IGN Review of Age of Empires: Age of Kings
Innovation has been the key to DS's success in the past year. Nintendo risked all by offering a cheaper, more innovative product, rather than embracing macho consumerism ala PSP. It is this innovation that sets DS products apart as well, making the "good" games less than appealing, and the "great" games legends. In true Nintendo fashion, when people think of the DS they will remember the first party greats. Games like Advance Wars, Mario Kart, and Animal Crossing come to mind as the pinnacle that all games hope to achieve. Every once in a while, however, an outsider is allowed into the hierarchy of gaming goodness. We've seen this with Tony Hawk DS, and we see it again now with Age of Empires: The Age of Kings.
Though coverage has been relatively strong so far, here's a quick synopsis of the game's design for anyone coming late to the party. The Age of Empires series has been one of the most innovative real-time strategy games for PC in the last decade or so. The game's design follows a progressive timeline, allowing players to work from the feudal ages, through the emergence of siege technology and gun powder, into the final age of medieval warfare. This is a speed game, where getting from age to age is the primary goal, as the need for technological progression is top priority in battle.
Though it could have been possible to create an RTS reminiscent of the classic PC version, which gamers have already fallen in love with, Majesco decided to opt for a new direction on DS. For that reason, Age of Empires DS is a turn-based strategy game. Seems like a decent move, until details of the system's history come to mind. So far, there have been two true turn-based strategy games for DS. The first is Advance Wars, commonly known as one of the greatest strategy games of all time. The second, Battles of Prince of Persia, is a game that was anything but legendary. It takes guts to try and dethrone the Big N's top contender, especially when it is the first time changing a classic series into a new breed of entertainment. Nevertheless, Majesco has created what can easily be considered one of the best strategy game for DS, a true accomplishment.
So what makes a game like Age of Empires so appealing on the DS? Age of Empires managed to take a solid series, bring every important aspect of that series onto a new medium, and retain the magic, while changing the game. Majesco must have been taking notes during Nintendo's latest press conferences, because the attitudes of DS come through in a huge way in Age of Empires. Along with the five civilizations, Age of Kings includes 40 units, 15 buildings, and over 60 technologies spanning all four ages. The idea here wasn't to port the original inspiration (Age of Empires II: Age of Kings for PC), but to take that world, and bring it to DS in the most coherent way possible. The success of that ideal is the reason Age of Kings sits among the greats of the system.
Age of Kings' gameplay is bested only by Advance Wars DS, a true testament to the game's achievements. Since the conversion was made from RTS to turn-based, a whole new design had to be created. Balance is a key issue in strategy games and Majesco nailed it. Every unit can move once a turn, whether that is building, fighting, moving, or using powers (heroes). Every building takes one turn to create and every technology takes a single day as well. The way of balancing this economy-based game was simple, but precise. Technology can only be researched if the correct buildings are made, and rather than researching them at the building they originate, everything is handled from one main "research" screen. Only one technological upgrade can be made each turn, also a new addition to the design. This takes away from the speed aspect of the game (obviously), though it adds depth since now players have to use more strategy in their decisions. Better players could be totally destroyed by faster players in the PC game. On DS, it is all about how you evolve, not the speed in which you click.
Battle is much simpler for DS, though it gets the job done by keeping the balance of the original Age of Empires franchise as well. Every unit is strong and weak against others and it is the mastering of units that will ultimately decide the fate or your armies. The DS version offers a bit of help by showing if characters are especially good on certain terrain (allowing for special moves), or their strength against buildings and siege equipment. Some players will no doubt wish these hints weren't given so easily, though, since all the info is shown on the top screen. An attempt to research into the characters before moving them is still necessary. The amount of diversity between units is what really puts Age of Empires on the map. As mentioned, if certain armies are on a preferred type of terrain, they can initiate a special move for that attack. In short, if your adversary shouts "Don't Anakin
I have the high ground," it's most likely a good idea to listen to him. The fact that there is such diversity within the units, and the amount of units ranging over 40, makes for an incredibly deep variety of strategies.
This attentive nature towards the magic of Age of Empires is carried throughout the entirety of the game, and it really makes for one hell of a package. Since the maps are smaller than the PC versions, armies run in packs (like the Advance Wars setup), so losing half health on a unit is essentially the same as losing half of a company of soldiers. To keep the scale right, the town structure has been made more compact. All buildings, aside from mines and mills, have to be constructed adjacent to the town center, which allows two things. First of all, it keeps the towns small in land space, which gives the entire game more of a scaled feel. Towns won't often branch from one side of the map to the other, unless multiple town centers are built. Secondly, the branching structure of the town makes the town center the most protected building in the game. This makes "rush" tactics very difficult, which helps new players from getting totally destroyed in the beginning turns. However, if a new town center is built by the opposing army in its place, every building that it touches will become property of the new army. There is no portable strategy game that does a better job of forcing strong economy, solid town design, and serious tactics: An unparalleled achievement.
While Age of Empires is an amazingly strong game, it does have a few flaws that are very important to note. The actual battling in Age of Empires is very annoying, showing the two armies colliding on the top screen. Since the DS isn't a primarily 3D system, these models are quite low poly. The game also suffers from the same battle audio problems as Prince of Persia. Every time characters attack, they shout. Battle happens so fast, however, that it turns into a total blur of worthless audio. The sound effects should have been removed, or at least scaled down, since most players will force themselves to turn off the battles altogether to preserve their sanity. For those of you that are strategy buffs, this isn't a huge problem. The graphical presentation is merely a visual aid, not a necessity for a truly balanced game. Chess doesn't have animated battle sequences, but it also doesn't rank high in the "graphical" department either. Thus is the case with the battle screens. Another change from the main design is the fact that armies will be a lot smaller. While we mentioned that scale was retained, nothing helps to make Age of Empires DS feel as huge and epic as the PC version. Battles feel like skirmishes and nothing will change that. Age of Empires won't fill the void of the larger games; it is simply a difference experience. The goal was to give a new way to play the franchise, and as far as that goal is concerned, it was a job well done. Some die-hards of the series won't be able to get past the new feel, however, while the mainstream may be more comfortable than ever before.
For those who can get over the shortcomings, however, Age of Empires offers a ton of entertainment potential. The team went to endless lengths to make the game friendly to DS, but still hold the feeling of the PC games as much as possible. Players that use D-Pad rather than stylus will be happy to know that parts of the HUD can actually be turned off, since they are primarily touch-focused, removing the clutter. At the same time, stylus players will feel right at home with the much quicker control. The overall presentation is great and the campaign offers a ton of gameplay. Players can also set up their own skirmishes on any unlocked map, either with up to four human players (multiple copies needed), hot seat play (only one DS needed), or with computer adversaries. The more games played, the more points earned, which can be used to unlock new units and maps. The only hope we have for the next version in regards to gameplay modes would be Nintendo WiFi support or a map editor. It would be great to form guilds, share maps, and play friends online.
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