There are a lot of little things that bothered me immediately about Age of Empires. First, when you launch it you are forced to "click-through" four intro movies, including a self-absorbed and overly dramatic flying Microsoft logo. The last of the four could have been an inspiring introduction to the world of Age of Empires--instead it featured legions of unnaturally, yet synchronized, moving soldiers and several horses that look exactly the same; an indication of the game to come.
I won't fill you in on the storyline since for the most part there isn't one. The manual does go into some detail but unfortunately "detail" doesn't appear to be the focus of this game. Essentially, you choose one of the 12 available civilizations and play through random maps, campaigns, death matches, or scenarios. Gather your resources (wood, food, stone and gold), construct buildings, produce your army and attack. Have I seen this before somewhere?
The four campaigns in the game are designed in an attempt to chronicle the rise of four civilizations. The information at the beginning and end of each sub-campaign may be historically accurate, but often the content isn't. Hence in the first Japanese mission, my small team of assassins (made up of several broadswordsmen, cavalry and archers instead of what should have been ninja) was swarmed by several lions. Lions? In Japan?
My major complaint about this game (and other games of the same genre) is that the differences between the civilizations are superficial. While some can build units or research technologies that others can't, the units are the same across all races. They even look the same and mumble their compliance in the same language. Instead of choosing which civilization to play, you might as well just choose what color clothes you'd like them to wear.
Playing the Yamato (Japanese) you can train Hoplites that look like they belong in a Greek or Roman army. In another Yamato campaign, I had several broadswordsmen and an archer named Hero Perseus. It wouldn't have killed them to do a little bit of research and realize that there were never broadswordsmen in Japan, nor did they have broadswords, nor men named Perseus for that matter. I guess all the Samurai were eaten by the lions.
The Scenario game type gives you specific goals to accomplish. Most are as mundane as capture-the-flag, and make your great society do things like transport an artifact across a river.
The Random Map and Death Match games (in both single and multiplayer) have a noticeable pattern. First you build up your resources and settlement while fending off small raiding parties, then once you make your army either swarm one of your opponents or be swarmed by someone else. The only difference in the Death Match is that you start out with 2000 of each resource, which cuts down on the waiting period before the carnage.
Some maps contain ruins, similar to Stonehenge, or artifacts which, if controlled for 2000 years, will lead your civilization to victory. Why they lead to victory is never explained.
Throughout the game, you will also be progressing through the "Ages": Stone, Tool, Bronze and Iron. You naturally start out in the Stone Age, where you can build only limited buildings (although they look like they would require tools to build). Once you have two Stone Age buildings you can research the Tool age, and so forth. The different ages give you the ability to build more advanced buildings and units, and also change the look of your existings buildings.
Another oddity: each game can last for thousands of years, yet the landscape remains static. Despite the flooding of the Nile every year being a prominent issue in the Egyptian Campaign, not once did the waters rise. Trees, fish and animals are limited in supply, as they won't grow back or reproduce. Once you've clear cut your forests, and fished the cod into extinction, finding resources can be very difficult.
As many of the missions span thousands of years, the lack of renewable resources pulls the focus away from military strategy to the quest for finding food and lumber. Normally, this would push a society to conquer other lands to gain more resources, but by the time you've run out so has everyone else.
Like good movies, good games should have characters that you care about or at least feel some connection with. Age of Empires is devoid of either. This reduces all of the units to "cannon fodder." It doesn't seem to matter much if you lose one, you can always make another.
Comparing gameplay with other titles of in the same genre, Age of Empires falls seriously short of the average. The AI is predictable, the storyline virtually non-existent, and many of the scenarios seem trivial in their goals. As for strategy? That can be summed up with two words: brute force.
The Last Word
Age of Empires is a functional, yet uninspired addition to the Real Time Strategy shelf. Microsoft has managed to borrow tried-and-true features from other games (most notably WarCraft) without adding anything new. Then again, could we really expect anything more?