Age of Empires: Age of Kings – NDS

If you’ve kept up with me for even a few months, you’ve probably noticed a pattern. I play a game, like it, and jump immediately to another game in the series. Or, perhaps, I hate the game and want to play something better. Either way, you can expect another Onimusha entry soon. Maybe another Castlevania, too. But not this week. This week I’ll jump back into the past and re-create historical battles without the need to tolerate people who truly believe the South will rise again. You may recall a few weeks ago when I wrote about Age of Empires: Age of Kings. I felt that between juggling the tasks of deforestation, trading resources like a gambling addict at the New York Stock Exchange, whipping lazy peasants like a plantation overseer, and constantly buffing out the hoof dents in and removing arrows from the skulls of my soldiers, I didn’t feel like I had any time to enjoy the game.  So when I finished–yes, and I also read all the way through Moby Dick. I abuse myself that way–I did what I could to rectify my frustration; I played through the turn-based Age of Kings on the Nintendo DS.

Yes, “turn-based.” The words reviewers always spit out like an angry dilophosaurus, meant to imply something infantile, unrealistic and boring, while still gives them an opening for lavishing praises on Mario, which really does play as infantile, unrealistic and boring.  Reviewers use the term “turn-based” to justify abandoning a Final Fantasy game after playing for thirty minutes and not getting a Call-of-Duty-esque rush of testosterone and a story premise they can sum up into ten words or less. If you haven’t yet picked up on the tone here, I don’t necessarily think games where the enemy patiently waits for you to bash in their teeth before they do unto you actually suffer directly because of that feature. Consider this retribution for panning Assassin’s Creed; now I have to defend something no one else likes. For starters, people who play chess and go take turns, and we commonly believe that geniuses play those games. Now think back to some of the real-time games you’ve played. Kingdom Hearts–do you ever use any strategy other than mashing the X button and occasionally healing? How about Smash Brothers or other fighting games. Do you actually know how to pull off the special moves, or do you just hit buttons and hope to get lucky?

Yup. Grid-based strategy. Like chess, but with trees and rivers.

Yup. Grid-based strategy. Like chess, but with trees and rivers.

See, players will usually do the simplest, easiest thing that accomplishes their goals. Real-time games usually give you a swift, basic attack that you can execute in a pinch. Think about it this way; a spider falls on you while taking a shower. Do you rationally think out a plan to improve the situation, or do you freak the hell out? Real-time games make players freak out. I don’t like that. I constantly have to explain to friends that button-mashing never works better than actually knowing how to play the game, and they never believe me, and then they play as Gannondorf and I play as Jigglypuff and I beat them into submission within moments. The PC version of Age of Kings employed the freak-out strategy, where building a proper economy, scoping out the terrain and developing a strategy often took a back seat to giving a sword to any man, woman, child, horse or hedgehog within sight and pushing them out one at a time to get slaughtered by the hoards of enemy Rohirrim Riding into my village, smashing and hacking and destroying everything in their path.

Wait...doesn't my advisor's name mean "Toilet" in Japanese?

Wait…doesn’t my advisor’s name mean “Toilet” in Japanese?

The DS game, however (to actually discuss today’s topic), gives you both the time to plan out a strategy and the need to do so. In addition to campaigns where you build towns and mine resources to support your army, this game gives you missions with a set number of non-renewable troops and tells you, “Go get ‘em, tiger!” And of course, attacking your enemy directly inevitably results in a wall of bodies–and not the useful kind, like in “300“–and a serious reflection as to your career choice of famous historical warlord. Different missions offer different objectives–destroy a town center, defeat an enemy hero, capture relics, build a tent for Genghis Kahn and make sure no one sets it on fire–and a number of ways to accomplish those tasks.

Hero units make the game. While in the PC version, you only ever took control of Joan of Arc, every mission in the DS game gives you control of a hero, and gives those heroes a number of special powers that effect game play. Joan of Arc can heal, Richard the Lionhearted can make his archers shoot farther, and Saladin will occasionally chip in a few coins to help you save up for that camel you’ve always wanted. Regular units, while only the monks and villagers have special commands, each have their own characteristics or abilities that tailor their uses to specific strategies. Archers can attack from a distance, preventing a counterattack, but if attacked at close range they have very low defense. Pikemen have less attack power than swordsmen, but deal more damage to cavalry. Cavalry deals a lot of damage to most things, but loses strength against buildings. This keeps the gameplay variable, and the bonuses and handicaps mostly feel intuitive, but sometimes come off a little weird. While I appreciate the challenges in ripping down a castle with your bare hands from the back of a camel, I find it difficult to understand how a rock hurled from a trebuchet can rip through that castle like tin foil, but an infantry unit can take the same blow and walk it off with only minor bleeding.

The game, of course, retains its titular feature, “Aging Up.” In campaigns that require economy building, your production lines turn out shabby, brand X fighters, and only by sinking money–and for some reason, food–into research each day can you expect to give them better weapons, stronger armor, or more efficient training. With enough research, a player can advance to the next “age,” beginning in the dark age, then progressing through the feudal, castle, and into the imperial age. With each new age, new buildings become available and new research opportunities along with them. In the feudal age, for example, you can build a blacksmith, which doesn’t create any units, but can improve weapons and armor for your existing soldiers. Likewise, by the time you reach the castle age, you can found–and underfund–your very own university, just like a real national governor.

Uhh...yep. More screenshots. Unfortunately, you don't often see much action.

Uhh…yep. More screenshots. Unfortunately, you don’t often see much action.

Age of Kings follows a historical path–sort of–for the five main heroes; Saladin, Minamoto Yoshitsune, Genghis Kahn, Joan of Arc, and Richard the Lionhearted. Occasionally it has to include a note here and there stating that Minamoto never actually fought the Mongols, that Richard never took Jerusalem, or that Joan of Arc didn’t really win all that many battles. I understand that not a lot of people out there nerd out over Medieval history, but I do, and as much as I appreciate science fiction and fantasy, game developers rarely realize that their products don’t have to fall into one of the two default categories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include all that many historical re-creations, and the post-game falls short of expectations so hard I think I heard all its bones shatter. By accomplishing challenge goals in the main game, you can unlock extra maps and a few scenario battles to set up hypothetical and partially randomized campaigns to play through. However, all the heroes must have suffered a few too many blows to the head in the main game because even on the hardest settings, enemies often forget to build, research, age up, or attack. Not so much battles anymore, these campaigns have all the difficulty of erasing low-quality chalk off a chalkboard (you young ‘uns should think “dried up ink on a white board.” But then go find some chalk.) These additional campaigns serve only to wean me off the game while simultaneously looking toward Age of Empires: Mythologies, but in the interest of getting through this stack of games I bought by never played, you don’t have to worry for a while.

Age of Empires II: Age of Kings – PC

Don't let the Asian guy on the right fool you: you have to get the expansion if you don't want a completely Euro-centric game.

Don’t let the Asian guy on the right fool you: you have to get the expansion if you don’t want a completely Euro-centric game.

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.

For some reason, you can't build fire ships. The game just likes to watch you burn, I guess.

For some reason, you can’t build fire ships. The game just likes to watch you burn, I guess.

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.

Quoting Star Wars eight centuries before it became cool.

Quoting Star Wars eight centuries before it became cool.

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.

Look carefully and you'll see a well-placed sheep contributing to the demise of this building.

Look carefully and you’ll see a well-placed sheep contributing to the demise of this building.

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.

Uhh...well, Wine gets all weird when I try to take screenshots, but they all look alike anyway, so what does it matter?

Uhh…well, Wine gets all weird when I try to take screenshots, but they all look alike anyway, so what does it matter?

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.