Talk about a pleasant surprise. Age of Empires for the Nintendo DS shares its name with the popular and long-running PC real-time strategy game series, but it's been completely redesigned to play well on a portable system. Specifically, this is a turn-based strategy game that plays much more like Advance Wars than like previous Age of Empires games, which force you to be very quick with the mouse and keyboard in order to succeed. Yet almost all of the elements that made the original version of Age of Empires II so great are still here, despite such a fundamental change to the gameplay. There are a few relatively minor issues with Age of Empires for the DS, but for the most part, this is a fun, deep, and addictive strategy game that packs in a good history lesson to boot.
Move over, peanut butter and chocolate. Age of Empires for the DS is a winning combination of the depth and content of Age of Empires II and the slick turn-based design of Advance Wars.
Last year's long-awaited Age of Empires III took the series into the colonial era, but this game takes the conquest back to the medieval ages, where armies lived and died primarily by the sword. The game features five different playable factions: The Franks, the Japanese, the Mongols, the Saracens, and the Britons. That's fewer than you might expect if you're familiar with Age of Empires II, but you'll appreciate having the ability to recruit unique mercenary units from other civilizations, such as Persian war elephants, Viking berserkers, or rifle-wielding Turkish janissaries. Each faction gets its own single-player campaign spanning five or six missions (big missions in most cases). The game does a great job of infusing these campaigns with storylines based around the trials and tribulations of some of history's greatest military heroes: Joan of Arc, Yoshitsune Minamoto, Genghis Khan, Saladin, and Richard the Lionheart. The stories mostly unfold between missions, but they're well written and engaging, so you might just come away from this game eager to learn more about these great tacticians. More importantly, the campaign missions are generally diverse and interesting, challenging you to make some tough decisions, tempting you with optional objectives, and surprising you with occasional twists. You can play the campaigns in any order, though they're successively more difficult, and you must play through the missions themselves linearly.
The campaigns could easily last you more than 20 hours, and at that point, you've still got skirmish matches and multiplayer battles to explore. Skirmish matches can include up to four human or computer-controlled players, and there's a wide selection of maps to choose from (though there's no option to make your own maps). Multiplayer supports local wireless play if you've got friends with their own copies of the game, though luckily, there's a pass-and-play option as well. Because this is a turn-based game, it's actually pretty convenient to pass the DS from one player to the next between turns. The multiplayer options are nice to have, but thankfully the computer artificial intelligence puts up a solid fight. Multiple AI personalities and difficulty settings are available as well. What's more, as you finish campaign missions, you earn points with which you can unlock some new units and a bunch of new maps. In case it isn't already clear, there's a lot of stuff to play in here.
The five big campaigns do a good job of staying focused on interesting historical characters, while putting you through some big, tough battles.