Game Name:  Age of Empires
Developer:  Ensemble Studios
Publisher:  Microsoft Game Studios
PC Release Year:  1997
Review Date:  July 31, 2014

A sad day in gaming has finally come to pass.  As of July 1st, the servers for Age of Empires Online were permanently turned off.  While I had barely logged into my sprawling Egyptian metropolis, since the closure announcement was made, I will fondly remember the hours I spent tinkering with its layout.  I will also wonder how much longer the game could have lived if its free-to-play payment model had not been so horribly botched.  Was the title perfect?  Hardly, but it was polished, engaging, and amazingly fun with other people.  This last point has been a staple of the franchise for as long as I can remember, and is what I will miss most from the shutdown.  After all, I played Age of Empires II with my friends in High School, Age of Mythology with my college girlfriend, Age of Empires III with my old roommate, and Age of Empires Online with my wife.  The series has always given me a way to spend time with the people who I care about, and it is upsetting to be losing a piece of that.  Considering my nostalgia-fueled response to the news, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give the original Age of Empires a try.  After all, my early days of PC gaming came a little too late for Ensemble Studio’s first historically-themed outing.  While I generally enjoyed my playthrough, the title unfortunately proved itself as the weakest franchise entry, and does little to sate the expectations of modern gamers.  Sure, the foundations of today’s real-time strategy blockbusters are on display for fans of the genre to see, but the game’s age leaves it too rough around the edges to endorse more broadly.

This is a shame, because if nothing else, Age of Empires is incredibly accessible.  Since common mechanics are ripped straight from competing franchises like Command & Conquer, most players will immediately know what to do.  For starters, those villagers milling around the town center need to be put to work.  Whether they are felling forests, gathering food, or extracting stone and gold from quarries, they are contributing to an economy that will ultimately fund some combination of army and navy to crush the enemy.  Military units then introduce a giant game of rock-paper-scissors to the experience, since most soldiers have a hard counter.  As just one example, cavalry archers receive a higher-than-normal attack rating when fighting foot archers.  While I tend to look down on this type of passive bonus system as uncreative, it is nevertheless effective when battles occur.  Carefully balancing these competing economic and military spheres is where the title shines, and illustrates why today’s games like StarCraft II are as popular as they are.

Unfortunately, Age of Empires lacks the decades of refinement exhibited by its modern competition.  As the RTS genre has evolved over the years, developers have come to understand that gamers do not want to bide their time while they build up a giant army, only to crash it headlong into another mass of troops.  Rather, they want a series of skirmishes that are far more tactical in nature; where small bands of units can counter the enemy’s development in earlier stages of a match.  To that end, today’s games provide easier setup and maintenance of an economy, allowing precious time to focus on a quick military buildup.  In more recent Age of Empires games, farmland will not expire and need to be rebuilt, an idle villager button is used to quickly assign new work orders, markets can be used to buy and sell resources, and a distribution display can be turned on to show how many workers are currently gathering each resource type.  Beyond that, other franchises like Company of Heroes have taken the desire for tactical combat to a higher plateau, by giving units active abilities with situational uses.  Since the original Age of Empires predated all of these genre innovations, the gameplay will definitely feel archaic to modern players.

While these limitations destroy the experience on skirmish maps, the campaign mode’s broad range of mission types helps to offset this problem.  I think back to Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, and remember my disappointment to find that 80% of all missions were essentially a learning tool; that share stands at an acceptable 25% here.  Players can choose from one of four mission sets, but only the Egyptian string is billed as an actual tutorial.  The Greek, Babylonian, and Yamato campaigns all expect and demand a thorough knowledge of the game to succeed, since you will generally be resource constrained and fighting fortified enemies.  The most memorable mission from my playthrough started on a secluded island with a town center, dock, four villagers, and enough food to advance my technology out of the Stone Age.  On my first attempt, I sent what workers I had to gather lumber for a set of scout ships to defend my coasts.  Before long, enemy troops landed on my shores and overwhelmed me.  Starting over, I decided to try a land defense and the result was the same.  When more trial and error ended in similar fashion, I pulled up a walkthrough to see what I was doing wrong.  It turns out that my first approach was the right one, but I had just failed to execute it properly.  Instead of holding my navy near the coast, I was supposed to find the enemy’s sea lanes and destroy their transport ships in transit.  Very few games demand both successful planning and execution from the player, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it here. 

Despite the success that results from Age of Empire’s individual mission design, its poor production value causes the whole experience to fall flat.  Considering the classical time period in which the game is set, there are many stories which could have been used to create an engaging narrative framework; the Odyssey, Epic of Gilgamesh, and Old Testament immediately spring to mind as potential source material that would have been capable of infusing some much-needed personality into the mix.  Ensemble would later take this approach in Age of Empires II, when it centered single player campaigns on popular medieval heroes like William Wallace and Joan of Arc.  In this first outing, however, we are relegated to bland historical footnotes as the rationale for our gameplay.   Egypt controlled the Nile for centuries because it was able to build outposts on the many islands that populate its waters.  Sadly, this is all the justification that is given before players are forced to do the same.  Even when something as interesting as the Trojan War is introduced in the Greek campaign, the mission to kill Hector is given with very little context.  I love history, and after studying the subject extensively in college, believe that it is only boring if presented that way.  There was a golden opportunity for this title to bridge the gap between entertainment and learning, and it frustrates me to see how far they missed the mark.

At the same time, Age of Empires fails to capture and convey many of the distinct features of the game’s playable civilizations.  This is no StarCraft where Terran, Protoss, and Zerg races each require a completely different playstyle.  Passive faction bonuses and technology tree restrictions are all that separate one tribe from another.  This prevents certain historical inaccuracies, like having far eastern cultures field war elephants, but otherwise keeps the unit pool consistent across the board.   For balance purposes, I would be fine with this approach if the civilizations at least looked unique, but Ensemble missed a step here as well.  Different building models may be used for unique cultural groupings, so Asian architecture in the game looks unlike that of Mesopotamia, but no effort was made to follow through with either the land or sea units.  I am no expert on naval warfare, but I am reasonably certain that ancient Japanese warships did not look like the triremes seen on the Mediterranean.  A missed detail like this goes a long way towards destroying any sense of immersion.

In the end, this leaves a modern audience with a historical game that ignores the major objective of academic history; interesting and accurate content.  What remains is a decent RTS, but one that lacks the bells and whistles which gamers have come to expect in the last few years.  Age of Empires’ core essence is one that franchise fans will enjoy, but the overall package is simply a bad substitute for more recent releases.

Verdict:  Not Recommended