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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by Ensemble Studios/Microsoft

Ups: Great new civs, maps, and campaigns. Peasants replant farms!

Downs: Uh . . .

System Reqs: P166, 32MB RAM, 4X CD, 200MB HD space.

With a few exceptions, expansion packs for RTS games aren’t 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 it’s just more of the same, and all too often expansions merely serve as glorified patches. Fortunately, that’s not the case with Microsoft’s 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--it’s worth taking the Koreans in multiplayer just to hear your enemy’s 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 that’s particularly effective for razing buildings. As for the Spanish, well--there’s going to be a lot of controversy about the Spanish. They’re 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--they’re 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 they’re 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. I’m 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 aren’t 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 game’s best new unit is the petard, essentially a suicide trooper carrying a keg of gunpowder on his back. They’re slow and die easily, but if you can sneak a half-dozen or so into an enemy’s town, he’s 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 (Attila’s 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 you’re 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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 reviewer’s and player’s biggest complaint about the AoE series--that you constantly have to replant farms. Far too often in AoK, you’d 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. It’s an elegant solution to the game’s one enduring weakness.  It’s 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.

The Conquerors is an excellent expansion pack; frankly, it gives you more and is vastly more enjoyable than most stand-alone games. If you like AoK but are getting a little bored with the original 13 civs, The Conquerors will kick some life back into your gaming. The only question about the AoE series now is: where to? The series stands on the cusp of the gunpowder era, and it remains to be seen if the “historical” feel of the AoE series can withstand the leap to Red Alert territory. Given the work that Ensemble Studios has done thus far, I betting they will; and I can’t wait until I get to play the campaigns of Napoleon.

 --Rick Fehrenbacher