Released one year after Microsoft originally published the highly acclaimed real-time strategy sequel Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, the official expansion pack, The Conquerors, faces serious competition. The burgeoning real-time strategy genre has grown and changed since Age of Kings, as several impressive fully 3D tactical combat games have emerged in the past year. It almost seems as if conventional real-time strategy games are already dead - as if they've been ousted by such games as Relic's Homeworld and Massive Entertainment's Ground Control, which de-emphasize resource-gathering and focus on 3D tactical combat. But Age of Empires II: The Conquerors proves once again that the classical formula for real-time strategy games still remains effective if executed properly. It's a suitably excellent expansion to what remains as one of the best real-time strategy games to date.
Certainly the most apparent new feature in Age of Conquerors is the addition of five new playable civilizations: the Aztecs, the Huns, the Koreans, the Mayans, and the Spanish. In particular, the Aztec and the Mayan civilizations feature an all-new Meso-American building set, which, together with their eagle-masked warriors and tribal monks, lend these two civilizations a distinct appearance. The Aztecs and the brute strength of their infantry and the Mayans and their hardy archers each play rather differently from the other 16 civilizations in The Conquerors, mainly because they have no cavalry and must instead rely on their powerful foot soldiers. But the other three new civilizations are also interesting: The nomadic Huns are adept at razing their opponents' structures, and unlike every other civilization in the game, they don't need to build houses to increase their maximum population limit. Meanwhile, the Koreans have formidable defenses to help them against just such a threat, thanks to their exceptional guard towers and siege weapons, along with their heavily armored horse-drawn war wagons and turtle-shaped boats. The Spanish are no less powerful, since their mounted conquistadors are armed with deadly short-range firearms, while their missionaries have the notorious conversion abilities of Age of Kings' monk units, but with greater mobility at the cost of a little range.
The five new civilizations in The Conquerors all make good additions to the game, but in spite of their special advantages, they do help demonstrate just how similar all the civilizations in The Conquerors really are. Though each civilization in the game has a unique unit and a new, unique technology available for research, ultimately many of these distinctions are either subtle or straightforward, since all the civilizations basically play the same way. It isn't the case that the 18 different civilizations in The Conquerors are all radically different from each other, although there's more than enough variety available to suit most any particular style of play.
The additional technologies in The Conquerors are a means of helping further balance the game and also accentuating each respective civilization's unique advantages. Some other universal balance changes affect some of the underused units in Age of Kings and make them more viable. Also, some of the Age of Kings civilizations have been tweaked to make them more balanced with the rest. Some of these changes are particularly noteworthy: For instance, you can now garrison foot soldiers inside battering rams, which not only makes the rams faster, but also lets the ram shield the infantry from archer fire while the troops themselves remain readily available to protect the ram at close range. This makes battering rams a very worthwhile alternative to the trebuchet, whose devastating long-range attack was almost imperative to the success of any battle in Age of Kings.
One of the game's other siege weapons, the stone-throwing mangonel (along with its upgraded counterpart, the onager) was also improved in The Conquerors so that it no longer automatically fires upon enemy targets in the midst of friendly troops. This behavior in Age of Kings caused mangonels to be a real liability, but now these siege engines are suddenly much more effective. Such changes are especially noticeable and exciting for experienced Age of Kings players, who'll doubtless enjoy experimenting with the newly enhanced returning civilizations almost as much as they'll like the inclusion of five new ones.
Age of Empires II players will likely also be interested in the four new campaigns in The Conquerors. Three of these detail the historical leaders Attila the Hun, El Cid, and Montezuma, respectively. These linear campaigns each comprise several lively missions filled with scripted sequences that suggest the sorts of historical trials that brought such fame to these well-known rulers. The fourth campaign is a series of unrelated re-creations of epic historical battles. The computer opponent's artificial intelligence has been enhanced in The Conquerors, not only to make the game easier than Age of Kings for beginners, but also to make it significantly more challenging for more advanced players. Specifically, even inexperienced players should still be able to beat the campaign missions on the lower difficulty settings. Meanwhile, the tougher settings can provide a relentless challenge, as the computer quickly and efficiently sweeps up the resources on the map and rallies a powerful, diverse army.
Though the computer opponent poses a greater threat than before, fortunately The Conquerors introduces several new interface and gameplay features that let you concentrate more closely on combat rather than on unit and resource micromanagement. Most notably, your villagers in The Conquerors are more autonomous than in Age of Kings in that they'll automatically assist each other in multiple adjacent build orders and begin harvesting resources once they finish building a mine or a mill. As in Age of Kings, you'll need to build multiple farms for harvesting food with which to raise your army, but in The Conquerors, you'll be able to create a farm queue so that your villagers automatically replant the crops once they expire. This is very useful for when you decide to stage a major attack and don't want to worry about replanting farms in the middle of battle.
The Conquerors offers even more additions and improvements, such as new map types for battles on snowy or tropical terrain, as well as interesting new game types that emphasize production over combat and an enhanced map editor that gives you more options for creating your own custom scripted battles. The game even comes packaged with a thorough, comprehensive manual that clearly presents all the additions in the expansion, and also lists the relevant statistics for each of the game's civilizations. Many of the improvements in The Conquerors are evidently intended to appeal to Age of Kings' avid player community, which grew to such a size in part because Age of Kings was such an enjoyable, accessible, and customizable multiplayer game. Of course, The Conquerors inherits all these traits.
Virtually every addition in The Conquerors helps make Age of Empires II a better, more thoroughly enjoyable game. Nevertheless, it's true that the enhancements to the interface and the tweaks to the game's balance are more obvious to more experienced Age of Kings players. This is largely because Age of Kings was an outstanding game to begin with - and as such, any improvements in an expansion pack such as The Conquerors understandably provide only a marginal improvement overall. At the same time, the multiple additions in The Conquerors add up to be more than enough to entice Age of Kings players to focus their attention on this ambitious, deeply strategic game once again - and for a long time.