Sometimes less is more, and sometimes it?s just cheap. Case in point, Age of Empires: The Age of Kings for the Nintendo DS. Upon first playing the game I realized that it was an imitation of Sid Meier?s Civilization. You lead a race of people through their military, economic and scientific development to overcome their rival nations. The main difference is this game takes place on a much smaller scale and focuses almost entirely on the military aspect. On the plus side, this allows for faster gameplay. You won?t spend 30 minutes completing a single turn involving hundreds of units dispersed across a huge map full of cities, each with their own economic and political issues for you to contend with. On the negative side, this deprives the game of depth, making each campaign simply a question of whose sword bites the deepest.
The game has two modes of play: Campaign and Empire mode. In campaign mode, you take on the role of a historic figure such as Joan of Arc or King Richard the Lionhearted. After receiving a brief history lesson on your character, you are given several mission objectives and put in charge small troupe of villagers and soldiers.
Villagers construct towns and fortifications which cost food and gold which can be obtained by building farms and mines. However, farmable land and gold deposits are highly contested, so you?ll need to protect your assets wherever you might find them. At most, you?ll have up to five towns to tend to. I like that all construction takes one turn to complete, so expanding your empire happens quickly. And, like true surfs, the people never bother you with their social woes and hardships.
Different soldier types can be trained in the barracks, stables or archery ranges built by villagers. But don?t expect to simply churn out a horde of troops and overwhelm your enemy. There is a limit to how many units you can have at one time, depending on your food supply. This sounds constraining, but it keeps the game from being decided by who?s the best at hoarding troops.
Each turn you can develop one new technology if you have the resources to pay for it. Technologies grant bonuses to specific unit types or make new units and buildings available. Once you?ve obtained enough technologies you can “age up” for a hefty sum. This brings you into a new grade of civilization and upgrades all your units. This also unlocks new options for technological advancement. Like construction, it only takes one turn to develop a technology or age up. Just don?t expect to advance to the point where you can launch Tomahawk missiles at your castle dwelling neighbors. This game is strictly medieval.
Every time you beat a mission in campaign mode you are awarded “empire points” that can be spent to unlock new units and maps for both modes.
Empire mode functions the same as campaign mode but it?s a single scenario where you choose the map, victory condition and opponents. You can even include human opponents, which is especially good since the computer AI is borderline brain-dead.
Your friends can join in a game either through a wireless connection between multiple DSs or by using the “hot-seat” function where you can share one DS. I liked this function best since there is no advantage to using a separate DS for this type of game. And since a single match could take hours to complete, you probably won?t be looking at your screen when it?s not your turn anyway.
The stylus and touch screen come in handy, allowing for quick selections of units and options, but it tends to be glitchy and doesn?t always select what you aiming for. Often, I ended up using the conventional buttons because I was frustrated with the touch screen. The top screen, however, was consistently useful; displaying the statistics of any unit or terrain I scrolled over. When you attack or are attacked, it also displays a short battle animation. I appreciated the animations, but they also were the most glaring example of this game?s greatest shortcoming: Graphics.
Graphically, this game should have been made for the SNES. Units look more like Gumby characters than soldiers; devoid of any detail, including faces. Each has only one or two animations, and in battle sequences they become a mesh of indecipherable pixels. Backgrounds are drab, unanimated and uninspiring.
Sound too is bare-bones. There are only a handful of effects throughout the game, including a grunt sound that you?ll hear about a half-dozen times each battle. Each nation has its own background music for its turn. None of them are particularly bad, but after playing for a few hours I was so tired of my nation?s music that I had to turn the sound off.
As portable strategy games go, Age of Empires: The Age of Kings isn?t great, but there aren?t a lot of choices for the DS now. Maybe that?s why I feel like the developers cut corners everywhere. The game also has a number of bugs that freeze the game up during battles or when you save. If you want a game with better sound, graphics, challenge and replay value, try Advance Wars: Dual Strike first. But, if you?ve already played that and you?re dying for some strategy on the go, this game is worth a shot. After all, it?s good to be the king.