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Game Review: Age of Empires -- No! That's not where I told you to go today!

Age of Empires

For Windows 95

Ensemble Studios/Microsoft

Release Date: 10/30/97

By Mark Huang
Staff Reporter

It's Civ! It's Warcraft! It's...what in God's name is he saying?" First impressions are always important in a game; the beta of Microsoft's Age of Empires didn't deliver a very thrilling one. I started my first scenario, clicked on what obviously looked like a slave (properly "villager," or "end-user" in Microsoft-speak) and directed him to mine some gold. I got an "Oglama" in response. Thinking that this might be the start of a working relationship, I clicked a few more times. My efforts revealed that the extent of his vocabulary ranged from "Jahweh" to something else that sounded remotely like a fish dying in a blender. I tried playing the sample backward, to see if the slave was really saying "Zug zug" or "I'm there!" to let me know that he had been stolen from another game and placed in Age of Empires, but this wasn't the case.

Despite my first impression, Age of Empires grew on me. The graphics are excellent (albeit slow in higher resolutions), the pieces are beautifully animated, and the interface is immediately intuitive. I really have only a few complaints about it. The artificial intelligence could use a little, well, intelligence. The pieces could be more balanced. And reality would do well to set in around the Bronze Age.

Unfortunately, the things that I'm complaining about, AI, balance, and realism, are what separate your average real-time strategy game from, say, Minesweeper. Currently, there are at least five major strategy games competing for brand new shelf space: Dark Reign, Outpost 2, Total Annihilation, Dominion, and Dark Colony. This list doesn't even include the giants of the movement, Red Alert, Warcraft II and Civilization II. All of these games, with the possible exception of Dark Colony (a terribly dull game), are second-generation offspring: meaner and faster than their predecessors and still realistic yet creative. Age of Empires, on the other hand, evokes a bit of nostalgia for good old Civilization, but doesn't nearly approach the level of complexity or fast-paced concentration that games like Red Alert pioneered. Furthermore, Age of Empires doesn't come out until much later this fall and will almost be an afterthought to the Great Warcraft Imitation Festival of 1997. Already, gamers are tiring of strategy games and awaiting Ultima Online, coming out this week.

Admittedly, though, Age of Empires has its competition beat hands-down in the research and premise category. You can't really compete against 10,000 years of meticulously detailed human history as a backdrop for a game. What Ensemble Studios could have done with their advantage, however, was use it to bolster the reality of the game. Hundreds of years pass by for each minute you play, which interferes with the game's real-time nature. You're supposedly building and cultivating a civilization, but by the time you can tell your slaves to build a single house, you've already passed through another Age. Not to mention the fact that during a multiplayer game, you're slapping buildings down and building armies up as fast as you can, and aren't thinking about what a monumentally Great Thing the human spirit is, which is sort of what Civilization and SimCity do for you, only better. Single-player is perhaps the only rewarding mode in Age of Empires. You can ignore the fact that fighting a single battle or felling a deer takes the equivalent of a hundred years, and simply concentrate on raising your civilization to glory.

Because I previewed an early beta of Age of Empires, I don't think it's quite fair to Ensemble or Microsoft to complain in further detail until the game is released. A host of bugs and oddities need to be fixed: pieces sometimes get stuck in corners, units may not follow commands properly ("No! That's not where I told you to go today!"), and the game runs quite slowly (although I've heard varying reports). There has been much talk about the AI, the final version of which some are already heralding as a masterpiece. If it is indeed so, it wasn't present when I played. The nature of some of the pieces in Age of Empires also makes the game quite unfair in certain circumstances. The value system must change radically in the final version if Microsoft has any hopes of selling the game to serious players.

The hype surrounding Age of Empires is well-deserved. The game represents one of Microsoft's largest gaming endeavors and Bruce Shelley's (co-producer of Civilization) latest work. Ensemble Studios itself is packed with talent, and, given Microsoft's previous successes, the marketing of the game should at least be an entertaining sight to witness. For now, though, if you're saving your money for a game, don't wait until Halloween for this one. Try Ultima Online if you can find a copy, or, if you're looking to break into the strategy genre, Red Alert or any of its children.

Next week: Hardware Review: 3Dfx-based graphics accelerators.