No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. - General George Patton Jr.
In the distance you can hear the sounds of battle. Sword clashing upon sword, pikemen bracing themselves against the crash of cavalry, the whine of arrows flying with deadly accuracy toward their target. The wind carries foreign voices to your ears, war cries meant to rally the enemy against your cause. The Mongol hordes are coming to tear down your castle.
They don't know about your trebuchets. Not yet.
But just before you can introduce your enemy to the destructive force you've just researched, the red LED comes on. Time to find your power cord again. Try not to think of the last four hours you've lost playing Majesco's Age of Empires: The Age of Kings.
Age of Empires is a turn-based strategy game for the Nintendo DS. Let that sink in. Developer Backbone Entertainment took the best-selling PC real-time strategy title by Ensemble Studios and turned it on its head. They've taken the core aspects of the original game, the history, the units, the epic battles, and tailored them for the unique features of the DS. The result is a game with a lot of the charm and appeal of the original that can still stand on its own.
The game features five civilizations from the original game, each with their own campaign: the Franks, the Japanese, the Mongols, the Saracens, and the Britons. In each campaign, you'll control a famous historical figure, such as Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, and Richard the Lionhearted, as you lead your civilization to their rightful place in history. The campaigns are generally five to six missions in length, with goals that are both diverse and challenging. Some missions will have you uniting warring factions, while others will have you wipe your enemies out. The campaigns offer a total of 25 hours of gameplay for a skilled tactician. Imagine how long it took this reviewer.
There are also skirmish and multiplayer modes, via both wireless link and hotseat (passing the DS between each player every round). Every mission or game awards points that can be spent to unlock bonus units usable in all modes or extra skirmish maps. There's a lot packed into such a tiny game card.
The gameplay is remarkably similar to Age of Empires II on the PC. You build town centers, train villagers to build barracks, mines, mills, farms and the like, and amass armies to defend your lands or invade someone else's. Units follow the rock-paper-scissors rules of the original, with spearmen countering cavalry, swordsmen countering pikemen, and cavalry countering swordsmen. In fact, many of the strategies used in AoE II work well here, adjusted for the turn-based nature. Researching technologies allows you to advance to the next age, offering more powerful units and buildings. Combat behaves much like Advance Wars, with units clashing on the top screen in mighty displays. Before you begin, however, a combat advisor will rate how your armies will do, letting you know if you're sending your skirmishers into peril against the enemy's Knights Templar.
The presentation in Age of Empires is remarkable. Little bits of impressive artwork display for every technology you research. The music is rousing, often sticking in your head long after the system is turned off. Units use many of the same audio cues from the original game, speaking more or less in the languages of the cultures they represent, although I'm convinced the Mongol monks are saying "Soylent Green" instead of something in their Mongolian dialect.
Not everything is rosy with Age of Empires, however. The game uses an isometric point of view on the map screen that can become cluttered when you're working with lots of units and buildings. The map screen never feels very colorful, either, with large amounts of brown or green. Massive battles can seem to bog down the pace of the game, in part because of the depth the game offers but also because the AI takes a longer time than normal to make its move. The game also only allows one saved game, meaning each save has to be important. Those are all minor complaints, however, and rarely detract from the game experience.
What does detract from the experience, however, is the game's propensity to freeze, something reported numerous times on Majesco's official forums. I've only had the game freeze on me once, losing half an hour of playing time, but the problem is certainly there. Majesco and Backbone are looking into the problem, but in the meantime they recommend avoiding the "Save and Quit" feature when saving the game. Consider yourself warned.
Even considering the freezing bug, Age of Empires: The Age of Kings is a great strategy game. Comparisons to Advance Wars are inevitable, but the added depth of AoE makes it feel more like a portable Civilization. You can curl up with Age of Empires on a rainy afternoon, much like a good history book, and take your sweet time eradicating your enemy from your homeland. Rolling out the trebuchets has never felt so good.