: AI could use a little work

Introduction

In Microsoft's Age of Empires (developed by Ensamble Studios), you are charged with the daunting task of building your own empire. This requires a balance of many factors, and with many things to be done you will find yourself needing to do a bit of micro management. If you have no patience for such things, you should probably pick a different genre..

Age of Empires is a game that you can jump right in to. You won't have to spend countless hours trying to figure out, as it is very simple and easy to understand. Beyond that, the game can be as easy or as hard as you make it. You can set the difficulty level, as well as set how many opponents you will face for a given map.

The gold edition is composed of the original Age of Empires, as well as the Rise of Rome expansion pack, which adds additional scenarios and civilizations, as well as a few extra units. There are also a whole bunch of extra cheat codes and novelty codes that are added with the expansion pack.

Gameplay

Age of Empires is an above average, but very standard real time strategy game. You gather various resources, build some buildings, and proceed to kick the collective butts of some ancient civilizations. It is not just a game of butt kicking though, there are many different victory conditions that can be set, and fulfilling any of them will result in victory. You can collect all the artifacts on the map and keep them for 2000 years. You could also build a wonder and keep it from being destroyed for 2000 years.

The whole game is your standard point and click real time strategy game. You start out with a couple of villagers, and must ultimately rule the world. First thing to do is start collecting resources. Food, wood, stone and gold are the four resources you will have to collect. Build various buildings to make an army, and research numerous upgrades on your way to world domination.

There are four separate campaigns included, as well as random maps for single player and multiplayer games. On top of that, there is a wonderful campaign editor and scenario builder included, that allows you to create your own custom scenarios. If you tire of that, you can even go so far as to edit the AI and personality files and create computer players that act how you want and do what you want.

Age of Empires is easy to learn as well. Even if you don't go through the easy to use tutorial that is included, you will have no problem understanding how the game works. I guess it is just how it was all laid out, but it works really well. My little brothers were both under 10 years old when I first got this game, and they love it to death.

Stone Age

You start out in the stone age. Your building and unit selections are rather limited here, so get moving and try to advance to the bronze age as quickly as possible. Build up a swarm of villagers, and have them start gathering as many resources as possible. It costs 500 food to advance to the tool age, plus however much you have to spend to create villagers (50 each). Keeping this in mind, gathering food should probably be your number one priority.

A close second would be to gather wood. You need wood for nearly every building that you can make during the course of the game. It is also used for ships that you must build at the dock. Stone is not very important during the stone age, and neither is gold. In fact, I would suggest not gathering any at all. If you wait until later, you can research stone mining and gold mining, and get more resources out of the same mines.

A house is the first building you should construct. Your town center only allows you to have a maximum of four units, and you start out with three. Each house you build increases your population limit by four more, up to the maximum of 50 (or whatever you changed it to in the map settings).

A granary should also be built right away, near some berry bushes. Villagers who collect berries will place them in a granary if it is closer than your town center, so use this to your advantage. Later on when you build farms, the harvest also goes into the granary. The same thing holds true for storage pits, which should be built where there is wood, stone, or gold near.

A barracks is the first military building you can construct, and should be done so right away. You will only be able to produce basic clubmen here for now, but they will provide helpful if you get rushed early on. The final building of note would be the dock. This should certainly be built right away, especially if your map contains a lot of water.

Fishing boats are a very good source of food, especially early on. Scout ships, which can later be upgraded to war galleys and beyond, are also very important to have on maps with lots of water. If you are on a small island map, for example, control of the seas is crucial to winning the game, so start building ships as soon as possible.

Tool Age

After you build a couple different buildings from the stone age, you can advance to the tool age. In the tool age, you get to build some better military units. As long as you have a barracks already, you can now build a stable and an archery range.

The stable allows you to now produce scouts. While they are slightly lacking in the attack and defense departments, they have a huge line of sight, and they ride horses. This makes for some fast exploration, which will be very helpful in determining where resources and enemies are at. Archers are obviously helpful in the event of an attack, and I suggest you always leave some archers standing around your town for just that reason.

You can also build a market now, and after it is completed you can start building farms. A market is very important for a number of other reasons too. Most importantly are the things that can be researched at a market. Increased wood cutting, gold mining, and stone mining.

Other things to research become available in the tool age as well. At your granary, you can research stone walls and watch towers. I suggest building a couple watch towers near your starting location, especially near the dock if you have water near. This will help prevent enemy ships from destroying your town from afar. At the storage pits, there are weapon and armor upgrades available as well. I suggest getting these for the type of units you use the most (infantry, cavalry, archer) as soon as possible. Save the least used units upgrades for sometime when you have extra resources to burn.

Bronze Age

Finally, costing 800 food and 300 wood, you reach the bronze age. Here you have a lot more research, and you finally get some good military units. You can now build chariots and chariot archers, as well as cavalry and cavalry archers. Which you choose should depend on what resources you have available, as the chariots require wood and the cavalry require gold instead.

You can also research additional weapons and armor upgrades, turn your watch tower into a sentry tower, upgrade your scout ships and fishing boats, and a ton of other pieces of research. The chariots and chariot archers mentioned above require the wheel to be researched at the market place, but the wheel is so useful for other things as well.. it makes your villagers move 30% faster.

This means increased productivity, as they can get to and from resources at a much faster rate. They can also run away if they get attacked, which can save you time and resources replacing them. This makes the wheel one of the most valuable technologies to research.

New buildings for the bronze age include temples, siege workshops, government center, and the academy. Siege workshops allow you to build stone throwers and ballistae, while academies let you produce hoplites. Hoplites are slow, but very heavily armored infantry units. They have awesome attack power as well, due to the fact that they carry huge lances. The government center lets you research lots of new things, which will increase the academy unit's speed, building hit points, cavalry hit points, etc.

The temple is one of the best buildings, and one of the most expensive to use. It allows you to produce priests, who can heal your damaged units, as well as attempt to convert enemy units. Priests cost gold, as do all priest upgrades that you can research. The upgrades are very handy, doubling the priest's health, increasing his conversion range, making him walk faster.. but if you plan to research them all, you had best have a hefty supply of gold ready.

The iron age is the final age that can be reached, and what all is available depends on what civilization you are playing. This is the age where they become the most diverse. Priests can be researched even further in the iron age, and be allowed to convert enemy priests and buildings. Other units can be upgraded further as well.. stone throwers upgraded to catapults, hoplites to legions and centurions, etc. Ultimate unit upgrades are very expensive though, and often not worth it.

Civilizations & AI

There are 16 different civilizations to play in Age of Empires Gold. Assyria, Babylonia, Choson, Greek, Carthage, Hittite, Egypt, Minoan, Shang, Macedonia, Sumeria, Persia, Phoenecia, Yamato, Palmyra, and Rome.

Each civilization has different bonus besides what can be researched. Some are obviously more useful than others, and some are more varied than others. Yamato villagers are faster to begin with, while Shang villagers are cheaper to produce, and Phoenician villagers can carry more.

Other civilizations have military bonuses, like being able to produce the armored war elephants, or heavy horse archers. Experimenting with which civilizations have bonuses that fit your style of game play will greatly aid you in conquering the world.

Some civilizations also have a down side to this, like being able to produce an ultimate upgrade to their heavy cavalry, but not learning to make chariots because of it. This means that if they ran out of gold, they couldn't make any chariots to pick up the slack (as they require wood instead), and would have to rely on lower units for a military.

The artificial intelligence in Age of Empires Gold is average, and it certainly could have used a little more work. You occasionally see characters bump into each other, then they pause for a few seconds while they figure out how to take a step to the side. Or, if you have three or four villagers collecting a resource from the same exact spot, you may experience some of them doing a little dance like thing, glitching back and forth as they stand there unable to move. This happens when they are trying to get to the resources, but can't manage it. Other times, a character will take the long way around a forest to get to his destination. While it don't happen all of the time, it does happen often enough that you will notice it.

Graphics & Sound

Age of Empires Gold features some pretty polished graphics. Though the game is growing old, you couldn't tell it from looking at it. Buildings are drawn wonderfully, with multiple tile sets for the different civilizations. Everything is full of detail, and generally looks great. Characters are well detailed too, you can see everything from the pile of fish a villager may be hauling back, to the archer firing his arrow from his mount on top of the war elephant.

The maps are textured well, and have realistic features. Grass, desert, oceans and rivers cover the maps. From hills to valleys, cliffs to forests, everything is diverse enough to add to the realism. Character animations are nice looking also. You see the villager chop down the tree, then see him chop the logs up. A hunter will draw his bow, fire at the prey, and after it's dead he will go kneel over it and proceed to hack it up. All of the character animations are this detailed.

You get your choice of resolutions, up to 1024x768. I feel that 800x600 is perfect though, because when I use the higher resolution everything is too small. I use 1024x768 on my desktop, but switch to play Age of Empires to the lower one. The nice top down view lets you see everything that's going on even at a lower resolution, so it's not really a sacrifice.

Background music is great, with a nice mix of tribal sounding tracks. Most of the tracks are just small samples played in a constant loop, but they are fluid and still sound good. Sound effects are plentiful, and very fitting for their situations. When you select a unit, he acknowledges with a word or phrase in an ancient-sound language, and while you can't understand it, it adds to the overall feel of the game.

Axes sound like they are really chopping down trees, spears splash into the water while fishing, bows twang as an arrow is released.. the same polish that is on the graphics is present on the sound effects as well. Swords clang against shields, horses trot and gallop as they move across the map, dying characters scream in agony. Music changes during battle to a more fast paced tune, ever still increasing the mood.

System Requirements

A 90 MHz Pentium processor, 16 MB of RAM, and 30 MB of hard drive space will suffice to play this game. Windows 95 or Windows NT (with service pack 3) wilol do for an operating system. Other requirements include a 256 color SVGA monitor, 1 MB of VRAM, a 2x CD-ROM, a sound card, mouse, keyboard, and speakers. A 14.4k modem is the bare minimum for multiplayer games, though I would not attempt to play with anything less than 56k.

I tested Age of Empires Gold on an AMD Athlon XP 2200 with 512 MB of DDR RAM, and 200 GB of hard drive space. I have a 48x CD-ROM, a CMI 5.1 channel sound card, and a GeForce 4 MX 440 graphics card with 64 MB of DDR VRAM. DirectX 9.0b is installed on my computer, along with Windows 98 SE. My 56k modem only gets 26.4k speeds due to some horrible phone lines in the area, but it was sufficient to connect and play, with only a little lag.

Extras & Cheats

There are many cheat codes for Age of Empires, and the addition of Rise of Rome adds others. Some of them are not exactly cheat codes, but more of easter eggs. For example, hitting enter and typing "KINGARTHUR" will turn all of the birds flying around into dragons. Cosmetic change only, but still neat.

Most of the cheat codes are neat like that. "POW!" gives you a baby on a tricycle, who goes around and shoots enemies with a gun. "BIGDADDY" gives you a Camaro that can shoot, or "E=MC2 TROOPER" gives you a shiny little nuke trooper. "ICBM" lets you fire projectiles across the whole of the map. "CONVERT THIS!" gives you a nifty little priest who calls down lightning strikes upon your foes.

The regular cheat codes are "PEPPERONI PIZZA" to get 1000 food, "WOODSTOCK" for 1000 wood, "QUARRY" for 1000 stone, and "COINAGE" for 1000 gold. Another nice code.. ok, maybe not so nice, is "HARIKARI", the suicide code.

Conclusion

Age of Empires Gold is a great game, and any real time strategy enthusiast would certainly enjoy it. If you only own one real time strategy game, make it this one if you can find it for a reasonable price (I got my copy for $9.96 at Wal-Mart). If not, just get Age of Empires II: Age of Kings instead.

With four different campaigns, a nice multiplayer game, great random maps, there is a lot of variety to keep you playing for a long time. Add to that, the fact that each of the 16 civilizations plays differently, and you end up with a lot of replay value. Count in the polished graphics and sound effects, low system requirements, low cost, and you have a game that can't help but be recommended.

There is also a version of this game for the Pocket PC. If you like Age of Empires Gold, might also like Majesty Gold, Seven Kingdoms, Age of Mythology, Homeworld, or Populous.

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