Pros: 1) Plentiful Units 2) Fun to experiment 3) Town Building
Cons: 1) Small Maps 2) Poor Graphics 3) Weak AI, few enemy sieges.
Knights and castles have a mystic quality about them that stir the hero in everyone. Requiring over twelve hours of gameplay just to complete the King Richard campaign, this game is a marvel of sophistication on the DS portable platform. As you read my review keep in mind that I have owned this game for over six months now. While the game has several obvious shortcomings, you cannot deny that the game is still very entertaining.
The game has four heroes and heroines which can be played in campaign mode. For example, the Joan of Arc tutorial provides a map where you lift the siege of Orleans by destroying 3 castles. I quickly used ranged units to destroy an English castle near the city. The english respond by sending in another eight mounted Knights! Since I only had weak ranged units they were quickly defeated. I had to restart the mission and capture nearby mills before I attacked the castles. The mills allowed me to create stronger units to fight off the surprises waiting for me later.
A good storyline accompanies each battle as you guide your digital army to victory. The ingame library is also very impressive. Accessible from the main menu, the library contains short summaries of virtually every aspect of the game.
Four ages are used to group the vast amount of units available to the user. As soon as a new age is reached, all units are upgraded to the next comparable unit. All units also enjoy an attack and defensive boost from the new age reached. Only peasants have no boots to their powers during this process.
The game has one advantage over all other strategy games on the DS, Town Centers and their unique, customizable building opportunities. You can build towers or just build an outpost with a single barracks. As each new building is placed the over all defensive strength of the town centers increase as well. No other strategy game released before Age Of Empires or shortly after have these freeform town centers. Just for clarification, Advance Wars, Prince of Persia and a host of others do not have this feature! Advance Wars uses preplaced town centers.
In "Empire Map" mode (freeform scenarios) the game only gives a set number of "Empire Points" for defeating each enemy player. Other games, like the Advance Wars, rate you on power, time and the efficiency of the victory. This method of rating your gameplay encourages better tactical gameplay in order to gain more credits for unlocking special features. Age Of Empires DS gives 25 empire points for each AI player defeated. You also gain points in the same manner when playing campaign mode. You can replay any campaign mission that you have successfully completed. You can only play a maximum of 3 AI players at once. A maximum of three town centers can be built by each player. Units available for creation are limited by the number of farms built. Farms are very important to your survival in the game. An interesting trade off occurs in the opening turns of this turn based strategy game. If you only build one villager unit, the other players will quickly defeat you because their units will overwhelm your small army. Conversely, creating multiple villagers will affect your attack power early in the game. Luckily, the villagers can fight. They make great cleanup units. My villagers have finished off dozens of weak units.
Individual units get promotions based on the amount of combat they have seen. Being attacked counts towards this experience pool. The promotions or ranks give the unit increased attack and defensive capability.
Combat itself basically revolves around the offense and defensive stats of the two units involved. A -20 to +20 percent bonus is given based on the terrain the unit is on. Multiple hours of experience with this game has led me to believe, the attacking unit gains approximately a 40% offensive bonus versus the defending unit. If you use this calculation before attacking a larger foe, your gameplay will become much easier. For example, the weakest unit in Age Of Empires is the villagers unit. Primarily used for constructing towns, villagers can easily defeat a powerful unit that only has 4 health points because of the attack bonus given. Units under attack are not "pushed back and units do not suffer rout or morale side effects.
The AI in Age of Empires is strongest in campaign mode. Once the AI can perceive a unit strength advantage over a player, it will attack with all available combat units. Campaign mode is only harder because the computer is given preplaced units from the start. Beyond attacking weak foes, the AI is very weak in this game. You can easily weaken a computer foe by simply putting archers on hill tops in range of the enemy force.
Peasants can build castles as well. Every town can have one castle, want more castles? Build another town first. The castles can build only one unit per turn. The castle is a great way to create a choke point around rough terrain. You could hold off a large enemy force for several turns before the castle itself ultimately falls.
The stylus can be used in this game. Fortunately, after you lose the third stylus you can use the DS keypad to control your battles.
The game uses pixelated, sprite based, 3D graphics. For example, the buildings and resources have looping animations of flags and turning windmills on the game map. The combat cinematics have a distinct western animated feel. Only the "combat cinematics" are 3D rendered, but with low antialiasing and little specular effects, the look is unimpressive.
The ingame soundtrack is a ten second sound loop for each civilization. The britons have the best soundtrack in my opinion. Soundeffects are basic, somewhat delayed sound for a game of the genre. Compared to the soundtrack of Final Fantasy III for the DS, this game gets a 5 for sound.
Amazingly, after over forty hours of gameplay, my town center has never been attacked. Hold on a minute, before you judge me a complete loser, I mostly play this game while traveling for business, including an eight hour layover in Pensacola, FL! During the layover, I did not advance my armies out of their towns. They held fast and finally after 60 turns, I released them. I wiped out all three computer players in the next 15 or so turns.
The main reason to play the game over again is to gain more points for unlocking maps and special units. Over three dozen extra "Empire Maps" are available. Approximately a dozen special units can be unlocked as well. However, these units only have marginally increased attack ability. Once you have unlocked all these features, the game becomes in my opinion, predictable. The predicatability comes from the AI's lack of zeal for a full assault. Once the AI loses two units it turns to a defensive mode that leaves it's map resources very vulnerable to attack.
My favorite method of cheating the game is to use the scoring menu's charting feature. The exploration graph will tell you how far the enemy units have wandered. The military graph is useful for tracking the size of the enemy armies.
To keep your game from locking up, give your self a name longer than four characters.
The following is a list honoring the people who rarely get credit anymore, the programmers of Age Of Empires DS!
I highly recommend this game to anyone who is not familiar with the history of this time period. The campaign modes and ingame library teach you a lot about the people of this forgotten time. For the younger gamer, this game is a perfect tool to teach history! Yet, my final view on this game changed as I played it longer. The AI really upset me. If you are looking for a well designed strategy game, I would recommend Advance Wars DS instead. I may seem harsh in my review of this game, but keep in mind I want a combat simulator that can destroy my entire army if small mistakes are made.