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I’ve gotten on a tear with some of the classic games related to the exploration of the New World.

Age of Empires (the original) is to me one of the keystones of the historical game genre. Created in 1997 by Ensemble Studios/Microsoft, it was touted as Civilization meets Warcraft – and fair enough that summary is. Within the game, you start as a stone age hunter/gatherer and then build and research your way to “Empire,” a civilization at the height of the Classical Age. As an RTS, there is little resemblance for this title to a “wargame” or a “historical simulation” by any stretch of the imagination. It is very much, as the box says, a re-theming of Warcraft. But viewing it so simply sells the experience of it short.

There was something engaging about starting with no technology and a single village and trying to grow it into an empire that felt good and epic. For 1997, creating a phalanx of hoplites and being able to watch them move across the map in formation to your orders, to me that was something else. There were games out there to accurately recreate ancient warfare (Ancient Battles of Alexander was a contemporary), but here was a way to actually watch ancient warfare animate itself on your screen as you played.

I have a confession to make at this point; I didn’t buy Age of Empires until well into the aughts. It seemed too expensive and too “light” for my tastes. Although I had played through the demo some, I didn’t jump all the way in until Age of Empires II was out. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings came out in 1999, also an Ensemble/Microsoft release. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a split in the creative types behind the scenes with the one of the developers leaving to create Empire Earth (in 2001). There is a story behind why that fact seems particularly relevant to me, but I’ll leave that for another time.

In the interim between the release dates of these two games, the world of RTS was advancing rapidly. While Age of Empires II was graphically and functionally an improvement, it wasn’t radically different from the original. Obviously by advancing the timeframe of the theme, it introduced new units, buildings, and technologies. It also incorporated “best practices” for RTS games for the time, particularly with the Conquerors expansion (and related patches). Command & Conquer had a sequel out, Warcraft II was very popular and Starcraft (and its expansion) were drawing a massive audience, defining how an RTS should be streamlined and optimized – particularly for head-to-head multiplayer.

Despite all of its pluses Age of Empires II, in some ways, drifts away from the very tenuous hold that the original had on its “historical” claim. While, very abstractly, developing a stone age village into an empire feels historically immersive, does it really work with a middle ages village? What does it mean that I’m growing corn so I can research metallurgy at my local blacksmith’s house? Age of Empires II created addictive and compelling gameplay and had some nice historical chrome in the form of special national units.  The structured campaigns were used to integrate gameplay with a historical narrative. But it also lost something important.

The first time, a few years ago, I tried to dig out my CDs and reinstall, I was very disappointed. Despite this being a Microsoft product, the software doesn’t survive the upgrade to Windows 7 (much less to the current version). With lots and lots of fiddling I got something partly functional, but it was full of graphics glitches. The uninitiated would think that Microsoft wouldn’t be involved with building a game that uses Windows in what, apparently, was the “wrong” way. Windows 7 and its compatibility modes do a pretty good job of resurrecting old games (older than this one, to be sure). Of course, that may be the problem. With direct access to the operating system development team, they probably used trick-upon-trick to squeeze a little bit more in performance. I did feel a bit cheated.

Fortunately, the market will often provide and this opened up the opportunity for a remake. The Age of Empires II:HD release in 2013, is largely identical to the original. The graphics are upgraded to support current screen resolutions. On top of that, you can occasionally pick out some graphics that have been re-done. The blurb claims that there are upgrades across the board, including better AI than the original. Perhaps you can go home again.

What I’ve written so far makes it seem like I have pretty negative view of this game. That’s not really fair. My angle here is how well this game fits into the historical genre. Beyond that narrow view, simply looking at it as a game, it has always been incredibly addictive. I played through all the campaigns as well as many other combinations and I’ve managed to hook a few friends and relatives while I was at it. To this day, the game remains addictive. It is nearly impossible to quit for the night when the enemy has just foiled your assault. First, let’s rebuild our army and tweak our strategy to see if we can prevail, and having accomplished that we then head off to bed. Repeat as necessary.

Among those campaigns is a “Montezuma” campaign, included with the Conquerors expansion. In it, the player plays a lieutenant in the Aztec empire leading fights against other Central American tribes. Eventually, the Spaniards show up and the clash of empires is at hand.

My first thought is, despite being exactly what I played back in the day, my memory of it had softened. It goes without saying that Age of Empires II is primarily (well, mostly) meant to depict medieval Europe. The Conquerors expansion added the Mesoamerican empires of the Aztecs and the Mayans as well as the Spanish Empire, and its Conquistador special unit. Between that and the inclusion of the Montezuma campaign, The Conquerors extended the game into the 16th century and into the New World. However, the basic structure of the game remains unchanged. Specifically, units advance through the medieval European technology tree, with slight variation based on your “civilization.” So while the Aztecs can’t get mounted units or gunpowder, they have all the other nonsensical units in the base game (see below screenshot).

aztec

An Aztec Man-at-Arms patrols his village armed with sword and scale mail.

I’ve said it before, but I never really got down the “strategy” of the RTS. The games are designed around a set of rock-paper-scissors cycles, and (I can imagine, not having mastered it) that this is the key to quick victories – you identify the weak point of your opponents defense, and then target that. Failing to grasp the puzzle leaves a brute force approach where, eventually you win by producing soldiers slightly faster than you opponent can kill them.

cortez

Cortes has arrive in Mexico. Upon landing, he burned all his ships to eliminate the temptation for retreat. Well, all his ships except the vessels armed with heavy siege mortars, which he intended to use on the mighty walled cities of the Aztecs, navigating the crisscrossing rivers of central Mexico.

The campaigns are structure so each level gets a little harder and perhaps eventually brute force is no longer an option. For a non-RTS guy, this leaves one feeling slightly frustrated while stuck in a game with weak connections to the history it is trying to portray. Contrasting directly with the near-contemporary Cossacks, the appeal of that title becomes more obvious. Age of Empires II campaign maps usually limit you to 75 units (it can be set as high as 200). This limit results in a point in the game where you have to start killing settlers in order to create a bigger army. Also, compare and contrast the graphics. I may have had complaints about the graphics in Cossacks, but it does seem a much better fit than Age of Empires. Similarly, I really miss those formations.

cathedrals

I’ve located the Spanish camp. Cortes and his men seem hard at work building cathedrals. Some wonderful stained glass work at that. Perhaps the soldiers are bored.

Researching – Discovery Age…

While the Age of Empires II releases were ongoing, the studio was already at work on a sequel using a new, 3D engine. The product came out in 2002 with the game Age of Mythology. While theme-wise somewhat similar to the original Age of Empires, it expanded into the realms of magic and the supernatural. That release was followed in 2005 with Age of Empires III. In theme and timeframe, it took up where Age of Empire II left off, with the 16th Century and a focus on the New World.

I passed on Age of Mythology and, although bought Age of Empires III back in the day after playing the demo, I never managed to get into it. So opening it up again today, it is all new to me.

At least, it is as new as an Age of Empires sequel can be. The basics of the game remain unchanged from the original. You still build a town starting from a Town Center, houses for raising the population, and specialized buildings for research and military units. Beyond the 3D graphics, there are a number of changes in gameplay. The game has been simplified. There are fewer resources, fewer unit types, and the maps are smaller (particularly obvious when comparing to the HD rework of Age of Empires II). This served to advance trend for RTS in the aughts – for shorter, faster playing games. I believe it was Rise of Nations, released at roughly the same time, that touted that games of epic sweep (from the stone age to the present and beyond) could be played within a half-hour lunch break. This as opposed to the dozens of hours that one might have sunk into Civilization. Age of Empires III would definitely allow you to advance from the voyage of Columbus to the Industrial Age in 10s of minutes, not 10s of hours.

For myself, I prefer the more leisurely pace of the earlier games and, while the 3D graphics look nice, I feel they’re less functional than the isomorphic sprites of old. Furthermore, with complexity comes programming challenge. 3D units can occasionally overlap and basic functions like pathfinding have taken a few giant steps backwards. Trying to send a large clump of units across the board inevitably leads to a traffic jam. The result is an annoying level of micro-management that II seemed to have solved.

Two big additions add to the gameplay and do help out with what Age of Empires II lost from the historical angle. As I said above, the original Age of Empires imagined growing a village into a mighty civilization. In II, that civilization should exist around you, so the original mechanics started to feel slightly off. The two additions help give the feeling that you are but a small part of a larger world. The lesser of the two is the addition of trade buildings, where you can tap into the income streams of passing trade routes that prosper, apparently, with or without you. More strongly, the “Home City” mechanic, reminiscent of similar functions in Colonization and Imperialism 2, provides a renewing source of bonuses to your growing colony which both adds to the game and reminds you are but a cog in a much larger wheelhouse.

stjohn

Chronologically, the first scenario (from the first campaign) takes place in the second half of the 1500s, with the Turkish invasion and siege of Malta.

If one wants to get very analytical, the transition between where II lets up and III begins is probably a little fuzzy. For infantry, Age of Empires II, advances to the “hand cannon” – technically a precursor to the arquebus in use in the late 14th century. By the conquests of Cortes, the matchlock (the defining technology for the arquebus) was beginning to be a significant part of the European battlefield. Of course, the Galleons that one can build in II didn’t become prevalent until the middle of the 1500s. To contrast with Age of Empires III, we start there with the musketeer. At the turn of the 16th century, the term “musket” referred to a very large arquebus. The musketeer units in III would seem to represent the technology of 100 years later. Details aside (I’m sure they’re meant to be very abstracted), the basic theme of the base game – that European powers compete to conquer the New World, assumes we’ve moved beyond the Spanish monopoly on American colonies and into the colonial expansions of, also, the 1600s.

As further evidence of this “start year,” the starting campaign of III begins with a representation of the Siege of Malta, which would start the game in 1565. Given the nature of the game we’re playing here, do such details really matter? I doubt it. But to stick with the theme, I loaded up a the first in a series of user made scenarios which uses the Age of Empires III engine to again represent Cortes’ conquest of Mexico, this time through Spanish eyes.

caribcanoe

On my way from Cuba to Mexico, I was ambushed by a canoe from small island tribe. They tried tossing some lit torches at my ships. I dispatched them with a couple of broadsides.

The initial impression was good. The creator of this scenario decided to represent Cortes’ force almost literally, with some 500 soldiers and a handful of ships to transport them. The Spanish are initially on one island (Cuba?) and have to be transported to the Central American mainland, where victory can be achieved by conquering an Aztec city with the special Cortes unit. In between, there are other native, but non-Aztec, tribes to engage. So far, one might start to look for favorable contrasts with the Cossacks campaign scenarios. But that doesn’t last long.

The feeling begins to slip away almost immediately. On the way to Mexico, I am attacked by “Carib” Indian canoes, and am forced to sail around their Island villages to avoid further canoe versus warship shoot-outs.

Indeed Cortes first encountered non-Aztec tribes and did win military victories over them before allying with them in a move against the Aztecs. As any kind of historical simulation or even historical learning-exercise, this kind of scenario just fails to do it. It has the same flaws as our other two RTS contenders, Cossacks and Age of Empires II, and then some. Like II, the RTS base-building gameplay tends to overshadow whatever else you are trying to accomplish with your scenario. I found myself building a town center (to make up for initially losses in units) and then quickly upgrading to the Industrial Age, mostly because I could. The campaigns that come with the game often have leveling restrictions to prevent this sort of thing. I don’t know if that’s even possible in the scenario editor. Further more, the tighter view and more frantic pace, compared to II, amplify these problems.

Comparing with Cossacks, I’m reminded why the ability to create formations, such as it was, got sold as such a novel feature. While III has some interesting variations in the period units, much of this gets lost at the point where one is forced to send all one’s units in a massed attack against the enemy.

I may well get one or both of these games back out again when I’m in the mood for one of the other campaigns. That dusty old memory that told me “Age of Empires has the Spanish conquest of the New World in it,” however, did not live up to its promise.

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