Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Developer: Backbone Entertainment Vancouver
Release Date: February 14, 2006
We Will Cut Them Down Like Ripe Wheat, My Liege
If stories that function logically enough on a small scale, but begin to reveal their cracks when you broaden your point of view, weren't able to propel you through bits of unconnected action toward a distant payoff, no one would've remembered Battlestar Galactica long enough to bother with a remake. Think, then, how much more memorable and ...errr, better ...such disjointed narratives would be if every episode displayed the characters' tactical mastery as they worked their way toward bigger, strategic goals.
Age of Empires: The Age of Kings delivers that payoff in the form of episodic empire-building across five civilizations, but also invests the combat with enough tactical substance to make every individual battle as satisfying as building your third castle. A welcome addition to the DS' turn-based strategy library, this handheld installment of the venerable PC real-time franchise is an entertaining alternative for TBS fans who've long ago repelled the Black Hole Army's attacks in Advance Wars: Dual Strike.
The Age of Kings' setup is an assemblage of historical civilizations on the rise, letting you command heroes and grunts alike to dominate opposing hordes. This removes the possibility of a strict, linear narrative to drive you through the scenarios, and the compression of entire ages – dark through imperial – into the lifetime of a single historical figure further erodes the sense-making of the overall narrative structure. Historical accuracy may not be of much significance if you just dig the battles for battles' sake or if you're already a fan of the PC game, but if you ever catch yourself demanding that the temporal paradoxes in Star Trek make sense, the indulgent approach to the timeline may be a slight distraction.
Otherwise, it's a solid good time commanding Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionhearted, Genghis Khan, Saladin and Minamoto Yoshitsume through the single-player campaign. The variety of units at their disposal is significant, and each has a set of strengths and weaknesses that the game encourages you to learn as you progress from civilization to civilization. Militia men, men-at-arms, samurai and elite versions thereof fill your infantry ranks, while cavalry units range from lowly scouts to mighty paladins and camels, who sport the handy ability to scare simple steeds. As some mounted units and suffer a weakness against enemy strongholds, trebuchets, stone-tossing onagers and other siege units are at the ready to bust into town centers and through castle walls. Horse archers, arbalests and plenty more ranged units take advantage of mountaintop distance bonuses to pierce the armor of the unenlightened from one square farther removed from the dangerous hand-to-hand action. Monks are a particularly entertaining variety, useful not only for healing injured friendlies, but also for their ability to convert enemies of wavering faith to your side.
Perhaps even more so than in Advance Wars: Dual Strike, carefully playing to each unit's battlefield advantages is the way to efficient victory. Massing a random army to apply brute-force tactics only gets you through so many scenarios in Age of Kings before prolonged battles and an over-reliance on regaining health on friendly farm plots begin to take their toll on your ability to make war. Either learn that your light cavalry units are useless against enemy siege workshops, or suffer the fate.
The technology researching and age systems also hold significant influence over the economic and martial performance of your empire, ranging from the cost advantages of the simple wheel-barrow to the improved infantry and cavalry attack rating granted by the invention of the blast furnace. The strong units that come with the later ages may not provide as satisfying a visual reward as you might like, but the added power and resilience lend every research decision a strategic significance that you can't ignore if you hope to advance far enough to train samurai. Here again the choices are vast, contributing to the sense that every advancement in coinage, arrow fletching and even religious fervor carries a weight greater than mere success in any given fight. In other words, inventing scale barding is as important to eventually building your own castle in the mountains as it is to saving the hide of a single horse.
Cultivating the resources to advance your civilization is actually fairly easy in Age of Kings, at least as measured by the relative infrequency of attempting to train a unit and being unpleasantly surprised that you don't have enough food or gold to get yourself a new crew of Knights of the Round. This is to some extent a cop-out, as it's perfectly reasonable to be required to manage an economy. On the other hand, it's music to the ears of warriors who'd just as soon spend their gaming hours strategizing instead of tending wheat mills and gold mines. As usual, weak grunt units – villagers, this time around – play an important foundational role as builders and repairers of the barracks, stables, archery ranges, cultural wonders and other structures that train offensive troops and contribute to your empire's income.
When the barracks are built and your army's assembled, the combat works exactly as TBS fans might expect. Move a direct-attack unit next to or a ranged unit within flaming arrow range of an enemy and select attack. The Combat Advisor, in the guise of a different character for each civilization's campaign, alerts you to the sure success or impending doom of the unit you're sending to battle. The writing amuses from time to time, but these one-liners also feel like a bit of an unnecessary concession to accessibility in an already perfectly accessible game, especially since a summary of each side's attack, defense and terrain bonuses appears on the top screen, giving you all the information you need to make your own quick decision to rethink the fight if things look to dire.
If you play through the civilizations in the default order, you may question your AI enemies' combat prowess in some of the earlier scenarios. Why, for example, do Mongol hordes pouring off the Khan's ships waste time attacking your outlying villages when all they have to do to win is overwhelm your temple? The hero units, thanks to the supernatural powers they bring into battle, can dominate the action, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. The attack bonus Saladin offers friendly ranged units within his sight, for example, can be enough to resolve a scenario if played at the right time, but on the other hand, the health bonus Minamoto hands out to nearby units can artificially extend their life far away from conquered terrain, resulting in long, sloppy wars that otherwise would probably end in your defeat. For the most part, though, campaign scenarios are configured logically in terms of mission goals and thoroughly in terms of terrain, encouraging you to consider all the angles to achieve a decisive victory.
Once your army begins slashing and burning across the plains and forests in greater numbers, the stylus-and-touchscreen control scheme does its best to encourage you to rely on the D-pad and A button to select units and assign actions quickly. Trying to select a monk amid a throng of swordsmen only to light up nearby squares on the grid is enough to make you jab the stylus into its holder. While this isn't exactly overlookable, neither isn't it impossible to adapt to, and eventually any control challenges you encounter begin to feel like not so big a deal.
All this action plays out in repetitive but endlessly watchable animations of clashing Dopple-handers and charging cavalry, complete with walls that crumble and sprout flames when you attack successfully. The visual style isn't as polished as Advance Wars: Dual Strike, sometimes leaving you struggling to distinguish a samurai from a mangudai occupying adjacent squares. Structures, though, enjoy a more distinctive treatment, like the wind-powered Saracen mills that are easily distinguishable from the water mills of the Japanese.
One style point that Age of Kings shares with Advance Wars is the potential to annoy with a slightly too-whimsical approach to presenting its subject matter. While it's not as overtly cartoonish as Advance Wars, Age of Kings' graphical aesthetic fits somewhere between history textbook and public TV historical reenactment, which may annoy more serious-minded folk. The constant groans that accompany defeat and cute fanfares that signal a successful skirmish don't help in this regard, but the sword-on-sword clank and unique score for each civilization's campaign help the presentation feel complete if not entirely subject-matter appropriate.
If that doesn't sound like enough for you – and honestly, the lengthy single-player campaign alone justifies a purchase – much extra content awaits. An alternative single player mode lets you configure individual battles with up to three AI opponents. You can choose your enemies' aggressiveness level, turn blackmap and fog of war on or off and recreate the battle of Hastings if you're up to it. Most entertainingly, but perhaps of not so great significance unless one strikes at a particularly inopportune moment, you can allow random events like outbreaks of the plague, serf rebellions and bountiful harvests to occur over the course of the battle. Age of Kings also supports similarly configurable multiplayer matches in pass-the-DS Hotseat and Wireless Link varieties. When you need a break, you can read up on the civilizations in the library if you can handle the history-for-dummies tone of the writing.
Did you know that Genghis Khan means “Oceanic Chief”?
Touchscreen quirks, as beside-the-point as they are in the grand scheme, nevertheless prevent Age of Empires: The Age of Kings from dethroning Advance Wars: Dual Strike as the DS' preeminent turn-based strategy title. It's a worthy challenger, though, bringing the breadth of tactical options, deep catalogue of units and stampede-through-the-ages campaign structure to the handheld in a form that easily keeps you hooked for the long haul. Age of Kings' endless tactical calculations more than compensate for slightly fuzzy graphics and logical curiosities, and reward patient engagement with countless hours of empire-scale strategic combat.
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