Game Over Online ~ Age of Empires II: The Conquerors

GameOver Game Reviews - Age of Empires II: The Conquerors (c) Microsoft, Reviewed by - Rorschach

Game & Publisher Age of Empires II: The Conquerors (c) Microsoft
System Requirements Windows, Pentium 166, 32MB Ram, 100MB HDD, 4x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 80%
Date Published Thursday, September 7th, 2000 at 09:14 PM

Divider Left By: Rorschach Divider Right

So, last month I was like Captain RTS with Earth 2150 and Dark Reign 2, and now I've apparently mutated into Expansion-Pack Lad with Cleopatra and this game, AOE2 - The Conquerors. Both superheroes with very limited superpowers, but also completely unaffected by Kryptonite (unless, I suppose, someone heaves a big chunk at me like a rock), so who's laughing now, Superman? They're good additions to my other superhero personae: Dog-Walking Man and Lawn-Mowing Guy. Yup, world domination any day now. My enemies coming to cower at my feet like the insignificant, un-segmented insects that they are, to be swept aside by a hail of righteous gunfire. Oooh. Oh yesssss.

Where was I? Oh yeah, this is a review of Diablo 1.4, the expansion pack for Diablo which, through a completely unpublicized printing error, arrived in stores in a box stamped Diablo 2. Really. Would I lie? OK, I would, but not to my mother, and definitely not on her deathbed. All those who find Diablo 2 in any way distinguishable from Diablo other than length, please grunt and scratch your brow ridges, as that's pretty much all you're capable of doing. Having touched off that flame war, I do at some point have to get down to the business of reviewing the AOE2 expansion pack.

But allow me to digress once more, as if you had any choice in the matter. Back however many years ago it was that AOE came out, I was in utter dread at the thought of Microsoft making games. I mean, they had already made Fury3 and Hellbender and Monster Truck Madness and a couple of others, but I didn't see those as serious games - they were really just marketing tools to package with their joysticks and driving wheels. But here came AOE, joystick not included, and I had visions of jackbooted thugs (Jackboots: What all the thugs on the go are wearing in the fall! Jackboots say 'notice me' at any social event - wedding, Bar Mitzvah, Brit.) showing up at my house to take away my copy of Starcraft, or perhaps some bit of code in the Windows operating system that would make AOE the only game that could be played. What I'm trying to get across here, in my own convoluted and largely unsuccessful manner, is that I saw gaming as something clean and as yet unsullied by the taint of Microsoft - that Bill Gates was going to force his way into the gaming universe so he could firmly plant his $250 Gucci loafers into that realm as well (Does anyone find it strange that Microsoft, Gates, and Gucci are all in the Word dictionary?).

And then I actually played AOE, and I was astounded. It was not only a good game, it was great. In an RTS universe where most games collected gold or some wealth equivalent (though Warcraft collected gold and wood), AOE collected gold, wood, stone, and food. And that increase in complexity was everywhere in the game. More unit types, a longer research tree with more technologies, better unit animation, more buildings to build, and (though some may disagree with me here) a better than average unit AI. It had a depth of strategy that really hadn't been seen in RTS games and it was enough to make some people put down their copies of Starcraft and Total Annihilation.

Then AOE2 arrived, and it was so much more than AOE with a more units and buildings and races, and an even longer research tree, and more. Most significantly, and I feel a need to point this out because so many RTS games get it wrong, unit pathfinding was well done. Large groups of units rarely spent time colliding with each other and getting caught up in the trees and rocks. And Bill Gates smiled upon his creation and saw that it was good, but it was not entirely without flaws. Almost immediately, fans began asking for a patch. There were some race imbalance issues in multiplayer, they wanted unit formations for navel units, and villagers that wouldn't just stand around when nearby there were resources to gather. There was also a massive slowdown problem when a large number of units were in the game, even on high-end machines. A year went by, and no patch came out of the Microsoft sweatshops. For others, and me, AOE2 fell out of favor. Microsoft fell out of favor as well, but let's be honest here, it frankly didn't have far to fall.

So now Microsoft has graced us with this expansion patch, er, pack. OK, let me step back here for a second - I'm practically working myself into a tizzy. AOE2: The Conquerors is really a very good expansion pack. It brings in five new races (Hun, Aztec, Mayan, Korean, and Spanish) during times in history that let you "be" their greatest conquerors. OK, the "be" part is a little thin - this isn't an RPG even in the Diablo sense. You control, say, Attila the Hun like you would other units, but he must survive each mission because if he dies, you fail. The missions let you sort of experience the battles each of these races' leaders fought on their way from the mailroom up the corporate ladder to conqueror greatness. Each race brings with it a special technology and unit as well as some minor unit bonuses. Do these differences make the various races wildly different to play? No. But it does make them feel different enough to hold your interest.

For those of you used to AOE2, The Conquerors isn't going to throw you many surprises. It looks just like AOE2 as far as layout and graphics are concerned. The graphics hold up pretty well given their age. Units are colorful, well detailed, and well animated. The new races bring with them new tile sets which look good, and there are now tropical rainforest and snow covered grounds to fight on (though weather is just eye candy - no tactical combat effect). Under the sort of current standard of building with some degree of animation as well, AOE2 buildings look a little still life. Sounds likewise aren't going to knock anyone's socks off.

Complaints? I've got a few (don't I always?). For one, missions have become more complex with mission objectives that change as the mission proceeds. That's not a complaint - I like that. The game handles these plot events by taking control of you units and marching them around with text and spoken dialog - like a movie using the game engine. The problem is knowing when the game is in control of your units and when you are. I've had units beaten half to death not realizing that the movie was over and that I should be controlling them. Dark Reign 2 pulled the screen down to a letterbox format when the game engine movies were playing, and restored it to full size when you were playing - something like that should have been done here.

The major complaint that I'm going to keep harping on until Bill Gates comes to my house and apologizes personally (which might be awhile, so you might want to get comfortable) is that included in this very good expansion pack is what amounts to a patch for AOE2. Their 'you want us to clean up some gameplay issues for AOE2, you've got to buy the expansion pack' attitude gripes my cookies. Total Annihilation and Starcraft didn't pull this crap. The only thing that keeps me from utterly savaging this expansion pack in my review for this very reason is that I suspect the people who were asking for the patch liked AOE2 enough to want what the expansion pack offers beyond the patch, which is quite a lot. New races, new units, new technologies, and 4 new single player scenarios offer some extensive play time. The sort of casual AOE2 player probably didn't care if the game was patched or not, and they're not likely to buy the expansion pack anyway. Still, bad customer service as a whole. And while I'm on the subject, I think the Spanish Conquistadors are going to cause some more imbalance problems in multiplayer gaming. True to history, in the rock-paper-scissors-semiautomatic handgun pecking order, it's the firepower that wins out, and the Spanish were able to wreak havoc on populations of spear throwers and archers with just a few gunmen, but from a multiplayer gaming perspective, the Spanish are high in the kickass factor. Are we going to see patch for that? We'll see.

The final thought that I'm going to leave you all with is one that I'm still kind of ruminating on myself, and really only came to me as I wrote this review. AOE2 has, uh, 13 races I think, and now there are 18 with the expansion. There were about 100 technologies in the tree before, and now there are like 112 or more. The idea I'm kind of kicking around is that maybe we've crossed some point of diminishing returns. If 13 races is good, is 18 necessarily better even if they play pretty much the same? If so, would another 10 races be better still? Maybe I'm just not a hardcore enough player of AOE2. Realistically, Cleopatra and The Conquerors are much the same expansion pack - a few gameplay additions, and some new scenarios. The only difference is that Microsoft left me angry for not patching AOE2 sooner, while Pharaoh was supported all along.

More to the point perhaps, does the AOE2 expansion pack make AOE2 a better game (beyond the patching issues)? Is it even the role of an expansion pack to make a game better, or just to extend the gaming experience? I'd be curious to hear what opinion people have on this subject, and maybe I'll bang out a column on the role of expansion packs in the modern gaming world: quick buck for the publisher while working on the sequel, or legitimate gaming experience? Drop me a line. I'd also be curious to know just how many people made it to the end of this review, which is long even by my standards.


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