Ages of Empires Review
We all have favorite desktop games we'd like to see ported over to our Pocket PCs. Diablo (which we somewhat already have with Pocket EverQuest), Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, Syndicate, and Space Dude (OK, that last one was a bit of a stretch).
Many people were thrilled when ZioSoft announced it was porting Age of Empires over to the Pocket PC several months back. Although I didn't play the original that much, it was a popular game. AoE was an RTS game featuring several ancient civilizations competing against each other instead of the usual orcs and elves, humans and aliens, Americans and Soviets rivalries. It didn't matter that all the various civilizations looked and acted pretty much the same, with the critical exception of wearing different-colored shorts (And why are they all male? I suppose you don't need women in a society where members are generated by buildings.) AoE was a bit more sophisticated than some of its peers--victory wasn't always just a matter of destroying the enemy's base; sometimes you had to win by economic means or by exploring land and claiming land markers. Anyway, AoE was a hit on the desktop, spurning sequels that have done well for Microsoft and its gaming division.
ZioSoft's ports have usually been pretty good, and they have a way of recapturing the feel of the original on handhelds without losing too much in the process (see my review of their remake of SimCity 2000 in Pocket PC magazine to see what I mean.)
AoE is one of the more recent games ported by ZioSoft (The original came out in 1997. Their previous titles, SimCity 2000 and Ultima Underworld, were based on games released in the early 90s.) And boy, you'd better be a serious RTS fan if you want to install the damn thing. The game can take up more than 15 megabytes of storage memory, and you'll need 10 megabytes of program memory free to run it. And don't forget your saved games, which come in at 150-300k a pop and can weigh in at 700k for the campaigns. Ouch! (This game is actually the Gold edition, meaning it includes the Rise of Rome add-on.) Fortunately, ZioSoft made the game modular, meaning you can install the campaigns and scenarios as optional add-ons. And you can uninstall them as modules, too. Good thinking, guys.
Those who want a more involved experience will opt for the campaign and scenario modes, which will likely keep them busy for some time. Those of us who want a quick-and-dirty game now and then can opt for the single mission mode. Fortunately, this mode is highly customizable, allowing you to set options such as number of opponents, victory conditions,
difficulty, availability of the technology tree, and so forth. By now most of you probably know how RTS games work, even if you haven't played AoE: game play consists of harvesting resources, building structures and units (in this case, soldiers, archers, boats, and other things) and destroying enemy units. Most RTS games allow your bases to evolve and build more sophisticated structures and units, and in AoE this is handled very cleverly by dividing societal development into different historical "ages" (Stone Age, Bronze Age, etc.) In keeping with the more sophisticated approach, you even have diplomacy options (what a concept!)
I imagine the hardest part of porting a desktop game over to a Pocket PC is getting the interface right. After all, on a desktop PC you have numerous control options (keyboard, mouse, joystick, and even custom controllers made specifically for this type of game.) Fortunately, the handheld version of AoE is easy to play, thanks to a well designed interface that makes the staple RTS tasks (navigating the map, selecting units, building structures, etc.) an intuitive affair. Creating structures and units is handled by a series of menus on the left side, while the right side has a map of the current world. Although the map is tiny, oversized color-coded blocks show your units and those of your opponents. The panel itself has a background made to look like an ancient fresco or wall drawing, contributing to the mythos of the game. An optional pop-up toolbar to the right lets you center the screen, place units into groups, and perform other tasks.
Thanks to the interface, I didn't run into any major problems when playing the game. Selecting units is pretty easy using the stylus, as is assigning them tasks. When creating units, I wish you could see the name of a particular structure or unit and its cost before building it. You can get this information by tapping the question mark icon and then selecting the unit, but this requires extra steps. The status indicators at the top of the screen indicate your resources (food, lumber, gold, etc., but they're tiny and hard to read). Performance-wise, the game seemed to hold up pretty well--there was only a bit of sluggishness when scrolling around the map. The path-searching AI is a bit weak, but that's to be expected in a game of this age.
Graphically, AoE is a mixed bag, as are most ports of older games. Everything is well drawn considering it was designed to run on desktop PCs in low-res mode and uses sprites. While the buildings are easy to differentiate, the actual citizens of your would-be empire are so tiny and ant-like that it's hard to tell your peasants from your soldiers (although you'll find out quickly enough if you are attacked). Since the game takes place in ancient times, you'll find plenty of animals roaming around, although it's sometimes hard to tell what kind they are because, again, everything is so damn tiny. This aspect of the game, probably more than any other, shows the
relative age of the original. Argentum, since it uses 3D models, shading, newer graphical effects and is specifically designed for handhelds, has AoE a by the balls in the graphics department. Sound is about what you'd expect--you'll hear the usual order acknowledgements and the typical sounds of combat, resource harvesting, and building. You'll hear background music, which sounds a little chintzy and, as is usually the case, gets obnoxiously repetitive after a while.
Overall, AoE isn't a bad effort and manages to recreate the desktop version while maintaining its playability. It's hardly the greatest game ever, but that won't stop ZioSoft from selling lots of copies. Try to forget that it doesn’t have multiplayer; it'll be a while before we really start seeing that feature on Pocket PC games. Although creaky, AoE has a whole lot of game in it, and ZioSoft has successfully pilfered from the desktop world once again. The game will suck the life out of your batteries, eat up a ton of space, and might be a little hard on the eyes, but devotees of the original and fans of strategy games will find enough here to keep them busy for hundreds of hours. B+
Age of Empires supports Pocket PC devices and MIPS-based Pocket PCs. A demo is available, and the game can be purchased at for $29.95.
Allen Gall is a freelance game reviewer and the games editor for Pocket PC FAQ. If you have a game you'd like Allen to review, you can e-mail him at allen@Pocket PC FAQ