I don’t play computer games. Yes, I know I have a catch-all category for any non-console based game off to the right, and obviously I do indulge in them every so often, slipping from my healthy diet of games that don’t lag, crash, freeze or glitch in favor of a doughy, glazed-over donut of wonder built strictly for computers, but it takes a mighty powerful game to push me over that edge. And yes, maybe I only say that because for the second day in a row, Anne went to work without bringing in the tray full of delicious brownies caked in cookies and cream frosting that I know I can’t eat, but my point still stands; it takes an impressively good game for the voices in my head to overpower me and get me to break. (Maybe I’ll just go look at the brownies for a minute…) Maybe I just don’t play them, though, because I grew up with an NES, SNES and a PC that predated windows and had a 5.25“ floppy disk drive, and when a friend introduced me to Warcraft, I had to learn the hard way that it would take a few hundred of those suckers to fit all the data from the game CD.
I loved Warcraft. I liked anything with a fantasy setting, and I probably had never played a strategy game–now my favorite genre–prior to that. Plus it didn’t hurt that the summoned scorpions looked more like lobsters, appealing to that little insane voice in my head (which, by the way, still wants me to devour all the sugar in my kitchen). Unfortunately, I wouldn’t get my own computer with a CD drive until long past when Windows would let people see it out in public with Warcraft, and Blizzard dropped out of college and started hitting the gym because using words like “grind” and “crawl” made it more popular than if it challenged people to think. But on the upside, in a move proving that nerds will inherit the Earth if we believe in the power of extended metaphors, Microsoft moved in to take over the spot vacated by Blizzard, releasing their Age of Empires strategy games in the late nineties.
After finding a collection of the first two games along with their expansions hiding unappreciated in a Goodwill, I jumped immediately to Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. Having played the NDS spin-off already, I knew I wanted the version which, presumably, had a little more gusto. And, see, that might have ruined the game for me. The Age of Kings scored ungodly high marks in reviews, averaging about a 9.2 out of 10. It does have a lot going for it, but comparing it to the DS version, it had the organization of a bathtub full of Legos.
Maybe I should start with its better qualities, though. The game basically operates like the original Warcraft games; you use peasants to farm, mine for gold, and build military buildings and defenses. These support your war effort, allowing you to train different types of soldiers, which all have unique stats that make them more or less effective depending on enemy soldiers. From there, you have to interact with the terrain to accomplish goals, usually which involve not a small amount of murder and/or mayhem. Think urban planning with medieval combat. You know–if Sim City let you pillage other players’ towns.
The major addition, though, that Microsoft made when stripping away any potential copyright infringement, gives the series its name. Sort of. Battles progress through a sort of time. You start off most battles in the Dark Ages, and as you build your society, each building lets you research technology that will help your marauding. With enough advancement–and a hefty down payment of food and gold, you can “age up” to the next period in time, which will make new construction and research options available for your disposal, as well as giving you the option to beef up your current forces. Flawless system. Pure genius. Well, it does stretch the imagination a bit. Yes, we know that between games, Link, Samus, et al. have to get stripped of all their equipment, forget all adventuring know-how and sit on the couch eating Doritos until they can no longer perform even the simplest of sword-thrusts or beam-blasts. But that all happens on a personal level, between adventures–half the time this happens between consoles. Yet somehow, Saladin, Islam’s greatest military mind, can conquer Jerusalem, then happens to forget that his soldiers can sit on a horse? Eh. Whatever. Game mechanics. Suspension of disbelief.
But that brings up one of my major beefs in transitioning from the DS AoE to the Windows version. The DS filled you in on historical notes, putting you into the context of history and flushing out the moves of some pretty big names from history–not to mention giving you that character for use in each campaign. The Windows version…not so much. Not only does this make the game less interesting, but in order to let the player win, they kind of had to rewrite history. Joan of Arc didn’t succeed quite as much as AoE lets you believe, but no one wants to take an arrow to the eye for the sake of reenacting history–just ask anyone wearing a Confederate Army uniform in the 21st century. While the DS game will fill you in on these details after the battle, the Windows version lets you remain in a blissful state of believing whatever you want, enforcing yet another generation of people who think climate change is a myth, George W Bush attacked the World Trade Center, and that Barack Obama forged his birth certificate and wants to take away our guns to declare himself king. But as most political turmoil caused by William Wallace or Genghis Kahn has more or less petered out, that remains an irritation easily overlooked.
I did struggle with the difficulty. I started the game on the easy setting and it coddled me with the tenderness of an angry dominatrix with nipple clips, a bull whip, and a large supply of hot wax. I didn’t want to crank it down to “easiest,” but it felt excessively time-consuming and replaced free-thinking strategy with a puzzle–“How does the game expect me to turn back this onslaught without winding up as a puddle of goo on these rocks?” The difficulty ramps up even more since rather than handling the traditional two resources that Warcraft, Starcraft, and the DS AoE requires, they expect you to juggle food, gold, wood and stone like you want to join the Cirque du Soleil of feudal combat. Harvesting each resource permanently ties up a peasant, which wouldn’t complicate things all that much, but the resources don’t last forever, and the peasants don’t quite have the brainpower to plant new turnips after eating the old ones, so they require constant attention in order to prevent any slacking off in your ranks. The game includes a button that will jump the screen immediately to the next idle villager, a gesture about as welcome as a hooker who gives you a bottle of penicillin and a warning that you might want to get checked out. I found myself waiting for them to introduce an idle soldier button or an idle siege unit button, but apparently they didn’t think the player would want to find these things quite as much as lazy farmers.
On the easiest setting, I still wasted countless hours upon each campaign, but I felt like I got to be creative with my strategy, play off the terrain, and solve problems in more than the single method Microsoft had envisioned. It usually ended up as some sort of variation of: 1) Build to Imperial Age, 2) Build trebuchets, 3) Move trebuchets forward slowly using other units to protect it. The trebuchets, while having the largest range and destructive force of any unit in the game, had a tendency to behave like frightened puppies. “Go over there,” I’d tell them. “Attack that castle.” Then I’d come back after slapping some sense into a peasant standing in the middle of an empty farm and find the trebuchet moving slowly, but confidently in the other direction.
Despite its immaculate ratings, the game suffers in comparison to the DS version, which lets you play with the heroes, focus on strategy instead of urban planning, and take your time to set your pieces into place–yes, I know most real wars happen in real time, but most real generals don’t have to issue individual commands to each soldier at all times. I like the turn-based features. Age of Kings might gray your hair with its difficulty, but I have to remind myself that all good strategy games do that at first, so you may want to put up with sleepless nights and clenched teeth for a little while, if you like this sort of thing.