Age of Empires (often abbreviated to AoE or AofE), is a history-based real-time strategy computer game released in 1997. Developed by Ensemble Studios and published by Microsoft, the game uses the Genie Game Engine, a 2D sprite based game engine. The game allows the user to act as the leader of an ancient civilization by advancing them through four ages, (Stone Age, Tool Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age) gaining access to new and improved units with each advance.
Originally touted as "Civilization" meets "Warcraft", many thought that it failed to live up to these expectations when it was released. However, it did receive generally good reviews, and an expansion pack for the game was released in 1998 named Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome Expansion. Both the original Age of Empires and the expansion pack were later released as "the Gold Edition".
In Age of Empires, twelve civilizations are available, each with individual sets of civilization attributes, including a varying number of available technologies and units. The civilizations are sorted into four distinct architectural styles, which determine their in-game appearance.
A major component of the game is the advancement through the ages. There are four ages: the Stone Age (Mesolithic/Paleolithic), the Tool Age (Neolithic/Chalcolithic), the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Advancement between ages is researched at the Town Center, and an advancement brings the player new technologies, weapons, and units.
As well as the campaigns, Age of Empires includes a game mode dubbed "random map", where a different map is generated for each new game. Variations of random map, such as the high resources "death match", are also available.
Age of Empires features online and network play with 8 people simultaneously. Because the network play is less sophisticated than that of modern games, lag and disconnections often occur. Until 19 June 2006, multiplayer gameplay was supported by Microsoft Gaming Zone. At that point, the Zone abandoned most CD-ROM games, including Age of Empires and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.
Age of Empires allows for the creation of user-made scenarios or series of scenarios (campaigns) using the Scenario Builder. This tool is simpler and easier to learn than comparable editors used in more modern games, but it has fewer capabilities as a result. Ensemble Studios used the Scenario Builder to make the single-player campaigns which shipped with the retail game. Various sites exist where custom scenarios can be submitted and downloaded.
In late 2005, it was discovered that by modifying various data files, units present in the beta versions of the game could be made available in the editor. Some obscure units include a spaceship and a hero that changes ownership when units move near it. Through data editing, the rules of placing units can also be modified. This allows units to be placed on any terrain and on top of other units, which creates new possibilities for designing. Other significant discoveries include new terrain templates, a 'triple hitpoint' mode and map size editing.
Technology plays a very important role in the strategy of the game. As a civilization progresses through the ages, technology becomes more and more expensive. Hence collecting the necessary resources to research them becomes difficult. As a result, balancing the workforce across the various resources can make the difference between victory and defeat. Take the following example: Suppose player A is a cavalry civilization. In other words, there are restrictions on several infantry and archer class units. In order to get the best out of a cavalry army, player A will have little need for infantry and archer based technologies. Cavalry is dependent on food and gold resources, so therefore the majority of the workforce should concentrate on these requirements (rather than having a significant portion of villagers woodcutting and stone mining).
Players control a variety of civilian and military units. Most units can be upgraded through research (e.g. faster gathering for villagers, stronger armor for military units, longer range for archers etc).
Villagers are the most basic units in Age of Empires. Their primary function is to collect resources. Food is acquired by hunting, foraging, farming, and fishing. Villagers can also construct buildings and repair both buildings and naval vessels. Villagers are capable of engaging in hand-to-hand combat when necessary. Villagers can also cut down trees for wood, and mine stone or gold.
Land-based units are the most prevalent in gameplay. Priests are non-combat units which can heal allied units or "convert" enemy units (in which case the target unit changes allegiance). Infantry units, such as clubmen, swordsmen, and hoplites use melee combat to attack at short range. Mounted units include chariots, cavalry, and war elephants. Archers, mounted or on foot, attack at range. Siege units are of two types: catapults and ballista. Catapults hurl stones which generate blast damage, affecting all units in a small area, and are especially effective against buildings and groups of units. The ballista is less damaging against buildings and units, but it fires faster and is cheaper than the catapult.
Nautical units often play a secondary role, but can be essential to victory. Fishing boats are similar to villagers in that they can gather fish. Merchant ships trade resources from the stockpile and exchanges it for gold at another player's dock. The amount of gold is relative to the distance between both docks. Transport ships carry land units from one area of land to another. As well as attacking enemy ships, warships can be very effective in attacking land-based units close to the shoreline (because melee units cannot fight back). Warships come either as galleys which fire arrows or triremes which launch bolts or boulders (very effective against buildings near the shoreline).
Each unit has the same aspect for every civilization. So, for example, a Korean Choson long swordsman is identical to a Persian one and a Phoenician one, as are bowmen, axemen, short swordsmen, cavalry, etc. Some armors and clothes are unhistorical, for example the long swordsman of above resembled more a Roman praetorian, and phalanx soldiers have a very heavy armor with a large tower shield that never were given to any ancient soldier (and they would probably be too heavy to wear together and with a long sarissa in a hand; besides, the phalanx was a formation and not a type of infantry). Some units were also available to civilizations that didn't at all have them. Hoplites can be trained by every civilization, and some middle-Asian civilizations can train legions and centurions, while Japanese Yamato can build triremes.
The Town Center is one of the most important buildings in the game. Here villagers are created, and age advancement is researched. Most scenarios have each player begin with a single Town Center. Building the Government Center during the Bronze Age allows a player to build multiple Town Centers. The Town Center provides population support for four units. In order to build more units, houses must be constructed. Each house supports four units, for a maximum of 50 units, although any number of houses can be built (a concept which was not maintained in later games like Age of Mythology).
Military units are created at specific buildings relevant to their area. All sea units are created at the docks. Walls and towers are defensive fortifications (Age of Empires was one of the first real-time strategy games to include walls strong enough to form a feasible means of defense). Farms are used to produce food. Granaries, storage pits, and the Town Center are used to store resources deposited by the villagers.
Wonders are enormous monuments representing the architectural achievements of the time. They require huge amounts of resources to build and are constructed very slowly. Wonders do not produce units or allow research. In scenarios with Standard Victory conditions, a player can win by constructing a wonder and keeping it from being destroyed for 2,000 years (15 minutes under standard game timing). Building a wonder also greatly increases a player's score, which is beneficial in "score" games. Other players typically make it their top priority to destroy enemy wonders, especially under Standard Victory conditions. For this reason and because a wonder is relatively easy to destroy, a wonder must be sufficiently guarded at all times. Wonders cannot be converted by priests (even when equipped with the technology to convert buildings).
Age of Empires was generally well received by critics, and scored highly on review aggregator websites including an 8.3 out of 10 on Metacritic, an 87% on Game Rankings, an 85 out of 100 on MobyGames, and an 8.4 out of 10 on GameStats.
Game Revolution categorized the game as "a cross between Civilization 2 and Warcraft II", while Gamespot lamented that "AOE is a simple combat game rather than a glorious empire-builder", and found the game as being "Warcraft with a hint of Civilization." GameVortex also wanted less of a combat-oriented gameplay, but praised the modes of play, especially finding that "the random map generation [...] really keeps the game spiced up."
The level of micromanagement necessary to control the game, due to no possibility of production queues and low AI of the player's units, GameSpot perceived "a poor idea", which " seriously diminishes AOE's enjoyability." GameVortex echoed this criticism, while PC Gameworld pointed out the subsequently released patches improving some of the faulty AI programming.
While noting the similarities with Warcraft II, PC Gameworld praised the uniqueness of each playable civilization, and noted that the "graphics are extremely detailed and have a hand-painted feel to them. It's rare to see a game this beautiful with such detailed unit movements.". Game Revolution was impressed by the amount of different units of the game, and noted that the developers "obviously did [their] research here, and the result is a well rounded, historically accurate product (at least for a game)" The soundscape of the game was also criticized, with GameVortex stating that "the aureal clues just aren't enough to let you differentiate just what's going on."
With a view to the future of the game, Game-Revolution accented the scenario editor, which "allows you total control in the design of scenarios and campaigns," a "tool at your disposal to create a scenario exactly to your liking." The game has also won numerous awards, including Gamecenter's 1997 Game of the Year and the *1998 AIAS Computer Strategy Game of the Year award.