Age of Empires II

After almost two years in development, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings is finally out, and the verdict is in: this game is extraordinary.

Age of Kings takes place in the 600-year period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the end of the Imperial era. In this real-time strategy game, you choose one of 13 peoples, from Byzantines to Teutons, and expand a simple society into a richly interwoven civilisation by dint of conquest, research and aggressive collection of gold, wood, stone and food. Along the way, militia may become swordsmen and shepherds harvesting wool and mutton may become master farmers who rotate and irrigate their crops.

As in AOE, each civilisation has special abilities and advantages. Some are better farmers; some make better hunters, and some simply have stronger buildings and walls. On top of that, each civilisation has a unique unit that can be devastating when used properly, but also has weaknesses against certain types of units. It's this paper, rock, scissors that has made AOE (and now, AOK) so successful.

AOK's single-player campaign settings are second to none. You'll take part in one of five historical campaigns. You can choose to champion Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, Fredrick Barbarossa, Saladin, or William Wallace (training campaign).

It's the new additions to the genre itself that makes AOK's control so outstanding. Take the "Select Idle Unit" key. When using this feature, you'll be able to auto-select idle units (villagers or military units) no matter where they are on the map. Then there's the "Town Bell" - an alarm that, when sounded, sends all your villagers into your main building. There, they'll not only be protected, but will fire arrows to fight off the threat. Talk about effectively stopping the dreaded rush. These may be the biggest leaps in RTS genre advancement since Dark Reign's "Auto-Explore" command.

You also get four unit formations to choose from, Line, Staggered, Box, and Flank. Line is your standard "stand in a horizontal line" formation. Staggered is like Line yet spread out to avoid radial damage caused by catapults. The Box formation is used to surround your more vulnerable units with well-armoured mêlée units, and Flank splits your troops into two groups and then both groups try to get behind the enemy for a flanking attack. You also have the ability to garrison most your buildings as a defensive tactic. (Garrisons in towers and castles can also fire arrows at nearby opponents.) In addition, you get standard RTS features like group selecting, waypoints, and building queues (with a 15-unit limit).

AOK's graphics are clearly better than its predecessor's. The most noticeable graphical advancements would be the sheer size and scale of things. Buildings are very large in AOK, much larger than AOE's buildings. And there is a lot more variation to the style and uniqueness of each civilisation and its special unit.

Audio quality is superb. Unique musical scores are provided for each campaign setting, and each civilisation's units speak in their native tongues.

AOK is an impressive follow-up to AOE, and it's lived up to every one of my expectations. Just one blemish: the inability to assign naval units to formations.

But that hardly detracts from AOK's status as one of the best strategy games of all time. Need I say more? - Nash WernerProduct: Age of Empires IIDeveloper: Ensemble StudiosURL: www.ensemblestudios.com

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