Where Sid Meyer’s Civilization led, many other God games have followed. Some have been impressive, others have died a deservedly quiet death in the backwaters of the PC strategy game market. Some have been based in a science-fiction future, others in a semi-factual past. Of the latter group, Microsoft did a pretty good job with Age of Empires, and that game has now been updated, hence the ‘II’ and the ‘The Age of Kings’ subtitle.
At its heart, there’s not a huge difference between this game and the last. Both follow the Civilization premise, namely that the player starts with nothing more than two peasants to rub together and has to build a thriving economy/army/city using natural resources, patience, skill and a fair amount of caffeine. The caffeine is a must because, like all good God games, Age of Empires II draws you in and holds you there until the small hours. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t let that stop you, though, since you’re not dealing with the Romans in AoE II. Instead, you have the choice of, among others, the Japanese, Byzantines, Vikings, Mongols and Celts, the latter proving the most entertaining, if only for the voice-over in the ‘learn to play’ tutorial.
That tutorial gives you an idea of what AoE II is all about. There’s plenty of practical hand-holding through the early stages, so that quickly you’re able to build and sustain an army and repel invaders. The interface helps here, being uncluttered and accessible, and for expert players there are hotkey shortcuts for virtually every possible action and command.
Graphically, AoE II is great. The peasants walk, the cavalry trot around on their horses, and there are plenty of background distractions such as birds, deer and sheep – which you can kill for food – to keep you interested. The usual partial-isometric viewpoint is used, and it works perfectly well, being visually interesting and practical. When a character disappears behind a building or tree, for example, his or her outline is shown so that you can keep track of who’s where.
New features in this game include wider technology choices, different ways of achieving victory (including economic domination), and new campaigns based on real or semi-real historical characters. All this, and the game runs happily enough on a low-spec Pentium PC.