In the realm of RTS titles on the PC, few games can hold a candle to Microsoft’s Age of Empires franchise for depth of play, cunning AI, strategic challenge and breadth of multiplayer options. Bringing this quality to the DS and tweaking it into a turn-based approach to historical global domination sounds like a tall order.
Backbone Entertainment has done a surprisingly good job of conveying the feel of Age of Empires in Age of Empires: Age of Kings on the Nintendo DS in a turn-based format. Technological advancements and moving through the different ages has the flavor of AoE’s older, PC-based brothers, and the slower pace of action allows for the detailed planning a game like this requires. Just by making the cross-platform/cross-genre transition successfully, Backbone and Majesco have done something really impressive.
AoE has the same wardrobe as most other strategy titles. A detailed tutorial hides under Joan of Arc’s campaign against those rotten English, with a number of other historical campaigns available for play. Instant gratification is also available for those who just want a game without concern for history (because Genghis Khan would so own Joan d’Arc).
Multiplayer is great. One-to-four players can mix it up on separate machines or, in an inspired option, hotseat matches—even those poor heathens who have not yet embraced the DS can enjoy the game. Hotseat makes for a great beer and pretzels game during halftime or between classes, and it’s a great feature. AoE can even slip in AI if you’re short a player or two. A multitude of maps are available, and there are better than forty units to command. Battle on.
It’s in the actual gameplay and presentation that this title loses a little shine. Organizing and operating your burgeoning empire with the stylus is easy enough, but unit control gets frustrating as pathfinding becomes an issue—moving with the d-pad is much easier. Units are small and poorly distinguished—it’s hard to tell on first glance whether a unit of horsemen are light cavalry or knights or cavaliers or cowboys or a parade; this was never a problem with the PC version.
Combat doesn’t require a lot of strategy. While terrain can affect the offensive and defensive power of your units, and some units are stronger/weaker against others, more often than not military conquest comes down to who can better balance technological advancement and get soldiers on the field…anywhere on the field. The turn-based environment steals much of the art of war from the game. Formations? Where are my beautiful, beautiful formations?!
Presentation is, tragically, quite poor. Sounds are INCREDIBLY repetitive. There are perhaps six different battle sounds, and that’s all she wrote. The battle animation is simplistic, repetitive and unimpressive. The game’s music is stirring, but again, very repetitive. Given the platform no one expects the kind of graphics and sound a console or PC could produce, but this is really sub-par.
All is, however, not lost. Technological advancement and expansion of the empire is genius in its simplicity. It’s the PC version without the frantic scrolling and mouse-clicking to stay ahead of the other guys. As with every multiplayer strategy game, it’s glorious to destroy your opponent’s kingdom brick by brick, gleefully laughing over his demise.
Age of Empires: Age of Kings isn’t quite the home run (or perhaps stand-up triple) that Advance Wars was with regards to the genre of turn-based strategy, but it’s a good strategy game for the morning commute or a rainy afternoon with a few friends. This AoE may not be the seven-course meal of development, technology and military domination, but it’s a filling little snack.