Tuesday, December 9, 2008

age of empires II, my first love

Both Craig’s recent posts on his own journey through a ludicrously old computer game and Rob’s upcoming post on the sad passing of Ensemble Studios have inspired me to reminisce about my own experiences in the field. Thus, I present to you my high school love affair with Ensemble’s ludicrously old computer game, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.

In 2003, I had recently scored a sales position at my hometown’s local OfficeMax – this was a considerable step up from my previous cashier gig at the McDonald’s two hundred yards away. OfficeMax was known mostly for its robust selection of extended warranties and walls of high-quality paper stock, but they also had a small selection of PC games, most with the word “Tycoon” somewhere in their titles. Nestled in between the Atari compilations and edutainment software, though, was a copy of Age of Empires II. The list price was $20, and it had a picture of knights on it. I was sold.

Even then this game was five years old, but when I installed it I, a lifelong console stalwart with no experience playing PC games, discovered a type of gameplay I had never encountered before. You start as a fledgling civilization with nothing but a “Town Center” and a couple of villagers to your name. From here, you must harvest food, wood, gold and stone, your “resources” which you can use to build and upgrade buildings and new villagers. Eventually, you are tasked with raising a mighty army with the express purpose of wiping out every other player on the map.

The scope and the ferocity of these battles were impressive; the clank of metal against metal, the grunts of men as they succumbed to enemy advances, the whizz of arrows as they flew fast and thick over the battlefield, the giant catapults which lobbed flaming rocks into enemy battlements (and rows of hostiles) - back then, those things were all brand new to me, and I couldn’t get enough of them. Sometimes all you could do was watch the colored units mix together and hope that your color was the one that swallowed the other.

This game drove me to LAN party, to go out of my way to arrange group play sessions with friends and acquaintances – I would cobble together machines from whatever junk was lying around just to give people extra computers to play on. The most extreme case involved setting a bare motherboard on top of a cardboard box and hooking the requisite components to it – if hobos had computers, that’s what they would be like.

My love affair with the genre didn’t go far beyond this game. Real-time strategy often requires the same instincts and reflexes as a game of chess – they rely more on careful planning and forethought than the timing and trigger finger called for by most games I play. Which is to say, I was never especially great at RTS games, and I never had the patience to get any better than I was. I picked up the expansion pack for Empires and also bought its spiritual sequel, Age of Mythology, which was largely a simplified version of Empires with an adequate 3D engine. I’ve not purchased an RTS since.

This might be because no one did it as well as Ensemble, and Ensemble never made a game as good as this one. The balance between the different nationalities was excellent, but the play experiences were still unique. Playing as the English required a completely different strategy than playing the Celts or the Spaniards. It was easy to pick up and play, but deep enough for diving. No RTS I’ve played since, be it Empire Earth, Command and Conquer, Total War or Civilization, has hooked me as quickly or completely as Age of Empires did five years ago.

Still, the genre somehow soldiered on without me. Even though I didn’t pick up Age of Empires III and I won’t be buying their swan song, I still lament the loss of a very talented developer and wish everyone at Ensemble luck when they’re disbanded at the end of Halo Wars’ development cycle. Even as the bottom falls out of the US economy, I have little doubt that any of these people will have trouble finding jobs.