It would be incorrect, but not entirely unreasonable, to claim that Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings and its isometric 2D playing field seem just like every other first-generation real-time strategy game ever made. Take away the historical context depicting a millennium of military progress since the Dark Ages, and you'd have a game in which you'd stockpile resources, grow your population, and augment your technology, all to amass an army with which to defeat your enemies as quickly as possible. But even as this model has remained historically relevant for as long as history has been documented, so too is it not liable to stop being the premise for computer games anytime soon. And if Age of Kings is any indication of how such real-time strategy games will continue to improve, then we couldn't be more fortunate.
Although Age of Kings runs at higher resolutions and looks cleaner and sharper than many of its similar predecessors, you'll find that there's nothing foreign about its appearance. Villagers, buildings, trees, the black fog of war, and everything else on the map will be immediately recognizable if you've played a real-time strategy game before. But even if you've played them all, you'll note several differences in Age of Kings' presentation that make it stand out against comparable games. For instance, all the buildings and units in Age of Kings are shown more or less to scale - town halls and castles nearly fill the screen and loom high above your people. There are four different styles of architecture in the game - Eastern, Middle Eastern, and Eastern and Western European - and although they appear identical in the Dark Ages, by the Imperial Age all four look entirely different and authentically beautiful. Unlike the architecture, your villagers and military units look the same no matter what civilization you choose. Fortunately, almost every one of them looks good, and there are plenty to choose from, such as swordsmen and archers on up to mounted knights and terrific war machines.
Age of Kings can look a little bland and washed out before you fill the screen with buildings and military units, but this same sparseness makes its interface clean and effective. The clearly depicted controls at the bottom of the screen and the familiar mouse functionality make this game very easy to pick up and play. Best of all are the descriptive floating help messages that thoroughly describe every unit and technology available, which you can toggle off once you begin to remember them. Your units move quickly and easily from point to point, and selecting a mixed group will automatically assign them to a logical formation, with tougher units in front and more vulnerable units in pursuit. Grouped units will also travel at the rate of the slowest member of the brigade, a feature that ultimately lets you coordinate attacks far more effectively than in most any other real-time strategy game. And as your soldiers fight and win, they quickly seek out the closest and most appropriate target, thus eliminating any tedious micromanagement and affording you the time to oversee something more complicated and tactically viable than a head-on assault. With floating help turned on and all your little units running around at once, Age of Kings can start to look a little cluttered. But it also looks its best at times like this, when the screen is so full of buildings and people you can begin to imagine how their historical equivalents once prospered.
Even so, you'd think with only four styles of architecture and one generic set of units, the 13 civilizations in Age of Kings would seem identical. And while some of them seem similar, it's to the designers' great credit that most of the civilizations manage to feel very different from one another in spite of any visual likeness. For one thing, each civilization's units speak in their native language, and while they don't say too many different things, it's great to listen to them anyway. Each civilization also has its own unique unit that emphasizes or augments that civilization's strengths, and this also helps distinguish each one from the other 12. Every civilization also has its unique advantages that refer to the historical culture's strengths. For instance, to emphasize the Byzantines' defensive power, their units for countering infantry, archers, and cavalry are cheaper to produce; and to suggest the Turks' scientific achievements, they can research gunpowder technologies at a lower cost than any other civilization. Such cultural distinctions are often subtle but become more noticeable later in the game, when the skillful player who takes greater advantage of his culture's offensive or defensive inclinations will soon find himself in the lead.
Then again, to build up your civilization to its strongest potential is by no means a simple feat, despite whatever luxuries the game's elegant interface provides. The original Age of Empires was criticized for combining the pretensions of a complicated turn-based strategy game like Civilization with real-time gameplay mechanics that were borrowed from Warcraft II. But Age of Kings makes good on the original's promises by providing a huge, branching technology tree and a correspondingly profound depth of gameplay that rivals virtually all similarly themed turn-based games. You must constantly reevaluate your priorities when gathering the game's four resources, since those priorities change as new technologies become available; and you must constantly make key tactical decisions based on the order in which you research particular technologies. You need to keep moving forward without spreading yourself too thin, although you're afforded some breathing time to get started early on since you can garrison your villagers within your town hall to defend against a preemptive attack. And yet throughout the game, Age of Kings' pacing is so fast and so exciting as to rival Blizzard's real-time strategy hits. Consequently, under no circumstances should you be prepared to win a war in Age of Kings without a fast hand on the mouse. But similarly, you're not going to win unless you think.
Even Blizzard's Starcraft confines you to a basic set of strategies, whose subtle variations separate the experts from the rest. However, in Age of Kings, your options tend to be more flexible. If your opponent is too focused on particular tactics, you can easily allocate your resources into countering whatever it is he's sending your way. Swarms of infantry can be stopped cold by a simple wall; a contingent of archers may kill a line of cavalry but would be hard pressed to damage even a single war machine. Swordsmen can deal with pikemen easily, but the pikemen's reach make them much more effective against units on horseback. At one time, games aspired to such principles with the rock-scissors-paper game as a model. But Age of Kings has so many variants on this theme that to even suggest a similarity between Ensemble's sequel and the old betting game would be to grossly undermine Age of Kings' intricacy. It doesn't take long to realize that Age of Kings is complicated, but your appreciation for its detail will only grow with time as you begin to understand that, unlike in most real-time strategy games, you really do have several distinctly different but equally viable routes toward victory.
There are also several different ways to play the game. You can use the random map generator to quickly create a custom-tailored, finely crafted map for up to eight players, or build your own map from scratch. You'll find a consistent challenge in taking on one or several computer opponents set to the default difficulty or above, although you'll soon learn of the computer's propensity to use guerilla tactics and fall prey to particular tricks. You can start with a ton of resources and just have at it in the deathmatch mode; you can set out to kill the enemy king in a regicide match; and you can play one of Age of Kings' five historical campaigns. These campaigns focus on such legendary leaders as Joan of Arc, Frederick Barbarossa, and Genghis Khan in a series of linked missions interjected with voice-over narration describing these figures' tribulations and victories. All five of these, including the William Wallace tutorial campaign, are fairly short and only begin to approach the sense of style and cohesion pioneered by Blizzard's real-time strategy campaigns.
But you'll enjoy playing a part in these characters' historical accomplishments anyway, even if the narrators' accents are a little heavy and the artwork depicting the outcome of each mission looks rushed. At any rate, unlike in Starcraft, the campaigns seem more peripheral in Age of Kings, because its historical context and 13 civilizations will keep you interested with or without a plot to back it all up. Of course, you can also play Age of Kings over the Internet, although Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone can't compare to Blizzard's refined Battle.net.
No matter how you play it, chances are good that you'll enjoy Age of Kings if not for its careful historical detail then because its context never takes precedence over the game's playability. And if you've ever liked any other real-time strategy game in this classical style, then you'll clearly see why this one deserves so much credit, even in direct comparison to the finest examples in its category.