Age of Empires: The Age of Kings Nintendo DS Review

As a games developer, you sometimes have to gamble. Porting Age of Kings to a handheld format is one of those occasions. Not only were Backbone taking one of the all-time great PC games and putting it onto a system with a fraction of the power, they were also going head to head with one of the great handheld franchises which already has a superb game available on the Nintendo DS – Advance Wars. That this gamble has paid off, and handsomely, is a testament to the creativity and bravery of the development team in reworking a classic to a new format and making it every bit as enjoyable.

Graphics

Clearly, there was no way to recreate the expansive PC experience on Nintendo’s dual screened wonder, so compromises had to be made. The first of these was to drastically reduce the size of each map to a more manageable size. That’s not to say the game feels small, because it doesn’t, but it’s certainly nowhere near the massive gaming area we saw in the PC games. The game is very nice to look at, though, and is another example of the DS flexing its muscles to a degree we weren’t sure it could achieve. The units within the game are very well animated, and the backgrounds full of little detail, like water rippling and windmills turning. The games cut-scenes are done like historical tapestries, and these convey the drama of the campaigns impeccably.

The small screens of the DS can present occasional problems in units on adjacent squares being hard to identify from each other, but these are rare problems that do not in anyway detract from the game. The battle animations are excellent, if a little repetitive, and give a great representation of how your troops are faring.

Gameplay

The biggest change in this game is that Backbone has moved away from Age’s usual real time nature to a turn based strategy affair. While this loses some of the frantic pacing of the PC games, in the greater scheme of things I feel it was a very wise decision. The top screen shows the battles and also unit and terrain information, whilst the bottom screen shows the game map. Controlling the game is a breeze thanks to superb stylus control. For example, moving a unit from A to B is as simple as touching the unit and then touching the square you wish to move to. You are then given options to either stay put, undo the move, attack, build, or use a special power. The options given depend on the unit used, for example, military units can attack, but not build, villagers the opposite.

Each turn lasts for one day. In each day, you can move each unit once and then ask this unit to attack/build etc. Buildings can only be built on the right terrain, such as finding a gold deposit to build a mine or a wheat field to build a mill. Attacks can be more effective depending on the terrain you are attacking from. The strategy here is a bit like rock, paper, scissors…cavalry units will excel against infantry, infantry will excel against spearmen and spearmen will excel against cavalry. Each individual icon represents a unit of 100 men, and after each battle you will be shown a figure letting you know how many of your men are left within that unit. Depleted units can be merged with each other to shore up their numbers.

Once each turn, you can create units from suitable buildings, and also perform one act of research. Stables produce cavalry units, town centres produce villagers and barracks produce foot soldiers. The range of units is impressive with over 65 being present in the game. Further deepening the strategy is the inclusion of hero units. These will be the leaders of your current campaign, such as Joan of Arc or Genghis Khan. These super strong units are vital to your progress, as is their unique ability to use special powers. To keep things simple, research and unit creation all take one turn, and when your civilization has developed enough, you can choose to advance through the Ages, opening up more options in unit creation and research.

This game’s depth of strategy is extremely impressive, especially in a handheld console. Multiplayer is present and correct through the DS’s wireless functionality. Up to 4 players can take part, though each will need a game card. In a nice touch, 4 players can even play the game on a single DS by using the hotseat mode. Unfortunately, there is no online play, and this could certainly be something to consider for any sequel.

Sound

The music in the game is excellent, brilliantly creating an epic atmosphere and responding to events within the game. The only complaint here is that it could get a little repetitive on extended plays, but it really does create such a great ambience that you will want to leave it turned on. Other sounds are limited to a few voice samples for each unit, which are used when a unit moves, builds, fights etc. These also add to the feeling of immersion in the game world.

Lifespan

The game contains 5 campaigns, each with their own hero unit. The first, The Franks, acts as a tutorial and lets you take control of Joan of Arc. The others, and their heroes, are as follows: The Japanese (Minamoto Yoshitsume), The Sarcens (Saladin), The Mongols (Genghis Khan) and The Britons (Richard the Lionheart). These get progressively more difficult, although the learning curve is always fair but challenging. You can save the game at any time, and this is a welcome addition to the game. The campaign mode will take a good 20 hours to get through. Add to that the multiplayer element and the scenario options, and there is plenty of game here for your money.

Overall

The decision to port Age of Kings to the DS was an inspired one. It all works so wonderfully well that this is certainly, in my opinion, in the top 5 DS games released so far. Is it as good as the current turn based DS king, Advance Wars? No, not quite, but it’s not far behind, and when you consider just how good Advance Wars actually is, to get as close as this is certainly some achievement. This is highly recommended to all who like strategy games, and it is so accessible to be also recommended to strategy game newcomers who want to experience a great game in its own right.

9 out of 10
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