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I will not die until I achieve something. Even though the ideal is high, I never give in. Therefore, I never die with regrets.
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It was actually Age of Empires’ cinematic that really made me want to play this series. I had this little demo disc, not even the full game, and I was absolutely enthralled by the opening. Everything about AoE spoke to the little conqueror in me. The tone of the cinematic, the name of the series, and (as I later found) even the box art had this sense of grandness that I couldn’t stay away from. Flash forward a couple of months when I get to play the sequel, and I am all in.

Age of Empires II is basically the first game except bigger, more beautiful, and with a much better UI. It took the population cap from 50 to 200, added much more detailed and massive buildings (IE, more beautiful), and added a lot of useful commands/hotkeys for the player to manipulate his civilization and military so that he could actually manipulate this larger civ. Add in a different era than the first with potential for gunpowder units and a large variety of siege weapons, and it would be fair to say that it completely eclipsed the original.

So what was about this series that struck out in the grand history of RTS games? It basically tried to combine Civilization with a real time strategy game. The result is a game that was both unique in its setting (it was really the only historical RTS game released in 1997, and the market wasn’t that different in 1999), but also in how it played. Starcraft/Total Annihilation and all the rest were primarily focused on the military aspect, but Age of Empires wanted to make you feel like you were building an empire. Well, as much as it could with 1990s technology.

There were two ways it did this. The first one is obvious, the deep tech tree that tries to cover the four centuries worth of progress. Covering both the civilian side and the military side, it felt intricate. But the second one is actually even more important: the way that the resources worked. First of all, there was a large variety of things to gather. You could fish, forage, hunt, or farm for food. You could create fish traps. You could chop wood, mine gold, etc. This meant that although it really only had four resources that it kept track of, it felt quite expansive. And these resources weren’t placed in convenient locations from your base like in Starcraft or Cossacks, they were placed “naturally” and forced you to continually expand to get them. Secondly, It wasn’t just enough for you to tell the workers to go to a mine/hunt/chop, they actually had to bring the resources back to a stockpile. This made your empire (colony) feel alive with, at times, a hundred peasants scurrying about all over the place grabbing valuable resources. Sure, this was an expensive use of the valuable CPU resources at the time, but it was a price well paid. Finally, these resources weren’t limitless, it wasn’t something you could just set and forget. No, the workers would chop the wood and clear out the forest. The animals would be hunted to extinction. The fishes would dry up. The farms would run out. This was significantly different than most games at the time. Sure, a lot of games had “limited resources”, but you could last for a long time with them. This is not true of AoE. Few forced you to change the landscape as much as this game. And it actually had significant consequences. Chop a forest down, and you could have a clear path to your opponent, or leave your flank defenseless.

The combat was inferior to its rivals, but it still had a fairly involved system. You had a counter system that was based around two types of armor and counter units. Combine this with teching, the situation on the map, and the resources you had to balance, it was difficult to pin down the “right” answer to all situations. Sometimes it would be critical for you to get an armor upgrade at the right time, sometimes you need to have a legion of that critical counter unit, still other times it would be imperative for you to get to a later age and crush people with superior technology. Or maybe you focus on getting walls and turtling up and negating that early rush and come back stronger. Whatever decision you went with, it was imperative to balance this with your economy. For example, if you mostly geared your economy to produce a lot of archers (wood+gold), but you suddenly needed some knights to take care of the siege (food+gold), it would require you to significantly change your economy to support the new resource requirements. Not to mention foresight to have the technology to create the units. So strategic planning was rewarded. Add the positional advantage of height and properly using range units, and a relatively simple naval game, and you had enough here to outmaneuver the opposing army with proper planning. You couldn’t just walk in and expect to win.

And the games were fun. My most memorable game had me fighting against 4 AI. I invaded two civilizations while using a choke and a defensive line to defend against the others. I managed to win, but the fight had lasted long enough for the other two to expand across half the map and get trebuchets to take out my castles and overcome my defenses. After a brutal hour and a half of fighting which had us ransacking each other’s land back and forth, entire cities getting destroyed and rebuilt, battlefield littered with bodies, I was finally able to break through. The key to victory came when I restructured my army to focus on attrition and get enough resources to get a critical mass of bombard cannons. This epic game had us exhausting every resource in the map, had me transitioning across multiple army compositions to maximize the strategic resources I had available, and salvaging everything I could from the opponent.

Age of Empires III never lived up to the hype of this game. The maps were smaller, there were weird caps on your units, the peasants didn’t even have drop off points, and you were a lot more restricted with buildings. So, we haven’t really had a full sequel to this game, although Age of Mythology was quite fun. To be a complete sequel to Age of Empires means expanding both on the civilian front and the military one. Sure, there have been some games that focused one aspect or the other. Empire Earth/Rise of Nations with their focus on the teching aspect. Games with the same theme like Total War which focused on the tactical portion and even recreates that battle in that cinematic in the actual game. Anno which had a more developed civil portion, or even games like Dwarf Fortress which actually did a good job expanding both… but more for the individuals of the colony rather than at an empire/city level. But creating an actual sequel that fulfilled on the promise of the Age of Empires series, or at least encapsulated it, still hasn’t really been done.

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