Age of Empires II: Age of Kings Preview

A big hit with the PC community ever since its release, Age of Empires II: Age of Kings' success ensured that a port to the console scene was inevitable. Read on to see how this historical game with an RTS beat is coming along.


A quick checklist of Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings' gameplay features reveals a startling lack of originality - the control scheme is borrowed from Command & Conquer; the resource gathering from Dune 2; and the campaign plotlines are ripped straight out of the history books. Nonetheless, Microsoft's and Ensemble Studios' Age of Kings is a perennial bestseller with the computer gaming crowd, suggesting that the game's liberal pilfering doesn't matter much to gamers simply looking for a good game and a good time. Now that Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings is coming to the PlayStation 2 courtesy of Konami, a whole new crowd will have an opportunity to experience historical medieval warfare of the real-time variety.

Let's make something clear right off the bat: Despite a lot of historical name-dropping (you'll encounter cultures and peoples ranging from the Saracens to Khan's Golden Horde), Age of Kings makes no claims about being the audio-visual replacement for history books. Sure, you can embark on a series of quasi-historical "campaigns" like William Wallace's (Braveheart) quest to unite Scotland, but you can just as easily set up totally unhistorical encounters between 13 different civilizations. Japanese vs. Vikings, Franks vs. Persians, and Britons vs. Chinese are all possible using the game's battle creation system. Additionally, the aforementioned campaigns eschew historical accuracy in favor of fantastic retellings of famous events in history. Getting back to William Wallace's campaign, as an example, you'll find yourself running around the countryside like a medieval Paul Revere to gather up a couple of men at arms to battle the Britons at the famed Battle of Falkirk. While history records that thousands of men perished in this bloody clash of arms, the whole event is depicted as sort of mundane skirmish with a few dozens units in Age of Kings. There are a total of five campaigns of this sort, following Barbarossa, Saladin, Joan of Arc, and Genghis Khan, and each one takes similar allowances with the life of its subject.

Understanding Age of Kings' gameplay necessitates a basic retelling of how real-time strategy games work. You begin most games of Age of Kings with a command building (in this case called a town hall) and a small group of defenseless builders whose job it is to expand your holdings and power. Typically, this is accomplished by constructing additional structures like barracks, armories, and stables. Some buildings, like the siege workshop, allow for the construction of military units that can destroy other civilizations, while others, like the university, allow you to research new technologies and build increasingly complex buildings that can be used to enhance the performance of your military. Such is the order of most RTS games, and Age of Kings is no exception. The major difference here is that each game can often cover a huge swath of civilized enlightenment in a single sitting. Beginning immediately after the fall of Rome and ending just before the Renaissance, you'll find yourself rushed through roughly 1,000 years of history (highly stylized and abridged, of course) in about an hour. Age of Kings takes the idea of historical ages and uses them as a unique gameplay conceit that allows for the development of increasingly complex buildings and an increase in your jurisdictional capabilities and military powers. In this sense, you can think of Age of Kings as Sid Meier's Civilization set to an often chaotic RTS beat.

Similarly, battles are constructed out of a strange amalgamation of historical strategy and real time confusion. Borrowing a page from Myth, a fellow PC RTS game, Age of Kings allows you to group your military units into preset formations that enhance the strength of your force and create a cohesive force of combined arms. On the field of battle, those with the high ground hold a defensive edge on their enemies. The units themselves run the gamut from basic man-at-arms (sword, shield, and minimal armor) and ironclad knights to destructive siege weapons like the Ballista and the massive Trebuchet. In addition, each civilization has its own advantages, and these are often manifested in unique military units. The Teutons, for example, can create the Teutonic knights, a sort of super man-at-arms that require triple the effort to bring down, and other civilizations feature similar superunits at their disposal.

Konami intends to make minimal gameplay changes to Age of Kings' established gameplay formula, and you can expect the game to play in a manner very similar to that of the PC version. Of course, certain concessions will have to be made in the translation to the PlayStation 2 - control may be encumbered by the PS2's standard controller pad, and grouping commands and point and clicking could be a tedious process. No doubt, Konami will have to devise some alternative hot keys to gather resources or choose formations and hope that a diminished interface will not damper the gameplay to a discernable degree. Another much-loved feature about Age of Kings that may see the chopping block is the in-depth and comprehensive campaign editing system. Age of Kings on the PC has had a long shelf life thanks to an editing system that allows you to create everything from your own maps to scripted battles and events, and then trade them with your friends over the Internet. Since all multiplayer options are up in the air at this point, this feature may be scrapped. In fact, given the current disarray of the PlayStation 2's online plans, it's entirely possible that Age of Kings (whose PC multiplayer options were its bread and butter) will ship to the PS2 with no Internet options to speak of.

If you're familiar with the PC Age of Kings, you'll notice that Konami's making no major enhancements to the game's two-year-old visuals. The game features animated 2D sprites on top of bitmapped pseudo-3D battlefields. The visual feel is serviceable and pleasant, if a bit dated. Certainly, those of you weaned on the visual flair of Tekken Tag Tournament and Ridge Racer V will be disappointed by Age of Kings' simple approach. Current screenshots indicate that there will be only a few differences over the PC version - Konami will adjust the graphics to fit on a television's limited resolution along, improve some of the PC's rougher animations, and do away with the PC's washed-out 256-color backgrounds. Aside from these modifications, expect the PS2's Age of Kings to look almost identical to its PC counterpart.

Age of Empires 2 is in some ways a throwback - you won't find any 100,000-polygon characters or flashy lighting effects here; instead, Age of Empires 2 takes its addictive blend of real time strategy and historical elements from PC games of yesteryear and improves on an established formula. Konami has high hopes that gamers will be able to overlook the game's dated appearance and appreciate the deep, sustaining gameplay that's kept PC gamers happy for many months. The current dearth of PS2 games with playability to match the pretty graphics they boast should assure that Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings will have a fighting chance to hit it big when it arrives on store shelves in the second quarter of 2001.

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