Updated: May 28, 2015
I distinctly remember the moment. Buying a new PC with 64MB of RAM, a GeForce 2 card, Windows 98, and a free copy of Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. For many years, I've played RTS titles like a champ, Dune, Warcraft, Command & Conquer, and others. But then, I had a bunch of villagers, and I sent them hunting and collecting berries and mining stone, and I was hooked.
Next, I purchased Age of Mythology, and it carried an astronomical price of USD75.99, which was a lot for a university student back then. An awesome game, but with maps and population cap much smaller than those in Age of Empires. The third version of the series brought more modern, colonial-age technologies and campaigns, but nothing could compare to the purity of the medieval contest of the 1999 title. And in 2014, during the holiday sale on Steam, I grabbed the new, polished HD version of the game for a puny USD2.99. I started playing again, and it was as if nothing had changed.
Say what you will about Microsoft, but they actually released an expansion pack to Age of Empires II in 2013, called The Forgotten (accidentally just like one of my book), originally developed as a non-official expansion pack, and then polished into an official version, coded by SkyLabs and blessed by Microsoft. And then, only last year, the title was ported to native HD and made available on Steam. Sure, you do not get any new fancy graphics, but there's really no need. Some games are perfect the way they are. This is a classic example. Decent video combined with a superior gameplay, and the rest be damned.
Fifteen years have passed since I first laid my eyes on Age of Empires, its giant playground, colorful and yet authentic nations, hundreds of cool technologies and improvements and unique units, making it highly replayable and enjoyable no matter how many times you seeded the Ghost Lake, Gold Rush, Forest, or Arena maps. If anything, I think I'm a better strategist than I was during those dark times before the Y2K nonsense.
Age of Empires embodies the perfect balance between resource gathering, military tactics, planning ahead, and great ambient sound and video, which infuse each match with gentle yet persistent thrill. You always face the difficult question of how many villagers you ought to have versus expanding your army units early on. Whenever you hear the little gong telling you that your foes have advanced through an age, you get a ripple of gutsy terror coursing through your veins, because you are in a hurry now, and prone to making mistakes.
The AI seems to have been improved, ever so slightly, and the unit cap has been raised to 500, which means you can expand even more aggressively than before. Modern computers, like my Lenovo IdeaPad handle the brunt of big, kickass battles with hundreds of units without any problem. The enemy will usually assume one of the two main strategies. It will either dig in and develop fast, remaining on the defensive, or it will sacrifice technology and age progress for tons of cheap units, sending them in big waves. If you survive the first two or three attacks, you will probably see the game ending happily, with you as the winner. But it won't be easy, because skirmishers and battering rams are oh-so-annoying.
You must be careful, especially early on. If you neglect locating the next available food source, like berry bushes or deer or fishing ponds, you will be forced to farm, and you might not have enough wood, and your villagers will be forced to walk across the map, wasting time and risking wolf attacks. You can easily lose the game just by miscalculating your economy in the first 10-15 minutes. So it's critical not to get your food sources depleted.
Military tactics against the computer can be relatively simple. You don't need foot soldiers and skirmishes, and crossbowmen are better than mounted archers. Scorpions are pretty useless unless you use them purely for perimeter defense, and if you have cannon and trebuchets, then you don't need rams either, unless as a diversion. The bulk of your fighting force will most likely be knights, slowly improved with new capabilities, plus the special units from the castle garrison. You have a wide range of exciting choices, like the English longbowmen and Viking berserkers and Persian war elephants, oh it does not get any better than that. Aztecs also rule, despite having no cavalry. Their Eagle Scouts are pretty badass.
Monks are also useful in healing units and causing diversion through unit conversions, in the middle of the fight. Tight rows of guard towers and castles are excellent defenses against persistent enemy attacks, but you probably want a nice stone wall here or there, to keep them busy until you can pick them apart with your arrows and hails of stone from mangonels and onagers.
Most of the maps will have a plenty of resources, but you will eat through your stone and gold often too early, and you will be forced to sell your wood and food at a fraction of a price. This means that sustained combat will bleed your budget, and you will need a sizable force of peasants tilling the farms and chopping timbers in order to survive. It gets rather tricky on open, barren maps, especially since you must protect yourself from all directions.
Even though it's fairly simplified, the fighting in Age of Empires is made with grace and wit. Different units have their own unique advantages and weakness. And although you can punch through most with sufficient brute force, sometimes, it pays out playing by the rules, especially if you have limited forces. Horsemen are vulnerable to spear and pike, as it should be, but they make mincemeat of the archers. This is very similar to the Total War franchise, forcing you to adapt intelligent tactics, or lose significant percentage of your battle assets.
Nature also plays its role. Elevation helps gain range, garrisoned units make castles and towers fire more arrows, and if you can use forest and water fords as additional layers in your defense, all the better. It's also useful having multiple barracks, stables and other war buildings, because sometimes you will be in a rush to produce sufficient troops, to protect yourself against massive, surprising attacks.
For me, now just like fifteen years ago, the preferred fighting policy is to expand slow, fatten up and then attack Soviet style, with huge armies and little regard to losses, using large reserves and attrition to weaken and defeat the foe. I also like to back up my troops with castles and siege weapons. Then, surprise attacks from multiple directions are also quite useful, and it's best to target enemy villagers first to disrupt their resources.
Sometimes, though, I prefer playing quick and dirty by rushing in the Feudal Age. I normally start harassing the foe with successive waves of archers, skirmishes, spearmen, and swordsmen, targeting isolated pockets of wood cutters and miners. This can cause real havoc with the AI algorithms, forcing the computer to slow down its progress into the next age. At the same time, you should keep a reserve force in your base, build a few towers, and be ready for a counter offensive. Once you survive a couple of these, you will probably live long enough to be crowned the victor in the game.
Cordoning off the map with walls is also useful, but it usually does not work well in open scenarios. The walls take quite a bit of pounding before they crash down, so they will slow down the enemy, allowing you to regroup or even hold ground with a smaller force. There's nothing more satisfying than watching your artillery pound a thick cluster of enemy swordsmen and pikemen hacking at your stone walls.
But killing your enemy isn't just about direct engagement. It's also about controlling the map, its passages, its gold, everything. If you can get first to a mine and protect it, then you will deny enemy villagers access to the same, and cause him to suffer, waste resources trading at the market, or lose time sending the miners around, looking for new resources. This is especially true with AI opponents, who will relentlessly keep on sending peasants on suicide gathering missions, so all you need to do is a dedicated squad of archers protecting each resource, and Bob's your uncle. Or you could erect a castle overlooking a strategic path. Then you have two uncles.
At the same time, you must not forget your farms and fishing traps. They get depleted, and they must be rebuilt, so keep an eye on your windmills, or you may end up without food, and that means, you won't be able to train military units at a critical moment, and you may end up screaming and cursing at your monitor, to no avail.
Be clever, oh be so clever. On forested maps, if you have siege onagers, you can use them to cut paths through the forest and launch surprise attacks on your enemy, without them being able to reach you. This is a favorite tactic on the Forest maps, plus it allows you to get to isolated pockets of stone and gold and an occasional, forgotten relic.
Speaking of ships, naval battles take a sideshow, but they can still be somewhat interesting. If you must wade the perilous, fish-rich waters in the Age of Empires, you will surely want the Viking longbow. It's the only nation with two unique units rather than a single one, plus their nimble ships are superior to bigger, generic galleys and whatnot that other civilizations can build in their docks.
Fighting is also about quality, not just quantity. Probably the most important building, from the strategic perspective, is the university, where you can research all sorts of wicked technologies that make your villagers faster, your buildings stronger and cheaper, and your labor more efficient. It pays more to have improved towers with murderholes, and a 33% discount on all military buildings than to keep pumping el-cheapo spearmen as a last defiant act of desperation. Now, when you combine quality with Soviet zergrush, the way I do, you get quite invincible. The idea is to survive the first 20-25 minutes of each scenario until you build enough force to take on your enemy. In essence, if you treat each map as Stalingrad, you'll be all set.
The new expansion pack plays it safe with the proven, successful formula. It adds new nations, new building styles, some extra units and technologies. The rest remains unchanged and great. You can also play on a battlefield that is even bigger than the original giant map. Refined AI makes for a more competitive games, which means more cursing and possibly even some cheating when desperation gets too heavy, and then you can rescue your nation from total defeat using a Shelby Mustang equipped with Bond-era cannons hidden behind its headlights. Rad to the bone.
It's all peaches and honey, really. Even the map editor is excellent. I haven't built any new maps recently, and I've discovered that I can't find my old scenarios anywhere. Still, I remember creating realistic settings, with many unique, historic units and beautiful decorations, like rugs, flower beds, ruins, relics, and more. Battle of Agincourt, Battle of Crecy, dozens of them. And you actually learn about history through the game's rather extensive internal wiki. The original CD also came with a nice booklet, which contains a whole bunch of useful information on the game mechanics as well as its civilizations. Totally cool.
You will probably want to check some award winning game screenshots.
And you should also take a look at Heavengames, the sub-portal dedicated to Age of Empires.
What more can I say? This is probably the best real-time strategy game ever made. It has the perfect balance between fun and difficulty, resource management and combat, military planning and survival tactics, beauty, grit, realism, and history. I haven't played any campaigns recently, but I clearly remember them, and they are also quite colorful and interesting.
The HD version on Steam, plus the expansion pack infuse this game with even more style and elegance, allowing us to capture its spirit using modern means of computing. Tiny tweaks and fixes, improved artificial intelligence, even better maps and more units all make future scenarios and engagement more exciting, more challenging. Age of Empires is one of those rare titles that is simply timeless. Fifteen years have not chipped its awesomeness, not even a tiny dent. If you've played it back then, you will enjoy it today. And so, it gets a perfect 10/10 score. Plus it's cheap, so there's no question whether you should buy it. Only how long it takes for you to launch Steam and get it. Do it, you won't regret it.
Oh, one more thing. There's another expansion coming later this year!
It doesn't get any better than this. Perfection.