Age of Empires II Review

Age of Empires II - The Age of Kings (AOK) picks up where the original game left off.  Having mastered leading civilizations out of the Stone Age, players now face the challenges of surviving the Dark Ages and reaching the Age of Imperialism without being annihilated by rival civilizations.  These new eras bring new civilizations,  new units, and new challenges...

Those who are familiar with Age of Empires (AOE) will not find it difficult to jump right in and begin playing.  For those of you new to the AOE series, there's an excellent tutorial which teaches gameplay by placing you in charge of William Wallace's (of Braveheart fame) campaign against the British.  In a nutshell, AOK requires that you manage your empire's resources, research new technologies, build a thriving economy, all while smiting your foes (or avoiding being smitten by them).  Fun?  Ubetcha!  An intuitive interface makes empire management a breeze and there is always plenty of combat to keep things exciting. 

There's a lot new in AOK, and it's all good.  Let's start with the available civilizations.  There are thirteen of them in all and each with a unique look.  Buildings, unit voices, and even the look of the game's interface vary from civilization to civilization.  You'll find playing the different civilizations gives the game a slightly different feel each time.  Also, different civilizations have different bonuses based on their cultural strengths.  For example, the Vikings receive several ship building and combat bonuses.  Oh, and did I mention each civilization has a unique unit which it alone can build?  In spite of this variety, play is remarkably balanced.  No civilization has a decided advantage over the others.  

Another new feature is that units can now be placed into formations when sent into battle -- so now you can keep your archers in the rear while your cavalry leads the charge into battle.  

Several new features have been added to the interface which help manage the running of your empire.  The idle peasant button is a particularly nice addition.  A click on this button (or a press of the '.' key) immediately takes you to any peasant no longer assigned to a work task.  Slackers beware!  There is also a new technology tree viewer available to players.  A single click of the mouse brings the player to a screen which allows him/her to immediately see which advances are required before a particular unit becomes available.

The graphics are quite well-done.  The maps are colorful and varied and the different units are easily distinguishable from each other.  There is also a very nice new graphic touch in AOK.  Units which move behind an obstacle such as a building or forest now appear as a ghostly outline when obstructed from view.  You'll no longer lose track of idle units hidden from sight.  Unless you demand the latest in 3D accelerated graphics, you'll be quite pleased with the look of AOK.

As mentioned previously, many of the game's sounds vary from civilization to civilization.  This is a nice touch, but beyond this the game's sounds are pretty basic -- little sound bites are played when each unit or building is selected.  The game's background music is not bad as far as game music goes, but its eventual and inevitable repetitiveness will have you reaching for the volume control during longer gaming sessions.

The AI in AOK is quite good.  So good in fact that one almost wonders if it cheats.  The game's 'Easy' level will prove to be a challenge to most players and only the best of the best will be able to beat the game at the higher levels.  The game's scenarios are quite well done and make the player almost feel a part of the historic campaign being played.  I challenge you not to feel saddened when the British slay Joan of Arc after cutting their way through your honor guard!

In The End, This Game Hath Been Rated: 94%.  The game is a beauty to behold and play.  The AI may prove to be too great a challenge for some beginning players, though.  Otherwise, there is very little I can find to complain about.  This is a genuinely well-designed, fun to play game that stands out from most of the other games out there.  You won't be disappointed.

System Requirements:  Pentium 166;  32 MB RAM;  Video Card with 2 MB memory; 4x CD-ROM;  200 MB Hard Drive Space;  Mouse;  28.8 Kbps Modem or TCP/IP Internet Connection for internet multiplayer games.