Daily Illuminator

December 13, 2007: Love Those Ages

I discovered Ensemble's Age of Mythology several years ago, when I was a guest at a convention that got blizzarded in. Very few fans showed up, but the staff and guests were already there when the snow hit. So we all had a lot of unscheduled time, and they had a lot of videogames set up, and I discovered the joy of building an army of mythological creatures and watching them tear up a Roman city with the aid of lightning from the gods.

So earlier this year I decided to check out Age of Empires III, figuring it would be interesting to see what this sort of game looked like with more recent technology. Not brand new, though - AoE was a 2005 release. So this is not a review. It's more of an "oh, wow."

Things I like about it:

  • It's absolutely beautiful. The game is just a visual feast, both in terms of artwork and animation. I could babble about this at length, but I'm stopping now.
  • Although it's very firmly in the Real Time Simulation camp, the designers have brought in concepts from other sorts of games, including traditional roleplaying and even console gaming (kill something, and a point score comes floating up . . .!) Because I don't play nearly every computer game that comes out, I don't know how much of this might have been evolutionary as Ensemble developed the line. I just know that as I explore the many elements of AoE and the way they link together, my designer spider-sense is tingling very happily.
  • In particular, the "Home City" concept - which was definitely introduced in this game - is very ingenious, because every game you play, even a one-shot skirmish against the AI, adds to your city's "experience" and builds toward unlocking new units. Addictive and sneaky!
  • Eight different nations to play, each with some unique units; some even have unique naval units. Woo. The ships are large (of course), damage each other spectacularly, and sink beautifully. And you can hire privateers as auxiliaries. Arrrrr.
Things I don't like so much:
  • The AI is lame compared to, say, StarCraft. Which was done HOW many years ago? (checks) 1998. Nine years ago. The StarCraft AI, once it's gotten that first rush out of its system, can hit me with anything, anyplace on the map, and it expands aggressively. The AoE AI, at least so far, repeats the same sort of attack in the same place often enough that I might as well be playing Tower Defense. And it doesn't seem to scout the whole map at all.
  • The documentation is mediocre. Though actually that's a plus, because most computer game documentation is still BAD. Still, if you play this game, you'll be learning it by clicking everything that moves, and then everything that stands still, and seeing if you get an info panel, and clicking everything on THAT . . .
  • The theme gets stuck in my head and I dream about it.
  • Is there really no way to set a unit to patrol?
  • Often I get the same name on two of my warships at once. Come on, guys. That ought to be patched by now.
You will note that the good bullet points really outweigh the bad. So I'm going to play this some more. And if you work for Ensemble and see me at a convention, come up and say hi. I'd like to shake your hand.
-- Steve Jackson
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