Blog 806: The Conquerors

I remember seeing a (p)review for the Age of Empires II expansion pack The Conquerors in an issue of PC Gaming World at the time… In fact, I’ve still got it on my shelf. (It’s the same issue that gave Deus Ex a very lacklustre write-up. Oops.)

I remember misreading the word “allies”, in tiny text next to a tiny screenshot, as “aliens” and getting really excited for all the wrong reasons.

Well, it turned out okay in the end.

Monitoring the Situation

Actually I have another update first. You may recall that I built an entire Windows XP machine to play this game (… and other relics), but was having issues with display scaling: the old graphics card (nVidia GT 610) couldn’t agree with the widescreen monitor (Acer Predator XB241H) and was alternately locking the old 1024×768 output to a postage stamp in the middle of the screen and stretching the 320×240 cinematics to maximum wideness.

I was fairly convinced that it was something in the HDMI connection, as my main PC had no trouble with all sorts of scaling options on the same monitor over its DisplayPort connection, so I figured it was time to replace the monitor with one that had a DVI or VGA input. I was drawn to the AOC Agon AG251Fz in particular because it had all four options (one DisplayPort for the main PC, two HDMIs, a DVI and a VGA for the old) so I’d have the maximum number of permutations to try on my path to the perfect result. The other bonus is that it also has a wealth of scaling options: it natively supports all the way down to 640×480 with options to mimic all sorts of physical display sizes in between.

I’ve now tried all three options supported by the GT 610; HDMI, DVI and VGA. VGA was pretty promising but it put Safrosoft RoX off-centre for some reason. DVI was more promising but it always reverted Age of Empires II to stretchytown and I had to force it to 4:3 manually every time; not a deal-breaker, but a recurring pain. In the end… HDMI has the best results: it’s consistently maintaining the aspect ratio while scaling to fill as much of the display as possible, all automatically and correctly. So while I really did need to replace the old monitor, I probably didn’t need to scour the world for one with all the ancient connectors… Ah well.

The graphics card is still convinced it’s some kind of television, mind you.

(Also, speaking of having old magazines around, I also have all the old demo disks — I wonder what bizarre relics I can dig out now I’ve got a period-appropriate computer to run them on?)

Age of Empires II: The Conquerors

There are so many conveniences that The Conquerors adds to Age of Empires II, before you even get to the headline new content.

The fact that villagers will start gathering the nearest resource on completing a building, for example, is a bloody revelation — this was absent from the base game, so you had to constantly search for idle villagers and tell them to get to work on that gold patch that’s right next to the mining camp they just built.

Then queuing the reseeding of farms, so you don’t have to catapult straight back to your base when you hear that sound — utterly joyous! You can finally let your villagers manage themselves in the late game when you want to focus on banging down your enemies’ gates.

Idly remembering the last time I played this mission, when I foolishly ignored this omen and sent my scouts away… Then my villagers were obliterated by the tide of jaguars.

The campaigns are still a bit variable, though. While I got excited because a few of the Hun missions upped the population cap to 100 or even 125 (which is even better for the Huns because they don’t need to build houses to get there), the majority are still stuck at 75. As before, this draws out scenarios in a less than ideal way, as you don’t have enough headroom to create an unstoppable attack and keep an economy to support it along the way.

And again, you spend a lot of time limited to the Castle age, which means it’s an absolute crawl to siege castles because you can’t hang back with trebuchets — you have to send your too-small army in with too-basic rams and, yes, rinse and repeat that multiple times as they get whittled down because you simply do not have the population cap to build a killer force. Needless to say, the enemies are already well-entrenched while you have to build up your forces.

While it’s a nice idea to tell the life story of some historical figure, getting stuck to a single slice of a single civilisation for 6 missions just brings out the worst in the game. You can really start to feel from here why later RTS games like Starcraft II went so heavily in giving every mission some kind of “gimmick”, or how Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance just has a very small number of massive missions that repeatedly extend in-situ, rather than taking you out and forcing you to start again every time.

Actually, that’s not fair — El Cid has Moorish pals so he gets a couple of missions as the Saracens instead of the Spanish.
A recurring motif in the Aztec campaign is bringing units to a place to get them upgraded or turned into other units. If it’s not Tlaloc literally blessing some Jaguar Warriors, it’s capturing Spanish horses and getting Tarkans out of them.

Which is why the fourth “campaign” is actually a really interesting idea. Not a single linear set of missions depicting a single period, but a smattering of individual battles of note across a whole heap of different civilisations.

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. Age of Empires II offers over 15 civilisations to play with — why would you then over-concentrate on a tiny fraction of those for four campaigns? Plus, each battle has all the interesting circumstances that made it notable in history in the first place, which is your scenario gimmick that changes it into something more vibrant than a traditional deathmatch skirmish. The limits are still often restrictive, but they feel less bad when you haven’t just gone three other missions with the exact same limits for the exact same civlisaition.

I was particularly inspired at the time by the Viking scenario, Vindlandsaga, where you have to cross the ocean, but cannot do so because there’s a line of “worms” that eat any ship that dares to sail into them — you need to go over Greenland and build more ships on the other side. Agincourt, too, is a great dungeon crawler where you have to guide your beleaguered forces through enemy territory and help them escape back to England, getting upgrades only through destroying particular enemy structures.

How did the son of a wolf from the Mongolian steppes end up in Norway? Clearly Ornlu, like the player, transcends time and space.
Why yes, at Agincourt, Henry V did leave all his troops to distract the knights while riding madly to the coast on his own.

We also need to talk about the bonus custom scenario that’s included on the disk, but mentioned nowhere in any of the materials or the installer. Yes, if you happen to find yourself browsing the CD, you may notice the excitingly-named “GOODIES” folder, and in it, the mysterious file. Inside that, you’ll find a full-on voice-acted (albeit in German), preview-imaged chunker of a map — Saschen Anno 782, “The Saxon Revolt”. The readme does not offer any explanation for why the scenario is hidden here, but it seems to have been made by a community member rather than official team, so who knows?

This scenario is, to me, the platonic ideal of an Age of Empires II map. There are multiple stages, where you get to control different forces — from starting in a losing a battle and guiding one surviving hero to safety, to working a ragged column of troops across mountains and through ambushes, and even a pseudo-cinematic “scripted sequence” where a huge pile of Kings are slaughtered. I have no idea of its historical accuracy, but the terrain and use of space is fantastic as different sections of the map wind around each other and capturable towns are scattered along your path (naturally leading up to a more traditional base-management-and-assault endgame to recover three relics).

It’s not an RPG-lite dungeon crawl, but you can see one from here — and it’s a structure I tried to ape with my own first faltering attempts at map design (which are un/fortunately lost to the mists of time, despite how much other crap I burned to CDs for safekeeping back then).

Siegfried has no magic powers and cannot use items so this section is a lot less interesting than the equivalent would have been in Warcraft III. But, well, it was only the year 2000, we didn’t know any better.
Watch my massive army melt against that one tower behind the gate because I forgot to bring siege equipment.

So yes, fine, the campaigns are still not that great, but we were never here for the campaigns: we were here for setting up vast resource-abundant skirmish maps with 200-person population caps, for training columns of Plumed Arches and Eagle Warriors and building chains of castles right up to the enemy’s walls… That is the true spirit of Age of Empires II: The Conquerors.

23) Raiding party!

Who needs siege equipment when you have 40-odd fully souped-up Elite Eagle Warriors backed by as many Elite Plumed Archers?

And you tell me...

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