Most of us would probably agree that school had the habit of taking the joy out of everything. The endless tests and ruthless, rote recitation made subjects such as history seem like the most boring torture that any human being could possibly endure. Of course, history is an interesting – and arguably essential – topic which everybody should approach with an open mind. Also, it’s ripe with ideas for countless games. Despite this, the number of historically-themed titles are rather slim overall, but a few noteworthy names stick out, such as now-defunct Ensemble Studios’ seminal Age of Empires series.
The first game was released in 1997 and is set in ancient- and pre-history. Players take on the role of one of several historical civilizations, including the Greeks, Egyptians and even Choson. As is typical in real-time strategy games, you’re required to build an army of epic proportions and engage your enemies in a decisive tug of one-upmanship. What set Age of Empires apart was that it was far more inclined towards economic considerations; rather than a single resource, the game featured four, as well as varying methods for obtaining them. In addition, victory could be won by pacifist means, such as establishing control over artifacts and ruins, or constructing one of the wonders of the ancient world. It featured a campaign with some truly wicked scenarios, including a few where the economy was stagnant and players had to rely on a very limited number of units to achieve victory. Many set-pieces were also loosely based on actual historical events, such as Hannibal crossing the Alps.
An expansion, The Rise of Rome, was released shortly afterwards and is widely regarded as the definitive version of the game. It included new civilizations, new campaigns, new units and all sorts of tweaks to the gameplay and balancing. The most useful addition was the ability to queue units (an innovation at the time), though other now-common RTS staples such as setting rally points are non-existent. This dovetails – ironically, perhaps – into the fact that the gameplay is almost as antiquated as the title’s theme itself, especially when compared to modern games; many mechanics for streamlining are missing, and while it remains fun, prepare for an insane amount of micromanagement.
Graphically, Age of Empires features a colourful and vibrant isometric look that was quite the novelty when released. At the time, it was easily the prettiest strategy game on PC – or any platform, for that matter. This distinct look was carried over into the sequels and spin-offs and influenced other games in the genre for years to come. On the audio side of things, the music was largely forgettable, though it definitely had its fans and has been the subject of assorted remixes and covers. A particularly nice touch was that the units spoke authentic tidbits of actual ancient languages.
Sadly, obtaining a copy today is entirely much more of a mission than it needs to be. Unlike its sequel Age of Empires II, the title has not seen an HD remake on Steam and it doesn’t feature in GOG.com‘s catalogue, although fans are requesting it on their wishlists. For those of us who do own it, we’re all aware that running it on modern versions of Windows is a bit tricky, especially with the lower resolutions and weird colour glitches. Fortunately, there’s an unofficial patch which addresses these issues and allows the game to run at resolutions up to 1920×1200. It even allows playing in a window and fixes a rather notorious bug which corrupted saved games.
If you’re an RTS junkie, you need to play this. The sequels may be objectively better, but it’s still a blast that’s truly historic, in every sense of the word. Apply the patch, load it up, invite your mates to play on a random map and you’ll see what I mean.