Review: This age of portable gaming might just go down as the Age of DS.
Gamers had high-hopes for touch implementation on the Nintendo DS. There were visions of a library choc full of highly-intuitive, highly-enjoyable games that gamers and non-gamers alike would be able to pick up and play. To some extent this idealization came to fruition in the form of games like Meteos and, well, Meteos. By and large, use of the touch screen has been gimmicky at best for third-party titles (see Castlevania seal tracing) and almost an afterthought in the majority of first-party fare (see menus in Mario Kart). Perhaps the genre most ideally suited for use of the DS' highly touted and yet oft-ignored touch abilities are strategy titles, more specifically turn-based strategy. Nintendo recognized the potential and quickly issued a touch-enabled version of its well-executed Advance War series, and now Majesco (under a license from Microsoft) has brought Age of Empires: The Age of Kings to the small screen(s).
As an entry in the Age of Empires series, Age of Kings certainly had a reputation to uphold, as the popular PC titles have improved with each iteration. Fortunately, the developers at Backbone Entertainment have been able to continue this tradition through a focus on the core components of the genre and through exceptional touch-screen mechanics.
Age of Empires: The Age of Kings for the DS is a spin-off of the wildly successful Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings for the PC and it follows the themes of that game rather closely, the most glaring departure being the evolution of the game from real time strategy on the PC to turn-based strategy on the DS. The logic behind this change is readily apparent as handhelds and gaming on-the-go simply isn't conducive to the frenetic pace and mental concentration RTS games demand. Age of Empires for the DS takes users on a journey through 5 distinct campaigns, from Joan of Arc to Genghis Khan, each with unique units, corresponding maps and surprisingly effective storytelling. Each campaign consists of a number of battles or missions, complete with historical roots.
The biggest strength of The Age of Kings lies in the controls. Users have the option of relying almost solely on the stylus for gameplay. It can be used to drag units across the map, select their action, and even select portions of the terrain to determine their attributes. Developers also account for a slip of the wrist or an unsteady hand (in those edge-of-your-seat battles) by drawing arrows so that you may see where your units are going before completing the turn and even giving you the option to undo your most immediate action, almost the DS equivalent of Window's control+z. The controls aren't revolutionary, but they are exactly what you'd expect: tapping a unit brings up its statistics, an onscreen touch-enabled HUD allows for all menu commands via stylus, so on and so forth. Surprisingly, developers have also enabled complete control of the game without use of the stylus and they've made it equally intuitive. This is helpful not only for those with a deep-seated fear of styluses but also for those situations in which you have too many units clustered together and pin-point accuracy with the stylus becomes difficult. Kudos to the Backbone on the excellent controls and here's hoping for more intuitive strategy titles on the DS.
Gameplay itself is surprisingly deep, with tech-trees and unit upgrades that run deeper than Advance Wars. Though many units are similar in nature, there are over 65 spread across the 5 civilizations and numerous unlockable items and maps add to replay value. Make no mistake, this is a true strategy title. Different units have different advantages and weaknesses, and even the positioning of certain units on particular types of terrain induces different effect. For example, placing archers on a square that represents elevated land increases their range and cavalry charging across open fields increases the damage that they deal.
Heroes also add an interesting strategic aspect to the game. While obviously stronger in terms of offensive effect, heroes are also equipped with a number of powers. Some may have the ability to heal units while others may add strength to all adjacent units. In tough situations, a hero's touch may be the decisive factor.
Aside from the campaign modes there is also an open ended empire map for you and up to four AI opponents. This mode allows you to set up a civilization and town and progress through the tech trees at your leisure, with the ultimate goal of conquering all those in the vicinity. Of course no strategy game would be complete without multiplayer modes and developers have provided a couple interfaces for such play. Obviously, there is an empire mode to engage in with DS' owning friends. But realizing that the turn-based nature allowed for some latitude, the developers have also included a hot-seat mode in which only one DS is needed and is simply passed from player to player. This is surprisingly effective, and could be potentially engaging on a long flight or car ride with only one DS for entertainment.
Graphics and sound aren't stunning in Age of Kings, but are certainly on par with most DS games to date. Units appear to be 3D cast against pre-rendered 2D maps. Colors are often muddy and units become convoluted in close proximity of one another. Battle animations play out on the top screen and are effective, if somewhat shallow. The story is told through stylish prologues before each mission consisting of artsy stills and text. Sound is what one would expect, the familiar Age of Empires theme makes an appearance and the ambient music is neither obtrusive nor striking. Voice acting is limited to the obligatory ?Yes Sir!? and ?I live to serve!? characteristic of all strategy titles. Effort is evident in both visuals and sound but no barriers were broken.
The most glaring omission from Age of Empires: The Age of Kings is online play. The Age of Empire games, and indeed strategy titles in general, are successful due in no small part to the online multiplayer aspect. And this title would certainly have been a showcase for Nintendo Wifi. This is simply further proof of the trend that Nintendo itself seems to be the only developer pushing the online aspect on the DS, as Tony Hawk is thus far the only third-party DS title with any such support.