While television sets were graced with Age of Mythology commercials, Age of Empires (Gold Edition) has finally made the transition to the Pocket PC platform. The main reason behind this mass appeal, and moreover, the main reason behind Microsoft marketing this product to a mass audience is really twofold. Firstly, the appeal of the subject matter is one that can be embraced by everyone. It’s one of the reasons why Civilization was so popular; popularity that was sustained for a very long time.
The other reason behind the success of Age of Empires is its accessibility. This has a lot to do with Bruce Shelley and his vision of the game – a game that can be picked up and played within fifteen or twenty minutes. That, according to his mentor (Sid Meier), was one of the key reasons why Age of Empires simply took off. Now, it takes off almost verbatim, courtesy of Floodgate, on the Pocket PC.
The developers did a very smart thing here. They’ve kept the game as similar to the one on the PC as possible. Some areas, like the viewing area, were scaled down. While others, like the icons and text, were obviously scaled up for the PDA form factor. In terms of graphics, Age of Empires (and its successor) was a 2D sprite based engines and Age of Empires on the Pocket PC does not disappoint, although the detail and colors don’t look as sharp as they do on the PC. What’s more noticeable is the degradation in sound quality. The inaudible foreign acknowledgements by your peasants don’t sound as clear on the PDA version of Age of Empires.
But those complaints are really trite, considering what Floodgate brought to the Pocket PC. The entire single player campaign for Age of Empires is replicated here. Furthermore, the Rise of Rome expansion pack is also installed. So for the solo player, there’s a lot of quality gameplay available. The campaigns may not be as scripted and carefully detailed as they were in Age of Empires II or Age of Mythology, but they are still a cut above what’s available in terms of real time strategy titles for the Pocket PC.
The reason behind the transparent conversion is simple: Floodgate made the Pocket PC version of Age of Empires read from the data files of the main PC game. So technically, for budding gamers, you can import all your Age of Empires maps and campaigns and enjoy it equally on your Pocket PC; a very clever idea on the developer’s part. The only drawback behind this is the enormity of the missions and campaign maps. Altogether, you’re looking at fifteen megabytes of memory for everything to be installed and a further ten megabytes free space is needed for the game to even run; caveat emptor to those who have no external storage or still run base 32MB PDAs.
Likewise, the controls are a natural transition from PC to Pocket PC. The move from mouse to stylus is almost seamless. You can do everything you did in Age of Empires on the PDA too. For those who are new to Age of Empires or real time strategy in general, Age of Empires has one of the easiest learning curves to enter and a majority of the campaign maps are paced exactly right. There are enough resources to go around. The units are well balanced and upgrades are not too overwhelming or too few in numbers. The enemy provides just enough of a challenge and there’s not too much aimless or idle downtime because of unclear objectives or bad design. The polish is simply first rate here. It is a testament to the original work done by Ensemble that the franchise has undergone relatively little change, vis-à-vis game fundamentals, over the years. It definitely makes the job for Floodgate all the more easier.
Some things, however, were left on the cutting room floor. Chief amongst them is the multiplayer option. Age of Empires had a significant following, particularly because it was launched on the MSN Zone.com hub. But Floodgate has neglected to include any multiplayer option in the PDA version, whether it is via Zone.com or not. That certainly is a disappointment. While the ability to auto-generate maps and play with AI players in skirmish mode makes up for it somewhat, it is not a total replacement. Omissions like movie sequences, huge or humongous maps (the maps are already quite large on the 320x200 Pocket PC screen) are more forgivable.
There’s no question Age of Empires Gold Edition is an outstanding product. The only title I can think of that can come close to it is probably Argentum. That strategy title is flashier and looks better, but it doesn’t have the familiarity that Age of Empires so naturally exudes. In that sense, I wouldn’t be surprised seeing Age of Empires outsell everyone else simply because the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks are more knowable to people than something in a sci-fi setting. It’s also one of the reasons why Civilization appealed to a lot more than just computer gamers. However, the exclusion of multiplayer is one that lamentably prevents this title from becoming solid gold.
[05/10] Program Size
[15/15] Learning Curve