“Let's Reboot” takes a look back at a classic in need of a new outing or a beloved series gone stale and asks how it might be best redesigned or given a kick up the backside for today's gaming audience. The Rules: Assume a free hand, and a decent budget, but realistic technology and expectations. This week's sacred cow – not the whole of civilizstion, but a good chunk of its glorious gory bits.
I never played much of the original Age of Empires, but I owned and adored Age of Empires 2, its second cousin Rise of Nations, and had an almost worryingly passionate fling with Age of Mythology. Age of Empires III I didn't really click with for a few reasons, some of which can be tied to its release date, others to the sheer headache that emerged with the realisation that the single player campaign involved evil cultists and the Fountain of Youth - presumably a result of someone at Ensemble dropping the print-outs from a couple of design documents and nobody realising until it was too late.
A straight sequel, minus the weirdness, wouldn't go amiss, though looks unlikely at the moment. Ensemble Studios is gone, and while Gas Powered Games' free-to-play Age Of Empires Online continues to run, actual content development on it has been frozen. Still, just because there's no sequel on the horizon doesn't mean we can't have a bit of fun making one up, so... let's reboot!
As usual, we're going to ignore the potential of an iterative continuation of the series, since that's pretty self-descriptive. Age of Empires has shifted form over the years, adding elements like the Home City, but the core of it is well-trodden ground. Great civilisations through history, at the height of their expansionism, stepping through ages of progress. Men with sticks advance into men with bows into men with guns, as the world evolves around them, and everyone tries not to notice the insanity of building a city as part of a mission to take out a small village. See also the classic "For Sale: GDI Barracks In Middle Of GDI Base, Buyer Collects" joke. It's not history. It just wears its skin as a poncho.
Our reboot embraces this, much as Impressions' city-builder Zeus left the attempted realism of Caesar and Pharaoh for something a little different - turning the action a little more casual, and a lot friendlier. Age of Mythology proved that the model could work pretty well outside of trebuchets and mangonels. As such, we're going to go much more into the idea of warring cultures than simply warring armies, with factions built around soldiers, folklore and traditions. This doesn't mean the French soldiers would wield baguettes instead of bayonets and rally around the battle cry "Bof!" It does however mean some of each nation's most recognisable personalities being draftable as hero units, and a more cartoonish style. Heroes for example can appear with giant heads to represent their larger-than-life status
Britain for instance might have St. George, strong against dragons, weak against pedants shouting "You were probably Turkish!" while Russia could have Koschei the Deathless not entirely living up to his name, but still being a HP power-house. Nations too would feature exaggerated versions of building styles - Britain's castle on the map going from medieval style to Elizabethan. A round should only take an hour at most, but feel like it actually represents a much longer period through occasional snows and trees turning from spring to autumn on their own schedule as your men march out on yours. That can also potentially have an impact on some factions, like the Russians being oblivious to the snow and the Brits casually brushing off the rain, or simply be aesthetic depending on how many permutations make sense.
As ever, progress is an important mechanic. Some heroes are for the battlefield, others to stay at home. The ones at home, in your Capital City, are also effective targets of opportunity for other players, allowing for a precision strike to take out... say... Paracelsus, and the speed boost to the next Age he provides. To win would still involve plenty of global awareness and task juggling, despite the surface-level silliness. The results would simply be more obvious, the units more distinct, and the sides more interesting.
Many individual units would of course be shared, just visually distinct - a pikeman is a pikeman after all, but the core idea is to allow for asynchronicity and a good mix of cultures - each randomised map having at least three to allow for an alliance, and ideally four. Specifics countries would depend on how much variety they brought to the table, but as a baseline, we're looking at Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Turkey via the Ottomans and China for a good mix of architecture and units. As much fun as it would be to bring in the ancient civilisations though, like Egypt and Greece, we're not going to. Even taking this loose a hand, there are limits, and Anubis shooting Pythagoras with a musket might be a little far.
Until the inevitable DLC pack, obviously.
Despite casual presentation, all of this has the potential for a lot of tactical depth - of a kind less likely to immediately scare people away than a hyper-realistic Age of Empires. Realistically, the chances of competing with the likes of Starcraft 2 and its friends as strategy e-sports are close to nil right now, so we may as well have a little more fun than worry too much about absolutely perfect balance. Victory conditions in skirmish would be the usual defeat everyone, a technology related victory, or in a potentially controversial mode, everyone getting together to acknowledge Britain as the natural ruler of the world and sign up as its underling territories. This of course would be the 'victory of common sense'.
(looks around to see where the sound of chirping crickets is coming from)
Or, if you prefer, not. Spoilsports.
What of the single-player campaign? There isn't one, at least, not conventionally. In some franchises, they're crucial - Command and Conquer and Warcraft springing to mind. In Age Of Empires, it's always been a bit of a bolt-on. Instead, the Home City of AoE III and the unfortunately acronymed AoEO will stand in to provide a purely cosmetic demonstration of power. Every game results in wealth, that can be used to buy simple things. Only online victory though buys the best stuff, with the core concept being that - much like reality - gazing upon an inspiring city should scare the poop out of potential attackers, as well as allow for a sense of permanence that the fast based battles can't allow for.
Just to annoy people though, this will only ever be referred to as the new Age of Empires "MOBA" mode, followed by explaining that the letters stand for "My Own Brilliant Achievement." Obviously. There will also be a way of sharing your stories and diaries of things accomplished. AnecDOTAs, if you will.
And that's our wacky idea for a new spin on Age of Empires - a game that embraces the diversity of history and culture in as friendly a way as possible, while still keeping the strategy element at its core. Do you have better ideas, or is there simply something you wish the actual series had done before it faded away? You know where to share - and remember, Let's Reboot isn't about what should happen, but having a bit of fun with what could . Even if it probably won't ever be Age of Mythology 2.
Still, at least there's some life in the old girl yet. Age of Empires II HD hits Steam on April 9th, and never will the "Long time, no siege" joke be more appropriate. Keep an eye out, as William the Conqueror once said to Harold II, for more on that soon, and check out the launch trailer here.