Age of Empires II: The Conquerors
Expanding Your Frontiers
Expansion packs have it tough. This is particularly true for add-ons to poor or mediocre games, which only their dedicated fans want to play, but in some ways these titles are the lucky ones. Consider The Conquerors. As the follow-up to a classic, it was immediately held up to the harsh light of scrutiny and prodded with jaded comparisons. Was this expansion as significant as Rise of Rome was to the original Age of Empires? What did it add, and how much? How did it change the gameplay, and was the unit balance as keenly honed as a Japanese sword? Could it revitalize the game for those who had drifted on to other, newer titles? Did it enhance multiplayer in any appreciable way? Above all, was this “good enough” to be an expansion to Age of Kings?
For those with short attention spans, the quick answer is “yes, but with a few reservations”. Given the amount of stuff featured in the original, The Conquerors is indeed an amazing product as far as expansion packs go, offering enough new missions, units and crisp visual flair to practically qualify as the next game in the series. It also corrects a couple of questionable design decisions from the original, but altogether fails to fix some of the more pressing parts.
Conquering The Conquerors
Given the game’s title, there should be little surprise that its four new campaigns feature some of history’s most notable land-grabbers. From the trials of El Cid and Cortez’s invasion of the New World to Attila’s flagrant disregard for Roman borders, three of these scenario-sets cover extended military and colonization campaigns. The fourth, titled Battles of the Conquerors, is a set of eight unrelated missions, each covering a certain pivotal moment in world history. In this set, the Battle of Agincourt and the Japanese naval invasion at Noryang Point rub virtual shoulders with Charles Martel’s defense of Tours and Erik the Red’s acquisitive interests across the Sea of Worms.
It’s an overall impressive package, with spoken introductory briefings making each campaign feel like an embelished historical narrative, complete with twists and turns and broken alliances. But the singleplayer as a whole is still a tough and grueling affair, with some scenarios degenerating into hour-long grinds. One recurring issue is the manner in which your men scatter and attack anything in sight when fights erupt, particularly enemy buildings during raids, breaking formation and turning large battles into chaotic clickfests where nothing really makes sense. This is an almost universal issue with the RTS genre, but it could have been easily fixed with a few added AI options.
Any semblance of order brakes down the minute you assault a town. The AI is the perfect multi-tasker in this confusion, continually targeting the right counter-units and churning out fresh troops, and is still extremely stubborn in both campaign and skirmish maps in admitting defeat (you always get that one villager slipping away and building anew). Along those same lines we still have some frustrating CPU behavior – lone scouts just wondering into your camp even as far as the Imperial Age, and who just run around pointlessly despite being directly attacked; your base getting harassed by single enemy units who immediately get wiped out, pointlessly distracting you. And an altogether much too long and grinding campaign mode, with missions taking forever to complete even on the lowest difficulty level (which is now ‘Standard’).
Despite these harsh complaints, I can’t pass over the fact that both the interface and gameplay have seen improvement. Building drop-off points near wood, gold or stone deposits will now make villagers instantly go to work, and you can also queue up farms for re-seeding, essentially leaving your town on autopilot for considerable spans of time. Even fights are usually fun as long as they’re not too massive (and thus harder to control), and the game is a blast when played against live opponents. Friendly splash damage from your catapults has been annoyingly kept, but battering rams can now be loaded with infantry for increased speed, making them more of an asset in battle.
Who could possibly resist a quick jaunt across the Roman Empire at the head of a rampaging barbarian horde? Well, our wait is finally over, and Attila himself makes a fine traveling companion. But if you prefer something a little more American, the Aztecs and the Mayans are both represented here, along with their arch-nemesis, the Spanish. Cortez never seemed like quite so much of a vicious opportunist in those high school history lectures, but this game offers you a less Euro-centric perspective. Most notably, we now have the Koreans and their amazing naval know-how.
Each new civilization has some unique traits, as you’d probably expect – Huns, for example, are a migratory bunch and don’t need to build houses. They can automatically create up to the maximum number of units allowed by the scenario. On the Aztec side, remember how impressed Montezuma’s people were with Cortez’s horses? No surprise then that they can’t build cavalry units. And then there are the Koreans- not one but two unique units for them, War Wagons and Turtle Boats. In high-level naval warfare, they have a distinct advantage, and it’s fun to watch a fleet of spike-hulled Turtle Boats face off against practically anything else.
The Art of Online Conquest
On the multiplayer end of things, three new game types pander to both the strategist and economist. The first, King of the Hill, starts with a monument in the middle of the map, which must be held for a certain time period. You know the drill. The second type, Defend the Wonder, is a frantic attempt to take and keep possession of a single existing wonder. The high-powered catch is that everyone starts in the Imperial Age, with all technologies researched and huge resources. And the last, Wonder Race, awards victory to the player that constructs their first Wonder.
Feel like a change of scenery? Why not trash your friends in the Sea of Japan? Or France, or Iberia? The Conquerors’ nice selection of real-world locations makes the perfect battleground for whatever bloody conflict you may have in mind. Oh, and did we mention that every culture in the game now has its own unique technology? Some of these can put an attractive spin on former civilizations you might not usually play. The Byzantines, for example, can research Logistica, which gives their Cataphracts triple damage. The Persian technology Mahouts, unsurprisingly, increases the speed of War Elephants. And new global technologies such as the Thumb Ring (improves archer accuracy) and Heresy (causes your units to die when converted, instead of joining the enemy side) will also give you and your opponents a leg up to mayhem.
Age of Empires II: The Conquerors is, in short, everything an expansion pack should be. It manages to improve on the original, adds a helpful and interesting stack of new features, looks quite gorgeous and offers as much scripted gameplay as The Age of Kings.
System Requirements: Pentium 166 Mhz, 32 MB RAM, Win 95/98/NT4/2000
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