Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings was a 1999 real-time strategy game by Ensemble Studios for the PC. One of my high school friends was really into Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. One day after school, he invited me to walk to the nearby mall to check out the Wizards of the Coast store. I wasn’t really all that interested at the time, but the store also sold computer games and had some awesome gaming computers in the back. The computers were way better than what we had at home. They were top of the line while our home computers were at least five years old. The computers could be rented for an hourly fee.
Some time later we went back with money to try out the computers. It was amazing to be able to play computer games at good frame rates. Most times games will run on old computers, but the performance is really bad. On a slow computer, multiplayer is impossible, and even single player games require spending a lot of time waiting for loading screens to finish. One of the games I got to play was Age of Empires II. I was a veteran of the Warcraft and StarCraft strategy games, but it was nice to try out a strategy game from a different group of developers. The gameplay felt very fresh, top-notch for its time.
After only this short time with the game, it went on my wishlist. I knew I would get it someday when I had a better computer. That happened several years later. My dad came across someone that worked at Microsoft. This friend had access to a huge discount from the employee store. I only had to give him $15 for what was normally a $50 game.
Age of Empires II made several advancements to the real-time strategy genre. For one, grouped units would automatically move into formations when given orders to move to an area. The player no longer had to worry about keeping the ranged units behind the melee units. Age of Empires II just took care of it. The game was made for a higher resolution monitor as well. All the graphics just looked crisper than Warcraft and StarCraft. Another big difference was that Age of Empires II had an air of historicity to it while Warcraft and StarCraft were in fantasy and sci-fi settings. I really enjoyed the history stories in the campaigns.
The game had some downsides though. The campaigns tended to be very hard, not because the computer AI was really good, but because there was a very low unit cap in the campaign. The player could only make 75 units total on most levels. That meant on some levels it was very hard to go out on the offensive; the player just didn’t have enough units to both defend and attack. It was especially annoying because players could get resources to make units pretty quickly. They just couldn’t field a large enough army at once. What ended up happening was a lot of ignoring defense to attack a lot, then retreating to rebuild the destroyed parts of my base.
Another problem with the campaigns was that the levels were many times too similar to each other. There were really only two types of levels. In one type the player would get a base, build up an army, and then finally destroy all enemy units. In the other type the player didn’t get a base and just had to make do with the few units they started with or collected along the way. These same objectives were just used too often. The story might have been interesting, but there were never any new game mechanics to look forward to.
However, the game absolutely shined when it came to the skirmish mode. In this mode, players could pick from several map templates. The game would then generate a random map just like that for them to play with friends or computer AI players. There were also many other options to tweak like victory type, unit cap (up to 200 in skirmishes), starting resources, and starting era. All these made for an almost infinite amount of combinations. I didn’t have any friends that played the game, but I still spent hours trying out different options.