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Age of Empires: The Age of Kings

For: DS

An answer to the age-old taunt: 'You and whose army?'

Product: Ages of Empires: The Age of Kings | Developer: Backbone Entertainment | Publisher: THQ | Format: DS | Genre: Strategy | Players: 1-4 | Networking: wireless (adhoc) | Version: US
 
Ages of Empires: The Age of Kings DS, thumbnail 1
Sunday afternoon movies taught me a fair bit about the medieval battlefield – armoured knights gleaming in the sun, boiling oil sloshing down murder holes like an unholy marinade. What they neglected to explain was that rival armies would square up and take turns to strike at each other, as if fighting at the same time would be unsporting.

Luckily, Age of Empires: The Age of Kings has cleared up my misconceptions.

Okay, so the turn-based structure of Age of Empires has more to do with the practicalities of handheld gameplay than historical realism. But it's not hard to understand why the game's developer took this route.

The frenetic multi-tasking and micro-management demanded by real-time strategy games requires a big screen as well as time and attention in spades. Turn-based games (like the mighty Advance Wars) can be played in fits and starts – you can consider your moves at leisure without worrying about foraging villagers disappearing off the screen into the clutches of enemy knights. And despite being based on the Age of Empires real-time strategy series, the DS version works just fine under this new regime.

Each of the game's five campaigns puts you in the shoes of a famous medieval general. You start with a Joan of Arc tutorial and move through increasingly difficult set-piece battles as samurai warrior Yoshitsune, Genghis Khan, Saladin and finally Richard the Lionheart. Each has their own special powers that can quickly turn the tide of battle, and their armies also have unique units. Exotic troops from other civilisations (Persian War Elephants, anyone?) can be hired as mercenaries.

But Age of Empires isn't just about warfare. Before you get to the big end-of-level dust-up, you need to advance your civilisation from the Dark Ages to the Imperial Age, by gathering resources like gold, grain and wood as well as holy relics, researching technologies, and developing an economy to fuel an ambitious program of university, church and market building to rival any Leftist government.

The more advanced your civilisation, the higher the quality of the troops you can create, and the better they'll be equipped for battle. But progress also means some difficult choices. Cities can only support four buildings and you can only research one technology per turn, so you have balance going for technologies that will help you immediately with those that will eventually advance your whole Empire.

Crucially, however, such affairs of state never overpower the combat. The guts of Age of Empires is in the clash of units, and it's the sheer variety here that adds most to the game's depth.

Each of the 65 units you'll encounter has strengths and weaknesses. Pikeman are good at attacking cavalry, for example, while archers are weak at hand-to-hand combat and so have to be well-protected. It takes some practice to deploy them in the right combination.

Victory depends on achieving particular goals. While a simple win might only require you wipe out the enemy, there are optional goals that grant the victor 'empire points' for purchasing extra-special units and multiplayer maps. In this way, the game rewards thoughtful strategists.

Age of Empires: The Age of Kings isn't all perfect. The isometric 3D graphics, while detailed, mean the touchscreen battlefield can quickly become a muddle, with some units almost entirely obscured behind others. In such situations, the upper screen, which displays topdown strategic information about the battlefield cursor's location, becomes vital. And the bigger battles can lead to some sluggish behaviour on the part of the DS, as it strains to keep a track of who's stabbing who, and where.

These flaws aside, Age of Empires is a satisfying strategy game with plenty of replay value. As with the original PC version, there's also a great adhoc multiplayer mode that has lots of options, such as setting up teams, victory conditions, and adding fog of war or even the possibility of random events. A pass-around multiplayer option also means you'll be able to take the battle to three – patient – friends using only one DS.

You can even set up your own single-player battle scenarios, while the Library option contains an extravagant amount of information about the history behind the game's characters and battles. It's almost enough to make history cool. Maybe next time we'll get a Simon Schama bonus mission?

Age of Empires: The Age of Kings is due to go on sale in the UK on September 29th.
 
Age of Empires: The Age of Kings
Reviewer photo
Gavin MacDonald | 27 July 2006
Age of Empires: The Age of Kings is an engrossing strategy game with a rich array of units, excellent replay value and a history lesson thrown in
 
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