|With a few exceptions, expansion packs for RTS games arent
much to get excited about. Sure, they often add a couple of new maps and a campaign, maybe
a handful of new units--at best a new race--but typically its just more of the
same, and all too often expansions merely serve as glorified patches. Fortunately, thats
not the case with Microsofts Age of Empires II: The Conquerors Expansion. It
introduces five civilizations, new tile sets, three campaigns, a handful of historical battles, new multiplayer
options, and lots of new technologies, units, and maps. And Ensemble Studios even listened
to all those reviews about AoK that expressed the utter pain it was to constantly replant
farms. All of this adds up to new strategies, new gameplay options, and lots more fun for
Age of Kings fanatics.
The five new civilizations--Aztecs, Huns, Koreans, Mayans, and Spanish--are all intriguing. Aztecs crank out troops in a hurry and have excellent infantry, especially their light Eagle Warriors--who take the place of cavalry (of which they have none). They also have excellent heavy infantry--Jaguar Warriors are their unique unit, and along with their Garland Wars unique technology can make them a formidable force. Though they also lack cavalry, Mayans get Plumed Serpent archers as their unique unit, and all of their archers cost less than other civilizations. The Koreans have two especially cool new units: the War Wagon and the Turtle Ship. Both are well-armored and look very impressive--its worth taking the Koreans in multiplayer just to hear your enemys reaction the first time a War Wagon rumbles into combat. Koreans also get heavy siege weapons with increased range. And those wacky Huns have a lot of character. Being nomadic, they never have to build houses--playing them will ruin you for other civs, believe me--and they have superb cavalry, including the Tarkan, a cavalry unit thats particularly effective for razing buildings. As for the Spanish, well--theres going to be a lot of controversy about the Spanish. Theyre chronologically the latest and technologically the most advanced of all the civilizations in the game. Most of the civilizations in AoK hail from the early and late medieval periods; the Spanish are a 16th-century civilization from the first Age of Colonization. As such, they have a bit of an edge with their special units, the Missionary and the Conquistador. Both of these units are much like your workaday monk and hand cannoneer, with one big difference--theyre mounted. The combination of firepower, armor, mobility, and range makes the Conquistadors particularly good units. Some on the newsgroups are already complaining about them, and they are tough, but theyre by no means the unbalancing uber-weapon that some would make them out to be. All in all, the five new civilizations are balanced, different, and challenging to play. Im particularly taken with the Aztecs, who look very nice on the new jungle map tiles, which include jaguars and turkeys instead of wolves and sheep.
But the new races arent the only civilizations that get new units. Acting on gamers suggestions, Ensemble has made siege units a bit more powerful. Rams can now be garrisoned, and the games best new unit is the petard, essentially a suicide trooper carrying a keg of gunpowder on his back. Theyre slow and die easily, but if you can sneak a half-dozen or so into an enemys town, hes gonna have a lot of home repair to deal with. A new light cavalry unit, the hussar, has also been added. Along with the new units, new technologies also abound. Some of them, like Thumb Ring, add to the range and attack of archers. Others, like Heresy (my personal favorite) causes your units to die rather than be converted. In addition to these general technologies, each civilization also receives a unique technology. For example, Logistica give Byzantine cataphracts trample damage, and Anarchy allows the Goths to create Huskarls at their barracks. While none of them is particularly overpowering, the new technologies add even more depth and character to the civilization.
The three campaigns included in the game are excellent. It seems that the single-player campaigns in this series have been getting better ever since the original AoE, and the ones included in The Conquerors are inventive, tense, and historically informative. It helps, of course, that the campaigns all deal with fascinating historical personages (Attila the Hun, El Cid, and Montezuma) and fascinating historical events (Attilas rampage through a reeling late Roman world, the Spanish Reconquista, and Cortez discovery and betrayal of the Aztecs). As usual, Ensemble adds twists and turns to the games (some will make you think youre playing Brood War); objectives often change, enemies become friends and vice versa, weird things happen. Kudos to the designers of the campaigns. The Battles of the Conquerors are also fun, but the AoE engine doesnt really lend itself to recreating set-piece historical battles, and I was, for example, very disappointed by the Agincourt scenario.
Of course, skirmish
mode is just as much fun as ever, especially with the addition of the new civilizations, a
winter and jungle tile set, and new real world maps, including Italy and
Texas. Multiplayer types dont get ignored, either. The Conquerors includes three new
game types--King of the Hill, Wonder Race, and Defend the Wonder. Ensemble has also
responded to every reviewers and players biggest complaint about the AoE
series--that you constantly have to replant farms. Far too often in AoK, youd be
conducting a desperate battle on your borders, only to discover that all your farms had
gone to seed. Now you can queue up farms that peasants will automatically replant. Its
an elegant solution to the games one enduring weakness. Its also nice that the sight of your most
powerful troops getting blown to pieces by your own siege engines while attacking
buildings is now mostly a thing of the past. In The Conquerors, siege engines will not
fire into your troops without direct orders from you.