Welcome to Hot Keys, a blog series about my love for and history playing RTS’s. This week, it’s the follow up the first Age of Empires: Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings.
Age of Empires 2 is my favorite RTS of all time, no question. It was such a monumental leap from the first AoE in every way: the graphics were a lot better, each civilization was more fleshed out and had actual appreciable differences, more units, more buildings, and on and on. I played this game for at least two years straight as my go-to PC game. As a child with a very short attention span, having something like this to alleviate boredom was just an amazing feat. This is going to be a little long in the tooth, but there are just so many things I love about this game, beginning with the opening cinematic:
This little short BLEW MY MIND. OH MAN LOOK AT ALL THOSE GUYS FIGHTING HOLY CRAP CATAPAULTS AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!! I watched this cinematic probably at least 50 times, and it was the coolest thing I had ever seen at that point. The actual game is a little scaled down from that video, but the tone it set was clear, that this game was going to be, “bigger, better, more badass” to borrow a phrase.
Age of Empires 2 is a much better RTS than the first ever was. Even at the time, I thought to myself how good the UI was (I was kind of a weird kid) and the big unit icons instead of the tiny ones from the first helped me learn building menu locations fast. There is just such an amazing depth to this game: all the factions had a big tech tree you could look at that included more research options akin to a Civilization game. Being able to build things like new bombard towers to shoot cannonballs as a defense were so cool and the buildings actually looked realistic. The art differences between the styles (Far East, Middle Eastern, Central and West European) were very vivid, and as you progressed your cities would start to look like actual cities.
This is the game that taught me to strategize in RTS’s. Gone were the days of tricking unit caps and building only War Elephants (I still built appreciable numbers of them). I learned about sending my units in different waves, with swordsmen leading the front and my crossbowmen and siege engines in the back, while I tried to learn how to multitask with doing pincer formations with cavalry archers. The AI was much improved, and there were times that I would lose if didn’t try and follow a set strategy when I played, and that pressure to perform helped my game so much. Once I got so good at the game, I would have free-for-all games with 7 AI’s set on the hardest difficulty and would win most of the time.
Speaking of which, along with the AI improvements came improvements with their build orders, and that made winning harder. After 30 minutes, they would have encased their town center with walls and towers galore, with tons of buildings crammed in next to each other, so even if I managed to break through a wall with a trebuchet (the absolute best unit in the game) and started pouring in battering rams and catapults, it took so long to actually break through the secondary wall of buildings to get to the town center! The victory conditions were to either destroy the enemy town center or build a wonder, and nothing made me more anxious than the text popping up in the corner with a countdown clock until the wonder is completed, and I had to move to get there in time.
There were games where it took well over 3 hours to clear every enemy building from these giant maps, since they could hide a forge in the corner of the map. There were literal sieges of bases that took tons of time to decimate the enemy walls while defending the weapons, and then initial skirmishes where retreating and reinforcing were the name of the game leading to full on assaults that lasted minutes. Watching hordes of my units slowly slog through enemy forces filled me with such pride for my skill, and seeing the victory screen where my superior tactics decimated 3 AI’s taking me on at once lived up to that opening intro promise of massive battles.
But the thing I enjoyed most was the units. At the time, that was a huge draw for me: what units I could build, how they all looked, what they upgraded to (a big part of making use of every troop type, so certain units didn’t become unusable at a certain point). It was so amazing to me that when an upgrade would finish it would apply to all units at the same time, and seeing basic club men turn into dudes with swords as they fought enemy club men was great. Also, each civilization had a unique unit that could only be built from castles, which were giant fortresses that cost tons of money and dozens of villagers to complete. For example, the Japanese had Samurai, the Vikings had Vikings, the Teutons had tank-like Teutonic Knights, etc. These units were drawn and animated well, and one of my fondest memories was building up a max unit cap of Elite Samurai and just destroying everything.
This is one of my favorite games of all time, and cemented my love of the RTS genre. Commanding armies, managing an economy and upgrades, and doing it all on my own was so rewarding to me, which made my disappointment all the more painful with Age of Empires III. Thanks for reading, and next week I will round out the trilogy with Age of Empires III.