Age of Empires III (Including The War Chiefs and The Asian Dynasties Expansions) – Review

Keeping sequels fresh whilst staying true to the original franchise is a tough challenge for game creators. You can’t change things too much or too quickly without a backlash of disgruntlement from fans, but you also need to be seen as being progressive and innovative. The Age of Empires franchise has always been innovative in the way it has taken the gamer through history and given them control of countless civilisations from around the world. After the success of Age of Empires II and its spin-off, Age of Mythology, what new features would its creators include to keep the franchise fresh whilst still staying true to the originals concepts?

Title screen (Screenshot taken by the author)

Age of Empires III (AOE III)is a real-time strategy game and the third in the Age of Empires franchise. Developed by Ensemble studios, it was published for PC by Microsoft Games in 2005 (The Mac version was published by Destineer’s MacSoft in 2006). Glu-Mobile published a mobile version in 2009. A remastered version was released in 2020. For this review, I revisited the original PC versions.

AOE III focusses on the European colonisation of the America’s between 1492 and 1876. The story mode focuses on the Black family and their fortunes and failures in North America. The story mode has a similar style to that of Age of Mythology (AOM) where there are cut scenes before and after each mission which progress the story along.

The game is broken into three acts:

Act One: Blood – The first campaign begins in the late 16th century and introduces Knight of Saint John, Morgan Black who must travel from Malta to South America in a bid to prevent the Circle of Ossus from finding the Fountain of Youth.

Morgan Black must travel to South America to prevent the Fountain of Youth from falling into the wrong hands (Screenshot taken by the author)

Act Two: Ice – The second act takes place in the mid-18th century, and sees Morgan’s grandson, John Black and Mohawk companion Kanyenke, ally with General Washington during the Seven Years’ War against the French.

John Black and Kanyenke join forces with George Washington against the French in the Seven Years’ War (Screenshot taken by the author)

Act Three: Steel – The third act takes palce in 1817, and sees Amelia, John’s granddaughter, who is trying to expand her railroad empire, pursue a French prospector to South America where he intends to find the Lake of the Moon and the Fountain of Youth.

Amelia is trying to regain her family’s fortune by building the new railway in the US (Screenshot taken by the author)

Thankfully, AOE III has moved away from the simple mission objectives of “build up your base and destroy the enemy base”. Although there are many missions where that is the end goal, there are also other interesting missions to ensure the game doesn’t become monotonous. An example of this is the Pirate’s Help mission where Morgan must gain 8000 experience points by doing a number of small missions in order to impress a pirate named Lizzie. Another is the Bring Down the Mountain mission in the John Black campaign where you need to use miners to hack down rocks to block mountain passes.

Secondary objectives do very little other than give you extra experience points with which to have more shipments sent from your home city or enables you to add features to your home city. Other than that, they are pretty pointless.

Another improvement is that there is greater differentiation between the civilisations. There are plenty of unique units to each civilisation, encouraging the gamer to try them all in Random Map mode in order to find their preferred units.

Different from AOE II but kept from AOM the gamer has the opportunity to choose how they wish to advance to the next technological age. Each path will offer different improvements and units and it is up to the player to decide which path is best suited for the mission at hand.

Although AOE II had ‘Heroes’, (e.g. Joan of Arc etc.) they fought like every other unit. AOM introduced the concept of a special ability or attack that ‘Heroes’ performed but these were automatic and could not be controlled by the player. AOE III has introduced special attacks that CAN be controlled by the player. ‘Heroes’ such as John Black can either use Hawk Eye – which kills almost all units with one shot, and Eagle Eye which is a powerful shot that damages enemy units in an area. Once used, you have to wait a minute or so before it can be used again. Some ships have a similar special attack where they pepper their intended target with cannon. 

Interestingly, sea battles and the use of ships in general seems to have taken a real backseat in this game. If memory serves, other than the Pirates!, Great Lakes, and Last Stand of the Boneguard missions, you can quite happily do without worrying about a naval presence. Whilst we’re on the subject of ships, they have dramatically increased the number of units each ship can carry. The problem with this is that there is no automatic disembarking button, so you have to manually click the unit’s icon for them to disembark, and when you’re carrying large numbers of troops, this can prove tricky in tight spots.

To make things a bit more challenging, and realistic with regard to technological advancement, Morgan Black’s campaign can’t advance past the Fortress Age, and John Black’s campaign cannot advance past the Industrial Age.

Other new features include:

Gaining experience points – Dotted around each map are several treasures or captured units, mostly protected by human or animal ‘guardians’. Defeating the ‘guardians’ and taking the treasures or rescuing the prisoners will gain you resources, units and/or experience points. These experience points enable the gamer to have shipments of resources, improvements or units sent to your town centre. Killing enemy units also gains experience points.

Build your shipment deck – After every mission you are unable to unlock more improvements for your shipments. This gives you the opportunity to build you own deck of shipments that you prefer to use during missions and Random Map modes. For example, one mission may require artillery, so provided you have unlocked an artillery card, you can swap that card in for another and have a shipment of artillery sent to your town centre.

Trading posts – There are two types of trading posts: The first consists of building a trading post in the village of local tribes. This enables further improvements to your units and resrouces as well as being able to train unique Native American units. The second consists of building trading posts at specific areas along trading routes. These routes regularly have traders travelling along them. At first, all these trading posts do is help gain experience points. As you move through the ages, you can upgrade the way the traders transport their goods, and also which resource you would like to have added to your stockpile.

AOE III has greatly improved graphics from AOEII. They have moved away from the 2D isometric view to a 3D model giving different parts of the screen a slightly different perspective. The buildings are incredibly detailed with animated, realistic looking smoke arising from fires and chimneys. The units are also very detailed, and beautifully illustrated and animated. This goes especially for the artillery, whose artillerymen are a hive of activity carrying, reloading and firing.

I very much enjoyed the story mode and the fact that you follow the same family over a 300 year period. Although fictional, the story is compelling and keeps you from skipping the cutscenes.

I really liked the experience points and shipment system employed in this game as I think it can certainly give you a tactical advantage when you get it right. I love the fact that parts of the buildings are blown off when they are under attack, adding the realism of warfare. Last but not least, AOE III has managed to create a beautiful score to go with the game. These are the types of musical scores that I find myself listening to simply because I enjoy them so much.

Did I complete the game?

Yes, I have played through this game several times and thoroughly enjoy the missions.

What the critics said:

1up.com: “It’s a rock-solid package, one that tightens every part of the existing game with a facelift worthy of the most talented plastic surgeon. Ensemble has proven no one can beat it at its own game, but neither will it be Age of Empires III the wannabes are aiming at in the coming months. Overall B-“.[1]

Game Revolution: “But no one buys strategy games for the sound effects – they buy them to agonize over tactics and statistics and this is why Age of Empires III is still a recommendable RTS. The steps it has taken in the gameplay department since Age of Empires II are negligible, but at least the new card-based bonus system adds an element of customization and depth to the genre. This result is as detailed as a history book, and about as much fun. Overall 3/5.[2]

Gamespot: “Age of Empires III has some very big shoes to fill, and on top of that, the real-time strategy market has grown hugely competitive due in no small part to Ensemble Studios’ previous accomplishments. This latest game offers a lot of what made Age II so great, and it’s got plenty of depth and lasting appeal, despite how most matches tend to begin and ultimately pan out similarly. Age III does seem surprisingly rough around the edges in some respects, and those expecting the game to revolutionize or even refresh this style of gaming may come away disappointed that their high expectations weren’t met. But those looking for a complex and interesting real-time strategy game with fantastic good looks and some historical flavor will find just what they want in Age of Empires III. Overall 8.2/10.[3]

Gamespy: “Age of Empires III is an absolutely fantastic title with superb graphics and tight gameplay. Single-player or multiplayer, no matter what your skill, you’ll get hours of joy out of this sucker online or off. Age of Empires III may not redefine real-time strategy gaming, but it sets the bar so high that we’ll be comparing games to this for years. Shoulder your musket and pony up: this one’s a real trip. Overall 5/5.[4]

Gamezone: “Age of Empires III is a must have game for any Real Time Strategy gamer. There are so many new additions in this game that it will boggle your mind. This is one of the best looking games, much less an RTS game, that is out on the market currently. This is one purchase you will not come to regret. Overall 9.5/10.[5]

IGN: “Age of Empires III is a superbly balanced and polished game and it definitely ups the ante for the C&C and ‘Craft developers. Discounting a few niggles in the interface, the whole presentation is rock solid. Each new release in the Age of Empires series has added something to the mix. But while Age of Empires II seemed to focus on quantity, Age of Empires III sacrifices some units and civilizations in order to make the whole experience much tighter. Overall 8.8.[6]

Awards:

2005 PC Turn-Based Strategy – 2005 Gamespy Gamers’ Choice Awards[7]

2005 Best Graphics – 2005 Gamespy Gamers’ Choice Awards [8]

2005 Outstanding Award – Gamezone[9]

My verdict:

“Great graphics, fantastic soundtrack, challenging gameplay, and lots of new features to keep you interested. It is easy to see why the Age of Empires franchise is so popular. I love these games and I find myself returning to them again and again.“

Rating:


AOE III: The War Chiefs was the first AOE III expansion pack to be released. It was developed by Ensemble Studios (Destineer’s MacSoft on the Mac), and was published by Microsoft Games for the PC in 2006 and MacSoft for the Mac in 2007.

Title screen (Screenshot taken by the author)

This expansion continues to follow the story of the Black family.

Act One: Fire – Nathanial Black is the son of John Black and Nonahkee of the Iroquis from Act Two: Ice of AOE III. His story begins in 1775. The campaign begins with Nathanial and his uncle Kanyenke trying to persuade the Seneca and Mohawk tribes not to join in the American Revolutionary War. Nonahkee is soon kidnapped by the Mohawk and a group of Hessian soldiers led by Colonel Sven Kuechler. It turns out Kuechler has gone rogue, so Nathanial joins forces with George Washington to pursue the leader of the Hessian Soldiers and rescue his mother.

Nathanial Black must join forces with George Washington in order to rescue his mother (Screenshot taken by the author).

Act Two: Shadow – The year is 1866. We are now introduced to Chayton Black, son of Amelia Black from Act Three: Steel of AOE III. His father, a member of the Lakota tribe, died when he was young. When American prospectors begin to encroach on Native American land in search of gold, Nathanial must decide which side to fight on.

Clayton Black is present at The Battle of Little Big Horn (Screenshot taken by the author).

Primary Objectives: Again, there is a nice array of different primary objectives to win the each mission. I found mission 6: Valley Forge particularly interesting because the first objective is to build 6 houses to shelter the men through the winter. The issue is that the cold depletes your gatherer’s energy bars and so you need to head back to the fires to gain your health back. Then you need to amass 3000 food before your town centre arrives and you can build a farm etc. This is before you build an army and destroy the enemy fort.

One new building that features is a fire pit. This enables you to instruct villagers to dance. There are up to 16 different dances, some of which vary depending on which tribe you are. Some of these dances are:

Fertility Dance – Increases unit training speed

Population Dance – Speeds up the production of units

Gift Dance – A slow trickle of experience

War Dance – Increases damage to enemy units

Holy Dance – Spawns Medicine Men.

Fire Dance – Increases damage to buildings and ships

Earth Mother Dance – Increases your population

The Fire Pit allows you to assign villagers to perform various dance to increase attack, resources, population etc. (Screenshot taken by the author).

Other new features include:

6 New Maps – These include: The Andes, Araucania, California, Northwest Territory, Orinoco and the Painted Desert.

Trade Monopoly – For Random Map players, a new ‘Trade Monopoly’ winning scenario has been added. Once a player owns more than half of the trading posts on a map can begin a timer. Your opponents need to destroy some of your trade posts before the timer runs down. Whilst the timer is ticking down, the player who started it cannot rebuild more trading posts if some of his has been destroyed until the timer stops.

More Native Tribes – Another four minor tribes to bring the overall total to 16.

Unique Technologies – Each Native civilisation has unique technologies.

Revolution – When advancing to the Imperial Age, European colonies have the option to revolt and form their own nation. A revolution gives your military a boost but can damage your economy as your settlers all change to colonial militia.

Stealth Mode – Certain Native tribe units have a stealth mode, allowing them to sneak past or sneak up on the enemy. However, this slows down your unit’s movement, and if you get too close to the enemy you will still be spotted.

New Skills for Heroes – Native heroes wuch as Wind Feather from the first mission can use Nature Friendship which convert treasure guardians to ally units.

What makes this expansion a bit more challenging is that not only are you unable to advance further than the Fortress Age, but you are also unable to build walls, an incredibly useful defensive necessity. There are also no watchtowers. Instead, your barracks act in a similar way and will fire arrows from a turret.

There is also less artillery available to the Native Americans. Instead they have either mantletes – Iroquis who carry a shield, and falconets – small cannon. There is only one mission where an allied army supplies bigger artillery for you.

Did I complete the game?

Yes

What the critics said:

Gamespot: “The WarChiefs expansion adds a solid amount of new content to the existing game, and while many of the new features provide interesting new ways to play and win the game, it’s fair to say that fans of the series will appreciate the changes. The WarChiefs does a lot to shake up the formula, but when you get down to it, the tried-and-true Age of Empires gameplay remains pretty much intact, and the expansion offers more depth and strategy to an already deep strategy experience. Overall 7.8/10.[10]

1Up.com: “…WarChiefs turns into an exciting exercise in completely rethinking old strategies. And this, after all, is what the best expansion packs do: not just add, but entirely revise. Overall A.[11]

Eurogamer: “All told, it’s quite a lot of newness from an expansion pack, and in many ways makes for a pretty considerable shift from how the original game works. Not everyone’s going to agree with me here, as Age Of Empires III certainly has its fans, but, for me, this is redemption (but only redemption & we’re not talking elevation to high levels of acclaim) of a sort for the original game. I laughed one of those laughs that sounds a little like crying when I heard that AOE3 had scooped the Best Online Game award at this year’s Golden Joysticks. What a baffling decision – it wasn’t a terribly interesting game, it was just by the numbers RTS, and in many ways, pretty boring. I prefer my strategy over-the-top, even slightly silly, so being able to vanquish a foe by setting a horde of hypnotised bears on him is far more like my idea of fun. Overall 6/10.[12]

Gamespy: “In the end, The WarChiefs is yet another demonstration of why Ensemble Studios remains among the first rank of strategy game developers. The single-player aspects of the game may indeed be just more of the same, but in this case it’s pretty damned good. On top of that, the multiplayer additions elevate the expansion to a must-own. Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs has managed to re-invent and reinvigorate the game. I’m sorry guys. I’ll never doubt you again. Overall 4.5/5.[13]

IGN: “As we said at the beginning, Ensemble’s not known for producing expansions that alter the strategies of concepts of their core games. Given the popularity and quality of the core games, who are you to argue? Fans of Age of Empires III who are just looking for more content are definitely going to be pleased with the expansion. Those who are hoping for something new or different aren’t going to find it here. Some of the Native American concepts offer a nice twist, as does the inclusion of revolutions and monopolies, but to be totally honest, they could just call the game More Age of Empires III and we’d still line up to play it. Overall 8.2.[14]

My verdict:

“Personally, I really enjoyed War Chiefs. The limiting of the artillery and defensive structures were a challenge. The stories and scenarios were good, and it was nice to return to play as some other members of the Black family.”  

Rating:


Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties is the second expansion pack for AOE III. It was developed by Ensemble Studios in collaboration with Big Huge Games and published by Microsoft Games for the PC in 2007; and developed and published by Destineer’s MacSoft for the Mac in 2008.

Title screen (Screenshot taken by the author)

This expansion pack leaves the Black family behind and introduces three more civilisations: Japan, China and India, and is broken down into three campaigns respectively.

Japan – This campaign focusses on the reunification of Japan (a scenario of Age of Empires II: The Conquerors) and the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It begins with The Siege of Osaka c.1614-15.

The Asian Dynasties expansion saw some beautifully designed Asian buildings and a whole plethora of new units unique to these ancient civilisations (Screenshot taken by the author).

China – This campaign is based on the controversial hypothesis that China reached the Americas before Columbus.

China’s campaign sees the introduction of the Treasure Ship, which regulalry generates a resource of your choice (Screenshot taken by the author).

India – This campaign introduces a new character, Subedar Nanib Sahir who serves the East India Company, and focusses on the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Follow Nanib Sahir as he joins the Indian Revolution (Screenshot taken by the author).

As well as the design of the buildings, which fit with their respective Asian cultures, there is the introduction of loads more unique units. Other new features include:

Wonders – When advancing to the next age, you must choose to build a wonder. Each wonder offers either units or a resource bonus.

Rice Paddies – Instead of farms, rice paddies can be built. They can be used by villagers to gather food or gold.

Consulates – This new building allows your base to ally with a foreign power. This allegiance will allow you to buy foreign units not otherwise available to you. Export (symbolised by a green leaf) is automatically generated as your villagers gather resources. However, it is generated a lot slower making it more difficult to buy foreign units.

Treasure Ships: For many of the Chinese campaigns, you have a treasure ship which generates a resource of your choice every minute or so.

I didn’t enjoy this expansion quite so much as the others. To me, it felt like there were so many upgrades to use resources on and they were so expensive that I found you could complete each mission before using them.

Did I complete the game?

Yes

What the critics said:

Gamespot: “Like The WarChiefs expansion from last year, The Asian Dynasties does a good job of introducing distinct new civilizations to Age of Empires III–only this time, instead of Native American tribes, there are three iconic Asian civilizations to play with now. There’s a fair amount here to dig into if you’re a serious Age of Empires fan or someone who likes Asian civilization. Overall 7.5/10.[15]

Gamespy: “No self-respecting Age III fan would want to miss out on all the East meets West fun, not to mention the new artwork: such gorgeous pagodas, arches, minarets and colors that those musty old Europeans could scarcely imagine in their new worlds. This expansion pack is a rare and generous package of new visuals, new gameplay, and absolutely crucial improvements to the core game. If you weren’t an Age III fan before Asian Dynasties, get ready to be one now. Overall 4.5/5.[16]

IGN: “Asian Dynasties is another great chapter in the Age of Empires series and one that strategy gamers with a yen for the Far East should definitely investigate. The units are colorful, the combat is exciting, and the story, though not as thrilling as Age 3 or as historically relevant as Age 2, is still strong enough to carry the action. It’s true that the missions leave a bit to be desired in terms of but I don’t want to come down too harshly on the campaign here because at the end of the day, Asian Dynasties is a heck of a lot of fun. I mean, the elephants alone are worth the price of admission. Overall 8/10”.[17]

My verdict:

“I enjoyed the storyline and the game still looks and plays great. My only gripe is the increase in expensive upgrades that are not worth the effort of gathering resources for. Other than that, it gets a thumbs up from me.”

Rating:

What are your memories of Age of Empires III and its expansion packs? I would love to hear your thoughts, and don’t for get to follow and subscribe so that you don’t miss my latest reviews! You can also find me on Instagram: @nicklovestogame.


[1] Lee, G., (10/14/2005). ‘Review – Age of Empires III’. 1up.com. (https://archive.is/20100105233119/http://www.1up.com/do/reviewPage?cId=3144773&did=1 Accessed on 14th November 2020).

[2] Dodson, J., (November 1st, 2005). ‘Age of Empires III Review’. Game Revolution. (https://www.gamerevolution.com/review/36011-age-of-empires-3-review Accessed on 14th November 2020).

[3] Kasavin, G., (October 14, 2005). ‘Age of Empires III Review’. Gamespot. (https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/age-of-empires-iii-review/1900-6135842/ Accessed 14th November 2020).

[4] Kosak, D., (October 18, 2005). ‘Review – Age of Empires III’. Gamespy. (http://pc.gamespy.com/pc/age-of-empires-iii/659812p1.html Accessed on 14th November 2020).

[5] Amer, N., (10/18/2005). ‘Age of Empires III Review’. Gamezone. (https://web.archive.org/web/20071011063943/http://pc.gamezone.com/gzreviews/r25458.htm Accessed 14th November 2020).

[6] Butts, S., (14 Oct 2005). ‘Age of Empires III Review’. IGN. (https://www.ign.com/articles/2005/10/14/age-of-empires-iii Accessed 14th November 2020).

[7] (November 23rd 2006). ‘PC Real-Time Strategy Game of the Year – Age of Empires III’. Gamespy. (https://web.archive.org/web/20061123230259/http://goty.gamespy.com/2005/pc/index15.html Accessed 15th November 2020).

[8] (November 23rd 2006). ‘Best Graphics – Age of Empires III’. Gamespy. (https://web.archive.org/web/20061128225404/http://goty.gamespy.com/2005/pc/index20.html Accessed 15th November 2020).

[9] Knutson, M., (10/16/2005). ‘Age of Empires III’. Gamezone. (https://web.archive.org/web/20061214005041/http://pc.gamezone.com/gzreviews/r25458.htm Accessed 15th November 2020).

[10] Ocampo, J., (October 20th, 2006). ‘Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs Review’. Gamespot. (https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/age-of-empires-iii-the-warchiefs-review/1900-6160294/ Accessed 15th November 2020).

[11] Chick, T., (10/17/2006). ‘Age of Empires III: The War Chiefs’. 1up.com. https://archive.is/20131219221713/http://www.1up.com/reviews/aoe-iii-warchiefs Accessed 15th November 2020).

[12] Meer, A., (9th November 2006). ‘Age of Empires III: The Warchiefs’. Eurogamer. (https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/aoe_wc_rev_pc Accessed 15th November 2020).

[13] Rausch, A., (October 20th, 2006). ‘Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs’. Gamespy. (http://pc.gamespy.com/pc/age-of-empires-iii-expansion-pack/740899p2.html Accessed 15th November 2020).

[14] Butts, S., (18th October 2006). ‘Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs Review’. IGN. (https://www.ign.com/articles/2006/10/17/age-of-empires-iii-the-warchiefs-review Accessed 15th November 2020).

[15] Ocampo, J., (October 23, 2007). ‘Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties Invasion Review’. Gamespot. https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/age-of-empires-iii-the-asian-dynasties-review/1900-6181567/ Accessed 15th November 2020).

[16] Chick, T., (Oct 24, 2007). ‘Reviews – Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties’. Gamespy. (http://pc.gamespy.com/pc/age-of-empires-iii-the-asian-dynasties/830070p2.html Accessed 16th November 2020).

[17] Butts, S., (23rd October 2007). ‘Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties Review’. IGN. (https://www.ign.com/articles/2007/10/23/age-of-empires-iii-the-asian-dynasties-review?page=3 Accessed 16th November 2020).

Age of Empires II: Age of Kings (Including The Conquerors, The Forgotten, The African Kingdoms, and The Rise of the Rajas Expansion Packs) – Review

Age of Empires (AoE) allowed you to take part in the rise and domination of Ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, Yamato and Romans. The Roman Empire has now collapsed and a power vacuum has appeared in Europe. You can take control of civilisations such as the Mongols, Holy Roman Empire, Moors, and Franks, and follow the stories of some of history’s most famous people such as Joan of Arc, William Wallace, El Cid, Saladin and Barbarossa. It’s time to shine up your armour, sharpen your weapons, and prepare to build an army capable of dominating your enemies. We are now in the Age of Kings!

The Age of Kings

Titlescreen (HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author)

Released in 1999, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings is a real-time strategy game and the sequel to Age of Empires. It was developed by Ensemble Studios and published by Microsoft (for Windows and Macintosh), and Konami ( for Playstation 2) for the 2001 port. A spin-off was created for the Nintendo DS in 2006. I chose to review the PC version.

Every campaign has a campaign map allowing you to easily replay missions. This map is from the William Wallace tutorial (HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author).

If you are new to AoE, and even if you’re not, a tutorial campaign is available where you help William Wallace (1270-1305) and his armies defend their lands from English encroachment. Other campaigns include:

Joan of Arc (1412-1431): Help the French push the English out of France during the Hundred Years’ War.

Saladin (1137-1193): Fight with the Muslim armies and help expel the Crusaders from the Holy Lands.

Genghis Khan (1162-1227): Lead Khan’s army on their invasion of Europe.

Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190): The Teutonic expansion of the Holy Roman Empire.

As with AoE, you have the option to play Campaign or Random Map modes. In Campaign Mode, you are given a specific objective fitting with the storyline. You must send your villagers to collect resources (wood, food, gold and stone) in order to build a base and an army. By gathering resources you will also be able to progress from the Dark Age through the Feudal and Castle Ages to the Renaissance. If resources are scarce, you can used trade cogs or the market to sell and buy materials.

In-game in the William Wallace campaign (HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author)

In Random Map Mode, the computer generates a range of differing landscapes and conditions. You have the option of choosing between 13 civilisations. Once chosen you can then opt who you compete against, and your and your opponent’s starting ages. You can win by either defeating your enemy, by building a Wonder that stands for 1000 years, or by collecting relics in a certain amount of time. The additional Deathmatch Mode starts you with an abundance of resources to quickly build a powerful army, and Regicide Mode sees you needing to kill the opponent’s king unit to win.

What’s new?

Before each campaign mission you are greeted with a screen showing text, illustrations, and voice over narrating the context of the mission. During the missions, some of the characters converse with each other offering hints to help find resources, make you aware of enemy locations, or simply helping to move the story along.

Cut scene from the Joan of Arc campaign (HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author)
The Siege of Orleans from the Joan of Arc campaign (HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author)

AoE II has also introduced counter-units to ensure more strategic gameplay. For example, infantry such as men-at-arms and swordsmen, are good against buildings but poor against cavalry. So how do you defeat cavalry? You train spearmen and pikemen who, in groups, make short work of cavalry. Each civilisation also has one or two special units. For example, the Britons have Longbowmen, archery units with an increased attack range. Like priests in AoE, monks can convert enemy units and heal your own. They are also able to pick up and carry relics back to their churches. These relics can offer bonuses such as giving you a slow but steady trickle of gold into your coffers.

Another new interesting feature is the option to garrison units in town centres, castles, archery ranges and guard towers. When you garrison archers and villagers into the aforementioned buildings, additional arrows will be fired to help defend your base.

One more helpful feature is the town bell. By pressing the bell icon when the town centre is selected, villagers will automatically garrison in the nearest building, which is handy for when you are being attacked. Interestingly villagers are now male and female adding more realism to the game.

The graphics and sound have been greatly improved from the first instalment. Buildings and units are more colourful and intricately illustrated, adding to the idea that technology has moved a long way since the Classical world. The overall look of the landscapes has also greatly improved from AoE.

The Siege of Jerusalem from the Saladin campaign (HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author)

This game has tons of replay value. Once you’re bored with the expansion campaigns and random map modes, you can also play multiplayer online where the game really comes into its own, or so I am told.

Last, but not least, you are able to read a short history of all civilisations featured in the game. As a history buff I find this a neat little feature as it adds more context to the campaigns and offers further insight into civilisations that we didn’t learn about at school.

What the Critics Said:

PC Zone: “Easy to learn, hard to master…detailed graphics and finely balanced units. Vastly improved single-player game…perhaps too similar to the original game. Overall 90%[1]

Gamespot: “No matter how you play it, chances are good that you’ll enjoy Age of Kings if not for its careful historical detail then because its context never takes precedence over the game’s playability. And if you’ve ever liked any other real-time strategy game in this classical style, then you’ll clearly see why this one deserves so much credit, even in direct comparison to the finest examples in its category. Overall 9.1/10[2]

Awards:

1999 Strategy Game of the Year – http://www.Gamespot.com

Best of ’99 Strategy Game – Gamepower

Editor’s Choice – PC Gamer

Editor’s Choice – Computer Gaming World[3]

Wikipedia states that AoE II won several other awards but I have been unable to verify those claims.

The Conquerors

In 2000, the Conquerors Expansion was released adding five new civilisations (Aztecs, Mayans, Spanish, Koreans and Huns) and four new campaigns:

Atilla the Hun (406-453): Follow Attila’s rise to power as he battles against a crumbling Roman Empire.

Montezuma (1466-1520): Ruler of the Tenochtitlán who must defend the Aztec Empire from Hernán Cortéz and the Spanish invasion.

El Cid (1043-1099): The Castillian knight who fought for both Christians and Muslims in Spain.

Battles of the Conquerors: A group of unrelated but famous historical battles including the Battle of Hastings (1066), the Battle of Tours (732), and the Battle of Yamazaki (1582).

Although some units are the same, many new buildings styles and units are introduced (HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author)

The Conquerors also introduced several new features and tweaks. New buildings styles and units indicative of the civilisations were introduced such as the Eagle Warrior for the Aztecs. The addition of the King of the Hill, Defend the Wonder and Wonder Race scenarios, add new criteria for winning Random Map games. New winter and tropical maps have been included, and it is now possible to garrison infantry troops inside battering rams, increasing their speed and attack strength.

AI has been improved to help manage your settlement. For example, villagers will automatically begin to collect the nearest resource once they have built a resource gathering site such as the lumber or gold mine sites. When building walls, villagers will spread out and build separate parts of the wall rather than massing on one block at a time. Also if more than one villager is sent to a farm, the second villager will automatically seed a new farm and begin to harvest food. Siege weapons such as mangonels and onagers will not automatically fire if they are at risk of hitting their own soldiers, which I know was something that annoyed a hell of a lot of gamers about AoE and AoE II.

What the Critics Said:

Gamespot: “Virtually every addition in The Conquerors helps make Age of Empires II a better, more thoroughly enjoyable game. Nevertheless, it’s true that the enhancements to the interface and the tweaks to the game’s balance are more obvious to more experienced Age of Kings players. This is largely because Age of Kings was an outstanding game to begin with – and as such, any improvements in an expansion pack such as The Conquerors understandably provide only a marginal improvement overall. At the same time, the multiple additions in The Conquerors add up to be more than enough to entice Age of Kings players to focus their attention on this ambitious, deeply strategic game once again – and for a long time. Overall 8.5/10[4]

Awards:

According to Wikipedia, The Conquerors won PC Gamer US Best Expansion Pack of 2000, but I was unable to find the magazine to verify.

The Forgotten

Titlescreen (HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author)

In 2013 another expansion pack, The Forgotten, developed by SkyBox Labs and Forgotten Empires, and published by Microsoft Studios, was released. It introduced five new civilisations: Italians, Indians, Slavs, Magyars, and Incas. It also offered seven new campaigns which included:

Alaric of the Visigoths (370-410): Fighting back against the Romans.

Bari (c.800-Middle Ages): The fall of Rome left room for competing Italian states to try and gain power. Here is the story of one such Byzantine family.

Sforza (15th century): Sforza is a mercenary offering his services around Italy where they are needed. His fate is in your hands.

Dracula (1428-1477): The Story of Vlad the Impaler amidst incursions from the Ottoman Empire.

El Dorado (1540-41): Francisco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro travel to South America in search of the Lost City of Gold hidden somewhere in the Amazonian rainforest.

Prithviraja III (reign c.1178-1192): Help Prithviraja III unite the warring clans of India.

Battles of the Forgotten: More independent historical battles including the Conquest of Cyprus (1570-73), Battle of Langshan Jiang (919), and Dos Pilas (629-761).

The Forgotten fixed a few bugs noted from the Age of Kings and The Conquerers. As well as new technologies and new units consistent with the new civilisations, it also introduced Capture the Relic and Treaty modes for Random Map games. Not only are new maps included but some maps have been expanded so that they are four times bigger than previous maps.

What the Critics Said:

I was unable to find critic reviews for The Forgotten, although it has had mostly positive ratings from users on Steam.[5]

The African Kingdoms

(HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author)

In 2015 yet another expansion pack called The African Kingdoms was released. It introduced four new civilisations (Berbers, Ethiopians, Malians, and the Portuguese). The new Campaigns included:

Sundjata (Malians c.1217-c.1255): The Ghanaian Empire has fallen leaving a power vacuum in West Africa. Help Sundjata build the Malian Empire and rule over West Africa.

Francisco de Almeida (c.1450-1510): Wars between the Moors and Christians have taken its toll on Portugal. They must branch out to find new sources of wealth unavailable to them in Europe. You must help push East to India.

Yodit (Ethiopans c.960): The Ethiopian Princess is accused of theft by her jealous nephew and is forced to flee her homeland. Help her regain her birth right.

Tariq ibn Ziyad (Berbers invasion of Spain and Portugal 711-718): Lead your army across the Strait of Gibraltar to wealth and glory in Iberia.

Screenshot from the Yodit campaign showing new building styles (HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author)

As well as the usual bug fixes, tweaks, new units and technologies, consistent with the new civilisations, and new maps; a new mode, Sudden Death mode, was added.

What the critics said:

I was unable to find critic reviews of The African Kingdom, although it has had very positive ratings from users.[6]

The Rise of the Rajas

(HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author)

Finally, in 2016, The Rise of the Rajas expansion pack was released. It included four more civilisations (Burmese, Malay, Khmer and Vietnamese). The new campaigns were:

Bayinnaung (Burma 1516-1581): A warrior king is betrayed and assassinated. His devoted servant pledges to carry on his legacy and seeks to reunite south-east Asia and create an empire.

Suryavarman I (Cambodia 1002-1060): The Khmer Empire is in turmoil due to internal politics and warring factions. There are also external threats from the surrounding, hostile neighbours. You must help Suryavarman I rise to power, defeat the warring factions and restore the Khmer Empire to dominance.

Gajah Mada (Java 1290-1364): Prime Minister of Majapahit, Gajah Mada, plans to build an empire that will rule the archipelago. However, he has sworn an oath to the king. How will he reconcile his ambition and his loyalty?

Lê Lợi (Vietnam 1384-1433): Vietnam is in the midst of a civil war and the Ming Empire of China has intervened and seized control. Minor noble Lê Lợi must reunite the warring factions and regain independence.

(HD Edition) (Screenshot taken by the author)

As with the other expansions, many bug fixes and balance changes were made. A multitude of more maps were added, as well as the usualy building and unit style changes consistent with their respective civilisations.

What the critics said:

I was unable to find critic reviews of Rise of the Rajas, although it has had very positive ratings on from users on Steam.[7]

The graphics of AoE II and all respective expansion packs are beautiful. The lush green maps, arid deserts, and coastal areas and are vastly improved from AoE. Although not perfect, and there are plenty of similarities, they have done a fine job in trying to create unique buildings and units distinctive to their respective civilisations.

The music has also been improved. Although the in-game background music isn’t designed to take your attention away from the action, the music adds a feeling of dread to the game, and is very atmospheric.

The campaigns are excellent and are far superior to AoE. Before each misson, the cut scenes really help set up each scenario, drawing the user into the story. The mix of different civilisations and empires rising and falling is based on real history, highlighting how violent our past was, and how things could easily have turned out differently for the winners or losers. Imagine if the Normans were defeated at the Battle of Hastings, or if the Aztecs were able to repel the Spanish invasions. History may have turned out differently. The addition of the expansion packs focussing on the history of not just European empires, but Asian, African and South American empires as well, means that the history of those non-European empires can be brought to the western world, where these histories are not taught in mainstream education. Learning about other cultures and histories will only enrich us.

One of the downsides to AoE was that once you had an army of maxed out hoplites, you could pretty much win any scenario. The introduction of counter units in AoE II has added an extra challenge to the game, forcing players to use a plethora of different units in their armies in order to be successful.

For me, what lets this game down, and this is why I have only given it four stars instead of five, is that I feel that this was made for hardcore real-time strategy gamers only. There is nothing wrong with that of course. What I mean is that I found the majority of the missions too difficult, even on the standard difficulty setting. You barely have time to figure out your location before you are inundated with wave upon wave of attacks. In some cases I got the feeling that the game must be cheating as they seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of resources.

“Get good!” I hear some of the hardcore real-time strategists say.

You may be right. Maybe I need to get better, but surely that is why difficulty settings are there. I also found that some of the missions took over two hours to complete. That just seemed too long for me.

Did I complete the games?

I have completed the games, but I mostly had to use the resource cheats as even the standard difficulty setting proved too difficult for me on many occasions.

My verdict:

“All real-time strategists will love this game. The sequel and expansion packs are great value for money with tons of replay value. They are beautifully designed and very challenging. Too many similarities between units of different civilisations and the overall difficulty was too apparent to allow a clean sweep of five stars.”

Rating:

What are your memories of Age of Empires II? I would love to hear your thoughts, and don’t for get to follow and subscribe so that you don’t miss my latest reviews! You can also find me on Instagram: @nicklovestogame.


[1] Shoemaker, R., ‘Reviews – Age of Empires II: Age of Kings’. PC Zone. (Xmas 1999). Issue 84:72-75. (https://archive.org/details/PC_Zone_Issue_084_1999_Dennis_Publishing_GB_christmas_edition/page/n73/mode/2up Accessed on 8th February 2020).

[2] Kasavin, G., (12th October 1999). ‘Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings – Review’. http://www.gamespot.com. (https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/age-of-empires-ii-the-age-of-kings-review/1900-2537995/ Accessed on 8th February 2020).

[3] (27th January 2000). ‘“Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings” Crowned No. 1 on Holiday Sales Charts Around the World’. News.Microsoft.com. (https://news.microsoft.com/2000/01/27/age-of-empires-ii-the-age-of-kings-crowned-no-1-on-holiday-sales-charts-around-the-world/ Accessed on 8th February 2020).

[4] Kasavin, G., (25th August 2000). ‘Age of Empires II: The Conquerors Review’. www.gamspot.com. (https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/age-of-empires-ii-the-conquerors-review/1900-2620147/ Accessed 8th February 2020).

[5] ‘Age of Empires II (2013): The Forgotten’. Steam. (https://store.steampowered.com/app/239550/Age_of_Empires_II_2013_The_Forgotten/ Accessed on 8th February 2020).

[6] ‘Age of Empires II (2013): The African Kingdoms’. Steam. (https://store.steampowered.com/app/355950/Age_of_Empires_II_2013_The_African_Kingdoms/ Accessed on 8th February 2020).

[7] ‘Age of Empires II: The Rise of the Rajas’. Steam. (https://store.steampowered.com/app/488060/Age_of_Empires_II_2013_Rise_of_the_Rajas/ Accessed on 9th February 2020).