When you first play Age of Empires, a warm feeling develops in your gut. Warcraft meets Civilization! Real-time empire-building! And does it ever look sharp and feel right.
But an uneasy feeling builds as you get deeper into it, a sense that all is not quite right. This is not quite the game you hoped for. Even worse, it has some definite problems. The pitfall when you review a game as anticipated and debated as this one is to make sure you criticize it for what it is, not for what you wish it was. I wish that Age of Empires was what it claimed to be - Civilization with a Warcraft twist. Instead, it is Warcraft with a hint of Civilization. That's all well and good, but it places it firmly in the action-oriented real-time combat camp, rather than in the high-minded empire-building of Civilization. The result is Warcraft in togas, with slightly more depth but a familiar feel.
Age of Empires places you on a map in an unexplored world, provides a few starting units, and lets you begin building an empire. Each game unfolds the same way. You begin with a town center and some villagers. The villagers are the basic laborers, and the town center enables you to build more of them and expand your settlement. The villagers are central to AOE: they gather resources, build structures, and repair units and buildings. Resources come in four forms: wood, food, stone, and gold. A certain amount of each is consumed to build various units and buildings, research new technology, and advance a civ to the next age.
There is no complex resource management or intricate economic model at work here. What you have is the same old real-time resource-gathering in period garb, with four resources instead of one or two. As your civ advances, you develop greater needs for these resources, but the way in which they are gathered and used becomes only marginally more complex (certain research can cause faster harvesting or more production). It appears on the surface to be a complex evocation of the way early civs gathered and used materials, but beneath the hood is the same old "mine tiberium, buy more stuff than the other guys" model. It is the first hint that AOE is a simple combat game rather than a glorious empire-builder.
There's no denying the thrill the first time a villager chucks a spear at an antelope and spends several minutes hacking meat from its flank with a stone tool. This is the level of detail that brings an empire-building game to life. If only those villagers would grow and develop over the course of the game, it would make it so much more interesting. If only they would trade in their loincloths for some britches and maybe some orange camouflage, and switch from spears to arrows and rifles. Yes, that's another game, but it could easily have been done in AOE, and why it wasn't is a mystery.
The overall impression of AOE dips further with the prickly issue of unit control and AI. As you expand your city with new and improved buildings, you develop the ability to produce new and better military units. These fall into several categories: Infantry (Clubman, Axeman, Short Swordsman, Broad Swordsman, Long Swordsman, Legion, Hoplite, Phalanx, and Centurion), Archers (Bowman, Improved Bowman, Composite Bowman, Chariot Archer, Elephant Archer, Horse Archer, and Heavy Horse Archer), Cavalry (Scout, Chariot, Cavalry, Heavy Cavalry, Cataphract, and War Elephant), and Siege Weapons (Stone Thrower, Catapult, Heavy Catapult, Ballista, and Helepolis). With the completion of a temple, a priest becomes available that can heal friendly units and convert enemy units. Naval units come in the form of fishing, trade, transport, and war.
The problem is that while enemy AI is savvy and aggressive (it can afford to be since it appears to cheat with resources), your units are bone-stupid. Path-finding is appallingly botched, with units easily getting lost or stuck. There is a waypoint system, but that hardly makes up for the fact that your units have trouble moving from point A to point B if you don't utilize it. Military units will stand idly by while someone a millimeter away is hacked to pieces. They respond not at all to enemy incursion in a village and wander aimlessly in the midst of battle. Was this deliberate so that the gamer needed to spend more time in unit management? If so, it was a poor idea, since there is simply too much going on midgame to worry about whether your military is allowing itself to be butchered in one corner of the map while you are aggressively tending to a battle in another portion. There is no excusing this flaw, and it seriously diminishes AOE's enjoyability. Finally, there is the fifty unit limit that is irritating many players, but in light of the game's already troublesome play balance, it was a solid decision to force users to build units more selectively.
AOE obviously is sticking close to an early-empire motif, and there's nothing at all wrong with that. Stone, Tool, Bronze, and Iron are the four ages, and with each come new structures and military units. You don't earn these advanced ages - you buy them with resources. Advancement is a simple matter of hoarding and spending food and gold. The overall welfare of your state is irrelevant as long as it survives: happiness is not measured, trade is barely modeled, and the state exists merely to produce a military machine to crush everyone else on the map. Naval power has a woefully unbalancing effect upon gameplay, with a strong navy able to shred the competition at the expense of reality.
Micromanagement is the name of the game in AOE. There is no unit queue, and to build five villagers, you need to build one, wait, build another, and so on. With units acting so stupidly, you should be able to set their level of aggression and the manner in which they attack (a la Dark Reign), but that is also not an option. Diplomacy is relegated to tribute and nothing more, and alliances are hard to form. You can be allied, neutral, or at war with other civs, but if the radio button is still set to "allied" when an opponent starts firing on your units, your units will not fire back, defend themselves, or even flee. They will just be destroyed. Cues as to exactly what's happening on the map are obscure; the duty has been relegated to unrelated sound effects. Does that bugle call mean my building is finished being built, or my units are under attack? How about some help, people? Victory conditions can also be irritating. There are several campaigns that require that specific goals be met, and these quickly grow tiresome. Thankfully, there is an excellent custom generator that lets you set map size, starting tech, resources, and other features. This is the saving grace of AOE, and what kept me coming back again and again. The main reason is that it let me change some of the insane default victory requirements, such as when the victor is the first to build a "wonder" (through another massive consumption of resources) that stands for 2000 years. These 2000 years can pass in about twenty minutes of game time. That means that as soon as an opponent builds a wonder, you create a whacking huge navy to go over and blow it up. Not a very subtle way to maintain an empire. In fact, there is no strategic nuance: It is merely a brawny muscle contest. For all its historical trappings and pretensions to recreate the early progress of civilization, in the final analysis it does not even have the depth of a pure combat game like Dark Reign or Total Annihilation.
If all these judgments seem harsh, it is only because Age of Empires looked, and pretends, to be so very much more. It still has tons of potential and a fundamental gameplay that remains entertaining enough to overcome the flaws and merit a fair rating. The system can go very far with some fine-tuning, but as it stands it seems downright schizo. Is it a simplified Civilization or a modestly beefed up Warcraft? It's almost as if the designers started out to create one game and ended up with another. With such beautiful production and the fundamentals of a vastly entertaining game, it's sad that it fell short of the mark. The disappointment is not merely with what AOE is, but with what it failed to be.