Age of Empires II: Gold Edition, by Bold
Posted: 19-Jan-2002

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Bold Software Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Bill Catambay Class: GAMES

Age of Empires II has finally been released for the Macintosh. This action strategy game has been out on Windows for a long time, and now, at long last, Mac users can play this addictive game on their favorite platform. What's more, the Mac version, called the Gold Edition, includes both Age of Kings and the Conquerors Expansion, all in one package (they are sold separately on the Windows platform).

Age of Kings
The Age of Kings is a real time strategy game in which you must lead the development and expansion of a civilization over the course of a millennium - past the fall of the Roman Empire and through the Middle Ages. You control the technological, economic and diplomatic advances of your culture, forge alliances with foreign powers, raise armies and lead them into battle.

Conquerors Expansion
The Conquerors Expansion adds new civilizations, unique units and technologies to the game, and also engrosses players in campaigns based on historical figures like Attila the Hun, El Cid and Montezuma. Gameplay enhancements supported by The Conquerors Expansion will include chat commands, smart villagers and farm queuing.

Playing Age of Empires II
Living up to the original Age of Empires, Age of Empires II (AoE2) is a fantastic strategy game. You control a civilization (either of your choosing or determined by the "campaign" you select). Part of your task is building the economy, which is basically creating villagers and commanding them to collect resources, build structures, or repair structures. Utilizing your stored resources, you build a military, with a vast variety of military units to choose from (and the available units are varied depending upon the civilization you control). In the standard game, your goal is to conquer the enemy civilizations, represented either by the computer AI or by other live players over the internet. Other ways to win include building a wonder and defending it for a certain number of years, or collecting all the monastery relics, and keeping them for a certain number of years.

There are a lot of cool features over the original Age of Empires. There is now the ability to build units in mass. They are still created one after another, but you can queue them up instead of having to return to the building each time one is created. You can also pre-assign tasks to the workers that spawn from your Town Center. Another cool feature is the bell signal that you use when your town is being attacked. All the workers (includes women and men now) take cover, and fire arrows at the attackers from protected buildings and towers. Ring the bell again, and they all return to doing what they were doing before (whether chopping wood, farming or whatever).

There are several new advancements, including new ages (e.g., Imperialism). While these add more depth to the game, what thrills me the most is that the AI and the graphics in this version of the game are greatly improved over the original. The graphics support is "smart" now, as well. For example, units can walk over farms, as well as through buildings that graphically show gaps. Before no unit could enter a grid which contained the building or structure, regardless of logic.

While many people enjoy the quick random game (usually taking 5 hours to complete), or the network game, I really love the long campaigns in AoE2 (can take days). The game throws you into the story, and leaves it up to you to follow through and come out the victor. Trying different strategies, plotting attacks, structuring your defenses, and managing your resources all make-up a very compelling game that entertains, engages, and enlightens. Each chapter of the campaign starts with a written and spoken prologue providing wonderful insight into the history of your character (be it Joan of Arc or Attila the Hun). Upon victory, an epilogue is also displayed with more interesting tidbits of history, shedding light on what you just accomplished.

WARNING: This game is very addictive. If you have other responsibilities, be careful. Don't fool yourself into thinking you can startup a game and just play for 15 minutes. Four hours later, after your girlfriend has left and your dog has broken into the pantry for some food, you'll wonder where the time went.

There are two perspectives to view AoE2: as a PC-to-Mac port, and as a Mac game in its own right.

PC to Mac Conversion
I was an avid player of AoE2 on the PC, so I was quick to notice the things that were the same in the Mac version, and the things that weren't. For the most port, AoE2 for the Mac looks and plays identical to its PC counterpart. Destineer Studios did a great job on the port. There are some shortcomings, however. First of all, the installer seemed like a hack job. It wasn't anything like the PC installer, nor was it a typical Mac installer. It was simple enough to run the installer, but the progress bar jumped quickly to the end, stating that 20 of 20 items were installed, yet it had several more files to install. You're basically staring at a completed progress bar at the beginning of the installation process, and you really don't have a clue when it will be done.

Once installed, all was fine. One complaint I had at the start is that you are required to play with the CD in your CD-ROM (even if you have the disk space to copy everything over). On both my G3 and G4, this is a great annoyance because I like to be able to play an AoE game anytime I might get the urge. That means that I need to keep the CD in the computer, therefore causing me to deal with the system slowdowns caused from the CD-ROM spinning up and down from time to time. Please don't require me to keep the CD in the computer!

When it came to gameplay, there really was not much difference from the PC. I use a 2-button scroll mouse, and the 2nd button worked just as it did in the PC version. The AI behaved pretty much the same on all levels of play, and the rules and controls all paralleled the PC version. There were some differences that were noticeable, some not such a big deal, but some were. First of all, the graphics quality was actually poor compared to the PC version. Given the Mac's strong graphics capability, this should not be the case, but it is. At all resolutions, the graphics were grainier on the Mac (see below). Comparing some campaigns side-by-side, I also noticed that shaded areas in the PC version that were all black show up as a funky gray on the Mac side. These areas were rare, but I did notice them.


Notice the pixelation in the ship sails as well as the wheels on the ram.


Notice the speckles in the shade - that should all be black.


The other thing that may not bother Mac-only players that did through me a curve were the dialog windows. The dialog buttons were often reversed from the PC version (e.g., YES and NO, etc.).

Some of the more substantial differences appear to be oversights or bugs. First, when playing a campaign, you typically have multiple tasks to achieve. In the PC version, once you achieve the task, it's crossed off the task list. On the Mac, the tasks were never crossed off, and this made it very difficult to figure out what I still needed to do in some scenarios. Likewise, on the PC version when an enemy civilization had resigned, they are crossed off the list in the diplomacy window. On the Mac, they didn't get crossed off, again making it difficult to manage the scenario. Also, in the epilogues of campaigns, the text is always a color similar to the background for some reason, making it very difficult to read (see below).


Above the graphics is unreadable text that needs to be in a more contrasting color
.

Another difference which was very annoying was that the settings did not get saved from session to session. Once your start a game, there are little round buttons around the mini-map that you use to control settings such as help and extended commands. Help displays text over your map when you place the cursor in various places. Extended commands give you more control over your military units (something I found crucial to always have on). By default, help is ON and extended commands are OFF, the exact opposite of how you want them to be. However, on the PC, once you change them, they stay changed for all subsequent games. On the Mac. you have to reset your choices each and every time you startup the AoE2 application.

As Mac Games Go
This game stands out as a favorite of mine on the Mac platform. The problems mentioned above do hinder game play, but hopefully they will be fixed in subsequent updates (the game, afterall, was still at version 1.0.3 at the time of this review). Also, the application needs to save the user's desktop prior to switching resolutions. My desktop icons stayed in tact, but any open windows I have before playing AoE2 get re-arranged after quitting the game.

As mentioned before, AoE2 is addictive. It's a blast building up your empire, and it's always a thrill when you move from one age to the next (to Feudal, to Castle, to Imperialism). I played all of the campaigns for Age of Kings as well as the Conquerers Expansion, and they are all a ton of fun, with a special uniqueness about each one. I probably learned more history from this game that I did in school.

Playing against the computer, I tried the game at several levels. I wasn't fully satisfied with the way that the computer AI got harder as I increased the level of difficulty. There are obvious advantages that the computer has in terms of manageability (knowing what each unit and each building is doing at all times while you have to click on each to remind yourself of what's going on, etc.). When you start playing the harder levels, AoE2 just takes advantage of this, and it really becomes a challenge of how fast you can click all over the place and manage things. While some players may enjoy that aspect of the game, I much prefer concentrating on the battle strategy. When playing at the harder levels, I didn't find that the computer AI became harder to outwit, just harder to out-manage. The other thing I found was that it appears as though the AI gets "tired" at some point, after hours of playing. It's almost as if you can just hold out and defend long enough, then just roll over the enemies. The game needs to have some built-in AI that continues to challenge even when resources, such as gold and stone, are all used up. Too often, I would raid a town where villagers where just standing around doing nothing (or sometimes they looked like they were running in place).

Networking
Once you have the AI figured out, you'll probably want to start playing against live players. The Mac version utilizes the popular GameRanger for playing against other players over the internet. This is the biggest challenge in terms of battle strategy, and the most interesting as every internet player is different. Connecting to a game through GameRanger was a breeze, and I really enjoyed playing AoE2 over the internet. Unfortunately, none of the network games I played were ever completed. In one attempt, we played for quite some time, but then someone either lost their connection or crashed, and I went into a screen that asked if I wanted to "continue", "wait" or "save and exit". Of course I chose to continue, but the game never continued. In another attempt, I was in a 6-person network match, and again the game had gone on for quite some time. One of the players who was getting beat pretty bad finally decided to resign. Instead of booting the player and letting the rest of us continue, AoE2 brought up the network interruption window again, and although I chose continue, the game never continued. This is extremely frustrating when you've invested so much time in a game. I even tried the "save and exit" option, but that didn't seem to do anything at all.

Other Stuff
There are a lot of neat tricks that are added as improvements to AoE2. I was really happy to be able to queue farms. In the original AoE, managing your farmers was a painful task, because you would have to instruct each to plant a new farm when a crop was depleted. Now, with a windmill and plenty of wood, you can queue up a bunch of farms so that crops are replanted automatically.

Another of my favorites is that the builders are smarter. If you send some off in a remote area to build a mine, they will automatically begin mining the closest minerals (if any are nearby) as soon as they have completed the mine. Same for wood cutting. Also, when you send several builders to build a long wall, they disperse to opposite ends of the wall instead of building from the same point. This is the way I prefer them to build it, and now they do it automatically (albeit, they still sometimes build from the wrong side of the wall, so you still need to keep an eye on them to prevent them from being slaughtered by your enemies). One problem worth noting is the scrolling action when instructing a villager to build a wall. To build a wall, you use the cursor to designate where the wall should be constructed (start and end points). If the wall is contained within the viewable screen, there is no problem. However, if you build to the edge of the screen, or even want to overlap out of the viewable area, the cursor causes the map to scroll wildly and controllably. No matter what my scroll speed was set to, when designating a wall, the scrolling did not follow suit. The only way to cancel the operation is to let the mouse button go, which commands the villager to build a wall to wherever the cursor happens to be at the time. Then you have to signal the villager to stop, and then delete all the sections of the unbuilt wall (which could be all over the map). This is really bad during a network game or an intense battle in a campaign, because while you're fussing with undoing the mess, your enemies are pillaging your city and slaughtering your people.

There's some nice eye candy in the game as well. When your troops walk in snow-covered areas, they leave snow tracks. Animated wildlife is artfully incorporated into the game which really adds to the atmosphere (some of it is even edible). Some improvements that I would like to see added to the game are features that I've always liked in Civilization, such as being able to build roads to make travelling faster, and extending the ages further beyond it's current limit.

Campaigns
Because of the problems I encountered with completing a network game, and because the AI gets "dumb" after hours of play, I would have to say that the campaigns are currently the best thing about AoE2. They provide the best challenges, as you are battling against already established enemies, all with their own different attack strategies. Each scenario requires a different kind of strategy to win, incorporating timed objectives, award objectives, and all kinds of fun and interesting interaction with special characters. In fact, after completing all of the campaigns, I was really wanting some more (and hopefully more will come).

AoE2 does come with a campaign editor for creating your own custom campaigns, but I found the map editing cumbersome and difficult (including a bug with regards to placing bridges), and I never could figure out how to properly create objectives. Also, there are features of the built-in campaigns that are not really supported by the campaign editor (such as the prologues and epilogues with voice-overs and graphics).

Summary
For what I look for in a game - a fun atmosphere, intellectual challenge, adrenaline charge, and stimulating story and graphics - AoE2 fills the bill. Despite the problems discussed above, I highly recommend this game for all levels of Mac gamers (or even would-be Mac gamers). AoE2 is currently at an early 1.0.3 release, so there's a good chance that many of the current problems will be resolved in later updates. Either way, you're cheating yourself and neglecting your computer by not having this game. In the genre of games, AoE2 is simply a must-have.

Pros:

  • Addictive and fun!
  • Stylish graphics and stunning sound effects
  • Wonderful way to learn history through the campaigns
  • Network play through GameRanger
  • Best strategy game I've found on the Mac
  • Comes with both Age of Kings and Conquerers campaigns

Cons:

  • Some PC-to-Mac porting bugs make campaigns status confusing
  • Graphics quality not on par with standard Mac games
  • Campaign editing confusing
  • Network play needs to continue when losing a player
  • Wall building scroll action is erratic


Overall Rating:

4 out of 5 Mice