Real-time. Turn-based. Although these might appear as if they are similar because they are both included in the strategy genre, in scope they are completely different. One requires quick thinking and instantaneous reactions; the other provides a calmer, more rationalized experience. Since these strategy sub-genres are almost opposites, every gamer was stunned when Majesco announced that their new DS game, based off the popular PC series Age of Empires, would be turn-based.
Age of Empires had a proven real-time formula for success, and changing that seemed as if it would kill Age of Empires DS instantly. Nevertheless, Majesco pressed forward with its development and soon released Age of Empires DS with more than a little hype. But for buyers, the question remained: How successfully did Age of Empires transfer from a real-time to a turn-based strategy game?
Following the style of Age of Empires II, AoE DS is set in the medieval period. In its five separate campaigns, it tracks the accomplishments of great leaders such as Genghis Khan or Saladin. Each campaign has five or six missions, and in each one players learn a small amount of history about the generals they command. Some of the stories end in fame and glory, and others end in doom and despair. Because the stories behind the missions are historically accurate, the stories provide an entertaining educational experience while ushering gamers from one battle to the next.
In each mission, players are given several specific goals that they must complete. Some require the tacticians to defend buildings, others instruct obliteration of specific enemy units, and still others demand construction of special buildings such as Wonders. Beyond these main goals are sub goals, which gamers can choose to accomplish or ignore. Although the sub goals are not vital to the completion of a mission, they do determine how well players score at the end of a mission, and they are often very challenging to complete. Since gamers can replay missions to improve their scores, the sub goals offer the majority of the game’s replay value.
So, that is the basic overview of a mission. But what is really important is how the gameplay itself works. Just like in other turn-based games, Age of Empires DS features a large map with several spaces — it is like a game board in a way. Populating this map are a variety of units to command, and on each player’s turn he or she can move the troops a few spaces across the map and even attack the enemy forces using either the touch screen or buttons.
During a battle, which is a one-on-one fight between the troops on two separate spaces, the attacking player delivers the first blow, and after that the defender uses the remaining soldiers to counterattack. Because of their first strike advantage the attacker usually inflicts more harm than it receives, but other conditions also factor in.
Each unit has an attack and defense value, which are basically self-explanatory: The higher the attack, the more damage the warrior can inflict on his opponent. The higher the defense, the less damage the defenders receive during a battle. So if the attacker is much weaker than the defending unit, it is quite possible that he will receive more damage. But, that is not all.
What makes the battle system of Age of Empires interesting is its unique counter system. Each team has four basic types of fighters: infantry, cavalry, archers, and siege units, and all of the general groups have specific advantages against other groups. Siege units are good against buildings, whereas cavalry are good against infantry. However, the troops that make up each group often have their own special bonuses, such as the pike men’s high attack versus cavalry or camel’s ability to frighten horses and lower their defense. The intricate workings of this counter system are difficult to master, but they add a lot to the game. Instead of just spending loads of cash on the priciest troops, players will have to organize a well-rounded army if they wish to achieve their goals.
Although the fighting is great, what truly placed the Age of Empires franchise on the map were its unique building and research features. These aspects were best in their real-time form, but Majesco managed to transfer them into the turn-based realm without too much loss. For buildings, each player has villagers has that can construct a Town Center anywhere on the map. From there, they may build up to four additional buildings on each side of the Town Center, including Barracks, Stables, or Markets. It takes a single villager one turn to complete construction, and after that players may use the buildings to train new warriors or increase the amount of technologies they can research.
Unlike in past Age of Empires games, where specific technologies were studied at specific buildings with specific research times, research in Age of Empires DS is much more standardized. By going to a special menu, gamers can look at a list of available technologies they can investigate, and from that list they may choose one to study per turn. Once that turn is over, the player receives the benefits of that tech. Aging up, which allows for new and better troops, is done in a similar fashion, but before advancing gamers must have researched a specific amount of technologies.